Because The Universe Still Speaks in Whispers

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A year later…in Lisbon, with a typical Portuguese man.

It is one of those days when I wonder what I’m doing here. And how I got here. How this “happened” to me.

Nothing particularly bad has happened. Nothing particularly good either.

It is cold. And I am tired.

My bedroom feels small. My lesson today on gratitude felt flimsy and flat. The mother of one of my students is once again making unreasonable demands.

It is the week of Thanksgiving and I am an ocean-plus away from “home” – which I loosely translate as somewhere in the United States, most likely Chicago.

I am talking to a friend who is going through a divorce, telling her everything that I know about divorce. And I admit that at least part of the reason I am here and not in Chicago is financial – that I wasn’t earning enough and couldn’t seem to find my way to more money.

I feel like a failure.

I am riding the train home and I look at my phone. Facebook, tells me I have memories with Nikki Nigl today. It is my blog from a year ago today — Artist Date 94: Do Something(s).

I click on the link and begin reading.

“A 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.”

I laugh. My face has look pinched for weeks, possibly months. And the wrinkle between my brow has deepened into what appears to be a permanent groove.

“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.’ “

To live overseas?! I live overseas!

“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.”

But I am trying.

“…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 remember that coffee. It led to dinner. And then lunch. And then another dinner. Where I gathered not only information, but a new friend too.

 “…meeting with my rabbi …we talk about … 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?’

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.’ “

Yes, it is. Because I am here now. And because I was in Lisbon just a few weeks ago.

And somehow I feel like less of a failure. Facebook has actually made me feel better — by reminding me of where I was, and allowing me to reflect on where I am. Helping me to see that this was all part of the plan…even if I still don’t quite understand it. Because the universe still speaks in whispers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Arttist Date 51: Now I Know

There are a couple of memories that permeate my childhood.  Stories I asked to hear again and again until I knew them word-for-word, by heart.

detroit 67My origins, my adoption and my first eight weeks on the planet – captured with typewriter ribbon on onion-skin paper and tucked into a red vinyl bag with my report cards and school pictures.

The loss of my mother’s biological child.  One she didn’t know she was pregnant with until she lost it.  The event which, to my mind, secured my role as my parent’s child.

The day my parents packed up their bags and their bird and moved from Oak Park to Birmingham, Michigan to live with my father’s sister for a short time.

It was the summer of 1967.  The city of Detroit was on fire — literally.  Residents rioted and looted.  Police unleashed with unrestrained force.  Both the Army and the National Guard were called to quell the mayhem.

My uncle living in California called to say he was watching the news, and did my mother know that tanks were rolling down Woodward Avenue.

She did.  Oak Park was just a few miles over the 8 Mile Road border that separated the city from the suburbs.  It felt close.  Too close.  And the tony suburb of Birmingham seemed safely a world away.  So they went.

Photo by Phil Cherner
Photo by Phil Cherner

I don’t recall any more of the story than that.  How it ended.  When it ended.  When they came home.  Only that the chasm – racially, culturally, financially – between Detroit and the suburbs appeared to be sealed that summer.

Over the years I asked my parents what started the riots.  They hypothesized.  But the truth was, they weren’t quite certain.  Neither were other white people of their generation, and the one just behind them, that I asked.

I got my answers last Saturday night at the Northlight Theatre – Artist Date 51.

The first time I saw a poster for Detroit ’67, with its black upturned fist of Joe Louis, I knew I would see it.  That I needed to see it.  I didn’t consciously think I might get answers to the questions left hanging from my childhood.  I merely felt the pull, a tug that took me to Skokie on a dark December evening — alone.

The audience is mostly older – boomers and above.  Mostly African American or Jewish.  I recognize the latter by the smattering of kippot (head coverings) and conversations about Israel.  And, at risk of sounding politically incorrect, as a Jew raised among mostly other Jews, I “just know” my people.  Many of them are dancing – some in the aisles, but mostly in their seats – to Motown.

Martha and the Vandellas.  Smoky Robinson and the Miracles.  Stevie Wonder, when he was still called “Little Stevie Wonder.”

It is the music of my childhood.  The Big Chill soundtrack, and Big Chill-like gatherings at my cousin Wendy’s house.

The couple behind me is singing.  They know every word.  During the performance, they respond to the actors.  More than a mutter but not quite “out loud,” either.  I like it.  I feel like we are all, “a part of,” and I am not so much alone.

Meanwhile, I tuck into the program and get schooled.

This is what I learn:

Detroit’s 12th Street Riot began on July 23, 1967, with the police raid of a blind pig — a home illegally selling alcohol under the guise of “an attraction…with complimentary beverages.”  (Not unlike memberships sold for experimental AIDS treatments in Dallas Buyers Club.  Artist Date 47.)

The raid itself was not unusual.  Detroit’s white police officers were known for harassing, and even brutalizing, the city’s black residents.

The aftermath.  Detroit Free Press photograph.  Public Domain.
The aftermath. Detroit Free Press photograph. Public Domain.

But unlike other raids, this one did not resolve quickly or quietly.  And what began as a conflict between police and patrons soon engulfed the whole city.  To end the disturbance, Governor George Romney ordered the Michigan National Guard into Detroit.  President Lyndon B. Johnson sent Army troops.

Five days later, 43 people were dead.  More than 500 were injured, and 7,231 arrested.  Half of those arrested had no criminal record.  Sixty-four percent were accused of looting and 14 percent were charged with curfew violations.

Losses from arson and looting ranged from $40 to $80 million.

But I don’t see any of it.

Only the actions, and reactions, of five residents of Detroit, black and white, who want to feel safe.  Who want something better for themselves.  Not unlike my own family.  In a basement in the city’s near west side, with an eight-track player, a phonograph that skips, and a dream.

Artist Date 48: I Think The Fish Guy Likes Me

There is something decidedly unappealing about gazing into the center of a slab of beef.

Perhaps pork is better.

William "For Sunday's Dinner."
William Michael Harnett. “For Sunday’s Dinner.”

It didn’t bother me to see hocks of pork bolted to a wooden bar, then sliced paper-thin, and served to me, when I was in Spain.  Neither did the whole chickens and rabbits hanging from hooks in the market, which I took photographs of, then framed and hung in my kitchen.

I am at the Art Institute Chicago for the member lecture and preview of “Art & Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine.”  Artist Date 48.  It is dark and warm in the auditorium.  A slide of a still life – fruit and meat – is projected on-screen.  And then another, a fish.

They are not beautiful.  They do, however, evoke a flood of food memories.

Like the time I received a whole, smoked salmon.

It was my 39th birthday and I threw a big potluck soiree.

The man/boy I was crushing on – but could, and would, do nothing about as I was married – was the first to RSVP, saying he would bring Tang.  I laughed.  Knowing him, it might have been true.

Except it wasn’t.

The night of the party, he arrived with a box in his right hand – carrying it like a tray, high above his shoulder.  His name was on the side in black magic marker.  This was something he had ordered.

Inside was an entire smoked salmon.  Head.  Tail.  Everything.  Glistening.  Beautiful.  Although not Jewish himself, he seemed to intuitively know the way to a Jewish girl’s heart was through cured fish.

“He likes me,” I thought, beaming.

The next morning I made scrambled eggs with onions and the leftover smoked salmon.  One of my girlfriends had come to town from Los Angeles to celebrate.  Over coffee, I said the words out loud.

“I think he likes me.”

She disagreed, insisting the fish was about him and how he wanted to be perceived.  That it meant nothing about me.  I didn’t persist.  It didn’t matter.  I was married.

I hadn’t thought about the fish story in a while.  Or the fish guy, which my friends and I affectionately called him from then on.  He moved away while I was still married — to fish.

Memory wrapped in food.  It seems nearly impossible to separate the two.  I am reminded of this all week while leading Weight Watchers meetings and trying to encourage a conversation about what makes Thanksgiving memorable – besides food.

Norman Rockwell.  "Freedom From Want."
Norman Rockwell. “Freedom From Want.”

For the most part, the members are having none of it.  They want to talk about macaroni and cheese.  Stuffing.  Pumpkin pie and cranberries from a can.  One woman mentions waking her daughters late in the evening, dressing them, and taking them shopping at midnight. I would have loved that, I think.  She is creating tradition.

I think about living in California and riding my bike Thanksgiving morning – before the feast at Tim’s house.  I think about the printed menus Tim placed at each seat, like Martha Stewart.  About roasted root vegetables and pumpkin gnocchi.

I think about the year I got married and leaving for my honeymoon on Thanksgiving Day.  Eating breakfast with Tim and his roommate, Steven at the International House of Pancakes near the airport.

I do not mention any of this.  It is their meeting.

The exhibit moves from still life to real life.  There are rationing cookbooks.  Bright Spots For Wartime Meals – a Jello cookbook.  The words, “Armed with a can opener, I become the artist-cook, the master, the creative chef,” from the Can Opener Cookbook, are stenciled on the wall.

They remind me of a story I once heard about the “original foodie,” M.F.K. Fisher.  Suspicious that her celebrity kept those about her in silence, she once made a meal entirely from canned foods.  When her guests swooned, confirming her intuitions, she informed them of the origins of their dinner.

There is a menu for a meal honoring Fisher, created by Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse.  She is the Berkeley, California chef known for purple hats, and for bringing seasonal, local ingredients – cooked simply, cooked well – back into fashion, beginning in the early 1970s.

And there is a menu from Chez Panisse, celebrating Bastille Day in 1976, as well.

chez panisseI ate there just once.  On my birthday.  I do not recall which year.  I saved the menus – prix fixe, with gorgeous drawings of figs on the cover – for a long time, imagining I would frame them and hang them in my kitchen one day, along with my food photographs.  I never did.

Strangely, I do not recall what I ate.  I remember our server.  And the cost of the meal for two – $300.

Driving home in the first snow of the season, I chew on Brazil nuts – 30 grams of them weighed out and tucked in a small plastic container.  Just a snack.  I am full on memory.

The Last of the Firsts

Dancing in Rwanda last July.
Dancing in Rwanda last July.

I thought that Passover was the last of the firsts…first holidays, birthdays, anniversaries without my ex-husband.

I was wrong.

I knew that July 4th was technically the last, but I didn’t think it would matter.  It wasn’t of special significance to either of us.

And yet, here I am in my pajamas, feeling it.  I’m sick.  Sore throat. Heavy eyes.  Headache.  Exhausted.  It came on fast and furious yesterday afternoon and by this morning had me down for the count.  No beach and BBQ to distract me.  I’m aware that yes, this holiday too, registers in the cycle of firsts.

Funny enough, we weren’t together for the 4th last year.  I was on my way to Rwanda, with a group from my synagogue in Chicago.  He was in Seattle, dating another woman.  We were pretty transparent about these things.  At times, painfully so.

But I was coming back to Seattle.  To the home we still shared with our cats Maude and Nin.  To “our life,” altered as it was.

It wasn’t until I left in August, arriving in Chicago the evening before Labor Day, when the cycle began.

Labor Day was a blur through tears.   Then his birthday.  Rosh Hashanah.  Yom Kippur.  Our wedding anniversary.  And my birthday.  In quick succession.

Our divorce was final on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

I didn’t have a dinner at my house as I usually do.  I didn’t yet have a house.

Instead, when I received the dissolution of marriage papers in the mail a few days later, I gathered a few friends in support.  We ate noodles together – never mentioning why we were there.

I broke the fast on Yom Kippur at a friend’s house.  She let me know that once invited, I am always invited.

I don’t recall his birthday or mine.  Or our anniversary.  What I remember are the beautiful gifts he gave me for many years.  A hand-carved wooden jewelry box.  A hand-colored pearl and smoky quartz necklace I had been coveting.  Things I mentioned in passing and had forgotten about, but that he made note of, and surprised me with.

Halloween passed without fanfare.

Then Thanksgiving hit hard.  I was invited to the home of a friend of a friend.  She also told me that once invited, always invited.

Thanksgiving was our “wandering” holiday, ever since we left California.  Up until then we spent it with my old roommate Tim, who hosted it Martha Stewart-style, complete with printed menus.

Once year we traveled to Chicago to be with Tim, when he lived here for about 10 months.  We called it “the year Tim worked a lot.”  We were in complete denial that he was gone.

Another time we shared breakfast with him and Steven, at IHOP.  We were on our way to London, for our honeymoon – just after 9/11.  The airport was spooky quiet.

We never had a Thanksgiving ritual in Chicago or Seattle.  We were always invited somewhere, but it was never the same.  The only constant was that we were together.

I celebrated my sober birthday in late November with a big soiree at my house.  He was noticeably absent.  Neither there to make pot after pot of coffee nor to help clean up.  I texted my South Carolina crush late that night, when everyone was gone and the last dish was in the rack, feeling palpably and frighteningly alone.  He had already gone to bed.

Making risotto.
Making risotto.

I was invited to spend Christmas Eve with some new friends.  Christmas Day I found myself at the table where I had spent Thanksgiving.  My ex and I spoke frequently over those 24 or so hours, remembering our Christmas Eve gatherings – a take-off on my cousin Wendy’s annual party on Christmas Day for Jews who have nothing to do.  I would make a big pot of mushroom risotto.  He would bake.  Christmas Day we would go to a movie.

We were both pretty heartsick.  Both of us broken-hearted by our forays into new romance.  We found comfort talking with one another.

New Year’s Eve I spent at a party at my friend Sheila’s house.  I didn’t make it until midnight.

The year before we were skiing at Steven’s Pass.  My ex rented a house that backed up to a river.  It had a loft bedroom, crazy fireplace and heated floors.  We sang karaoke and did jigsaw puzzles.  I brought the knitting needles, yarn and instruction manual he bought me for Hanukkah.  I never used them.

We bickered on the trails.  He was a cross-country skate skier.  I was not.  In our early years together I took a few lessons and  got moderately better.  But I never really got the hang of it.  We incorporated wine tasting into our ski weekends, drinking before or after.  Sometimes both.  It worked.  Until it didn’t.  When I didn’t drink anymore.

That last trip, I spent a few hours in the “lodge,” – an anonymous room where one could purchase chili, cookies wrapped in plastic film and powdered cocoa while the television blared.  I read Patti Smith’s Just Kids,  while he skied hard, the way he liked to.

This year on Valentine’s Day, I unearthed our last cards to one another.  They were sad.  We knew that our marriage was ending but hadn’t yet said the words.  I blogged about it.

By March it was over.  He asked me for a divorce at the end of that month, just before Passover.

I invited a handful of friends for a Seder in Seattle.  He joined us.  It didn’t seem unusual at the time.

This year I celebrated twice.  Once at my friend Mary Jo’s.  A second time in my apartment, looking out at the Catholic church across the street.  There were 12 of us.  Some of the usual suspects, friends I had made over the years in Chicago, as well as some new guests.  My Divorce Buddy, the one I used to spend hours on the phone with late into the evening, stayed to do dishes with me.  It didn’t feel so lonely.  Not until he asked me about one of my girlfriends.

Me and Ernie at the beach.
Me and Ernie at the beach.

Memorial Day I rode my bike to a BBQ and blogged about where I was the year before – with my friend Ernie, at the ocean, wringing my hands about making out with Mr. Thursday Night, worried it wouldn’t happen again.  It didn’t.

June 19 was the anniversary of our first date.  I know that because it’s my brother’s birthday.

July 4.  An entire cycle completed.  Unless you count the first time we had sex, which I recall only because it is my cousin David’s birthday and we had drinks with him in San Francisco at the Latin American Club that night.  That will be later this month.  I don’t *think* it will rattle me as I’ve never marked the occasion before, just been aware of it.

The sun is going down.  It is noisy outside.  I am reminded of when we lived in Humboldt Park.  July 4 felt like a war zone.

I was invited to a BBQ tonight by a man I recently met.  He’s easy to talk to – open and forthright about his divorce.  He’s a good hugger.  Nice looking.  I don’t have any feelings about him.  But I’d like to get to know him better.

I sent him a text telling him I won’t make it tonight.

I made myself kale salad, roasted squash and corn on the cob.  I read, napped, wrote and napped some more.  I walked a few blocks to Paciaugo for gelato – campfire banana, orange-chocolate-saffron and rose – came home and put my pajamas back on.

It all seems right somehow, spending the last of my first alone.  Caring for myself.  Readying myself for a whole new cycle of experiences.