Adios, and the Ladies Who Deliver “The Lunch”

IMAG4183There are these two women who deliver lunch every day at ThyssenKrupp.

One is tall and thin. Twenty-something. Calm and smiling. The other is about my age. She wears a bob and a frantic look on her face – as if, like the Mad Hatter, she’s always running late.

Each has six or so white paper bags dangling from each arm. Some containing fish. Others chicken. Some of the students will eat their lunch before class. Others after. Never during. No matter how many times I assure them it is ok. And always, always in the cafeteria. Never at their desks.

As a rule, Spanish people set aside time for their meals – even if it is only a half hour. My students laugh watching me pull an apple from my bag at the end of class. I will eat it walking to the metro – a dead giveaway that I am an American.

This is because, as a rule, Spanish people do not rush. Every ex-pat I know voices the same frustration with Spanish people walking – often five across, blocking the entire sidewalk – slowly. It seems to be the one cultural difference they never learn to accept.

Perhaps this is why I notice this woman. The one with the pageboy and the panicked look. Because her speed, as she delivers “the lunch,” seems more like that of a New Yorker than a Spaniard.

I do not know her name. Either of their names. Or if either of them speaks English. We greet one another each day with a smile and “hola,” “buenas dias” or “hasta luego.” I’m not quite sure when this started, but it has become our ritual. “Ours” as it is mine and hers, and “ours” as it is specific to us – I do not see her engaging with other teachers, or perhaps I do not see them engaging with her.

Sometimes they are pulling into or out of the parking lot in a grey, beater hatchback, in which case, we just wave.

Today was my last day at ThyssenKrupp. I have been teaching here since last September. The company, like most companies offering English lessons, breaks for July and August, and part of June and September, to accommodate the summer schedule – a truncated day with most employees leaving at 3 and working not at all on Fridays.

Today my class insists we go to a nearby bar. That I eat tapas with them – calamares (fried squid), jamon (ham) and huevos rotos (“broken eggs” over fried potatoes with ham) – and “take a drink.”

This is the group that sang Happy Birthday to me on October 20 and bought me a gift. The group that wanted to know the details of my every trip. The group I watched “16 Candles” with, without subtitles, at the end of last semester.

Yesterday I said goodbye to my other class. The group that talked about relationships, divorce and finding love again. About weight struggles, religion and the most appropriate names for primary and secondary sex characteristics.

I’ve taught them why “normal” and “not normal” are loaded words. That we say “silverware,” not “tools.” “Outside” and not “in the street.” (I explain the difference by recalling the time my brother laid down in the street because another kid dared him to, and my mother yelling at him to “get out of the street.”) We’ve watched clips of the Macy’s Day Parade together and talked about Donald Trump … a lot.

They’ve taught me about Spanish politics, explaining how it is that the country still doesn’t have a president, and the tradition of eating 12 grapes at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

We part ways, yesterday and today, with the traditional kiss on each cheek. R. and I say goodbye twice, exchanging “American-style” hugs. E. invites me to her house for lunch, to meet her family, before I leave. I am deeply moved.

I tell them that some days, being with them was my only social interaction. That some days, being with them was the best part of my day. We agree they will let me know if they are in the United States, and I will let them know when I return to visit Madrid.

I drop off the attendance book and dry-erase marker in the Human Resources office for the last time, and return my badge on the way out. I take a photograph of the gate which has always eerily reminded me of the gates of Nazi concentration camps. Sometimes, I half expect to see the words, “Arbeit macht frei.” I once admitted this to my students and was shocked to learn they had the same response.

Walking to the train I hear a horn beeping. It sounds like it belongs to a go-cart. I turn to see the grey hatchback and the ladies who deliver lunch.

“Adios,” they call out, smiling and waving. Not hasta luego – see you later. Adios – goodbye.

“Adios,” I call back. Smiling and waving.

 

 

Artist Date 101: Si, Es Verdad

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” Los Dias al Reves” — “Inside-out Days” by Pep Carrio. Part of “Think With Your Hands” exhibit at Instituto Cervantes.

I’m trying to download the app that goes with the exhibit “Think With Your Hands.”  I have been unsuccessful so far.

No matter, I am taken with the art — even without the 3-D animation I can control through the app.   If I can download it.

Organizer calendars, the kind kept pre-smart phone, the kind I still keep, filled with images — collage, watercolor, pencil –one for each day for a year.  Then for three more.  In the fifth year, a commitment to fine-line marker only.  The sixth, full-color on both pages of the spread.  More than 1,000 images, 1,000 days. ” Los Dias al Reves” — “Inside-out Days” by Pep Carrio.

Frames loaded with seemingly disparate objects, a wooden cut-out of a woman the only constant.  Wearing a dress made of Swiss cheese.  Sleeping in a horse’s belly.  Swimming, torso-less.  All arms, legs and head.  “Los Suenos de Helena” — “Helena’s Dreams” by Isidro Ferrer.

I am marking my own commitment, my own days — Artist dates, 101 of them today.  Swimming toward my own dreams —  across the Atlantic, to live and to work.

No husband.  No boyfriend.  No booty call.

No kids.  No pets.

My parents are healthy.

Not even a plant.

If not now, when?

I have been dreaming of living abroad for as long as I can remember.  Only really pondering it since my divorce almost three years ago.  Seriously considering it since returning from Italy in October.

And now planning it — researching TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) courses, reading blogs, Skype-ing with friends of friends living and teaching overseas and having coffee with those who once did.

Not so long ago, the only dream receiving this sort of effort and attention was love.  I only knew it when it was no longer true — a few months ago, when the Reluctant Shaman came to visit.

The morning he left, we meditated in front of my altar.  Then he ran his fingertips from the center of my forehead out to my cheeks — opening my third eye — wrapped his arms around me, kissed the space between my brows and said goodbye.

When he was gone, I lamented that we were only friends.

“He lives in Michigan, you live in Chicago,” I said out loud, to no one.

“His dream is to build a retreat center, yours is to live in Europe.”  As the words tumbled from my mouth, I could feel the next ones forming, pushing out, birthing themselves.

“I have a dream bigger than a relationship,” I said, excitedly, repeating the phrase as if to make certain it was so.

It was so.  A revelation.  A victory.

One that is now being tested — less than three months after my big aha — at Instituto Cervantes, Artist Date 101.

"Los Suenos de Helena" -- "Helena's Dreams" by Isidro Ferrer.  Part of "Think With Your Hands" exhibit at Instituto Cervantes.
“Los Suenos de Helena” — “Helena’s Dreams” by Isidro Ferrer. Part of “Think With Your Hands” exhibit at Instituto Cervantes.

I’m fiddling with the app when a man approaches me.

“Hello,” he says, slipping behind me so I have to turn around to face him.  “How are you?”

I search my mental Rolodex, trying to locate him.  How do I know this man?  Clearly we’ve met.  Why else would he stand so close?  Act so familiar?

I tell him I am fine and inquire how he is, stalling.  He grins at me.

I got nothing.

Finally I ask, “Do I know you?”

“No,” he replies.  “I just wanted to meet you and thought I’d say hello.”

This never happens to me.

I laugh at the novelty of his gesture, the simple wisdom in making an introduction to an attractive stranger without premise.

We exchange names and handshakes.  He asks what brings me here.  I tell him I am moving to Spain.

“Where?”

“I’m not certain yet.”

We talk about Barcelona — Gaudi.  The beach.  Sagrada Familia.  Madrid — The capital.  Prado.  Picasso’s Guernica.   A partner program whereby I can learn Spanish part-time and receive a student visa, allowing me to work legally.

He shakes his head.  How can I “just go?”  Don’t I have things?  Stuff?  Property?

“Very little,” I offer.  Whittling my life down to two suitcases shouldn’t be too hard — I hope.

He tells me he taught English in France, when he was in his 20s.  I am not in my 20s.  Not even close.

I smile, thank him for introducing himself, and excuse myself — returning to the exhibit.

I attempt to comprehend the Spanish spoken around me.  (I get about one-sixth of it, at best.)  And by the artists during their talk, taking off the headset that pipes in translation.  (I get even less.)  I try to download the app again.  I never do.

None of it matters.  Only that I “passed.”  That I chose a dream bigger than a relationship.  That I chose me.

A higher mark than I ever received in high school Spanish class.

Si’, es verdad.

Postscript: Less than 12 hours after my Artist Date, my path became clear.  Seven days later, I put down a deposit on coursework in Madrid.  I leave July 2015.

Artist Date 98: What Sylvia Says

Image.  Moira Whitehouse, PhD
Image. Moira Whitehouse, PhD

My alter ego’s name is Sylvia.

She’s about 4 feet, 10 inches tall, wears coral-colored lipstick — a little bit outside of the lines — and sandals with stones in between the toes.  She likes pedal pushers paired with a cropped mink coat.  And now 80 something, has recently taken up smoking again.

I’m not exactly sure when Sylvia came into my life.  However, I distinctly remember when she came into the lives of others.

I was 25 and living in San Francisco.  A single girl.

My friend Teresa was performing a one-woman show, The Life and Death of Stars, at The Marsh.  And Sylvia appeared in a cameo role.

“Men are not magical beings,” Sylvia said through Teresa, taking a long drag off her Virginia Slim 120.  “They’re just people.  With penises.  And problems.”

She appeared again when I was dating Alex, who Teresa fixed me up with.   He was a foot taller than me, from my home town and said he couldn’t wait to get old because he was going to wear “Sansabelt pants up to my tits and the biggest fucking gold Chai I can find.”  He seemed like a good match for Sylvia, if not for me.

He wasn’t…for either of us.

Sylvia was wise.  Loving.  Kind.  Funny and to the point.  A straight shooter.

I had not thought about Sylvia in a long time, until last Thursday — watching Birdman at the Davis Theatre — Artist Date 98.

Riggan Thomson’s (Michael Keaton’s) alter ego, reminded me of my own.  Except mine is more gentle and far less destructive.  And I found myself wondering what she might be whispering to me right now.

I do not even have to ask.

“Honey, go!,” she says, in a voice much louder than a whisper.   “Why are we even talking about this?

She is referring to my noodling — or, as she calls it, sitting — on TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification and moving to Spain or Italy or Portugal, to teach.

She reminds me that I am husband-boyfriend-booty call-child-pet-plant-mortgage free.  But that I might not always be.  That my parents –now both in their 70s — are in good health.  That they do not need me.  That I have no obligations or responsibilities.  And that this may not always be so.

But what about finding work as a trainer and facilitator?  What about making money?  Being fully self-supporting?

What about sloughing off the title of chronic under-earner?  About being a responsible adult?

She brushes me off —  literally waving the back of her liver-spotted hand dismissively as if I were a waiter asking if she’d like more decaf rather than her uncertain, 40-something self.

“All the time in the world for that…” she says, adding that the two are not mutually exclusive.

It seems that what I know if my head, Sylvia knows in her heart, in her bones.  She’s lived it.  And then some.

She knows there will always be jobs.  And, God willing (She puts up her hand again, this time her palm out as if testifying.  “Preach.”) there will always be Italy, Spain and Portugal.  France too, she adds.  But that time and ideal conditions are not similarly static truths.

She knows that security is an illusion.  That the work will come.  That the money will come.  And yes, and even though I didn’t ask, that the man will come too.

It always does.

So what am I waiting for?

Artist Date 94: Do Something(s)

strongherA month has passed since I returned home from my solo sojourn to Italy.  It feels like forever ago.

Life comes on — quickly, strong, demanding — and I struggle to hold on to the peace and freedom I felt abroad.  The joy in getting lost, not knowing the answer — or sometimes even the question, in being alone.  My face looks pinched — the wrinkle between my eyebrows, smoothed by Umbria, has returned.

The decisions I made, the desires of my heart — to live overseas, to publish a book (or more to the point, to be published) — begin to slip into the category of “all talk.”

I recently read that most people would prefer to fail by not trying than fail by trying.  I get it.  I understand.  I wish I didn’t.

And so I find myself at Pizzeria Sera on a Tuesday night listening to six women tell stories about how and where and when they found confidence — hoping to be inspired, or at the very least, to borrow some — Artist Date 94.  The monthly event, called About Women, is the brainchild of my friend Nikki Nigl.  A force of confidence, not to mention nature, in her own right.

The mere decision to be here bolstered mine some, helping move me forward in the hours before arriving.

Sitting at the computer, doing nothing but waiting for something to happen, I mutter, “Do something.  Anything.”

I write an email and send it off.  (Two somethings.  Write — one.  Send — two.)  A few lines to the sister of a friend of a friend who just returned from Spain, where she taught English for several years.  I ask if she might meet me for coffee and share her experiences — how she got there, what it was like.

I tell myself it is something.  It is enough and move on with my day — meeting with my rabbi a final time before he leaves our congregation.  We talk about his departure, my desires, and deciphering the will and whim of the universe.  Especially when it seems to only speak in whispers.

It feels like a game of telephone and I constantly wonder if I’m hearing it right.

Until I get to the parking lot, into my car and check Facebook.

“Anyone want a job in Portugal NOW?”

The post describes an academic coach position at a school outside of Lisbon.  Scrolling down, I am tagged.  “Lesley Pearl, could it be you?”

My heart swells, leaps.  Not because I believe I will get the job and move to Portugal (although I might), but because the universe seems to be speaking loudly, clearly — the message undeniable,”Yes, Lesley, it is possible.”

Settled at home, I write a response.  It begins, “Yes.”  (Three somethings.)  Shortly thereafter, I am Skype-ing with a teacher at the school in Portugal, the one who extended the possibility, dangled the carrot — gathering more information.  (Four.)

Turns out I’m right on course, so say an advertising executive, a scientist, a minister, a mud wrestler, a mother and a writer — this month’s About Women storytellers.  While the details differ, at the core of each woman’s parable is fear — and the decision to do “it” anyway.  Ask for a raise.  Leave a job.  Leave a husband.  Take an improv class.  Ride a roller-coaster.  Pet a dog.  Live as an outsider.

Each took action when the pain of inaction became too great. Was no longer an option.  Or when “the worst that could happen” seemed less scary than living with “what if” and “I coulda.”  And their confidence blossomed.

“Stop focusing on the heart-pounding, vomit-inducing, brick-shitting aspect of everything and start focusing on the payoff,” Kira Elliot — a personal trainer, mud wrestler and Mary Kay Sales Director — says from the stage.  “Pretend until the point of no return…then reap the rewards.”

Amen.

Post Script.  Three days after the event, I send a resume and cover letter to the school in Lisbon.  I am amazed to see the resistance in myself.  Fear masquerading as logic and practicality.  It feels “heart-pounding, vomit-inducing and brick-shitting.”  I fazê-lo de qualquer maneira.  (That’s Portuguese for “I do it anyway.”)

Artist Date 79: Aho Matakuye O’yasin

Bent and tied river willows form the structure of the sweat lodge.  Photo: Paul Tootalian
Bent and tied river willows form the structure of the lodge. Photo: Paul Tootalian

 

The waxy brown cotton of my lapa feels soft between my fingers.  Like my body.  Like my heart.

I thought the African skirt would become this way over time, as I danced in it – but it remained rigid and stiff.  Until today, when, in the dark and heat of the sweat lodge – Artist Date 79 – it softened, pinning itself to my body.

I roll the fabric between my fingers like rosary or prayer beads.  I feel the moisture accumulate between my breasts – grateful for their small size.  Grateful for the darkness to peel off my sports bra, unnoticed, and let my t-shirt from the Knoxville Farmers’ Market cover me.  Given my druthers I would wear nothing.  But I respect the modesty requested at this ceremonial gathering of men and women.

I close my eyes, breathe in the sweet sage, and fix my ears on the beating drum and the sound of my friend Paul’s voice.

It has been a journey just getting here.

********************

I arrive despite a blinding thunderstorm, the need for on-the-road car repairs, and a bit of information which shakes my sense of perception and causes me to question if this is right for me, right now.  And with the aid and calm of friends who ferry me to and from.

I walk about a quarter of a mile through wet, freshly mown grass to where the lodge is set up – my orange, peep-toe wedges gathering silky, green slivers.

I remember wearing these shoes through Rwanda two summers ago – collecting the red earth of the land of 10,000 hills between my toes – and recalling Patsy and Edina schlepping their Louis Vuitton bags through sand in the Morocco episode of the BBC’s Absolutely Fabulous.  Dragging my rolling suitcase filled with towels, sweat and apres-sweat clothes, I feel like a bit actor in the Sweat Lodge episode.

********************

Paul is draping blankets over the hut he constructed out of river willows – collected from his sister and brother-in-law’s property a few miles away.  Rocks are heating in a pit outside of the lodge, and he has built an altar from the dirt inside of it.

Paul is the third in a line of spiritual teachers with the same name.  The first being my university religious-studies professor, the second, the one who taught me to meditate – leading me through initiation with an offering of fruit, flowers (star gazers, my favorite) and the bestowing of a mantra.

Our paths have been crisscrossing for most of our lives.  We agree the universe has been conspiring for us to meet.

 

The Altar. Covered Lodge. And our guide, Paul. (I call him “The Reluctant Shaman.”

There are eight of us, the last arriving in a John Deere Gator Utility Vehicle.  She looks like an African Queen, regal in her loose batik dress with dragonflies on it, her grey hair braided at the temples and wrapped around her head like a crown.   Her face is at once both sad and serene.

She reminds Paul they have been in ceremony together – with her former partner.  The break-up is obviously fresh.

Words tumble out of my mouth about divorce, change and the painful nature of endings – no matter how right or how kind.  How people will say all sorts of stupid things.  And that she is, no doubt, on the precipice of some sort of adventure.  She smiles in a way that tells me she has lived a thousand lifetimes and knows that this kind of pain is just part of it.  That she has chosen this and is not fighting it.

I mention that I wasn’t sure I would make it here today.  That I wasn’t sure it was right for me, right now.  “Until now.  You are why I am here.”

********************

Paul smudges each of us with sage and we enter the lodge on our hands and knees, proclaiming “Aho Matakuye O’yasin – Greetings, All My Relations.”

I remember Patsy smudging my ex and I when she officiated our marriage.  And me doing the same for my friend Chase when her divorce was final, smudging the entire house – making it “her own” again.

********************

It is hot and humid inside.  I feel a wave of nausea wash over me as Paul explains what will happen in ceremony.

Rocks.  Herbs.  Water.

Chanting.  Praying.  Smoking.

Complete darkness.

Connectedness to the earth.  To one another.  To ourselves.

I am afraid.  Afraid of the total darkness.  Afraid of what I might feel, what might “come up.”  Afraid I cannot physically or psychologically endure this – even though Paul has assured us that this will be a “gentle sweat.”

But the heat is like a balm – different from the still Midwestern humidity that settled heavy around me just moments before.  The drumming and chanting force all thoughts from my mind.  I only hear my friend’s voice – strong, confident, prayerful – and the African Queen’s.  It is sweet and slippery and hard to hold on to.  But very much there.  Just as I feel her, very much there, next to me.

Everything softens.  My body.  My brain.  My lapa.  I feel the sweat sliding down my body and I am deliriously in love with it.  This body I have fought for so much of my life.  That has brought me here and is sustaining me today.  It is strong and small and very, very feminine.  I feel my hands pressing into the earth beneath me.  My legs.  My feet.  My ass.  The soft dampness of moist earth is flesh, the spiky grass is hair and we are one.

 

Apres sweat — eyes wide open. Photo: Paul Tootalian

 

I pray for my stepfather and my two girlfriends who are battling mightily.  And I ask for prayers for myself.  For compassion and acceptance for myself, for where I am, not where I think I should be.  My voice cracks and I add, “May we all have compassion and acceptance for ourselves and for one another.”

I pray for the man who hurt my heart not so long ago.  I call out his name when I am certain no one can hear me.

********************

I smoke from the Chanupa — the sacred, ceremonial pipe.  Sober nearly seven years, my addict is awakened.

I am back in college, sitting in a circle.  My friend Brian stirs the bowl and lights it while I suck in all that I can, holding it in my lungs.  I converse easily while I do this – like one of the big boys.

But I am not talking.  And this is not weed.  It is tobacco, although it tastes like juniper and pine.  It is ceremony.  It is holy.  It is community.  It is what I longed for, sitting in a circle like this, so many years ago.

********************

I weep in the darkness.  I am certain no one can hear my dying animal letting go. And it is over.

We crawl out on our hands and knees, just as we had entered, saying “Aho Matakuye O’yasin – Greetings, All My Relations,” once again.

Paul greets each of us with an embrace, and we greet one another in the same way.  The African Queen’s eyes are wordlessly different.  Lighter.  As if the color has changed.  She presses me tightly to her.

The group walks towards the house for a celebratory feast, but I stay behind and wait for Paul.

While I am waiting, I do cartwheels around the lodge.  One after the other after the other, until I feel dizzy.  I feel the pull of my pelvis – the source of chronic pain – and I welcome it.  I feel the lightness of my body, of my mind and I welcome it, give thanks for and to it.

I had believed I was here to meet the African Queen.  That was only half of the truth.  In the stillness of the after-lodge, I know its other half, its twin — I was here to meet myself.  “Aho Matakuye O’yasin — Greetings, All My Relations.”