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The following long-form piece was written for and performed at Nikki Nigl’s AboutWomen in Chicago on July 19, 2016.

I have been back in Chicago exactly 12 days.

I miss Madrid.

I miss the winding cobblestone walk to my metro stop at Opera. The flat buildings washed yellow, orange and pink with black wrought iron balconies on every window. Cartoonish by streetlight. I swear I could push them over and they’d tumble. Just like a movie set.

I miss the fountain at Cibeles. That “birthday cake of a building” as Dirk used to call it. The old Correos. Post Office. Now a museum I never made it to. A “Welcome Refugees” banner hanging from its top, a fountain in front. In the center of a roundabout that leads you to the Prado or Calle Gran Via, depending on your preference.

I used to walk here on Saturday nights alone when the sun had receded but the air was still hot and all of Madrid filled the streets, up from its collective summer siesta. The goddess Cybel and her lions riding on illuminated pink and blue water.

I miss my metro pass. Fifty euros for unlimited rides on the super clean, super-fast metro that would take me anywhere in Madrid. And if it didn’t the train or the light rail would.

I miss Turron gelato.

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Plaza de Cibeles and that “birthday cake of a building.”

I miss private health insurance to the tune of 57 euros a month. Gynecological exam chairs that tilt down, working with as opposed to against, gravity. I miss not having to ask for a pelvic ultrasound instead of a pap as it is a matter of course.

I miss feeling safe walking home alone at night.

I miss taking the train to Seville or Valencia for the weekend. Or a quick flight to Portugal, North Africa or Nice. I miss swimming in the Mediterranean upon reaching the coast. The salty taste of my lips and the white streaks drying on my legs surprising me.

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On the beach in Valencia.

I miss tomates that taste like tomatoes, pimientos that taste like peppers and pepinos that taste like cucumbers. I miss their names. I miss Paco choosing them for me at the market and our impromptu intercambio. His corrections to my beginner Spanish. My approval of his modest English.  His stories about his daughter and the victory I felt in understanding them. Mas o menos.

I miss cheap groceries.

I miss eating rye for breakfast instead of oatmeal. Eggs that sit on the shelf. Good, inexpensive coffee.

I miss Nick, the Greek waiter at Dionisos, flirting shamelessly with me.

I miss speaking Spanglish.

I miss all of this, and yet I chose to leave it. To return to Chicago. Where I pay for every El ride. Both financially and energetically. Nausteated by the slow, insistent rattling of the train. Knowing I would get there in half the time if I still owned a car. Knowing it’s best to ask someone to walk me to the train at night in some neighborhoods. My keys laced between my fingers as I leave the station and approach my own door.

Chicago. Where politicians are proudly corrupt. People hold signs on freeway off ramps … begging for money. And 2 bags of tasteless produce cost nearly $50.

Where zero degree FARENHEIT winters are a real possibility. As is a shooting death every weekend.

I chose this.

I chose home.

Lumbering Greystone buildings, summer rainstorms and leafy maple trees. Sunday dance classes at the Old Town School of Music. Lectures at the Art Institute. Lake Michigan.

Art-Institute-Of-Chicago-HD-Wallpapers
Copyright Art Institute of Chicago HD Wallpaper.

I’ve moved several times in my life. Four states, seven cities, two countries … if you count where I was born and raised. Which is not the same as home.

I learned that the first time I moved to Chicago in 2007. I’d been living between San Francisco and Oakland for nearly 14 years when my husband and I packed up our two cats and all our worldly belonging and headed east, to the Midwest, a place I vowed I’d never live again, for his medical residency.

God has a sense of humor.

It was grey and sticky, drizzly and hot when we arrived. We opened the car doors and felt the steam rise up around us, looked at one another, and without saying a word asked “What have we done?” Followed by “We are Californians. (Albeit adopted ones). This is a temporary residence. A sojourn. We will hate Chicago together.”

For months I wore ear plugs on the El and held my hand over my heart as I walked up Michigan Avenue. Each felt being accosted, until my own vibrations rose to match those of the city.

Whenever people asked where I was from, I responded, “I was born in Detroit. I live in Chicago. Oakland is my spirit home.”

But eventually … I got worn down. I surrendered. To this city. It’s people. To my addiction. I made a life for myself here. I grew my business. Got sober. And converted to the faith of my childhood – righting a religious technicality.

I stopped beginning every sentence with “In California …”

I found my biological parents. I learned to dance. I took my husband to the place where I spent my childhood summers, 8 hours away in northwest Michigan.

I began having experiences rather than talking about them.

And somewhere along the way I fell in love with this sometimes dirty, noisy, violent city. I fell in love with its architecture. Its people. Perhaps, most of all, I fell in love with myself.

Four years later I moved to Seattle. The wife of a now doctor, I felt obligated to go.

I cried like a wounded animal. Like I cried when I left Bay Area. Mourning the loss of morning hikes in Redwood Park, Peets coffee, and KFOG radio. The Golden Gate Bridge. My old house in Haight-Ashbury. The place where I met my husband and was married.

 

spirit home
Spirit Home. The French Trail in Redwood Park, Oakland.

Except this time, the loss felt strictly internal. Chicago, the place, has never spoken to me. Its topography. Its flatness and lack of nature feel uninspired. But there is something in its soil, in its DNA, that takes root in me.

It called me back after a year in Seattle. When my marriage ended and for the first time in a long time, I got to choose where I would live.

And it called me back after a year in Madrid, where I was teaching English. Fulfilling a childhood dream of living overseas. One I spoke about here, just before I left, a year ago. My only lament that my passport is far less sexy than it would be pre-European Union.

Since arriving, I’ve been greeted with warm “welcome backs” and tentative “welcome homes.” And the inevitable, “What brought you back?” It’s a fair question. One I’ve grappled with myself since making the decision not to renew my visa a couple of months ago.

There are lots of reasons.

Living in a country where you don’t speak the language – at least not fluently, is at best, frustrating. At worst, infantilizing. Without words, one’s personality changes. Mi casera, my landlady, once commented “You are quiet.” To which I replied, “Not in English.”

I needed, and asked for, a lot of help. Scheduling doctors’ appointments. Opening a bank account. Translating government documents. Buying a Spanish cell phone to replace mine which didn’t work.

I slept in a twin bed in an already furnished room in a grand, old Spanish apartment. I felt like a child. I moved the bed. Removed a chest of drawers. A few pictures. I hung up a batik of Ganesh, a string of elephants on a gold chain and a vision board I created around Thanksgiving time. I was still acutely aware that the place was not “mine.” It was not “home.”

The thought of living alone, setting up internet and utilities felt overwhelming. Even friends who were fluent in Spanish waited two months or longer for connectivity. Making due with coffee shops and on occasion, cold showers.

I focused on gratitude. For the opportunity to live with this 83-year-old former UN translator who lived through the Franco era and who was willing to speak with me in halting Spanish or easy English. For my inexpensive rent and the courtyard our apartment looked out on to.

For the community I created. With other teachers. Other expats. And others I met traveling.

For the ability to see Eastern Europe, North Africa and a good deal of Spain. For getting paid, albeit not as much as I had hoped, to talk.

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Traveling in Tangier with my friend Lindsey.

My students adored me. And I, them. But I was acutely aware that they were my students and not my friends … much as I wanted to talk. And much as they were eager to listen.

I had a life. But it was a smaller life.

The English-speaking community in Madrid is transient, making it difficult to build and sustain long-term friendships. And I couldn’t imagine beginning a romantic relationship … in part due to my lack of language skills. But also because of cultural differences. And while my work as a massage therapist surprisingly followed me to Spain, offering me a few clients and a few extra euros a month, my opportunities for employment would always be limited.

I felt limited.

I didn’t know that until a few weeks ago when I was talking with my friend Pam … who had spent six hours in the Social Security office. Playful, friendly and highly communicative, she said to the workers on her way out, “We’re such good friends, I’m going to invite you all to my wedding.”

“That’s it,” I said, pointing to the air, which she – of course – couldn’t see.

I can’t make small talk. I don’t have the language to strike up a conversation on the metro, in the elevator or at the grocery store. I’m too busy thinking about what I’m going to say and how to say it … and by the time I know how, the moment is gone.

And in that moment I realized what home was.

Yes, in its simplest form, home is where I reside. Where I know how to get where I’m going and the fastest way to get there.

Home is the place where restaurants know my face, possibly my name, and often my order. Where I speak the language. And where I sometimes hear my name called out in the street.

But mostly it is a place where I can get bigger. Where I feel expansive. Where I can grow. And to grow, I need to root. Home is a place where the soil is loamy. And conditions are favorable to temperament. A place like Chicago.

 

 

 

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.

Falling Into My Feet

Healthy pelvis.  Not mine.
Healthy pelvis. Not mine.

I’m standing in the dark looking at my x-rays with Stephanie, my new chiropractor.

Tears stream down my face.  I see my body.  All of it.  Even the IUD I had put in just before my trip to Rwanda because I vowed I would not have my period in Africa.

I can no longer turn away from the physical pain I so rarely mention or acknowledge.  The pain that has been with me, moving but constant, for so many years.

Suddenly, I understand.   As a bodyworker and massage therapist, it’s hard not to.  But the dysfunction is so obvious a 4-year-old could point it out – kind of like “one of these things is not like the other.”

My left hip is significantly raised.  Several inches significantly raised.  I laugh and explain that I have a really bad case of what my friend Brian used to call “bus leg” – the stance he would take while waiting for one of four different buses that ran up and down Haight Street in San Francisco, one knee bent, leaning into the opposite hip.  He would light a cigarette in the hope that this would hasten its arrival.

My body is telling my stories.

Stephanie laughs and points out that not only is my left hip raised, but my right hip is rotated forward.  I step into this position – exaggerating the rise of my lift hip and the twist of my right – and I immediately feel the pain.

Stephanie shows me my cervical spine, my neck.  It is devoid of any curve and tilted to the right.  Cocked like a dog considering what his master is saying and whether or not to ignore it.

cervical spine
Healthy cervical spine. Not mine.

I tell her the tilt makes sense.  That this movement, right ear dipped to the right shoulder is the motion I associate with my mugging in 2007.

Just two months sober and back in California, I am held up at gunpoint on a Sunday morning in Oakland.  Blocks from where I attended massage school, where I taught, and where I treat clients each quarter, returning “home” for a busman’s holiday.

I pick up a coffee from Carerras and am talking on the phone with my friend Robyn when I feel a flurry of activity around me – circling, swirling energy, like a cartoon Tasmanian Devil.  And then a gun inches from my nose.

“Give us your shit and we won’t shoot.”

“They are kidding,” I think.  “In about 30 seconds they are going to say ‘We’re just fucking with you, lady,’ and I’m going to tell them this is not funny.”  But they never say that.  I think I am dreaming but I don’t wake up.  And then I slip back through the rabbit hole of reality and scream a scream I didn’t know I had in me.

They just look at me.

I think about everything in my bag.  My passport and how my husband and I are supposed to leave in five days for Mexico.  The flash drive that has all of my files on it and has not been backed up.  My keys.  But I am frozen.  I cannot say a word.  I cannot push out a logical sentence like, “Let me give you the money but I keep the rest, ok?”  Because this is not logical.

Instead, I cock my head to the right, opening up my shoulder and allowing them to take the bag I am wearing across my body.  They pluck my metallic-pink cell phone from my hand and are gone.

I scream and piss myself running back toward the school.  I have attracted attention and people who were not there just a moment ago are asking, “Are you ok?”  I do not realize they are talking to me until one grabs hold of me.  I tell her my story and she calls the police while a man takes my arm and walks me back to the school.

My friend Tim picks me up that afternoon.  I get a new passport and go to Mexico.  And when I return to Chicago, I engage in EMDR work – trauma therapy.  I get relief.  But the story is still in my body.

The story is my body.  They all are.

The car accident on New Year’s Eve day when a Ford F-250 with a horse trailer goes through the back of my Honda Civic Hatchback.  When my husband takes the car to the shop on January 2 and they ask, “Did everyone live?”

The piece of my cervix I have removed when I am 24 – ridding my body of its pre-cancerous cells.  And the doctor in California who, upon examining me for the first time, says, “If anyone asks, this is not what an ordinary cervix looks like.”

My breast reduction when I am 40 and the shame and depression that follows me for years like an ex-boyfriend who won’t let go.  Faint memory now, like the scars that run vertically from breast fold to nipple.

foot
Healthy foot. Not mine. But what I imagine it looks like now.

My body has held on to each of these and made them its own – painting over experience with a broad brush stroke of pain.  Not unlike the stories I repeat so often that they become my pained reality – whether or not they are completely accurate.  My skewed perception becomes truth.

I come home from my treatment, take my boots off and place my naked feet on the hardwood floor.  I feel the ground beneath me.  Supporting me.  As if for the first time.  Whereas before I seem to have been standing on only a part of my feet, tottering.

I have fallen into my feet.  Into my body.  Into truth, and the possibility of a new story.