The words tumble out of a book I recently unearthed, one I began reading together with a friend last year in Spain but never finished. Written on a card, I assume acting as a bookmark, decorated with gorgeous greens and oranges, purples, pinks and blues. Flowers and faces.
It is one of a deck, a gift from my friend Michelle — given to me when I left Seattle for Chicago in 2012, following my divorce. A few years later, I tucked them into one of two suitcases that accompanied me on a year-long sojourn to Spain.
I’ve pulled them out from time to time when I needed inspiration. In writing. In life. But this time I didn’t go looking for it. It found me.
Riding the 9 Ashland bus on my way to work, the card slides out. I smile, thinking of Michelle, and of the changes I am twisting against, and turn it over.
“Safe and Change …
“If you have drawn this card, some kind of change is afoot. It is, after all, the only constant thing! With change comes fear and questions and the ground becomes shaky with uncertainty. This card is a reminder that change would not be happening unless somehow the timing was right. Although it may be edgy and challenging, the universe intends to keep you safe. Courage does not exist in the absence of fear. And faith cannot exist without ‘not knowing.’ Remember that the true unsafety lies in not changing.”
I wonder if the artist could have envisioned the state of our nation when she wrote this. That I, and so many other Americans, would feel sucker punched in the gut every day following the inauguration of our 45th president — watching the principles this country was built upon summarily dismantled. Our country run by a handful of wealthy, straight white men who seem bent on growing their interests alone. Fearful of waking up and no longer recognizing the place we’ve called home. The place I deliberately returned to when my student visa was up for renewal.
I’ve never been so emotionally effected by politics in my life. Perhaps this is good. Perhaps this is the change. The shift my friend Rachel says she is trying to lean into. She mentions it following my post of a Mahatmas Gandhi quote on Facebook – poached from another friend’s newsfeed.
“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall, always.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
The words are like a balm.
Within hours, nearly 100 people have clicked “like” or “love.”
My heart swells and glows yellow, as it sometimes does. I am reminded of the power of hope and of community, and of the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “ … That where there are shadows, I may bring light.”
That night, I decide to limit my news sources to a chosen few. Since then, I’ve begun to feel a little more peace …
Which leaves room to twist against the other shifts and changes in my life … but only if I choose to.
It is one of the many reasons I prefer bookstores to the ease of Amazon. That and the sense of possibility. Of community. Staff picks. Book Club reads. All laid out on tables, ripe for reading. A smorgasbord of words.
Land of Enchantment by Leigh Stein. Grunt by Mary Roach. M Train by Patti Smith.
I pick up each one and tuck it under my arm, carrying a small stack with me through Women and Children First Bookstore. Artist Date 6.2 (122).
Because I know of Leigh but I do not know her. Because we belong to the same women’s writing collective, but we have never met.
Because I heard Terri Gross’ interview with Roach on Fresh Air while I was living in Madrid. Their English sounded so good to my American ear and home didn’t seem so far away.
Because just this afternoon, my friend Spencer suggested Smith’s book to me.
I feel connected to these stories. Like I want to hold on to them.
Others I don’t.
Spinster: Making A Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick. The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Lang.
Because I fear there is no room in this conversation for my voice — my manuscript, They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain: How 52 Artist Dates Healed My Heart and Landed Me in the Center of My Own Life. Traveling alone. Living abroad. Writing a book. Because I fear I have nothing new to add. Because I believe publication might finally allow me to be “done” with my divorce.
Crazy Time by Abigail Trafford.
Because it takes me back to a time before Artist Dates. Before traveling alone and living overseas and writing a book. When I was just embarking upon my divorce.
I am still living in Seattle, still sharing a home with my soon-to-be ex-husband – but sleeping in separate bedrooms.
I am head-over-heels-over-head for my friend M in Chicago. He is also going through a divorce and we prop one another up through our disbelief and fear, talking on the phone each night into the wee hours of the morning.
I am also a wee bit obsessed with my friend (another) M in Seattle. He is the first man to see me naked – other than my husband or my doctor – in 15 years. We kiss endlessly, stopping only to share our stories — whispering under a blanket that smells faintly of dog.
But only once.
Since then we seem to be dancing a familiar “come-here-go-away” cha-cha. I know the tune, but still haven’t mastered the steps.
My therapist Saundra tells me about Crazy Time.
“Because it is a crazy time,” she says, speaking from both personal and professional experience. She says to tell Chicago M I have to go to sleep. She rolls her eyes at the mention of Seattle M.
“You told me I get to make mistakes.”
“You made yours,” she says.
We look at one another, a little bit shocked by her frankness and laugh.
“You don’t get to say that.”
“I know,” she says. “But it’s true.” And it is.
Saundra believes it is preferable I grieve the end of my marriage before jumping into another relationship. She says if I don’t, I’ll only run from the pain of it – from bed to bed, relationship to relationship – rather than addressing the source and healing.
It doesn’t sound so bad, really.
And yet, it is not my path.
I pull Crazy Time from the shelf and begin thumbing through it – only half reading.
“It starts when you separate and usually lasts about two years. It’s a time when your emotions take on a life of their own and you swing back and forth between wild euphoria and violent anger, ambivalence and deep depression, extreme timidity and rash actions. You are not yourself. Who are you?
“Then at the height of Crazy Time, you may get a reprieve. You fall in love – a coup de foudre – and the block of lead in your chest miraculously melts; you can’t believe it, you laugh, you dance. You know it’s too soon, too much like jumping into a lifeboat that you know leaks and has no oars. But you smile, feeling so good after feeling so bad for so long. Therapists call this the search for the romantic solution. But it’s usually not a solution.
“You crash… Now you’re really scared. You can’t believe how frightened you are; about money, your health, your sanity. In all the feel-good rhetoric about divorce being a growth opportunity for the new super you, nobody tells you about Crazy Time.”
Four years have passed since my divorce was made final by the courts.
Since then, my ex-husband has bought a home that he shares with the woman he’s been seeing for a couple of years. Chicago M is about to become a daddy. And according to Facebook, Seattle M — the one with the dog blanket — is “In a Relationship.”
I pick up Smith’s M Train and take it to the register, first slipping the other books back into their proper places on the shelves.
Still traveling alone. Still writing. Sometimes still in Crazy Time.
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.
With gratitude for those who have supported my Go Fund Me campaign, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — a post-divorce narrative of how 52 Artist Dates healed my heart and pointed me in the direction of my dreams –- and my goal of manifesting blog into book deal. Those who inspire me. Those who unselfishly prod me toward my one, precious life.
Among my many 20-something gripes was the idea that I didn’t “have a thing.” A passion. A commitment. A “thing” that defined me. Drove me. That people associated with me.
A medium of creative expression.
Like Sherrod Blankner with paint. Over the years I watched her toil outside my house on Liberty Street in San Francisco and at Artist Residencies in Mendocino. I watched her put on shows in Berkeley and sell her work to patrons everywhere. She was (and is) a “working artist.” A description she once laughed at … “If that means I earn enough to pay for my supplies, I suppose I am.”
Like Julie Brown with a lens. We met on assignment for the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California in 1995 — the camera to my pen. Portraits. Projects in Guatemala. Even my wedding — she wanted to be a guest, but wanted me to have beautiful photographs even more — Julie captured, and continues to capture real life from the other side of a piece of glass.
Thank you, Sherrod. And thank you, Julie. For inspiring me with your work and your commitment. And for your generous donations to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign.
Turns out I did “have a thing,” and a medium … I always did. Words. It took the aftermath of divorce, sans romance, to wrangle them out of me and onto the pages of “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.”
In Jewish tradition, the number 18 represents “chai” or life. And it is customary to give gifts in denominations of $18.
So it seems only appropriate that my friend and “sister of choice,” Julie Kupsov, would so generously donate to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign in this way.
Not only because we are both Jewish. But because we have experienced so much life — the birth of her son, for which I had the great, good honor to be present as her doula — and death — the passing of her parents Irv and Carole, who provided a safe, loving home away from home for me for more than 30 years — together.
And everything in between.
Julie pushed me to accept a newspaper job in San Francisco more than 20 years ago … thus leaving Detroit and our standing Thursday “date night.” And she loaned me money to volunteer in Rwanda in the midst of my divorce. … where the seeds of my book and my Spanish sojourn were planted.
Muchas, muchas gracias, Julie. (We learned that much in high-school Spanish class, right?) For your generous support of my campaign and of all my journeys.
(By the way, Julie is a genius writer in her own right … keep your eyes peeled for her name on Amazon!)
Math was never my strong suit.
“I don’t get it,” I’d sigh, slightly exasperated, plopping my textbook down on Mr. McClew’s desk in high school.
“OK,” replied the ever-patient instructor of snotty, privileged teens. “Tell me what you don’t get.”
“I can’t help you, Lesley … You have to tell me what you don’t understand.”
I’m not sure I ever could. That I ever got “it.”
But I’ll tell you who does … my mother.
Because of her generous contribution to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign, I’m more than half-way to my goal. And over-the-moon delighted and grateful.
What?! Fuzzy math? Lesley logic? The campaign says $1,956 to date. The goal is $4,250. Huh?? My mom is old school. She wrote me a check.
Thank you, Linda Park. For your contribution. And for always supporting me …
Pink hair. (“Not a word,” she’d mutter to my father after a trip to the hairdresser.) Bad behavior grades. (I once received an “unacceptable” conduct mark. She told the teacher in no uncertain terms this was preferable to me cowering in a corner. And afterward, convinced Coach Downs to give me a passing grade in gym class.) Pillbox hats to high school. (Enough said …)
Moves to San Francisco. Chicago. Seattle. Chicago. Spain. And Chicago again.
My choices may not have been her choices. But she “got,” and still gets, that this is my one and only life. And she bolsters me in any healthy way she knows how.
Like saying “yes” to my book “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — a (mostly) happily-ever after, after divorce tale. The story of how 52 Artist Dates healed my heart and helped me to step into my one and only life. The life I always dreamed of.
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.
Last week my boss forwarded a text from the company where I’ve been teaching. They need to cut costs and will not be continuing with English classes. So I have to cut costs. Or find more work.
I mention this to S over lunch.
He doesn’t inquire about teaching. Instead, he asks why I am not submitting my work to writing contests with cash prizes…like he has done. Or artist residencies where I can be housed and fed (and occasionally paid a small stipend) while I write.
I don’t have an answer.
He continues, casually mentioning that he will be living in Italy for five weeks this fall. In a castle. Writing.
“How’d you swing that?” I ask.
“Artist residency.” he says, right on cue. “I applied. You can too, you know.”
Yes, this is the same S who, a little more than two months ago, casually mentioned I might consider applying to the Institute of Sacred Music at the Yale Divinity School. (Which I did. And from which I am now eagerly awaiting an answer.)
Clearly he is a messenger, sent directly to me.
That night I poke around the Writers and Poets website, researching writing contests with cash prizes. I am too fixated on financial concerns (and already dreaming of New Haven) to give much thought to artist residencies.
Not until the next day. Artist Date 114.
My student A has invited me to Casa de Velazquez for “Puertas Abiertas” – literally “open doors” or , more accurately, “open studios.”
A has warned me that it is a bit difficult to find. And that Google Maps isn’t particularly helpful.
She is right.
My mood is low and the weather matches it. Windy. Grey. Cold.
But I’m determined.
I walk up and down the same street again and again, looking for Avenida Arco de la Victoria, only to learn I am already on it when I finally ask for directions.
I am reminded of a huge billboard on I-75 North, on the drive from Detroit to Saginaw, Michigan to see my nana. A picture of Jesus with a caption that reads, “Are you on the right road?”
I am now.
And eventually I make my way to the large, stone structure that is less than a 15-minute walk from the metro – although it has taken me close to 45.
I send A a message, letting her know I’ve arrived. She meets me outside of the library and takes me on a short tour – at which time I learn it is not her work I’ve come to see , but that of more than a dozen artists in residency.
The timing is not lost on me.
I tell A about my conversation with S. She smiles. “Yes, you could apply for an Artist Residency,” she says, gently adding “Just not here. Because you don’t speak French.”
Indeed, I hardly speak Spanish. And some days, I’m not sure I speak English anymore either.
We walk down the hill, past the empty swimming pool and a sculpture of a pig face, to the cottages where the artists live and work. A introduces me a photographer who speaks English, and who wears the same haircut as me.
We do that, “I like your hair.” “I like YOUR hair,” elbow-nudging thing. I ask where she is from.
Everywhere. Nowhere. Last stop – Paris.
I understand. When asked the same question I pause, stymied. I’m from Detroit. But I lived in San Francisco for 14 years. Chicago for seven. A year in Seattle…I never know quite how to answer.
We talk about this. About creating a life with the whole of one’s belongings fitting neatly into one or two bags. She feels liberated by it. I feel a bit untethered.
For her, this residency is as much her residence as any other.
I leave, thinking about the word residence. Later, I look it up in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster offers several definitions, among them:
1b: the act or fact of living or regularly staying at or in some place for … the enjoyment of a benefit.
2a: the place where one actually lives as distinguished from one’s domicile or a place of temporary sojourn.
4b: a period of active and especially full-time study, research, or teaching at a college or university.
And then I understand the difference in our perspectives.
What I have is a room in a flat in the center of Madrid. What I crave is a residence. A residency.
I’m supposed to be getting rid of things in preparation for my departure to Madrid later this summer — like the Bianchi road bike I sold last Friday.
Instead, I’m in a furniture store — Artist Date 108.
I’ve passed by here hundreds of times. Today there is a sign in the window pointing to a new entrance. It feels like an invitation.
Inside it is crammed with a collection of furniture sourced from India, Indonesia and other faraway places. Red bookshelves. Green sideboards. A tall chest with tiny drawers — like a library card-catalog file — each painted a different color, each begging to be filled with a special treasure.
A real desk. A weathered armoire. A butcher block on wheels — the one I never got around to buying for my kitchen.
I think of a friend who recently commented that my apartment — while inviting and well-appointed — has a sense about it that implies I never planned on staying.
Perhaps he sees the empty spaces on the futon where pillows and a throw might go. The missing bedside table. The crappy knives.
He does not mention any of these things, but I see them — reminders that I never entirely put down roots.
Or perhaps he sees the table made of suitcases stacked on their sides. The snowshoes tacked to the entryway wall. The hung pieces of fabric I collected in Rwanda. A traveler’s accoutrements.
I think of all the places I’ve lived and what made each one mine.
The Indian cotton blanket and Picasso print I bought at Cost Plus World Market to dress up my dorm room.
The Morticia Addams-style wicker chair I found at a yard sale in the Castro and carried to my apartment in Haight-Ashbury. The yellow walls in the great room of that apartment, painted with my roommate Tim in the wee hours of the morning. The scratched parsons table and chipped black bookshelves gifted to me from the As IS room at Crate and Barrel.
The mezzuzah my friend Pam gave me when I left Chicago, and that I tacked to the doorway in Seattle as soon as I arrived.
Each like a fingerprint, identifying my space.
Much of what fills my current apartment was gifted to me. Two wooden chests of drawers that had been taking up space in my friend Patrick’s storage unit — delivered on my birthday. I sobbed putting away my socks for the first time — overwhelmed and grateful to finally have a place to store them. The dining-room table my friend Tom made from a door. The lamp that was Mimi’s.
Each object has a story. I mention this to my friend — the one who says my apartment has the feeling of being inhabited by one who isn’t planning to stay.
“Somehow I knew that,” he replies.
He reminisces about traveling through India, China and the former Soviet Union — decorating rooms he would keep for just a month or two with postcards, fabric and fragrant bars of soap purchased in the market.
“You will do the same,” he reminds me.
He is right.
The idea is a comfort as I prepare to move overseas with two large suitcases and two carry-ons; my plan being to find a room already outfitted with a bed and a chest of drawers –space within a place someone else calls home.
I trust I will find it. That I will find room within a room to call my own. And that that which is mine will come to me once more, dressing up the empty spaces. A train map. A rock. A card from a lover.
A tattered copy of Tropic of Capricorn. A packet of seeds.
Each with a story I will share with that friend…and that I will share with new friends. Each a fingerprint, marking my place in the world.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine posed a question on Facebook, asking what she should do with her many years of journals in the course of a move.
I’d been wondering the same thing as I am moving to Madrid later this summer. My plan is to board the plane on July 28 with a one-way ticket, a one-year visa and two suitcases — but no journals.
“Burn them,” my friend Scotty wrote in response to the original question, the answer not intended for me. And yet, it was, as I intuitively knew he was right.
I had been an avid journal-er in my 20s — tucking into bed each night with a notebook and pen and chronicling the events of the day. Sometimes in prose. Occasionally poetry. Lush, detailed descriptions of the sex I was having. Barely decipherable drunken scrawls, desperate and self-pitying.
I carried them with me for nearly 20 years — from Detroit to San Francisco to Oakland. To Chicago to Seattle and back to Chicago — about a dozen of them, most of them with hard covers.
I stopped journaling not long after my then boyfriend (now ex-husband) moved into my apartment — choosing to tuck in with him rather than a stack of pages and my most intimate thoughts.
I returned to the practice 15 years later, switching the time to first thing out of bed — Morning Pages, as suggested in the book, “The Artist’s Way.”
When I moved back to Chicago in 2012, following my divorce, I began reading my old words — the ones I had carried with me for so long. Juicy bits about the photographer who kept a studio above the restaurant where I worked. The aspiring rabbinical student. The actor.
The much, much older man from Detroit who suggested I meet him in Vail — “just as friends.” The lawyer and part-time musician. The doctor I met on a press trip in Germany.
I had forgotten.
It was fun at first, feeling like a voyeur, remembering who I had once been — until I considered contacting one of those men, at which time a friend suggested I take a break from my reading. And I did.
Meanwhile, I continued filling soft-covered notebooks with Morning Pages, stacking them one on top of the other on a shelf in my bedroom closet — until a few weeks ago, when I placed them in a box along with my marriage license and a copy of our wedding ceremony and drove them to Michigan, to the home of my friend Paul, the sometimes reluctant shaman.
That evening, at Paul’s suggestion, I tore off the covers from my notebooks and ripped pages from their metal spirals. I threw a glossy journal into the wood-burning stove that heats the entire house and watched the resin-covered cardboard catch, shrivel and glow. I tossed in several more, until the oven was filled with ash. Then Paul played John Lennon’s “Starting Over” and we danced, laughing.
In the morning I brought the remaining notebooks, wedding ceremony and marriage license outside to a fire pit Paul had dug. He said a few words, inviting in the spirits, and I again began the process of burning my words — stopping occasionally to read a random page out loud before throwing the notebook into the flames — until the pit was overcome with ashes like the stove the night before.
Nearly two hours later, I wasn’t done. Paul suggested I leave the remaining notebooks with him, promising to burn them at his next sweat lodge. I agreed, and asked that we end the day’by burning my marriage license.
Several people had suggested I might need it one day, but I couldn’t imagine any reason to hold on to it. So I offered a few words of thanks to my ex and once again set him free — something I had done following the completion of our civil divorce, and again following our Jewish divorce.
The legal document crackled and hissed, engulfed in yellow and blue flames.
Since then, my ex and I have had precious little contact. And the relationship that had begun just prior to my trip to Michigan has blossomed.
Paul closed the ceremony by bringing me inside, where we sat in meditation. Then he sang and he drummed, smudged me with sage and handed me a rubber nose in a small plastic container — the kind from a bubble-gum machine that contains a prize, a ring or tattoos — and assured me if I continue to listen to my heart and to my spirit, I will always “nose” what is right for me.
Like knowing when to let go of my stories and how to do it. With fire, with friendship, and with God.
I smile and rub my hand over my mostly naked head. “It must be the hair.”
“No,” she insists. “I remember you. You were here last year. You are here a lot.”
Here is the Auditorium Theater to see Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Here is the pre-performance mini-workshop with company dancer Hope Boykin.
Here is Artist Date 105 — marking the beginning of a third year of solo sojourns, as suggested by Julia Cameron in “The Artist’s Way.” I had not planned to take on this commitment for another year, and yet I am here…counting numbers, filling my creative coffers, following my feet. The Artist Date has become what Twyla Tharp calls “the creative habit.”
I was here opening night of the run, a little more than a week ago, with my friend Julie — my brain cueing each next movement of Revelations, my body responding, leaning into the gesture while my mind completes it. I was here last year and the year before that — each time learning bits of Revelations at the mini-workshop before the show.
I was here with Martha counting the ribs of the dancers from row I — the seats, a gift from my friend Amy. I was here with Rebecca, giddy when an usher moved us from balcony to orchestra, spoiling me for all future dance performances.
And I was here alone, on other Artist Dates.
So it shouldn’t surprise me that the woman checking my name off the list might remember seeing me. Or that Kristen from the Auditorium Theater Marketing Department does too.
She is standing in front of a board covered with sticky notes and pins, each naming a patron’s “favorite Alvin Ailey memory.”
I take a Sharpie marker and add mine — dancing with Kristen at a master class led by another Ailey dancer — Antonio Douthit-Boyd. It was there I learned the definition of “intermediate” is fluid at best, and that I can be the least trained, least experienced member of a class, but that I still have a right to be there.
But I am surprised when a woman approaches Kristen and me and blurts out, “You go to my synagogue.” It feels completely out of context. It is. And she is right, I do. Although not much lately.
I think about these moments driving home. How the once daunting, seemingly exclusive world of performance seems cozy and familiar. How Chicago feels like a big, small town. And how I feel a part of both.
Making my way up Lakeshore Dive, I am flanked by twinkling skyscrapers to my left and Lake Michigan to my right. For a moment I wonder if I really want to give this up and move to Madrid.
I know just because a place feels like “Cheers” (“Where everyone knows your name.”) is not reason enough to stay. I learned that when I left Detroit and built a life in San Francisco. Again when I left that life in San Francisco and made a place for myself in Chicago. And a third time when I left that place for myself in Chicago and, as my friend Joanne likes to say, “broke the Seattle chill.”
In less than six months I will reduce my belongings to a few boxes that I will ship to my mother — mostly paperwork, plus a few keepsakes I’m not yet ready to part with — and two suitcases which will accompany me to Spain for one year, possibly, hopefully longer.
I am looking forward to going. To filling my brain with another language and culture, and my body with jamon and cafe con leche. To expanding my circle and creating one more home for myself.
I am looking forward to seeing Alvin Ailey perform on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. To perhaps dancing with Hope or Antonio again. To hearing, “Te’ recuerdo!” (“I remember you!”) And being a little surprised by it.
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 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.