Everything I Didn’t Write — July and August 2015

I love words.

This should hardly be a surprise as I call myself a writer. Used to make a living as one. As the words “Left” and “Write” are tattooed on my wrists.

And yet, since leaving the United States on July 28 with a one-way ticket to Spain, I’ve written little.

Little about what it is to live in a country where I hardly speak the language. Little about the heartbreak of leaving a deep and unexpected love. Little about the humbling that accompanies beginning yet another career at the age of 45. And little about what it is to turn 46 in this place I now call home.

I’ve written little about my private victories. About being asked for directions and being able to give them – albeit in English. About when Spanish words tumble out of my mouth without my thinking – simple phrases like, “Para llevar for ella, para aqui para mi” – and having them understood. About getting paid in euros. Jumping through hoops of securing a Spanish ID card. And fulfilling a dream I’ve had for as long as I can remember – to live overseas.  A dream so faint, so distant, so seemingly unattainable that I forget it was my dream and that I am actually doing it.

I’ve written little about my work teaching English, about my friendships with fellow wanderers and about my travels since arriving. Except on Facebook, where I have posted short, pithy, true-in-the-moment whispers of my life in Madrid, and many, many photographs.

What follows is a chronicle of my first 30-plus days here in Madrid – as they appeared on Facebook.

July 30

I have a Spanish phone number. (Message me and I will give it to you.) Most challenging interaction I’ve had so far, but I got it done. People are amazingly kind and helpful — like Jose, another customer at the post office who offered to help translate. (I will be going back tomorrow to get a box to receive “real mail” now that I can provide a local number.) He said my Spanish is good. I do not agree, but I think I am maneuvering well having been here less than 36 hours. Off shortly to an intercambio at J+J Books to meet Facebook friend Robert. Thanks for the connection, Jessica.

July 31

Third time IS the charm. Third day at the post office. Finally had everything in order to get a box. Here are the keys!

I wanted to take a photograph of the women who greeted me there these three days in a row, who were so patient and who were able to finally hook me up. They couldn’t imagine why. “Ayuda me.” (I meant to say “You helped me”…I was close, and they understood.) “It is my job,” replied one, in English. “It is my job.” Amazing.

2015-07-31 18.16.39

August 3

First day of school.

August 4

How much do I love my girls in Chicago? How much do they love me? Thanks for lifting me up. XOXO

nikki and melissa

August 4

(Meme from aforementioned great love – posted to my page)

“Hmmm.

We can skip the wine.”

dirk meme

August 5

It begins to feel like home when I run into people I know on the street. I remember when it happened in San Francisco and Chicago. Now Madrid.

August 9

Falling head over heels over head for this city.

Magical skies. The energy of its people spilling into the streets after dark. A surprise misting by the evening sprinklers in Retiro Park.

Lunches with new friends — yesterday at Botin, the world’s oldest restaurant, today on Plaza de la Independencia — running into others on the streets.

Hard to believe I arrived less than two weeks ago. I feel so present, so here…

August 15

Officially overwhelmed…

August 16

Sunday morning in Retiro Park. Why yes, I should be doing homework. But first — sun, stillness and a shot at serenity. Refueling following a Saturday of letting go…and filling up for the week ahead.

2015-08-16 11.44.56

August 17

Trust. Just got my hair cut by someone named Pepe. He does not speak English. I hardly speak Spanish. I think we did okay.

August 25

Woo hoo!! Student of the week. Not bad for the oldest student in the class…

Tomorrow is the BIG grammar and phonics exam, as well as my final observed teaching. All good juju welcomed.

The past four weeks have been humbling, exhilarating and, at times, overwhelming. In the home stretch…looking forward to what comes next.

August 28

DONE! When they handed out the certificates, they dubbed me Lesley~I will conquer Spain~Pearl. Your collective mouth to God’s ear.

2015-08-28 15.49.15

August 29

I am walking to pick up the keys to my new apartment. At the corner of my street and Calle Mayor I see this banner. I look at the door and know it like I know my name. Every hair on my body stands up and I begin to weep.

My first night in Madrid, 16 years ago with my then husband …our waiter speaks perfect English. I ask him about it and he tells me he learned it on a kibbutz in Israel. I mention I’m Jewish and that my grandmother did not like visiting Spain because there weren’t any Jews here. After dinner, he sends me across the street … to where I am standing now, to this place with the beautiful doors.

How is it I am living here 16 years later…literally here? With the Jews? With the vintage camera shop? The bookstore? And the bakery? With a landlord and roommate named Maite, a former UN translator just five years my mother’s senior … in an apartment with an unheard of eat-in kitchen, a balcony overlooking a plaza, a piano, and lots and lots of original art. A home I didn’t even have to look for it…it literally came to me. (Thanks Kylie.)

I’m not quite sure what to think … Moving is hard. And it is magic. And I am definitely, definitely supposed to be here.

2015-08-29 11.49.32

August 29

(In response to Facebook memory “On This Day…”)

On this day in 2012, moving back to Chicago. With John and Karin on the exact same day one year prior.moving from Chicago to Seattle. Today I picked up the keys to my new digs here in Madrid. Something about August 29 and big movement in my life. Only thing missing is John and Karin…

August 30

Home. Fully unpacked for the first time in more than a month. (Including Ganesh. Thank you, Clover. And a hand-spun wool bowl made by Deb.) Also for the first time, I moved in a cab. Two suitcases. Two backpacks. A couple of shopping bags. Many thanks to Nikki who packed me the first time. (This time was easier but not nearly as much fun.) And to Jennifer who helped get me from Salamanca to Opera. As I write this, I am reminded that I don’t do any of this alone.

2015-08-30 13.11.12

On The Other End With Open Arms

With heavy bags and a heavy heart, saying goodbye at the airport.
With heavy bags and a heavy heart, saying goodbye at the airport.

I’ve begun this blog what feels like a hundred times. But each time, somewhere along the way, I’ve gotten stuck.

Stuck between here and there. Stuck between Chicago and Madrid. Stuck between continuing to tell my story and just living it — holding something and someone so tender, so intimate, so close to myself. Private.

And yet, it is all part of the story of how I arrived here.

January 2015. I make the decision to move to Madrid. To become certified in Teaching English as a Foreign Language and to stay on for a year with a student visa.

“I will never meet anyone now,” I lament to my therapist, and my friend K, referring to my decision. “It would be nice to spend some time with someone though…but not until I buy my ticket, because I am the kind of girl that will stay for love.”

Turns out, I’m not…because I did meet someone, in March, at a memorial for a friend’s mother. But he didn’t reach out to me until a month later –the day after I bought my plane ticket to Madrid.

The synchronicity isn’t lost on either of us.

And so, while our three months together prove to be a great love affair for both of us, it is never in question that I will get on the plane on July 28. It is already written.

We stand at the airport — kissing, crying, holding on to one another, saying goodbye. Watching and waving until I am barely visible in the TSA line. He gives me a final wave, puts his hands into namaste, blows a kiss and leaves — tears streaming down my face. Tears streaming down my face as I write this now.

I settle into my seat on the plane and receive a series of texts and photos from him, sent from the parking lot. Among them, “That was hard to do.” “So hard.” “You will always have a place in my heart.” And, “I hope your trip is a good one and that Madrid is standing there at the other end with open arms.”

Turns out, it is.

It is R. — a friend of a friend who takes me to the ex-pat bookstore, gives me a tour of his neighborhood and meets me the following day when I have a communication breakdown (and emotional meltdown) with Orange Mobil.

It is M. — another friend of a friend who meets me for a walk and pinchos (snacks) on the plaza in her neighborhood.

In Madrid, where new friends were waiting.
In Madrid, where new friends were waiting.

It is N., M. and E — women from my online writing group who live here, two Americans and a Brit, who offer to meet with me, as well as J. — the best friend of one of my Weight Watchers members who calls me several times and invites me to meet for lunch next Sunday.

It is the countless others who touch my life, if only for a moment, helping me to feel at home. My host, M., and flatmate, S., who builds the fan I purchase at Corte Ingles.

J., another customer at the Correos — Spanish Post Office — who helps translate for me. And the four women workers there who see me three days in a row, and who help me finally secure a box for letters — handwritten notes with lovely stamps as was suggested by the man who said “Hasta luego” at the airport — because, yes, we are just that romantic.

“Hasta luego” — see you later, but not “adios,” — goodbye. Mere nuance, the difference recently explained to me. A subtlety that allowed me to leave in spite of love and to remain available to open arms waiting— in Chicago, in Madrid — everywhere.

Artist Date 107: As It Was Promised to Me

I have come to crave myself.

I was promised this would happen.

The first time when I left Seattle — my therapist gave me a copy of the poem “Love After Love” by Derek Walcott.

Between Acts by Archibald Motley
Between Acts by Archibald Motley

The time will come

when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror,

and each will smile at the other’s welcome.

 

and say, sit here. Eat

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back you heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

 

all your life, whom you have ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letter from the bookshelf,

 

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on you life.

The second time was a few months later, when my friend Sarah sent me a text, a photograph of a page in a book and a couple of highlighted lines — I do not remember the exact language, something about “holding on to the jewel that is myself” and “no more compromises.”

Both sounded like a bunch of pretty words and glib proclamations — neither which I could relate to.

My heart was broken. I was broken. Being alone was the worst thing I could imagine, as I was sure it was an indicator of what my future looked like.

I wanted to dress my wounds with the skin of another, healing from the outside in — although I didn’t realize it at the time.

And yet, I put the Walcott poem up on my refrigerator, next to a portion of the poem “Dreams of Desire” by Oriah House…

I want to know if you can be alone

with yourself

and if you truly like the company you keep

in the empty moments.

…and next to a tiny square of paper that had fallen from one of my journals. It was old — leftover from my single days in my 20s in Detroit. I do not know the source.

Sunday in the Park by Archibald Motley
Sunday in the Park by Archibald Motley

Most of us approach things exactly the wrong way around. First we want someone else to make us feel secure by lavishing us with affection and approval. But what you find out is that you are the source of love. When you have done the right inner work, you find that those black holes, those persistent needs and demands have been covering up the source of love, the boundless ocean of love within you.

It seems a higher part of me deeply understood the power of words and of seeing the same words day after day, and it believed in the ability of words to burrow into my subconscious and change me.

And so I find myself aching to be alone and responding with what Twyla Tharp calls “the creative habit” — the Artist Date, number 107.

It is unplanned.

I see posters for the show “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” on my way into work and decide to go. I mention this, throwing in the words “Artist Date,” to my colleague Nancy.

“Oh that’s right…you have a date tonight,” she says, not quite hearing or grasping what I have said.

It is true, I do have a date tonight — the first in many, many months. But first I have a date with myself, I explain.

I bound up the stairs of the Chicago Cultural Center as if to meet a lover. Instead, I meet myself along with the paintings that have called me here.

They are vibrant, sensual, humorous — each telling a story that can only be told by one who has lived it.

Gazing in silence, the chatter of my mind clears. I can hear my breath, my heart. I can feel the cool of lush trees and grass and even a man’s suit — painted an Easter green in “Sunday in the Park.” I can feel the heat of pink bodies — all breasts and asses, high heels and cigarettes (Delightful!) in “Between Acts.”

I can feel my own body soften and fill with a sense of contentedness that comes with giving myself what I need most — in this moment it is time, attention, quiet, a sense of normalcy.

Perhaps this is why I take an Artist Date today — before a more traditional one– so that I might fill myself with these things and not mistakenly ask another to, so that I might have a chance to greet myself at my own door and feast.

Surprise! You’re Divorced!

From Tim Burton's 2010 Alice In Wonderland.
Considering the other side of the rabbit hole. From Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland.

I haven’t heard from my ex in more than a week.  This isn’t unusual, except I have reached out to him twice during this time — once to ask for medical advice (I forget he is not my doctor), a second time to ask if he might talk with a friend of mine about the later-in-life path to medical school — and that is unusual.

Except for when it isn’t.

We recently saw one other for the first time since I moved out of the house we shared in Seattle and returned to Chicago, more than two and a half years.

I cried when I saw his blue polar fleece stocking cap — the one that makes him look like a tall Smurf– bobbing above the crowd as he got off the train, across from our favorite Lebanese restaurant.  Again when we embraced.  And again when, looking up for the menu, I inquired “The usual?” to which he replied, laughing, “That is what I was going to say.”

And so it was over chicken schwarma, hummus and fattoush that he admitted that the times he hadn’t called me back — there weren’t many — he simply, emotionally, could not.

This may be one of those times.

At first, I didn’t think too much of it when I didn’t hear back from him.  It was Valentine’s Day weekend.  I thought, perhaps, he might be out of town with his girlfriend.  A thought followed by strong intuition — “He’s moving in with her.”  I said the words out loud, as usual, to no one in particular.  “He doesn’t want to tell me.”

Later that day, I saw an MLS listing for a bungalow on his Facebook page, forwarded by his girlfriend.

When I reached out to him a second time, a week later, and again did not hear back, I was fairly certain of my inner knowing.  And much to my surprise, I felt rattled and sad.

Not so much because he may or may not be buying a house with his girlfriend. (I still do not know for certain, nor is it really any of my business.)  But because, in that moment, I realized I had been holding on to an unspoken agreement we never made.  Something like, “We may be divorced but you and I are in this together.  Forever.”

I was shocked.  I had no idea.

I have often referred to mine as the “lucky divorce.”  (Which sounds like it should come with soup, egg roll and an almond cookie.)

For a long time we were one another’s “In Case of Emergency” person.  We left passwords unchanged, and nursed each other’s broken hearts in post-divorce attempts at romance.

I never had to hunt down my spousal support.  I knew the money would be in my account on the 15th of the month, the same way I knew he would always be there.  Until he wasn’t.

Perhaps my divorce wasn’t so “lucky” after all, as it seems more than possible that this underlying, unspoken (not even to myself) agreement may have kept me from truly seeking out another partnership, or at the very least, being open to one.

I shared all of this with my friend Robin.  She replied, “He’s not your husband anymore.”

Not exactly news.  And yet, on some deep, gut, primal level — it was.  And I finally “got it.”  So perhaps I can finally let go of it.

It reminds me of when I returned to an old boyfriend, many years after we had broken up, to make amends for where I had been wrong in that relationship.

“You wanted a partner, I wanted a parent,” I said.  (Not surprisingly, he was 17 years my senior.)  Tears streamed down his face as the words slipped past my lips.  He hugged me hard, harder than he ever had in the time we were together.

“Why are you crying,” I asked.

“Because I am.”

I nodded.

I understood.  I saw the truth.  I saw what he knew all along.  Finally.  It was as if I had slipped back through the rabbit hole and we were living in the same reality, more than 15 years after the end of our brief relationship.

At least this time it only took three years.

Artist Date 96: Kind of a Big Shot

The Three Graces. Ethel Stein. 1995
The Three Graces. Ethel Stein. 1995

I used to use the Birchwood Kitchen as my office away from my office.

It was at the center of where I often found myself when I was neither at home nor at work.  For the cost of an iced tea (and sometimes not even that, as I was a “regular” and often received drinks and desserts “on the house”) I had a place where I could check my emails, do some writing, take meetings or just stop and sit in between where I was and where I was going.

Sometimes the Art Institute feels like that too.  Like today — Artist Date 96.

I’m sitting in the member lounge drinking puerh ginger tea and checking Facebook on my phone.  Behind me, a couple is telling the bartender their story.  It appears they met online — he is from London — and they are meeting now for the first time.  Perhaps not now exactly — but this day, this week, this visit.  It sounds crazy and exciting.  I wonder how it will all turn out.  I wonder if the bartender wonders, or if she is even listening.

My ex-husband used to love to come here because it made him feel just a little bit like a big shot.  Flashing his card and drinking free coffee.  And hey, who doesn’t like to feel just a little bit like a big shot every once in a while.

I suppose in some small way, that is what membership is about.  A reward for faithfulness and patronage.  Be it a free beverage, a bag with a logo, discounts or a place to stop in between here and there.  And when done well, evokes a sense of identity and belonging.  “One of us.”

It whispers to my unrealized teenage dream of attending art school, which at the time, I thought was the only way to be an artist.  (I was wrong.)

I am reminded of this as I make my way downstairs to the Edith Stein: Master Weaver exhibit.

The exhibit is small, and there is just one other person in the gallery viewing the work.  (There are two Art Institute employees here also — one of them, in my opinion, talking too loudly.)

It doesn’t move me in quite the way I had hoped.  I imagined my internal seven-year-old, the one who made potholders on a plastic loom with loopers, awakened, inspired to create.  Instead, I am completely enchanted by this 90-something-year-old woman.

Trained in sculpture, she turned her attention to textiles when she was in her 60s.  A video loops over and again, showing her working in the studio — clad in heavy sneakers, mixing dye in a pot on top of the stove and immersing wool yarn into it as if it was pasta.

I sit on the bench in the center of the room, watching the short film several times.  It is both soothing and inspiring.  I want to be like her.  Still working, still passionate, respected, at the top of her game.

I want to be like her when I am in my 90s.  I want to be like her now.

Working.  Passionate.  Respected.

At the top of my game.

A little bit of a big shot.

It begins with working.

Alone Again…Naturally

A few weeks ago, over dinner, a woman I know asked me who traveled with me to Italy.

“No one,” I answered. “Myself.”

Silence.

Like the silence I heard when I was a we, and responded to the question “Do you have children?” with a simple “No.” The quiet, uncomfortable space while they waited for some sort of explanation.  Something to make them feel more comfortable with the answer that made them uncomfortable.

The same silence that often greets me when responding to the question, “Are you seeing anyone?” with “No.” The same quiet waiting, for “But I was…” or “Well there is this guy I just met.”  Or my friend Patsy’s genius answer, “I am seeing a lot of different men.”

For a while I acquiesced…talking about my not-quite-relationships. My Divorce Buddy.  The Southern Svengali.  The friendships, flirtations and occasional dalliances that made me feel like I had something going on.  The relationships that ended seemingly before they even started.  I think it made us both feel better.

This time was different. I felt no need to explain my solo voyage.  In fact, I was downright chuffed (to turn a British phrase), pleased with myself and the situation I consciously and happily put myself in – alone for 17 days in Italy.

A few days later, I was asked the same question about travel mates.  And I watched as the woman’s smile wrinkled into a pained frown.  “You were alone…on your birthday?”  The same question my mother asked me before I left.  The same question I had asked myself.

Happy on my birthday, in Paris.
Happy on my birthday, in Paris.

“Yes! It was awesome!”

I told her about my 15-hour layover in Paris. About walking along the Seine, seeing Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, laughing out loud, asking no one in particular, “Who goes to Paris for dinner on their birthday?” and replying, “I do.”

I told her about being present to the moment. About the real birthday present – of not wanting anything to be other than it was.  Not wishing for a man or a friend.  Not wishing I had worn something different, eaten something different, stayed in a different apartment.

She looked confused.

I’ve been thinking about why this trip was different. Why I was different.

I have traveled by myself before – on press trips and volunteer projects and meeting up with friends on the other end. But only truly “alone” once before – in the few days before and after participating in a volunteer project in the south of France.

I had longed to travel alone.  It represented who I wanted to be.  Adventurous.  Glamorous.  Strong.  A world traveler.  And yet, when I arrived in Paris alone in 2006 I only felt sad, scared and alone.

My answer, or at least part of it, came in an email from my friend Melinda.  In it, she mentioned going to a play reading – by herself – completely spur of the moment.

“It kind of reminded me of your Artist Dates.”

Artist Date. Balm to my soul.  Savior of my heart and mind.  The simple suggestion by Julia Cameron in the book The Artist’s Way of a once a week “walkabout” to fill one’s creative coffers.

I took on the challenge nearly two years ago. Newly divorced and painfully licking the wounds of my first forays “back out there.”   I had heard others talk about feeling free, having great sex, or at the very least, a lot of it, following the dissolution of their marriages.  My efforts and experiences only left me feeling scared, desperate and crazy.

In a moment of grace, I turned away from convention, from the promises of partnership, and toward myself through weekly Artist Dates. To the opera.  To the Art Institute.  To ethnic grocery stores and new neighborhoods.  To theatre and concerts.  Alone.

Reading Melinda’s email, it occurred to me that perhaps all of this “structured aloneness” had prepared me for this – a seeming marathon of solitude.

Arriving in Rome alone last month, I felt the same anxious fear that had accompanied me to Paris. But this time I didn’t try to act cool.  I didn’t try to pretend I was a local or that I even knew where I was.

I held a map in my hand, asked a lot of questions and opened myself to the possibility of getting lost, or worse, of looking stupid.

I challenged myself to not take cabs. To depend on trains, buses and trams.

On my feet. On myself.  And the time-tested kindness of strangers.

Strangers who reminded me I was never really alone. Leonardo, the 19-year-old man/boy, who saved me from boarding the wrong bus – twice – in Arezzo.

With Leonardo, who saved me from going to God-Knows-Where. Twice!
With Leonardo, who saved me from going to God-Knows-Where. Twice!

Delilah, another volunteer at Altrocioccolato – the fair trade chocolate festival in Umbria where I began my journey – who sent me to her brother, his wife and cousin in Florence for Aperitivo – the Italian version of happy hour, but with a much better buffet, and a drive through the city.

Who organized a dinner party – which became my birthday party, complete with candles, singing and gifts – among her English-speaking friends when I arrived in Rome a few days later.

Roman Birthday Party. Delilah, the hostess, is in black.
Roman Birthday Party. Delilah, the hostess, is in black.

Seems my Artist Dates, my time alone, prepared me to be alone. For long walks, shopping at flea markets and eating fatty pork sandwiches while sitting on the edge of a fountain in Campo De Fiore.

It also prepared me to be with people – with ideas and experiences to share.

But mostly it prepared me for my life, the one I dreamed of not so many years ago in Paris— Adventurous. Glamorous.  Strong.  A world traveler.

 

 

Happy On My Birthday

Happy on my birthday, in Paris.
Happy on my birthday, in Paris.

I walked out on my 21st birthday party.

A little past midnight, noticing no one had noticed it was now officially my birthday, I stood up and drunkenly announced, “You’re all fuckers. Good night.”

I still cringe thinking about it.

Ten years later, I didn’t behave much better.  I spent my birthday in Paris.  Yet all I could do was lament about dinner at the restaurant that had been suggested – Chez Chartier.  Loud, boisterous.  A place where working-class families had fed their families since 1896.  Where surly waiters leave your tab written on paper tablecloths and patrons climb ladders to reach the mezzanine dining room.  A Parisian institution.

I didn’t think the meal was very good.

My birthday has always been fraught with anxiety. Anxiety created by expectations.  Of others.  Of myself.  Of experiences.

Never mind my friends gather to honor my being here on the planet – some driving more than an hour to join the festivities. Never mind I spend the morning in Amsterdam and the afternoon at the top of the Eiffel Tower.  Somehow, in my mind, each celebration missed the mark of being “special enough.”

Until this year..when I turned 45 and decided to spend my birthday alone.  Dinner in Paris, breakfast in Rome.

It was the end of a 17-day trip to Italy. A trip where I had gifted myself with hand-stitched Roman sandals in Assisi, and aubergine leather gloves in Florence.

Where I stopped inside a boutique in Rome to inquire about a coat in the window and left wearing it.  A short, smart, cream-colored trench with a ruffle.  I slipped on a size small – both surprised and delighted to find it fit considering I had eaten gelato every day since my arrival – and looked at myself in the mirror.

I liked it. The coat.  My reflection.  I didn’t need it, and yet, the words “I’ll take it,” tumbled out of my mouth.

And where 30 minutes later, on Piazza Navona, I questioned what I “deserved,” and if I could justify “more.”   Where I pulled a leather bag over my shoulder and across my body — like the one my tour guides Ishmael and Paul wore and which I had twice admired – but left it behind because it felt “too decadent.”

Never mind my mother had sent me a check as an early birthday gift. Never mind a client had given me a several-hundred dollar tip, instructing me to use it for something wonderful in Italy.  Never mind I had enough for it.

I went to dinner where I ate pizza with impossibly thin crust, covered with four kinds of cheeses, arugula and bresaola…but I was still thinking about the bag. Strolling back towards the piazza I called out to the universe, “If I am supposed to have this bag, give me a sign.”

2014-10-17 19.13.32

 

2014-10-17 19.52.12

I received it, but not until after the salesman wrote up my purchase. When he placed the leather satchel inside of a green fabric bag, wrapped it with string and tied a bow.

I smiled recalling my Aunt Ellie taking me shopping at Jacobson’s – a tony department store in a tony suburb of Detroit – when I was 10-years-old.  When I was doughy and awkward and wore a bad Dorothy Hamill haircut.

After purchasing trousers, a sweater, and a bag shaped like a roller skate, she asked that each item be placed in one of the store’s signature silver boxes, embossed with a J, and wrapped in shiny ribbon.

“Everything is better gift wrapped,” she informed me. Opening the packages at home an hour or so later, I knew she was right.

Thirty-five years later, she still is.

And yet, a few days later, I once again questioned my right to gift wrap my life. This time, to end my travels with a 15-hour layover in Paris.  Just long enough to have dinner and to spend the night — on my birthday.

It had sounded like a wonderful idea when I booked the ticket, but as the days grew near it only sounded like a lot of traveling, a lot of navigating, a lot of work for one night.

I ignored that seemingly practical voice and went anyway – roaming the streets of Paris for the third time in this lifetime.

Crossing the Seine in my cream-colored trench, my leather bag strapped across my body, I saw the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame – all lit up. Just like me.  I could feel it.  I giggled out loud wondering, “Who stops in Paris for 15 hours just for dinner on their birthday?”

I do.

I ate a pistachio macaron on the streets before dinner, and later, mussels and pommes frites. And for perhaps the first time in my life, I could not imagine anything making the moment better.

I didn’t wish for a man or a friend. For a different meal.  For anyone to sing me happy birthday.

I was delighted by my own company.  That I had given myself everything I had wanted most.  And in doing so, rather than hoping someone else might, I was happy on my birthday.

 

 

 

 

 

Hacked

hey“Hey.”

I’ve been waiting nearly six months for this.  Not this exactly.  But something like it.

Not waiting exactly.  I stopped doing that, having expectations, a long time ago.  But those close to me assured me I would hear something – some sort of word or gesture or acknowledgment – someday.

Tuesday is someday.

I am leaving dinner with my girlfriends at the Birchwood Kitchen.  Lindsey and I are considering going to Martyrs to hear an Afro-Caribbean band.  Our friend Toast has put us on the guest list.

I look down at my phone.  There’s a Facebook message.  It is from Mr. 700 Miles.

My heart stops.

Mr. 700 Miles.  The first man who ever walked out of my life without a word.  (Strangely, I have had this experience twice now.  I’m certain there is some sort of lesson in here I haven’t yet mastered.)

A man I grew up with but didn’t really know.  He lives about 700 miles from Chicago – ergo the name.

He was going through a divorce when we reconnected on Facebook.  I was on the other side of mine.  Our stories were remarkably similar.  Very quickly, an intimacy blossomed between us – first in status updates.  Then in private messages, telephone calls and Skype dates.

I was smitten.  I felt like I’d always known him.   And at the same time, like I’d been waiting my whole life to meet him.

And then one day he was gone.  No call.  No text.  No Facebook message.

I reached out to him a single time – about five days after missing our Skype date – and left him a message telling him it was clear he couldn’t “do this.”  That I had no desire to convince him otherwise.  And that I was sad.  Sad we weren’t “doing this.”  But more than that, sad he couldn’t tell me.

I reminded him we were friends.  That we had always been friends.  I told him I wasn’t angry, and implored him to contact me.  To tell me what was going on for him.

Two hours later, when I hadn’t heard from him, I knew that I wouldn’t.

And then, Tuesday…”Hey.”

I looked up from my phone, leaned into Lindsey and said, “Let’s go hear music and dance.”  My reaction surprised me.

Once upon a time I would have freaked out.  I would have burst into tears.  Or worse, burst into drama.

Once upon a time I would have dashed home (no mind that I had other plans) and called or messaged him and waited for his reply.  Or if I did go out, I would check my phone all night.  Or at the very least, I would talk about it, about him, and nothing else – all night.

That’s not what happened.

Instead, I sent a text to a mentor and friend who knows every intimate detail of the story of Mr. 700 Miles.  I let her know I had received his message.  That I was going to hear music with Lindsey.  And planned to do nothing until morning.

And Lindsey and I did talk about it, about him – some.  And we talked about other things too.

She marveled at my calm.  I felt empowered.

“I’ve been ‘waiting’ six months.  He can wait a night.  Let him squirm.”

These are not my words.  But there they were.

And then we danced.  At times, we were the only ones on the floor.  I felt confident and sexy.  I wondered if the bass player was single.  I did not check my phone a single time.

Around 10:30, we left.

When I arrived home, I went to his Facebook page.  Some wise, intuitive part of me guided me there.  His status read, “I was hacked please don’t open messages.”  (No punctuation.)

My heart sank a little.  Not because I wanted him “back.”  Not because I still wanted to “do this.”  Because I thought I might get an answer.  A courtesy.  Because I thought my friends might be right.

Because I thought he might prove to be closer to the man I thought he was, instead of the frightened boy he turned out to be.  Because I missed my friend.

But in that sinking, I recognized a victory.  A miracle, really.  My response, or lack thereof.  And it was all mine, regardless of who reached out to me, Mr. 700 Miles or his Hacker.  I acted different.  I was different.  I didn’t try to be.  I just was.

I didn’t just feel empowered, I was empowered.  I didn’t just feel confident and sexy, I was confident and sexy.

And I did not check my phone a single time.

Artist Date 86: On a Scooter, With a Boy in Front and Chocolate in my Pocket

Final moments in St. Victor la Coste, France.  I hiked up to this crumbling castle every day.
Final moments in St. Victor la Coste, France. I hiked up to this crumbling castle every day.

I leave for Italy in 39 days.

I only recently bought my plane ticket, and just last week decided exactly where I will spend the days following my volunteer work in Umbria. I have not booked a single night at a hotel, pensione, hostel or airbnb.

This is highly unusual for me.

By now I would have secured a room for all of my nights, and outlined a rough itinerary of my days – making certain I knew when each museum closed.  I learned this from my friend Tim, who saved the Louvre for his last day in Paris, not realizing it closed on Tuesdays.  He has lovely pictures of the outside.

I would have purchased my train tickets and made copies of my passport.  My travel books would be dog-eared and yellowed with highlighter.

I have done none of this.  I’m not sure why.

And so I find myself tucked into a big chair in the back of the Book Cellar, pouring over travel guides – more out of necessity than anything.  Fodors.  Rough Guide.  Lonely Planet.  Thick books on the whole of Italy.  Thinner versions on Rome, Florence and Tuscany.  Artist Date 86.

I recall my first travels overseas – press trips to Germany and Israel.  I was in my 20s and had dreamed of traveling abroad.  Everything was handled for me.  Flights.  Hotel.  Itinerary.  And yet, I sat at San Francisco International Airport before each trip – terrified.

Flying out of SFO in 1999 to Spain – my first overseas trip with my then boyfriend, now ex-husband — felt wholly different.  I wasn’t alone.

One Saturday morning we somewhat impulsively bid on Priceline tickets to Madrid.  By afternoon, we were sprawled out on the floor of Borders Books – leaving a few hours later with copies of Frommers – Europe on $100 a day and Madrid, Barcelona and Seville.

We traveled overseas together several times over the next few years – me carefully crafting an itinerary each time.   Yet, a part of me longed to travel alone, as so many of my friends had done after college.

And at 37, I do it.

At the time, I feel too old to throw a rucksack on my back, sleep in hostels and shower in train stations.  I find a trip volunteering in the south of France, building walls as part of an architectural restoration project.

I spend a few days in Paris by myself when I arrive.  It does not feel glamorous and exciting as I had imagined.  It feels scary and lonely.  I wander the streets alone, slightly drunk and call my then husband — crying.  A few days later I join my team in Avignon.  Surrounded by volunteers from around the word, ranging in age from 21 to 73, I feel joyous and free.  I have found my place, my role.  I am the friendly American who drinks too much and gives massages.

Building walls in the South of France. 2006.
Building walls in the South of France. 2006.

Eight years later, (I will turn 45 in Italy) I do not drink anymore.  I do not have a husband anymore.  These things that I leaned into ceased to serve me long ago.  This time, this trip, I must lean into myself.  My hesitation in planning suddenly makes sense.  I am afraid.

And yet, I have a plan, a purpose – I am again joining volunteers from around the globe.  This time, at the Altrocioccolato Festival – known as the “other chocolate festival” – outside of Perugia.  This time, my alone time is on the back-end of the trip – and I will have a better sense of place.  This time I have people, “waiting” for me in church basements.  People who also used to drink too much but don’t anymore – people like me.

My friend Pam says I will go to Italy and meet a boy on a scooter and never come home.  She tells me that I am brave.  That she doesn’t know anyone else our age doing what I am doing – traveling, alone.  I do not feel brave.

And I remember what I’ve been told, that bravery isn’t the absence of fear, it is walking through it anyway.

Or perhaps flying through it – direct from Chicago to Rome on Alitalia.  Or riding a scooter through it – an Italian boy in front, and chocolate in my pocket.

Artist Date 83: On The Path All Along

Photo: Egyptian Streets
Photo: Egyptian Streets

I’m late.

I peel myself away from the Lebanese pastries – empanada-like sweets filled with sweet cheese, the other with nuts, covered in rosewater – special for Ramadan.  From this conversation which is at once both playful and real.  That reminds me what it feels like to connect deeply. To be met spiritually.

I dash into my apartment and dial into the conference call – 7 Pathways to Freedom, Love and Abundance.  Artist Date 83.

Debbie is mid-meditation.  I sit down at the table, rest my feet on the bar that goes across the underside of it, close my eyes and let myself fall into her words.

She suggested the workshop following my most recent clairvoyant reading and healing.  It made sense to me.  I knew I needed a pathway.  Or more to the point, help continuing on the path I am on.  Lately, I’m having trouble seeing the road.

Nearly two years out of my divorce, I expected to be, to have been, in a relationship by now.  I expected to be financially fully self-supporting.

I’ve had men in my life.  Moments of romance and intimacy.

Months of late-night phone calls navigating the sloppy paths of our mutual divorces, followed by a road trip on the sloppy path cross-country that brought me home.  Hours-long make-out sessions lasting from steamy evening into near dawn.  Skype dates where I bared my soul, and my body, on the promise we’d “give it a go,” throwing caution to the 700 miles that lay between us.

I’ve had work.

A place to show up – more days than not.  Money.  Benefits that don’t fit neatly into an offer package.  No health insurance or paid-time off.  Instead, the opportunity to make an impact.  To work with others.  To stumble in a safe place.  And to shine brightly too.

Cobbled together with the cash and prizes of divorce, I’ve had enough to live on.  More than.

But I want more.  More than moments.  More than enough without spousal support.  (Which, sooner rather than later, I will no longer receive.)

My hope is that something will open up for me in this workshop.  Some chakra blockage will get knocked loose.

I close my eyes and listen to Debbie’s words.  I am overcome with shame.

Shame for the relationships in my life where feelings don’t match.

Shame for the sex I’m not having.

Shame that I was set free…and remain free.

(The words slip off of my fingertips now, in real-time, as I write.  Freedom.  One of the promises of the workshop.  It is not lost on me.  But in workshop time I only feel shame.)

“I am ashamed that my friend’s feelings don’t match my own.”  The words slip past my lips as we share our experiences of the meditation.

(And again, in real-time, I realize this is not exactly true.  I think of this particular relationship, where we share a deep connection – a love for one another that is acknowledged often and freely by us both.  What is not matched is where we are in our lives – what each of us is available for.)

I speak my embarrassing, humiliating truth and nothing bad happens.

A half hour later we disconnect.  I do not recall a thing I have heard.  I am grateful for the audio link which will arrive the next day.

I brush my teeth, wash my face, and write my nightly gratitude list.  I am grateful I do not feel like calling Mr. 700 Miles today.  For Lebanese pastry and time with a friend who loves me.   I am grateful for therapy tomorrow and the Cheryl Strayed book I am reading, Tiny, Beautiful Things. 

The list goes on.  Long.  Abundant.

Freedom.  Love.  Abundance.  The workshop promises.  All right here, right now, in my life.  I am on the path.  I always was.  Now I can once again see it.