“I Am Safe; It’s Only Change”

“I am safe; it’s only change.”

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.

 

 

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With gratitude for those who have supported my Go Fund Me campaign, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain — How 52 Artist Dates Healed My Heart and Landed Me In the Center of My Life.” For those I have know in Spain and in Chicago. For those who have loved me enough to tell me the truth about myself. For those who have brought me to my fundraising goal! Muchas gracias.


September 20

I spent some time on the phone this morning, talking with a woman I’ve known for a long time but haven’t spoken to in years. She had recently opened an old email address inbox and happened upon a history of my blog posts.

“You inspire me,” she said, having read them. “You really do take lemons and make lemonade.”

I was touched and humbled by her words. And a bit tickled by the divine timing of our conversation. I’ve been thinking a lot about the people who inspire me. Not by grand heroics, but just by going about their days — stepping fully into their lives with a generous heart, and showing me what is possible.

People like Lynn Merel.

Lynn doesn’t love winter. But rather than grouse about the inevitable, she has arranged her life to spend the worst Chicago months in warmer climates.

She is a working artist. Lynn paints, and makes paper and greeting cards. (Check out http://www.lynnmerelart.com!) When I converted to Judaism in 2011 — committing to the faith I was raised with but not born into — she planted a tree in Israel in my honor.

People like Meghan Harkins.

Meg is an actor and a musician. She gives great hugs. Teaches kids ukelele and piano. And has been known to send a text from the train, inviting me on an impromptu Artist Date to the Art Institute for free-after-5 p.m. Thursdays.

We recently had a conversation about money and miracles. The power of saying no to work that doesn’t serve you. And the gift of giving money away.

Like she did by contributing to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign. Like Lynn did too.

Muchas gracias, mis amigas. For your generosity. And for showing me abundance and possibility in living a creative life.

distant-city
Distant City 1. Copyright 2013. Lynn Merel

September 21

Anonymous
Adjective. anon·y·mous ə-ˈnä-nə-məs
1: of unknown authorship or origin
2: not named or identified
3: lacking individuality, distinction, or recognizability
(Source: Meriam-Webster’s Learning Dictionary)

To date, I have received 69 donations to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign. Many of them are anonymous (not to me, but externally facing) — definition two. But of those, none are three.

Their stories, how I know them — not how we met, but how we “know” one another — are distinct enough to render them no longer “unrecognizable.” So I won’t tell them here. But I know them. And they do too.

Connections and tales that span the globe. From Madrid to the Midwest. All along the left coast and across all aspects of my life. The movies in my heart — that I know by heart.

I feel recognized (further dismantling definition three) — truly seen — by their generous support. As I am. As a writer.

Muchas gracias, sweet friends. You know who you are …

in-the-mirror
Alone, but never anonymous, in Seville.

September 22

My “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign is fully funded!!

As I wrote early this morning on Facebook, I am in awe. Humbled and honored by the support around me and this project. Graced by this opportunity.

This is not the update I imagined writing today.

I had one planned about the friends who love you enough to tell you the truth about yourself. Like my friend Kiki who generously doles out servings of no-nonsense affection and reflection in her kitchen, along with a side of her killer homemade soup.

Like my friend Pam, who is both a truth-teller and a channel for my 12-year-old self. We can talk about “boys” for hours and laugh so hard I pee myself. (I only did that once!)

I had one planned about friends who witnessed my life in Spain. Like Lindsey, who flew from Chicago to Madrid and joined me in exploring Malaga, Granada and Tangier. Who carried an inflated mattress across town with me — her bed while staying in the capital city. And watched me clumsily communicate in the South of Spain, insisting I do in fact speak Spanish.

Like Nicole, who I knew only a little while living in Chicago … but who made time to meet me at Mox in Malansaña (one of Madrid’s funkiest neighborhoods) for an American-sized salad. And who I have grown to know more deeply since returning “home.”

But instead, I woke this morning to an $86 donation (the exact amount necessary to meet my $4,250 goal) and these words from Harriett Kelly, “Go write your book!” I laid in bed for a while, tears streaming down my cheeks — laughing and crying.

Thank you, Pam. Thank you, Kiki. Thank you, Lindsey. Thank you, Nicole. And thank you, Harriett. For your generous donations. And for supporting my dream and my story — a post-divorce narrative with the possibility of a happy ending, no partner required. One you can write yourself. Like I did.

Yes, Harriett … “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain: How 52 Artist Dates Healed My Heart and Landed Me In the Center of My Life” is written. The manuscript was sent to my writing retreat mentor at the beginning of September.

Next stop is Girona — where I will meet with an editor and other publishing professionals whose job it is to tell me the truth about my work. (Thanks for the training, Kiki!) What I need to do to bring my story to market. And how to manifest a book deal.

I leave in 13 days. I’ll send “postcards” and updates from the road here.

with-lindsey-and-camel
In Tangier with Lindsey … I asked, but forgot, the camel’s name.

I’ve been asked if the campaign is still open for donations. Yes! Any additional funds raised will be used to support the publication and promotion of “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.” Think book tour! Want to know more about”They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain?” Click here: https://www.gofundme.com/awanderingjewess

“I’m Sorry.” Or, Watch It Scatter Like Cockroaches

disappointmentI woke this morning to this message on my Facebook wall. “Any news?!?!”

It seemed like a sign – that it is time to speak my truth. To cast a light on my darkness and disappointment and (hopefully) watch it scatter like cockroaches.

Sigh.

I have not been accepted to the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University.

I’ve known this for a little more than two weeks.

I’ve shared the news slowly. With a few friends. My ex-husband. My rabbi and other personal references.

But I haven’t been able to tell either of my parents. Post it on Facebook. Blog about it.

I’ve been transparent about so much in my life. My divorce. The failed romances that followed it. And the beautiful one that began the day after I bought my ticket to Madrid.

My struggles with weight.  With alcohol. With making a life in a new country.

My breast reduction.

The death of my biological mother.

But this felt strangely tender and raw. Perhaps a little shameful. Disappointing and shocking because I really thought I was going.

Ever since my friend Spencer mentioned it to me while we were on holiday in Prague. When my spine straightened and my whole body screamed, “Yes! I have no idea what the Institute of Sacred Music is but, Yes!” When I suddenly “knew” (or thought I knew) why I had been called to Madrid.  To meet Spencer and to have this conversation.

And the people around me…they thought I was bound for New Haven too.

They saw the way my face lit up, how my resonance changed when I spoke about combining my lifelong practices of writing and spirituality. How I felt like I was finally redeeming myself to myself. How the “smart girl” was finally going to “live up” to that moniker. And how I was going to give myself the gift I couldn’t until now – art school and graduate studies.

I felt confident about my personal statement and my writing sample, the glowing letters of recommendation.

“You’re going,” they said, as if they had seen the future in a crystal ball. And I believed them. Not because I wanted to. But because I thought it was already written.

Unfortunately, this was instead.

Dear Ms. Pearl:

The Admissions Committee of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music has reviewed your application with great care. I am sorry to inform you that your application has not been approved.

We recognize your dedication to the church and appreciate your great interest in the educational mission of the Institute. We send you our best wishes for success in realizing the goals expressed in your application.

Sincerely,

Martin Jean
Director
Yale Institute of Sacred Music

“Clearly it wasn’t meant to be.” “It isn’t God’s will.” “Something better is around the corner.” “Fuck Yale.” “I know just how you feel.”

I’ve heard these words, spoken with love and compassion. And while I’m sure they are true, it’s been hard for me to accept them, to take them in. I’m just not “there” yet.

I’m certain I will one day look back and view this with gratitude and the “ahhhh” of understanding. But until then, and without faith on my part, the words feel somehow hollow, a little bit like platitudes.

Surprisingly, I’ve received the most comfort from the words, “I’m sorry.”

Perhaps because they speak to where I am at this moment.

Sorry. Yes. Me too.

I Held On To My Own Hand

Carrie and Petrofsky -- BEFORE he let go of her hand.
Carrie and Petrofsky — BEFORE he let go of her hand.

There’s a wonderful scene in the second to last episode of Sex and the City —  where the camera zooms in and in slow motion Aleksandr Petrofsky lets go of Carrie Bradshaw’s hand, the one he had asked her for a few hours earlier in a moment of anxiety and doubt.

“Promise me you will not let go,” a nervous Petrofsky says, fiddling with his cufflinks as he dresses for his art show opening.

Carrie nods, forgoing the party held in her honor — perhaps the first and only experience of and for herself in the City of Light.

Upon entering the gallery, Petrofsky’s fear is quickly assuaged by applause. Forgetting his words, he releases Carrie’s hand, ultimately releasing her.

I am telling this story to the man lying next to me on the futon.

We are making out like teenagers. Except that I never did this when I was a teenager. It is sweet. Tender. New. My whole body is humming.

I feel his weight on top of me and suddenly feel small, pressed down, vulnerable. My body is no longer humming. In fact, I am slipping out of it. “He will move soon and do something else,” I think. “It is fine.”

But it is not fine.

There is nothing aggressive or threatening about this gesture. He is not too heavy on top of me. In fact, I crave his nearness, and yet I am triggered by it.

I don’t know why. I don’t really care. I only know that I desperately want to return to the place where my body hums.

And I intuitively know the only way back is through — through my mouth, my voice, my truth.

I ask him to move. Kindly. Gently. Assuring him he has done nothing wrong, because he hasn’t. Assuring him that this is “my stuff.”

He rolls on to his side, kisses my forehead and strokes my cheek, and asks me what I need from him.

“Nothing,” I say. And it is true. I have exactly what I need. I have myself.

And in this seemingly insignificant moment I see the hundreds of times I have told myself everything was “fine” when it was not — saying nothing. Enduring, hoping, praying something would change, but not recognizing my role in changing it. In sex. In love. In work. In friendship. In family.

I get teary with the realization that I have never advocated for myself in this way before. I tell him this and the Carrie-Petrofsky story.

“I feel like I have held on to my own hand,” I say.

A few nights later we are again lying on the futon, under the front window that faces a church.

I am wearing decidedly less clothing than I was the previous time we were together. I feel myself slipping out of my body again.

“I want my pants back on,” I blurt out.

“Too fast?” He asks. “Too fast,” I reply.

“Yes, for me too,” he says, helping me slip back into my skinny corduroys. Zipping them, I almost immediately slip back into my body — reveling in all of the sensations created by my new partner.

I think of all of the times I have had sex when I didn’t want to. Because I thought I should. Because I thought it was expected. Because I had wanted it but changed my mind and didn’t really believe I was allowed to, that I could. Turns out — I can.

“I held on to my own hand again,” I tell him, grinning.

He smiles back, his hands tracing the seams of my corduroy jeans, kissing me like the teenager I never was.

And I feel my body humming again.

Artist Date 99: Like a Motherfucker

tiny beautiful thingsForgive me, it has been 16 days since my last Artist Date and 19 days since I’ve blogged.

I feel like a Jewish Catholic at confession.  Except the only one I’m asking for absolution is myself.

I miss my alone time.  Artistic input into my body.  My head feels foggy.  Squeezed.  Heavy and thick.  As if there is no room…no room for anything more.  No room for anything at all.

I am daydreaming about when and where I can get my fix — my dose of solitude and creative sustenance.

I didn’t expect this, didn’t expect to be “hooked” when I entered into this commitment a little more than two years ago.  I didn’t know what to expect.  Only that I needed help.

I was newly divorced.  My biological mother — who I had only met just four years earlier — was dying.  And the relationship I wasn’t having  — the one with a handsome southerner who lived some 900 miles away, who I kissed for two nights like a horny but innocent teenager —  was effecting my relationships.

My friend S. told me in no uncertain terms she could not, would not, hear his name again.

I was on my knees, desperate.  The humbled position where all change grows from.

On Christmas night 2012, a voice I’ve grown to know — my wise-self voice — suggested I work through The Artist’s Way again.  Adding that this time I go on weekly Artist Dates — a once every seven-days solo sojourn to fill my creative coffers — as is suggested in the book.

I went to lectures, museums, opera.  To pottery classes, dance performances, walking tours.  Movies, thrift shops and book stores.  All of it, alone.

On occasion, I miss a week — choosing to spend a final day with a friend before she becomes a mother or sharing my artsy outing with another — but it is rare.  And I’ve never gone this long without…until now, at the Davis Theatre — Artist Date 99.

My therapist in Seattle was the first to suggest Cheryl Strayed.  “I read her before Oprah,” she insisted, imploring me to pick up Wild, as well as Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar — the best of Strayed’s advice column from The Rumpus.

Queen Anne Books placed a special order for both books.  They arrived the day after I left for Chicago.

I mostly forgot about them until this past summer — two years later — when my friend Lori insists I buy both books.  She tells me “writers read,” and drags me into the Book Cellar where she puts a copy of each into my hands and guides me to the cash register.

Both are dog-eared now, and tear-stained.  Sentences underlined, entire pages bracketed.  Words resonate.  Lessons I do not want to forget.  Whispers from the universe reminding me where I came from, where I am today.

“Unique as every letter is, the point each writer reaches is the same: I want love and I’m afraid I’ll never get it.” (Tiny Beautiful Things)

“…for once it was finally enough for me to simply lie there in a restrained and chaste rapture beside a sweet, strong, sexy, smart good man who was probably never meant to be anything but my friend.  For once I didn’t ache for a companion.  For once the phrase a woman with a hole in her heart didn’t thunder into my head.” (Wild)

Sitting in the darkened theater, Strayed words — now images — alive before me, I say, yes.  And yes.

I still fear the possibility of not finding romantic love again, but it doesn’t drive me anymore.  It doesn’t dictate my every action.  My every reaction.

I can be in “chaste rapture beside a sweet, strong, sexy, smart good man who was probably never meant to be anything but my friend.”  Lying next to one another on my couch following morning meditation, the Reluctant Shaman’s lips pressed to my forehead — my third eye.

I no longer ache for a companion.  The words, “I do not wish a man were here,” crossing my lips as I cross the Seine last October, alone on my 45th birthday..

Strayed took to the Pacific Crest Trail  — alone — to learn these truths.  To feel them in her bones.  Mine was a different path, made of clay and dance and music.  Of film and paint and spoken word.  Of pasta and gelato and nearly three weeks in Italy.  All of it, alone.  But the truths, the same.

“So write…,” Strayed writes in Tiny Beautiful Things.  “Not like a girl.  Not like a boy.  Write like a motherfucker.”

Yes.

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 87: This Is Not

This is not us wearing bowler hats.
This is not us wearing bowler hats.

This is not an Artist Date.

I have written these words here before.  More than once.  Every time I act contrary to Julia Cameron’s prescription of the Artist Date in The Artist’s Way.

“An artist date is a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist.  In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers.  You do not take anyone on this artist date but you and your inner artist, a.k.a. you creative child.  That means no lovers, friends, spouses, children – no taggers-on of any stripe.”

I have written these words when choosing to spend a precious few hours with Clover before she gives birth to baby Juniper.  When going to Story Club, with hopes of getting to read my work on stage, with Debbie.  When reading an Anne Sexton biography on the airplane.  When staying in and cooked.

And today, when I invite Julie to the Rene Magritte exhibit and lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago – Artist Date 87.

The words are both literal and playful.  Like the way we don bowler hats in the gift shop, take a selfie and post it to Facebook with the words, “This is not us in bowler hats.”  Paying homage to the iconographic The Treachery of Images – a painting of a pipe, (but clearly not a pipe) with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”  This is not a pipe.

This is not a pipe.
This is not a pipe.

Since beginning my commitment to the weekly Artist Date, I can count on one hand the number of times I have asked someone to join me at the Art Institute.  There have been two.  Both of them impromptu.

Rescuing Alex from the long line for admission on free Thursday nights.  I whisk him through the member entrance and into a seat for a lecture on “The Return of the Modern Masters.”

Eating free appetizers in the courtyard with Matt before heading off on a shopping pilgrimage to Costco.  I show him Marc Chagall’s America Windows.  I visit the blue glass where Ferris kissed Sloane in the John Hughes classic every time I am here.  But Matt has never seen it.

My date with Julie is by design.  We planned it weeks ago, when we ran into one another at a party.  That night, we talked about our writing.  Our work.  Choosing to be alone rather than settling.  About my Artist Dates…and I invited her to join me on one.

Flanked by her, I walk through the exhibit differently.  I am not taking photographs.  (None are allowed anyway.)  I am not taking notes.  I am not blogging in my head.  I am much more present.  In the moment.  In thought.  Not about my words but about the work.  In relation.

The Eternally Obvious.  Five pieces of a woman – face, breasts, cunt, knees, feet – each individually framed and strung together vertically.

For years, this is how I offered myself.  Pieces of myself.  Body parts.  I say this to myself.  And to Julie.  She nods, understanding completely.

Attempting the Impossible.  A woman “becoming,” as a man paints her into existence.  Does she exist only as he creates her, or is he painting what is already there – like the painter in La Clairvoyance, who stares at an egg while his brush forms a bird?

Le Viol (Rape).  Eyes replaced by breasts, mouth by vulva.  Julie calls it violent.  Is this how we are really seen?

Conversations I might not have alone.  Intimate.  Heady.  Vulnerable.  Hats I might not otherwise try on.

Artist Date.  “A block of time…especially set aside and committed to nurturing…creative consciousness…an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers…”

Il s’agit d’une date de l’artiste.   This is an Artist Date.