My friend Clover knows I love papercut artist Nikki McClure and has twice bought me calendars of her work. Each has a beautiful image of the season and a single word. BECOME for January. RETREAT for April. LINGER for September. This morning I turned the page to October –AWAY.
AWAY (alone) is the gift I have learned to give myself each birthday (whenever possible), each October 20.
Forty-five began with breakfast in Rome and ended with dinner in Paris. That evening, crossing the Seine from the Right Bank to the Left, I looked out at Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower and thought, “Who goes to Paris for dinner?” and then, “I do.”
What followed shook me to my core. Alone on my birthday in arguably the most romantic city in the world I thought “I don’t wish a man was here.” “I don’t wish a man was here.” And then, “I don’t wish a friend was here or that I ate anything different or wore anything different or that anything was different.” It was a moment of pure contentment and total bliss – fleeting and remarkable.
That trip – specifically my time spent in Rome – catapulted me on to a trajectory that had me living in Madrid six months later.
I had met a woman a few weeks earlier while volunteering in Perugia. Upon my arrival in Rome, she insisted on throwing a dinner/birthday party in my honor. As I rode the tram from the residential Trastevere neighborhood to Pyramid station on a Saturday night, flowers in hand, I thought, “It’s like I live here,” and then, “I can do this.” I knew just what the words meant – although I didn’t yet know where I’d be going … or how soon.
Forty-seven found me back in Paris waking up to a text that read, “Yesterday’s kisses are still on my tongue. Delicious. Happy Birthday, Gorgeous!” I spent that afternoon on a walking tour of Montmarte with a woman I had met just that morning. We shared a chocolate tart before parting company and she sang me Happy Birthday. That evening, I walked back to the bridge where I had found contentment and peace two years earlier – alone, eating a falafel from my favorite stand in Le Marais, and equally blissed out.
The romance lasted a glorious six months. My friendship with the woman from the walking tour remains strong.
I’ve often said I am best on the road, on my own.
My internal travel clock grows loud and restless at about the five-month mark. My spirit calls for its sojourn. AWAY (alone). Some might call it running … but I don’t think so.
AWAY (alone) is a detour. It is a place where unfamiliar roads open my eyes and force me to pay attention to what is in front of me. I believe it is in that paying attention that magic shows its face and I am awake enough to notice and respond to it.
I leave for Montreal in 19 days – my 48th birthday – AWAY (alone) and wonder what gifts await me.
It is four weeks today since I left Paris. It feels like forever ago.
Not for the reasons most people think. Not because I love Paris, have dreamed of living there for as long as I can remember (even before I had ever visited), and occasionally wake up with French words on my lips – even though I don’t speak the language. Not because a reiki practitioner once told me I have “agreements” with Paris. (I still don’t know exactly what that means.) Although all of that is true.
Quite simply, I left my heart there … and I miss it, and him and what we shared.
What was meant to be 14 days together, zipping up to Normandy on his motorbike (“It will be like our honeymoon,” he said.) was goodbye instead.
I never saw it coming.
We met in October, on my way home from a writer’s retreat in Girona, Spain. It was, as my friend Michelle likes to say, “A romance for the ages.”
We found one another in a church basement – the kind where we both learned how to get and stay sober a number of years earlier – on his birthday, the day before mine. What began as coffee led to a meandering walk through Paris — sharing our stories, and a piece of cake — and ended with three knee-buckling kisses at the Bastille roundabout, my salmon-colored wool and silk scarf blowing in the breeze. One for his birthday, one for mine, and one to “tide me over” until we saw one another again in two days. The stuff of Hollywood movies.
Four days later, my last in Paris, he told me he loved me, and that he was in love with me.
“Is that crazy” he asked over a steaming bucket of mussels and live accordion music that wafted up the stairs.
“Yes,” I replied. “But I get it.”
He also told me he didn’t want to think about me every day, that he didn’t want to know how I took my coffee.
“But you already know how I take my coffee,” I said, smiling.
We agreed that we wanted to continue getting to know one another and that neither of us knew exactly what that meant. The next morning, boarding a plane back to the United States, I received a text, “Still love you, babe.”
Later that week, during the first of many marathon phone calls, he asked if I would come back in the spring. I said yes without hesitation and purchased a non-stop return ticket from Chicago to Paris for $500 the following day. I had never paid so little to fly to to Europe and chose to see it as a sign — a nod from God.
We spent the next six months writing long emails and sexy Facebook messages, talking on the phone for hours and eventually Skyping. What joy it was to finally see one another again.
I felt like I had met my twin. Funny enough, one of the last things he said to me was, “I met myself when I met you.” That was four weeks ago, when we said goodbye.
One month earlier, I had received an email, “I have some difficult news …” he wrote.
His son’s mother had asked once again if they might get back together. This time she said “all the right things.” This time, it was he who didn’t hesitate to say yes.
Brokenhearted would be an understatement.
Ten days later we Skyped and I asked if I might see him in Paris … to say goodbye.
“You’re still coming?” he asked, visibly surprised.
“My ticket is non-refundable. I’m going on to Barcelona, but I’m still flying in and out of Paris.
“Can I see you? To say goodbye?”
He agreed, and so we did. And when we did, he reminded me that his nine-year-old son lives in Paris … so he lives in Paris.
I knew he had certain ideas about the family he wanted – what it looked like – and believed he was healing some childhood wounds by giving his son what he had wanted most, stability and love, and the picture of family that he himself craved.
“I’m portable,” I said, reminding him I had said this all along.
He said I wouldn’t like living in Paris. (I disagreed.) That it is extraordinarily hard to get work there as a non-Parisian, even teaching English. That he never wanted a long-distance relationship.
He also said that we were “magic,” that I was his “vacation” and his “fantasy.”
What he didn’t say was, “Move in, lean in … we’ll figure it out.”
And so, with seemingly no other choice, I dropped the rope.
The day I had asked if I could see him in Paris, he asked if we might still be friends. “This,” he said, gesturing heart-to-heart, “I’ll miss this.” I said probably one day, but that I would need time — brave words that fell apart once on the other side of the Atlantic, when I hopefully asked, “Will we stay in touch?” even though I had been the one to ask for space after our goodbye.
“I don’t think so … I’d prefer not to,” he said. “I want you to go back to Chicago and write to me and tell me you found a man there who can give you a real relationship.”
I was crushed. Writing these words now, my heart aches.
But a funny thing happened when I returned to the United States, something that had never happened after a breakup before — I respected his wishes.
We agreed I would let him know when I arrived home and that I would send some of my writing to him – musings about our time together. I did both and he responded warmly, but without opening any doors. “I’m not ready to read this just yet, but it’s good to know it’s here” he wrote, and thanked me for sending. Seems this ending is difficult for him too.
Now there’s nothing left to do but grieve.
I’ve never had a clean break before.
In my 20s, breakups included language like, “Of course we’ll be friends,” which seemed to mean something entirely different to my former partners than to me, which looked like me acting as if nothing had changed, except for the addition of some teary, “I miss you’s” and “Are you sure’s?” In the end my ex’s usually had to push me away, it seemed the only way I could give time and space apart.
Since my divorce five years ago, I’ve had only one other relationship, which only sort-of ended when I moved to Madrid in 2015. We spent my year abroad in a liminal space which, while not exactly ideal or exactly what I wanted, seemed to suit me on some level. It was never entirely over until I moved back to the United States last July.
So this is new, this clean-break thing, and here’s the rub – it still hurts like hell. There’s nothing to do, nothing to be done. This clean break means there’s no drama around calling or not calling, writing or not writing, dissecting every bit of conversation. The not-clean-break means I can feel like I’m still in something. There’s some kind of crazy hope, but with this there is none.
Just memories. And sadness.
Yes … I have days where I’m not really sure we’re done. Others say that about us too. But I know, at least for now, we are.
Michelle was right. I did have a romance for the ages … and I haven’t even shared a tenth of it. I haven’t written publicly about it at all, until now. It was tender and private and new. It was ours. It still is. But it is my story too and I am a storyteller.
Last night I listened to a TED Talk by Anne Lamott. In it, she said, “You’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your own heart, your stories, memories, visions and songs – your truth, your version of things – in you own voice. That’s really all you have to offer us, and that’s also why you were born.”
It was those words that inspired me to write. That, a fire in my belly, and the memory of blogging about every other romance gone astray since my divorce. Sharing my story and opening it for conversation had felt both vulnerable and healing. There is something about speaking one’s truth, being witnessed, and hearing, “me too.”
It’s what we do in those church basements where he and I got sober and where we keep going so we can stay sober. As my friend Bob likes to say, “A problem shared is cut in two.” If that is so, then posting this hits it with a sledgehammer – cracks it right open sending sharp little shards in every direction that I will be picking up off the floor for months to come, even when I’m certain I’ve vacuumed them all up. The sun will hit the hardwood in a certain way and I’ll find another little piece.
I guess that’s what great love does – cracks us right open and destroys us. I hate it. And I wouldn’t change a single thing.
It is November. The weather gods have smiled upon us with sunshine and seventy degrees.
(Many would say the baseball gods have also smiled upon us as the Cubs are in the World Series.)
It is a good time to be in Chicago.
I pull on a pair of brown corduroy trousers from the Salvation Army. Ralph Lauren. Six dollars. Boot-cut and too long in the legs for my not quite 5-foot, 3-inch body.
I slide my hand into the left, front pocket and pull out two small, slippery stubs. Used metro tickets from Paris.
I smile. Wistful.
I’ve been back just eight days but already Paris seems so far away.
The baguette I never eat here but cannot not eat there. Both doughy and solid. Formidable and yielding. I’ve never found anything quite like it at home.
The coffee. Short. Dark. Thick. Served in little cups and drank leisurely in a café, or standing up at a bar, but never taken to go.
The woman who says over coffee, “It’s like there was an empty chair waiting for you, and you slipped right in it … as if you were always there.” And the faces around the table nodding in agreement.
I try to conjure this up in my body. The bread. The coffee. These people who in a matter of days became my people. And I became theirs.
The pastry. The poetry.
The feeling I have every time I find myself in Paris … that my heart might burst if I’m not careful. The feeling I have always been here and will always be here.
But muscle memory fails me … for I can see it, but not fully feel it. Not in my bones. At least not in this moment.
Perhaps it is because I am so here.
In Chicago on this 70-something November day on a bike that doesn’t quite fit me. A loaner from the mechanic until mine is fixed. Wheels out of true. Seat too low. I am more wrestling with it than riding. And yet, I feel the sides of my mouth curling into a smile when I do. My now 47-year-old body embracing the challenge.
Editing my book. Cooking soup. Applying for work.
Watching a Cubs game at a dive bar for no other reason than I have been invited and it sounds like fun.
I am too present here to fully feel there for more than a few moments. And I realize the gift in feeling the ground beneath me. The swish-swish of fallen leaves under my feet.
I have spent years wishing I was somewhere other than where I was — even in Paris — missing the moment.
My friend Paul recently asked why I “even bothered” to come back in the United States. “Your writing is pure poetry there. That is your place,” he says. Perhaps. But for now I am here.
I slip the tickets back in my pocket — so that I might find them again one day and be reminded. Of baguettes and coffee. Poetry and pastry. Of the people who held a chair for me … waiting.
That mid-October was a good time to be in Paris. And right now is a good time to be here.
With gratitude for those who have supported my Go Fund Me campaign, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — a post-divorce narrative with an option for a happy ending, no partner required. For those who are open to possibility and serendipity. Who celebrate lovely. And revel in real.
I’m still amazed when I receive an email alert telling me someone I don’t know has decided to follow me on Twitter (@WanderingJewess), or on my blog. Like today.
It makes me feel a little bit “real.”
But only a little bit.
I think Margery Williams best defined “real” in her children’s classic, “The Velveteen Rabbit.”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. (Named for his bald brown coat and missing hairs of his tail.) “…It’s a thing that happens to you … It takes a long time
“…That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.
“Generally, by the time you are real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all because once you are real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.
“…but once you are real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
I feel the most real with people who don’t break easily. Who don’t have sharp edges. Who don’t have to be carefully kept. Who do understand.
People like Nora Handler.
I don’t remember meeting Nora. It seems we’ve always known one another. Even when we haven’t. And even when we haven’t seen one another in a very long time. Like lately.
I messaged Nora, thanking her for her contribution to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign, and suggesting we get together and catch up.
“Sounds like a plan,” she said, adding “Lots of life has happened since we’ve seen each other.”
Indeed it has.
But we are both real enough to experience it. And to share it … even when most of our hair has been loved off, our eyes have dropped out, we’re loose in the joints and very shabby.
Thank you, Nora — for all of this.
My alarm is on my phone. I keep it on the floor so I can greet the day on my knees, with thanks.
However, I’ve gotten into the habit of bringing the phone back into bed with me afterward, reviewing who has made contact in the hours I’ve been asleep. Usually it’s Facebook — alerting me that someone has “liked” my status. The Daily OM — delivering my horoscope. Or Hilary Clinton. (Actually, her campaign.)
Occasionally it is Go Fund Me, and the symbol that — at least to my eyes –looks like a crown. It appears each time a donation is made to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign.
I woke to one the other morning and this message from Kim Jupe.
“Rock it, Lesley! So glad we met in Madrid! I am a fan!”
In total, I have spent less than four hours with Kim. We met through friends of friends, unplanned. Delicious serendipity.
The moment I saw Kim I recognized her as “friend,” and invited her to join me for lunch at one of my favorite restaurants — Dionisos, where Nick the waiter is always flirtatious.
No, we didn’t eat alone in Spain that day … but in those few hours together I was reminded of the magic of traveling alone.
I seem to be open to the universe and its inhabitants in a different way when I am untethered — meeting people I might not otherwise if I were with a partner or friend. My eyes, my ears and my heart are otherwise available. It has happened while traveling overseas — in Tel Aviv, Bonn, and Avignon. Lisbon and Seville. And “at home” — in Chicago and Madrid.
Thank you Kim, for taking the time to connect in Spain. For being a part of that ever-expanding circle around me. And, of course, for your support of my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign.
In her book, “When You Eat At The Refrigerator, Pull Up A Chair,” Geneen Roth writes about a friend who sees what most call luxury, as necessity. And what others call necessity, a luxury.
Think French-milled soap. A $3 mango in January. Eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.
The story reminds me of my own friend, Suzanne Pollock, and the whimsical, wonderful, highly impractical coat she was wearing when we first met. White cloth and long, embroidered with large flowers. She found it in Spain and “had to have it.”
As the words tumbled out of her mouth, I knew we’d be friends.
Because Suzanne threw caution to practicality. (A white coat?!! I nearly break out in hives at the sight of white denim … memories of an unfortunate childhood incident involving grass stain and above-mentioned trousers.)
Because she chose form over function.
Because she valued loveliness.
Because she valued herself.
Many thanks Suzanne for your recent contribution to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign — my own exercise in impractical beauty and self love.
Impractical as I leave for Girona — where I will attend a writers retreat with the intention of manifesting blog into book deal — in 21 days, exactly 90 days following my departure from Spain.
Self-loving as I take my turn, embracing my own dream rather than supporting someone else’s.
Want to know more about “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — how 52 Artist Dates healed my heart after divorce and landed me smack in the middle of my own life — or how to contribute to my Go Fund Me campaign? Click here.
According to my friend Deb, one of the first things I ever told her was I wanted to be a rabbi.
I have no recollection of this conversation. However, I do not doubt it as this idea has danced around and inside of me for some time.
I’m not exactly sure where or when it took root. Best I can surmise is some time between my post-college, rabbi-to-be lover and coffee with Deb circa 2007.
Most everyone I have mentioned this to over the years thinks it an obvious next step. Perhaps, most especially, Rabbi Brant Rosen.
“In some ways, you kind of already are (a rabbi),” he told me during one of our monthly meetings.
And yet, each time I seem to be moving toward it … I step away.
Most notably, when my then-husband asked me for a divorce in 2012.
No longer did I have to consider his career path. The four years of medical school and four years of residency that had just earned him a lucrative job offer in Seattle. That rabbinical school was in Philadelphia. Or New York. Los Angeles or Boston.
Only that, suddenly I could go.
I bought Hebrew workbooks. Interviewed recent graduates. Secured the domain name “A Wandering Jewess.”
I availed myself of help offered by spiritual leaders in both Seattle and Chicago.
And yet, not long after my divorce was final, the desire fell away.
I didn’t want to cloister myself away studying ancient Aramaic for five years, I said. I took issue with the schools’ policy of not admitting seminary students with non-Jewish partners. Even though I didn’t even have a partner. (The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has since revoked that policy.)
I wondered about my aptitude for learning Hebrew. Was unclear about what I would do with my ordination. And feared, as a rabbi, I would never find romantic love again.
“Who will I meet?” I asked my rabbi, in earnest. “Another rabbi,” he replied. I wasn’t sure I wanted that either.
So I returned to writing — following a 15-year hiatus — instead. I pursued other work. Fulfilled a life-long dream of living in Europe. (And dove head-first into a delicious three-month romance with a delightful not-Jewish man before leaving the country.)
I applied to the School of Divinity at Yale University.
Anything but re-open my consideration of rabbinical school.
I’ve heard my own voice whisper in possibility, in surrender. Words like “Maybe” and “Really? OK …” But have said little. Until Friday, Artist Date 5.2 (or 121, depending on how you count.)
I ride the number 80 bus to the number 47 and walk about 10 blocks – arriving just a few minutes before Shabbat services at Tzedek Chicago, a new congregation founded by Rabbi Rosen while I was living in Madrid. The congregation is (somewhat ironically) meeting a couple of streets over from the home my ex-husband and I once owned.
There is music and poetry, prayer and politics. Many familiar faces. Many not – like Leah, who plays the guitar and sings. I am reminded of Passover seders and other holiday gatherings … watching Jews sing with unabashed joy, Jews who not only embrace but roll around in their faith as if it were a cashmere blanket.
I am not this kind of Jew. And up until now, I have seen this as proof that I am not “rabbi material.”
Up until now.
I hitch a ride home from services with my friend Elaine. A young woman from Kalamazoo is in the back seat. She has come to Chicago for the weekend, her 22nd birthday, to attend services at Tzedek Chicago.
Her father is Jewish, her mother – Chinese … and she is all Jew. Like me, a Jew (at least to some) who converted to Judaism. But unlike me – an adoptee raised by a Jewish family but not born into one – has only recently claimed this faith as her own.
She plans to apply to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College this fall. And she has spent a summer at Middlebury College learning Hebrew – signing a statement agreeing not to read, write, speak or listen to a language other than Hebrew during the seven-week semester – in preparation for the entrance exam.
She is, in a word, serious.
She believes there is a need for a rabbi like her –a Jew of color, deeply committed to social justice, a supporter of Palestine.
I have no doubt.
But under that, I have another thought.
That I am white. Not terribly political. Older.(Old enough to be her mother.)
Faith does not come easily to me. I am a practitioner of what works. There is a mezuzah in my doorway, a batik of Ganesh on my wall, and the book Alcoholics Anonymous on my shelf.
I gather stray Jews and others for holidays. And say “thank you” when a guest brings a dairy dish and I have cooked meat.
Two of my great loves were not Jews. And when one ended in divorce, I found it necessary to have a Jewish dissolution of marriage, as well as a civil one.
I am doubtful and uncertain. Even now as I write this. Yet I keep returning to it, to this place of Jewishness again and again.
And that, perhaps, there is a need for a rabbi like me.
When I launched my Go Fund Me campaign, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain,” earlier this summer, I linked rewards to different donation levels. An electronic postcard from Spain for $25. A custom Artist Date for $100. A personalized piece of writing for $500.
However, one reward was promised at all levels — a personal thank-you on Go Fund Me, Facebook, Twitter and A Wandering Jewess.
Following are three more Gracias Rewards … and the stories of those who have so generously supported my dream of manifesting blog into book deal.
Shortly after my divorce, I developed a bad habit of reading old journals. Really old journals. And only the juicy bits.
There was something delicious about remembering what “was,” once upon a time. But it didn’t help move me forward. And so, at a friend’s suggestion, I put the journals away for a time. The results so effective I ultimately burned them.ultimately burned them — journals I had carried with me for 20 years … from Detroit to San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, Seattle and Chicago again — before moving to Spain.
I haven’t much looked back at my written words since then. Until now. Pulling together my blogs into the manuscript, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.”
It is an interesting, and at times painful, experience. Remembering where I’ve been … both physically and emotionally. Selling my wedding rings.
Navigating unrequited crushes and affections, and struggling to let go of those which had run their course.
But I also am reminded of the support I received through it all. Much of it, unexpected.
A couch to sleep on. A light box to help manage Midwest winters. The friendship of a best friend’s sister.
Muchas gracias Jacqueline Baron, Darcy Livingston and Sheryl Stollman for these gifts, and for your generous contributions to “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — a new narrative for happily ever after, after a divorce.
I’m 9 years old. Or thereabouts. I’ve just started learning Hebrew — attending classes on Sunday mornings and Wednesday afternoons.
It is one of those Wednesday afternoons. Except now it is evening. And I am waiting.
Waiting with Rachel and Robbie, Michael and Ronnie. Waiting in the quickly darkening October chill for one of our parents to pick up our carpool.
It appears someone has forgotten.
All the other students are gone. The principal has left too, beeping his horn and waving while we wait outside the school.
Robbie and I walk to the corner store and use the payphone to call our parents. The rest stay behind … in case the delayed parent arrives.
I am a little bit scared, walking on the side of the road in the dark. I remind myself I am not alone. I am with Robbie. He is older, bigger. Handsome.
I do not recall the rest of the story … who it was that forgot to pick us up. And who eventually did.
I only remember my mother’s relief when I arrived home. Her anger toward the principal for leaving us at the school. And my own worry about not completing my homework for the next day … having arrived home so late.
I don’t have any other memories of Robbie — even though he lived right around the corner from us. And none of his younger sister, Amy Freedman.
So I was especially surprised and delighted when I received her contribution to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign.
Muchas, muchas gracias, Amy!
The joys of social media.
Thirty-plus years post Hebrew school, Amy and I have gotten to know one another on Facebook. Divine timing. Everything happens exactly when it is supposed to …
Like the ending of my 15-year relationship … which forced me to face the daunting task of taking responsibility for my own life and happiness.
Like finding myself “suddenly single against my will” … which nudged me toward two years of Artist Dates (one-person play dates), a three-week stag jaunt in Italy, and ultimately a year-long solo sojourn in Spain.
Like being underemployed … which gives me the time and ability to complete the manuscript, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — a compilation of blogs from http://www.awanderingjewess.com.
Even waiting for a carpool on a dark October evening … which showed me how to walk through fear, and reminded me I’m really never alone.
I used to have a nickname in college — Lester. It still makes me cringe. I don’t know where it came from. In fact, it might even go back to high school. As I write these words, I hear voices of friends calling out, “Lester!”
I had another nickname too. One I had forgotten about until the other day … The Pest.
I was reminded by a friend of my brother’s in a private note she sent, along with a donation to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign.
Her intention was not to drudge up a painful past, but instead to marvel at the change in the relationship between my brother and me. Growing up, we were prone to unkind words and fist fights. Today, he speaks and writes about me with deep affection and pride, posting things to Facebook like —
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my beautiful, talented and well-traveled sister, Lesley Pearl. Being overseas on your birthday would be tough for some but knowing you, I am sure that they are lining up to celebrate with you!!”
Awww … sweet, right?
And I adore him equally.
Many thanks to my brother’s friend — for your generous contribution, and for reminding me that relationships change. Sometimes beautifully … like in the case of me and my brother.
And that other times … something beautiful comes from change, like the end of my marriage. While painful, the parting sent me off to create the life I had always dreamed of. A creation chronicled in “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.”
Oh, and I think I’ll take Lester over The Pest any day …
Want to know more about “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — how 52 Artist Dates saved my soul after divorce and landed me smack in the middle of my own life — or how to contribute to my Go Fund Me campaign? Click here.
More words of thanks for those who have supported my Go Fund Me campaign, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — a happily-ever-after, after divorce story … one that offers the possibility of joy without partnership –and my dream of manifesting blog into book deal.
Today I secured a freelance writing assignment … in the bridal space!
The universe has a sense of humor.
I was a little worried when I applied for the position as my most recent published work (Washington Post, XO Jane ) has been about divorce. I assured my new employer I would be delighted to write “from the other side” for a change.
Maybe I’m getting ready to pen “a new chapter?” Or perhaps it’s just a nod to my moniker as writer, a reminder that I have lived and can tell many tales. And that I am a fun and flexible storyteller … like my friend Tanya Gazdik.
Many thanks Tanya for your generous support of the “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign. And for your unyielding support of my writing for the past 25 years (Tanya was my first newspaper editor!) and my journey.
(The State News — where Tanya and I worked together.)
Early memories of writing …
Journals on lined paper. I told my teacher, Mrs. Blum, the words I wanted to say. She wrote them and I copied them on the line below. A sentence or two. Sometimes I would draw a picture … me in my pink ballet shoes. My mother saved all of these until I was 25 and she and my father sold my childhood home. I insisted they had to go. But first, we read each of them.
A book on Paul Revere. We glued wallpaper scraps onto cardboard to create the cover and stitched the binding by hand. “One if by land, and two if by sea …” I had a tough time drawing a horse.
Letters to my aunt in California. She owned a stationery store and sent beautiful cards and paper for me to write on. She was my first (and only) pen pal. I often wonder what I wrote. And marvel at her commitment to corresponding with an 8 year old.
Several years later, upon my graduation from university, she sent me a Waterman pen. A luxurious elegance celebrating my commitment to my craft.
Yesterday, I received her donation to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign, along with a note: “No gift needed. The gift will be knowing that you will fulfill your dream (and a book).”
Thank you to my “somewhat anonymous aunt” … for supporting me in every step of my writing journey.
“They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — a post-divorce confessional, offering a contentedly solo happily- ever-after ending — promises to be a bit juicier than my 8-year-old letters or retelling of the ride of Paul Revere … but hopefully, equally heartfelt and true.
(Photo taken the same year I wrote about Paul Revere.)
Around the time I was leaving Chicago — for the first time, in 2011 — my friend Lisa said to me in passing, “I think you’re going to write a book.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Because I do.”
Lisa has an economy of words that I am in awe of. She is a careful listener. Has (clearly) good intuition, the patience of Job, and a big, shiny heart.
Many thanks Lisa for your generous donation to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign, and for helping me tell the story of how 52 Artist Dates saved my soul, my sanity and my serenity after my divorce. How 52 Artist Dates gave my life creative structure, taught me how to really be okay with being alone and led me to a life I had only dreamed of. A life as a writer. A life lived overseas.
(Me and Lisa … before I left Chicago, the first time.)
Want to know more about “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — how 52 Artist Dates saved my soul after divorce and landed me smack in the middle of my own life — or how to contribute to my Go Fund Me campaign? Click here.
I woke this morning to this message on my Facebook wall. “Any news?!?!”
It seemed like a sign – that it is time to speak my truth. To cast a light on my darkness and disappointment and (hopefully) watch it scatter like cockroaches.
I have not been accepted to the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University.
I’ve known this for a little more than two weeks.
I’ve shared the news slowly. With a few friends. My ex-husband. My rabbi and other personal references.
But I haven’t been able to tell either of my parents. Post it on Facebook. Blog about it.
I’ve been transparent about so much in my life. My divorce. The failed romances that followed it. And the beautiful one that began the day after I bought my ticket to Madrid.
My struggles with weight. With alcohol. With making a life in a new country.
My breast reduction.
The death of my biological mother.
But this felt strangely tender and raw. Perhaps a little shameful. Disappointing and shocking because I really thought I was going.
Ever since my friend Spencer mentioned it to me while we were on holiday in Prague. When my spine straightened and my whole body screamed, “Yes! I have no idea what the Institute of Sacred Music is but, Yes!” When I suddenly “knew” (or thought I knew) why I had been called to Madrid. To meet Spencer and to have this conversation.
And the people around me…they thought I was bound for New Haven too.
They saw the way my face lit up, how my resonance changed when I spoke about combining my lifelong practices of writing and spirituality. How I felt like I was finally redeeming myself to myself. How the “smart girl” was finally going to “live up” to that moniker. And how I was going to give myself the gift I couldn’t until now – art school and graduate studies.
I felt confident about my personal statement and my writing sample, the glowing letters of recommendation.
“You’re going,” they said, as if they had seen the future in a crystal ball. And I believed them. Not because I wanted to. But because I thought it was already written.
Unfortunately, this was instead.
Dear Ms. Pearl:
The Admissions Committee of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music has reviewed your application with great care. I am sorry to inform you that your application has not been approved.
We recognize your dedication to the church and appreciate your great interest in the educational mission of the Institute. We send you our best wishes for success in realizing the goals expressed in your application.
Martin Jean Director Yale Institute of Sacred Music
“Clearly it wasn’t meant to be.” “It isn’t God’s will.” “Something better is around the corner.” “Fuck Yale.” “I know just how you feel.”
I’ve heard these words, spoken with love and compassion. And while I’m sure they are true, it’s been hard for me to accept them, to take them in. I’m just not “there” yet.
I’m certain I will one day look back and view this with gratitude and the “ahhhh” of understanding. But until then, and without faith on my part, the words feel somehow hollow, a little bit like platitudes.
Surprisingly, I’ve received the most comfort from the words, “I’m sorry.”
Perhaps because they speak to where I am at this moment.
It’s Tuesday and today I find out if I’ve been accepted to the Yale School of Divinity. Of course, “today” is five hours earlier in New Haven, (Spain has not yet turned its clocks forward for spring.) so while it is nearly 7:30 p.m. in Madrid, it is only 2:30 p.m. in Connecticut. And, not surprisingly, I don’t know yet.
I mention this to Gordon, who is sitting next to me, and who expresses surprise when I tell him I have not been checking my phone every few minutes to see if the email has arrived.
I am equally surprised as I have vivid memories from not so long ago, of sitting at my desk hitting refresh on the computer every few minutes, waiting for I-don’t-know-what to happen. Not unlike my wandering into the kitchen to check the refrigerator every few minutes – each time imagining I might find something new added to the shelves since my last look.
Except I will receive something new via email if I wait long enough, whereas the contents of my refrigerator will remain static unless I leave my house and bring in something new. Which is essentially what I am doing now – once again filling my creative coffers. Artist Date 116. A distraction.
My friend Spencer developed the Unamuno Authors Series, bringing poets from around the world to Madrid. Tonight Mark Doty will read his work.
My friend Julie counts him among her favorite writers. A portion of her “fan letter” is included in the paperback version of Doty’s book, Dog Years. Later I will take a selfie with him and send it Julie via Facebook. But for now, I’m just waiting.
Not for Yale.
Because at this point I’ve turned off the sound on my phone. I don’t want to hear it. Or look at it. Or be reminded of it. My phone. Or Yale’s decision. Because I’m not sure if I can stay present in this moment knowing it. So I choose to remain in delicious, hopeful, not knowing.
Doty is a perfect distraction. Engaging. Both serious and playful as he reads his own words about dogs and fish, AIDS and murder. His mouth is tight, his words clipped with a “Locust Valley Lockjaw.” I wonder if anterior neck work (massage) might change the sound of his delivery.
My musings are interrupted by a poem about Doty’s old lover, gone now. He questions why he can no longer conjure up his face without first looking at a photograph. Feel the warmth of his brown skin against his own.
And why can’t I? D is neither dead nor even gone from my life. He is merely far, far away.
We haven’t seen one another in nearly eight months. Since I left Chicago. We do not Skype or FaceTime. This is his choice, not mine, and I do not argue it.
However, as the pages of the calendar turn over onto themselves, I have a harder time recalling his smell, his voice, and yes, even his face, without the aid of photographs and voicemails. I do not want to lose these palpable memories but it seems almost inevitable unless, until, we find ourselves in each other’s presence again.
I recall some years ago, speaking on the telephone with Stu, and then later, Jason – men I had dated when they were little more than boys and I, little more than a girl.
“Oh…that’s what you sound like,” I said upon hearing each of their voices. I had forgotten.
Perhaps this is the brain’s wisdom – making room for new smells, news sounds, new faces. Allowing us to move forward…from a relationship that ends in death, or in distance. From disappointment, words we’d rather than not read or hear.
“The Admissions Committee at Yale Divinity School has completed its review of your application. I am sorry to inform you that unfortunately, we are unable at this time to offer you a place in the Fall 2016 entering class.”
It is nearly midnight when I log on to the Admissions Page. After my Artist Date. After dinner with Spencer and Doty and his partner.
I think that I shake a little reading the email and that my breath catches – stuck in inhalation. That I cry a little too. But already, I don’t remember exactly.
I send Spencer a text, telling him the news, and I go to bed – too tired to do anything else.
And in the morning, I am again waiting. This time for a decision from Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music – my top choice for graduate school. I am assured it should arrive within the next few days.
Until then, I remain in delicious, hopeful, not knowing – distracting myself with dogs and fish and conjured up memories of old lovers. With art and words and daily life. With moments of presence.
I am sitting in a café in the old Jewish Quarter of Prague. I have just visited the Pinkas Synagogue where the name of every Czech and Moravian Jew who perished during the Holocaust is painstakingly painted on the walls, and art created by children from the ghetto at Terezin is kept on the second level.
Spencer leans into the table separating us. “I’ve been trying not to say anything, but…I still think you should be a rabbi,” he says. I am not surprised. We have discussed this many times. Probably as many times as I have considered it over the past 10 years. But something deep within me keeps me from it, continuing to say “no,” or “not yet.”
“Or, you could do what I did and go to the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale,” he says casually, continuing on to tell me about the program, his experience of it, and how and why it would be a good fit for me.
Hearing his words, my spine aligns. I am suddenly sitting a little more upright. I’m pretty sure I hear a puzzle piece fall into place and my whole body screams “yes.”
I feel like a bird of “pray”– that I have been circling this all of my life, or at least since I was 17, nearly 30 years – but that I only just now know what this is.
I have been circling this ever since my cousin handed me a copy of the Tao Te Ching the summer after my graduation from high school.
I have been circling this ever since I enrolled in my first religious studies course – a survey of Eastern religions – and met the instructor who would help guide my studies for the next four years. Who, when I called to say I had accepted my first journalism job – as a beat reporter with a Jewish newspaper – replied, “Of course you did. You’ve been seeking everywhere else. In India. In China. In Japan. It’s time to look in your own backyard.”
And so I did. First, as a curious observer – never quite stepping into the traditions and calling them my own – a “professional Jew.” Until it was brought to my attention that I actually wasn’t one. Although raised as a Jew (I was adopted by a Jewish family), I lacked the essential component that would actually make me one – a biologically Jewish mother.
I “remedied” my status in 2012 when I stepped into the mikveh (ritual bath) waters and declared myself a Jew by conversion. More circling. And returned a year later as part of my get (Jewish divorce). More circling.
During this time I learned to meditate – a daily practice which I have maintained for 12 years – and to create a personal relationship with a God of my understanding through the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. More circling.
I had long ceased to be a professional Jew – having trading my press card for a business card – and had become a personal one.
My writing similarly shifted, from telling the stories of others as a newspaper reporter, to telling my own as a blogger, an essayist – and now as an ISM candidate.
I am sitting at the tiny desk in my bedroom in Madrid. A red gooseneck lamp glows over the computer screen and the words above (and more) fly off of my fingertips. Effortlessly. I have been trained to write to size and I fill the 700 words allotted for my personal statement with four to spare.
But the writing sample looms. An invitation to showcase my best academic writing and critical thinking. “A portion of a senior thesis is acceptable.”
I have not been a university student in almost 25 years.
I am offered three topics to write about instead. I choose the first – to discuss an author, philosopher or artist, a piece of writing or art that has changed my way of thinking. Of looking at the world. And my career path.
I immediately know, the way I immediately know when Spencer mentions ISM for the first time in Prague.
The Artist’s Way.
The book I named my divorce companion in 2012 when only two things in my life made sense – writing and walking. The book I unearthed nine months later when I was on my knees, desperate. When my non-relationship – an out-of-town, weekend-long romance involving little more than kissing and talking and talking and kissing – had begun to affect my relationships, namely with my girlfriends, one who announced she couldn’t bear to hear his name ever again.
The book that invited me to take a weekly solo sojourn – creative play time, an Artist Date – which became the underpinning of my blogs and of my life. That allowed me to answer the question “How Has Creativity Changed Your Life?” and landed me in an anthology on the topic – the writing sample that has already been written, requiring only a bit of editing and massaging.
The book that is tucked away in my friend’s attic in Chicago. Highlighted. Dog-eared with notes in the margins. So I borrow a copy from a friend here in Madrid, filling in the blank spots of my essay with quotations and works cited.
I am acutely aware that I have been on exactly one Artist Date since arriving in Madrid six months ago.
I am sitting on a bench in Jardines del Campo del Moro – a little patch of wild tucked inside the city, behind the gardens of the Royal Palace. A place where, if I venture in far enough, I can escape the sound of traffic on a Sunday morning. Where I can hear my heart beat.
My second Artist Date in Madrid – number 110 if you are counting. I suppose I am.
I look up at the cerulean sky with closed eyes and the sun meets my gaze, creating yellow and blue circles behind my lids.
Less than 12 hours ago, I completed my graduate school application and sent it to Yale. It is in God’s hands now. But how I choose to spend my time in Madrid is in mine. If nothing else, this process – specifically the writing, rewriting and editing of my sample work – has reminded me of that, returning me to a truth I seem to have forgotten. That I create joy in my life when I allow myself to play.
When I forgo the laundry and the lesson planning for a few hours and allow myself to walk quietly on my tiptoes – like Bugs Bunny with a rifle – just to see how close I can get to a peacock wandering the gardens.
When I allow myself to stop and take photographs of bamboo trunks just because I like the way they look.
When I allow myself to talk with the black swan swimming in a pond of mallards, giggling as she cocks her read beak at the sound of my voice as if to say “que?”, the response of seemingly every Madrileño to my initial shy attempts at speaking Spanish.
When I allow myself to commit to this process once more – the weekly Artist Date – out loud. Announcing it to God. To myself. And to the swan – bird of “pray.”