Jewish, Solo and Sans Chinese Food. And Merry on Christmas.

jewish-christmasI have never known what to do on Christmas.

It is 1993. I am 24-years-old and about 10 days sober. I am laying in a shallow bathtub when my mother calls to wish me a Merry Christmas.

“We’re Jewish,” I say.

“So what?” she replies. “It’s still Christmas. And it’s fun.”

“I wish I were in Israel,” I say.

When I was growing up, my cousin Wendy hosted an annual “Chanukkah Party on Christmas Day for Jews Who Have Nothing To Do.” It was a raucous affair with latkes, dreidels, wine, and even a couple of nuns Wendy worked with at the Sisters of Mercy, where she managed their pension fund.

But that was many years ago.

In 1994, the year after my bathtub lament, I moved to San Francisco. There, with my Irish-Catholic roommate Tim, I purchased my first Christmas tree and participated in the post-holiday “tree toss” out the second-story window of our Haight-Ashbury apartment – Tim spotting from the sidewalk while I heaved the heavy trunk out the curved glass window.

A year later, I experienced the Jewish Christmas tradition of Chinese food and a movie for the very first time  — an experience I had missed due to Wendy’s parties.

One more orbit around the sun had me hosting my very own Christmas Eve dinner — an effort to assuage my British boyfriend’s longing for family and Christmas cake from Marks and Spencer. The guest list was made up of friends who filled my home for Rosh Hashanah and Passover dinners, and I cooked up a pot of risotto while my partner made chocolate pie.

By now I had discovered most San Francisco transplants don’t return “home” for the holidays – Thanksgiving or Christmas — and the city is ripe for a Jewish-British Christmas dinner party followed by a bike ride or a movie and dim sum the next day.

In 2007, now married, we moved to Chicago — where everybody goes home for the holidays. To the suburbs. To Michigan or Ohio. Indiana or Wisconsin. Where there are few strays or orphans.

For the next four years, each December we would ask ourselves “to gather or not to gather.” Sometimes we did — opening our home and our hearts. Other times we simply facilitated — reserving two large, round tables in Chinatown and waiting to see who would join us. Occasionally, we were invited to someone else’s celebration.

We spent our last Christmas together in Seattle – where we had moved a few months earlier. I made a final vat of risotto while my friends Earl and Jesse jammed with my husband on guitar.

A year later we were divorced and I found myself once again in Chicago – scrambling for a plan. I have no recollection of what I did that year. And only vague ones of dinners at Min Hing in the two seasons that followed.

Last December, I spent Christmas in Cologne with my sixth-grade lab partner. I was living in Madrid, just a few hours flight away. She picked me up on Christmas Eve with a trunk full of food – explaining the grocery markets would be closed until December 27. At 5 p.m. the airport Starbucks had already closed.

We cooked, ate, talked for hours and went for long walks down wide boulevards that reminded me of Chicago’s Logan Square. On Boxing Day we visited the Christmas markets and stuffed ourselves with giant potato pancakes topped with sour cream and applesauce. It was, without a doubt, my best Christmas.

This December, as the days grew near, I waited to hear if anyone would be “gathering the troops” for Peking Duck. But all I heard was silence. I considered spearheading the process as I had so many times before, but frankly felt too exhausted.

It seemed I would be alone … that is, until an ex-boyfriend phoned a week before the holiday.

“Why don’t you take the train down and join mom and me for Chinese food and TV back at the house? You can spend the night or if you prefer, I can drive you home,” he said brightly, adding, “Mom is really excited to see you.”

Lovely. And yet.

His invitation felt intimate and familiar. Too intimate. Too familiar. A little girlfriend-y. Except I wasn’t his girlfriend anymore.

I sat with his invitation for nearly a week until the morning the words “What do you want to do?” slipped off of my pen while journaling. And then, “What would be fun?”

“A Writers Retreat.”

The words came quickly, followed by, “Meditate. Exercise. Read. Face mask. Bath salts. Beautiful food.”

When I mentioned this to my friend Nikki, she offered up her apartment as a “retreat facility.” She and her husband would be traveling to Wisconsin to be with family. A few days later my friend Clover suggested I open one of her Chanukkah gifts to me early. It was a turmeric and gold clay face mask. “For your retreat,” she explained, smiling.

That night I wrote my ex-boyfriend a note — thanking him, but declining his invitation.

I thought about my 45th birthday. The first one I spent alone – by choice — waking up in Rome and going to bed in Paris.

Upon hearing my plans, my mother asked, “Will you like being alone on your birthday?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “We’ll find out.”

Walking across the Seine, looking out at the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, a thought rose up inside of me. “I don’t wish a man were here. I don’t wish a friend were here. That I wore something different or ate something different. I don’t wish anything was different than it is.”

It was a revolutionary idea. One I didn’t choose to think. Instead, it lived inside of me, speaking with its own voice.

Two years later, I returned to Paris — alone — for my 47th birthday.

And Christmas?

I woke up in Chicago and went to bed in Chicago. And in the hours between, I ate smoked salmon, pomegranates, chocolate and fresh dates. I slathered my face with gold clay and soaked in the bath reading Julia Child’s “My Life in France.” I wrote. I meditated. I danced, napped and wrote some more.

I didn’t wish I was in Israel. Or Cologne. With my ex-boyfriend or ex-husband or a friend. Eating dim sum, riding my bike or watching a movie. I didn’t wish anything was different than it was.

I was Jewish, solo and sans Chinese food. And Merry on Christmas.

Advertisements

Artist Date 106: Altered But Recognizable

From the 2015 Chicago Macy's Flower Show "Art in Bloom."
An ode to Henri Matisse. From the 2015 Chicago Macy’s Flower Show “Art in Bloom.”

My friend Matt recently asked if I was still “doing the Artist Date thing.”

I am somewhat taken aback. It reminds me of being asked if I am still dating Insert-Man-Here — an inquiry often made when I have ceased to talk about a man du jour. It is the cousin question to, “Have you heard from Insert-Man-Here?”

The answer to both is usually, no. If I were, if I had, I would have mentioned it.

But Matt isn’t asking about a man. He is asking about my commitment to myself and to my craft. I wonder if I have ceased to talk about it, to be engaged with it, or if he has just not read about it lately.

The whole exchange scratches at the part of me that knows I haven’t been as committed to the practice as it is prescribed by Julia Cameron in “The Artist’s Way” as I once was. The part that bristles at my skipping weeks, writing about them much later and occasionally allowing others to join on my intended solo sojourns — my imperfection.

I do not mention any of this. Instead, I sy, “Yes,” and add that I have just completed two years of Artist Dates.

A week later, I have not been on another.

I tell myself I’ve been busy with the seemingly incongruent actions of preparing to leave the country for a year and trying to secure additional work while I am here. Drafting resumes, taking software tests and going on interviews; ordering background checks and searching for best prices on airline tickets.

On the eighth day following Matt’s original inquiry, the universe sends a second messenger — this one, a bit more direct. Dorothy attends one of the Thursday Weight Watchers meetings I lead. She is in her 70s and is the kind of woman I hope to become — active, engaged in the world, growing, learning, giving back.

She asks if I have been to the Annual Flower Show at Macy’s.

I have not.

Dorothy sees this as an invitation to make an invitation. She tells me about the show, its theme — Art in Bloom — and how she, a master gardener, and others have breathed life into it.

When she is done, I commit to it, to her, to myself and to my process. I arrive on the 9th floor of the Macy’s flagship store on State Street a few hours later, Artist Date 106.

I smell the exhibit before I can see it. It is moist, warm, green — like the Lincoln Park conservatory where I have spent many Chicago winter days warming myself. I do not expect it.

Flowers are planted into shapes like Matisse cut-outs. Whimsical. Vibrant. I think of the cracked frame holding a Matisse print in the living room of my Mission-neighborhood apartment. Of my then boyfriend sitting on a Pilates ball, losing balance, and rolling into the wall —  knocking the print off of it.

2015-04-02 14.47.29
Ode to Piet Mondrian. From the 2015 Chicago Macy’s Flower Show, “Art in Bloom.”

Grid flower boxes in primary colors with thick black lines are an ode to Piet Mondrian. I recall the Mondrian show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York many, many years ago — entering the fashioned artist’s studio and swing dancing inside of it with my friend Jason.

I remember my friend Teresa’s mother taking me to the Macy’s Flower Show in San Francisco — on our way to her daughter’s theater performance. She went every year. It was her tradition. Returning to it in Chicago nearly 20 years later, the show becomes a chapter in mine.

I peer through a doorway on my way out — classic paintings are being projected onto a wall of white flowers. Michelangelo’s Mona Lisa. Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Raphael’s Sistine Madonnas.

I wonder what my own life might look like projected onto a wall of white flowers.

Fragrant. Lush. Harsh edges softened. Altered but recognizable, I think.

A lot like it already is.

2015-04-02 14.50.11
Raphael’s Sistine Madonnas. From the 2015 Chicago Macy’s Flower Show, “Art in Bloom.”

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.