My friend is in pain.
Sitting across from me, I let her talk and watch
Tears slipping down her cheek, pricking my heart like a thorn.
Her pain is palpable, permeating the air,
Making me gasp for breath.
She is so young and I am so old.
Wisdom should come with age but it doesn’t.
I want to ease her hurt but stumble,
Offering words that sink like stones tossed in a pool.
And her tears overflow.
I have been there in this place she finds herself.
It is dark and dank, full of quicksand
Sucking, pulling, threatening to drown her.
I could tell her not to resist, yet remember how hard it is
To surrender, how unforgiving that feels.
My heart aches as I listen.
I found my way out so why can’t I help her?
I hug her and say “hang in there”, disgusted
That this is the best I can do.
She hugs me back and says “I know what you mean.”
Sitting on the table Kitty looks over her shoulder. Her fully dilated eyes follow every move the little dog makes. I have no worry about what Zeus, the dog, is up to. A glance at Kitty tells me exactly where he is. I sit on the couch, trying to write. Zeus comes by, dancing on his hind legs, pawing the air. His short legs can’t make the jump to the couch but I reward his effort scooping him up with one hand and placing him on my lap. Kitty glowers at me, shocked that another animal has taken her place. I fluff the dog’s ears and scratch his belly. Then with a look of apology to Kitty, I place him back on the floor and toss a little ball for him to chase. Kitty jumps into my lap, reclaiming her territory.
My territory is changing, as if I ever really had any claim on anything in the first place. I made my list of all the things I need to do to get ready to move to Arizona. And as things go onto the list, I pause. Do I really need this? Do I really need that? And it surprises me how easily I am letting things go. The TV is old, the couch is beginning to sag, and the hall table wobbles. This big move is getting smaller and smaller every day. It’s as if I am standing in a tunnel with motion sensor lights. The hallway is lit ten feet around me. Looking backward is only gloom, but looking forward is the promise of more light. I choose to step forward. But to step forward, to gain more light, I have to let go of where I am. With each step, the light behind me disappears and the way forward blooms. Like Kitty I look over my shoulder from time to time, not to reclaim anything but rather to let it go.
Walking around the city, I understand this is all I have ever known. Strolling along State Street, looking in the Macys windows, catching the snowflakes on my tongue, the cinnamon caramels at Caribou Coffee – these are things I will miss. With a laugh to myself I remembered how irritating it was when Marshall Field became Macys. How aggravating when White Sox Park became the Cell and Willis took over Sears Tower. In the long run, those changes were meaningless. Leaving a marriage, moving from the suburbs to the city, now those were changes. A change of jobs, a change of career, that’s the way to shake things up. Stepping outside the box, getting out of your comfort zone, I laughed again as I thought it’s all about location, location, location.
A crowd gathered around my favorite street vendor, Puppet Bike. Puppet Bike always gets my dollar. The puppeteer sits inside a wooden box atop a bicycle and manipulates hand puppets behind the handcrafted stage. There is no story line and the puppets do not speak. Worn out Daniel Striped Tigers, leftovers from Mr. Rogers (one is even missing a button eye) dance around to boogie woogie and big band music much to the delight of the audience.
It was a classic Christmas card scene. Holiday lights and evergreen swags hung from the buildings, the Salvation Army bells were ringing. Juicy snowflakes sprinkled the holiday crowd like powdered sugar sifted on pound cake. The children were bundled in pastel snowsuits and little animal hats with ears, the tips of their noses tinged pink from the cold. Tiny mouths, frosty with breath, opened as wide as their eyes while parents snapped pictures. I imagined the puppeteer sitting inside the box, enduring the cold for the pleasure of these suburbanites. They needed a push. I pulled a dollar from my pocket and held it up to the little Tiger puppet who took it with great flourish. The puppets played a little tug of war with the dollar before dropping it down behind the stage. The little puppets bounced, danced, bowed and waved to me in appreciation. I waved back and that was all it took for the children to start asking “Mommy can I give the puppet a dollar?” I walked away secure in the knowledge that I had started an avalanche of cash for the puppets, a little good-bye present from me to them. And with that, the city felt behind me.
I have never been to Mexico, Italy or Asia … or for that matter South America. I have never seen the pyramids so add Africa to that list too. I have never gone out dancing alone, but I dance in my kitchen. I have never gone skydiving. Same with bungee jumping, but I flew in a helicopter and that was fun. I have never climbed a tree out of respect for the tree. I have never gone hunting for the same reason. I have never climbed a mountain. I’ve hiked a hill or two but nothing requiring a piton. I have never gone skinny dipping, although I’ve been tempted. Snorkeling is the closest I have come to scuba. I have never swum with the sharks although I have known a few. I have never run a marathon; I could never find a reason. Scratch the triathlon too. Although I was married once, I have never been given a diamond ring. I have never asked a man out on a date. It has never been my choice always his. I have never lived anywhere outside Metropolitan Chicago.
So I am going to Arizona. I will live in the wilderness, on the edge of the canyon, next to the stream. I will live without a blackberry. I will live without a net. I am throwing my life up for grabs to live on a ranch, to care for the visitors, to haul water and hay for the horses, and to plant an organic garden. I am bringing my sketch pad and charcoal. I am bringing my journal and pen. I will write under the purest blue sky and record the moods of the desert and track the spiral of the Milky Way at night. I will strap on my hiking boots to explore the red canyon. I will take those boots off to wade in the clear stream.
I dive into my closet, pulling clothing off hangers, exfoliating my corporate skin, shedding silk and cashmere. I kick up my heels, tossing suede and leather into green plastic trash bags. It is easy until I come to my best green suit. A Jones New York label, it is the deepest green, almost black in certain light. It is a perfect size eight, a reward for dropping 60 lbs. of depression and guilt so many years ago. The four button jacket fits me like a second skin, nipping in at the waist. I never wear it with a blouse, preferring to wear the jacket alone buttoned up because it shows off my collarbones. The skirt has no waistband and zips up with ease. Jones uses the best zipper that smoothly disappears into the seam. The skirt fits my hips and flares at the bottom, like a mermaid. I love the swish when I walk, powerful and feminine at the same time. It still looks good. I am torn. I set it aside and turn back to my closet, flipping Liz Claiborne, Anne Klein and Anne Taylor over my shoulder with ease.
I come to my dresses and toss those as well. Until I pick up the brown and blue one, another Jones creation. It skims the body with a deep V front and back, with little cap sleeves and pin tucks. I love this dress. The chiffon is filmy and light, it can go anywhere that needs a little party. I have copper heels to match. When I wear this outfit the compliments come my way. I am keeping it, the copper heels too. I look back at the green suit. It is beautiful but reeks of reams of documents and presentations, of 3 hour meetings and conference calls. Buttoned up power, it is a corset that doesn’t allow me to breathe. I put it in the go pile and feel instant relief.
So much clothing and shoes, I got my money’s worth. I don’t need them anymore but I keep a few dresses and the copper heels. Those I will need for dancing in Mexico with the man of my choice. I am going to be happy. I already am. I am going to live life on my terms, for the first time. I am falling off the grid.
I struggle to write lines.
Searching for mind music, words to dance, a hint of rhythm,
I look for inspiration.
A triangle of mountain softened by cranes
Curving its edge, winging one after the other
Beak to tail, tail to beak, an unbroken line
The leader whoops “stay together”.
The field glistens with crows
Black patent leather wings gleam.
As if lifted by a thread, the leader flies,
The others follow without a sound.
Beneath the bridge the river is disrupted
By a thin low shell skimming the waves.
Oars dip as one in perfect propulsion
Captain calling cadence, the team coheres.
The poetry of the earth engulfs me
With a smile I understand, weak as they may be,
My efforts add to it.
I gave my name to the receptionist, expecting she would have my package ready and waiting for me.
“Who is your rep?” she asked.
“Rich” I said and she picked up her phone to announce my arrival.
A minute later Rich walked up with a warm handshake and even warmer smile.
“Come on back!” he said.
Rich and I have a long business relationship but this was the first time I had ever been to the shop. Always before he would pick up and deliver my business orders, but this time was different. This time, my order was personal. I asked him to print my family cookbook. I followed him through the door into the back of the print shop. It is an impressive operation. Printing is no longer the grimy job it used to be so long ago, everything is digitized and programmed these days. Keyboards have replaced ink-stained fingers and correcting a proof is accomplished in a nano-second. The shop was clean, bright and airy and I noticed that my dishwasher at home was much louder than the machines that were rapidly humming.
Rich hoisted two large boxes up to a worktable. They were filled with my family cookbooks. He introduced me to a young man, John, sitting before a monitor. After shaking my hand, John picked up the phone and said, “she’s here.” Within seconds I was surrounded by smiling young men eager to meet the woman behind the family cookbook project.
“This is the greatest idea for the holidays”
“I read each and every story.”
“What a great idea to include photos and the captions were so funny!”
“I told my wife about the cookbook and she wanted to know if she could get a copy.”
My little cookbook, an edition of only 30 copies, had brightened their day, giving them a break from the daily grind of printing, copying and binding business and legal documents. They pressed me for the story behind the cookbook, nodding their heads in delight as I gave them the details – details they already knew from reading the book. They peppered me with questions about Rosie and Louie, my grandparents. They expressed amazement that the contributions to the book spanned generations from grandparents through great grandchildren. They wanted to know all about B.A. Bea and laughed out loud when I explained that B. A. Bea was none other than my 78 year old mother whose nickname is Bad Ass. Together we went through the book, complimenting each other on the work.
Finally we packed up the books into my little cart. Rich handed me an invitation. The shop was having a holiday party next Tuesday night and they asked me to come.
I started the cookbook project back in June and spent many long nights typing, formatting, scanning, uploading and creating. Until finally, with one short email, I sent my pdf files to Rich and asked him to put the whole thing together for me. The book is beautiful. Full size, spiral bound, with laminated covers, it is 231 pages long. The collage of photos on the cover is vibrant and begs to be picked up. The paper quality is a thick and sturdy weight yet creamy to the touch. It is a book meant to last and these young men knew it. They cared about this project as much as I did. They took the energy behind it and enhanced it with their own. They made it amazing. The decision to create this cookbook was based on a desire to pass a legacy on to current and future generations. I had no idea that the energy, light and love inside its covers could reach out and touch others as well.
In the seconds before the plane’s wheels touch ground,
So much tonnage hangs in the air,
Hovering inches above the concrete.
A conquering of earth and sky all at the same time,
A time of magic like falling in love.
Resisting, longing, pushing back
Circling, spinning, dizzy with excitement
Holding on to the seat in anticipation
Of final surrender and
A return to Heart, a return to Earth
As the wheels touch down, I realize
I have been holding my breath.
I met a man with a chocolate soul. His sign drew me in, “Sugar Daddy Desserts” and as I walked in the door a cowbell rang, announcing my arrival. Out from the back hustled the owner, eyes sparking and ruddy cheeks, he was Santa Claus in cowboy boots.
“James Crowder” he extended his hand, giving me a Texas size handshake.
The shop was tiny, the size of my working kitchen at home, most of it consisted of his workshop hidden behind a wall. The wooden counter to my left was set up to ring up sales, the glass display case in front of me held chocolate treasures.
“If you come into my shop, you have to promise me one thing.” James said.
“What is that?” I asked.
“You have to sample my wares.” And he plunked down a bottle of water, something to cleanse my palate between bites. James (already we were on a first name basis) proceeded to offer me candy.
“Everything is chocolate with a Texas twist.” He said, sweeping his hand in his best impression of Vanna White. I laughed. All the packages in the Cowboy Up Collection feature the motto “how the West was fun”.
“Bring it on!” I said untwisting the cap from the water bottle.
First up was the Prickly Pear Pie Bar, a concoction of cactus, Kentucky Bourbon and dark chocolate that tasted smooth as a cowboy ballad in my mouth. A swig of water then I popped a sample of Amaretto By Morning toffee that bested any almond coffee cake I can remember. He warned me about the Bronco Brittle.
“It has a kick!” Turning the brittle over in my hand, I could see tiny bits of red sprinkled throughout the sugar, bits of chipotle. Game for anything, I took a bite.
“Not so spicy” I mumbled with my mouthful, but as the sugar dissolved down my throat, the chipotle kicked in, spicy warm on my tongue. A second bite made me reach for the water! I had to buy a bag of this!
My favorite was the Salt Lick Cluster, a mélange of roasted nuts, Italian orange peel, dark chocolate sprinkled with Mediterranean sea salt, an exquisite blend of savory and sweet. As the last bit floated down my throat I longed to ask for seconds, but knew that would not be enough. So I added a bag of clusters to my order.
“How long have you been making chocolate?” I asked.
“I have been making all things chocolate for 20 years but only turned to it full time last year when I opened this store. I studied with many of the great chocolatiers but all the recipes are mine. I want people to know they are eating a little bit of Texas when they bite into one of my treats.”
I kept munching, moving on to try a Truffle shaped like the map of Texas while he talked. I wanted the deliciousness of the butterscotch truffle to last forever while at the same time mulled over whether to try the Texas Buckshot or the BootLicker Licorice next.
“My grandmother, rest her soul, got me started when I was young and I know she would be proud to know that my chocolate is enjoyed by folks all over the world. I even do weddings and events.” He pointed to a large map of the U.S. on the wall full of multicolored pins. “I track where orders come from, putting a pin in the map for each one.” He picked up a red pin certain of my purchase.
“Where are you from darling?”
“Chicago” I said. His hand hovered over the map, uncertain of Chicago’s location. “There at the tip of Lake Michigan.” He plunged the pin into the map.
I spent over $50 purchasing two large Concho Caramels, a bag of Salt Lick Clusters, a box of Texas Truffles and Bronco Brittle.
“Every purchase comes with a fortune, darling. Pick out the one that agrees with you the most.” He said, handing me a stack of brown business cards, each with a different piece of folk wisdom scrawled on the back.
“Be careful. When you’ve got all you want, oftentimes what you’ve got really has got you.”
I stuck the fortune in the bag and received the first punch on my new Chocolate Cravers Club card. I shook hands with James and walked back out the door. Within 20 minutes I arrived at my son’s Texas home, plastic bag swinging from my arm.
“Where have you been?” Matt asked.
“I stopped at the chocolate store and lost track of time” I told him as I spilled my sugary treasures out on the kitchen counter. And I told Matt where to find the store which he had never been to.
“I met a man with a chocolate soul. When you are in the company of someone who is doing what he loves, time doesn’t matter anymore.”
I popped open the bag of Salt Lick Clusters and offered one to Matt.
It was two days before Thanksgiving and I was focused on laundry and packing for my trip the next day to Texas. As I waited for the clothes dryer to buzz, I hopped online to file my unemployment application.
“Your information cannot be validated against our records. Please call or visit your local IDES office.”
I refused to accept that message and kept re-entering my information over and over. Knowing the three strikes and you’re out rule applies not only to baseball but to logins as well, I finally admitted defeat, picked up the phone and called the toll free number for the Illinois Department of Employment Security. Wading through the voicemail maze, I finally landed a live body on the other end. Kind but firm, he insisted there was no way for him to determine what the problem might be and therefore, I must present myself in person at my local IDES office.
It was one in the afternoon and the weather matched my mood, gloomy and misty with threatening rain. I wanted to finish packing but logic told me to get the application done. The morning lines should be gone and I would be able to breeze right through the process. I slipped on my jacket and headed out the door for the half mile walk to the local IDES office.
Chicago is a diverse city of ethnic neighborhoods in which the culture and property values change with a single step across a street or in this instance by walking under a viaduct. The diversity is one of the things I love about the city, yet this day stepping into a low income neighborhood felt like a foreshadowing of fate.
I entered the darkness under the block long viaduct on Blue Island Avenue. Neighborhood artists once gave it life painting sweeping murals of vibrant color, but that was too many winters ago. Large chunks of concrete have since fallen from the walls and any artwork that remains has a monstrous feel, peeling and faded, dripping with grease, under a roof black with car exhaust. The sidewalk heaved and rolled beneath my feet, slick with muck and oily leaves. I quickened my steps, eager to get out of the toxic dark. Emerging into the mist on the other side was a momentary sweet relief.
I kept my pace for the final two blocks. There was a group of a dozen or so men loitering near the office door and my heart sank at the thought of a lengthy line. Could they see the scarlet letter “T for terminated” plastered across my forehead? The men parted for me and I hesitated like a child about to run through a spanking machine. One brown hand extended a card to me which I gratefully accepted as a sign that it was OK to pass. I stuck it in my pocket before hurrying inside.
The office was ballroom large covered in cheap veneer paneling in that generic color that the lumberyards refer to as fruitwood. Everywhere I looked there were signs alternating between English and Spanish. It confused me as I tried to figure out what to do. Three steel desks sat side by side bisecting the room in half. A young Asian manned the first, an elderly gentleman sat in the middle and a young J-Lo occupied the third seat. There were no ropes or stanchions to herd people, but everyone lined up obediently upon a carpet runner along the left. I hesitated, wanting to ask someone in authority if I was meant for that line, but this wasn’t Wal-Mart. There was no greeter, no information booth, so I dropped into the line behind several men in workmen’s clothing, and a young mother juggling two fidgety children. Immediately in front of me stood a bear of a man so tall and broad he blocked my line of sight. Another man soon fell in behind me dressed in a blue suit, tie, white shirt with French cuffs and a wool scarf loose around his neck. I wondered if he thought his suit would secure him a measure of respect but everyone looked him up and down with a shrug and then ignored him. At least my blue jeans allowed me to blend in and they ignored me too. Ignoring was good. I wanted to fold into myself, shrink down, sprout wings, fly up and perch on the Salon de Conferencia sign. It seemed like a safe vantage spot. But I stood there, peering around the Bear from time to time, trying to figure out if those in front of me were alone or in pairs, hoping for anything that would make the line move faster.
The Asian was lightening fast but brusque, handling two people for every one attended to by his peers. But I was destined for the older man.
“Is it raining out yet?” he asked me as he waved me to approach.
“Not yet.” I replied.
“As long as it is not snowing.” I shook my head in agreement thinking the conversation strange.
“I need to file for unemployment.” I said.
“First time?” He asked.
“Yes” I said, realizing that he recognized me for what I was, an Unemployment Virgin. His comments about the weather were an attempt to ease my nerves.
I have been working since the age of 15. I have never been fired and I did not feel fired now. The document in my bag called it a separation agreement but really, let’s be honest here, it was more like a divorce with a settlement agreement, a “we don’t love you anymore so hit the road honey and don’t come back” notice. I felt relieved on my last day of work, actual happiness to be free. But today I was one of the great unwashed, and for the first time tears threatened.
I took my application and sat in a plastic one-size fits all chair designed to mold to your rear end. I completed the six pages of the form and returned to the back of the line. This time J-Lo assisted me, entering my data, checking my ID.
“You will get a letter of approval in the mail but you have to call this number on December 9th and every two weeks after that to certify your benefits. You must document your search for employment on this form. You can do it online, in person or by phone but you have to do these things to continue to receive your benefits. “
I felt the lock clicking shut, new shackles in place. I nodded my thanks and headed out the door. Sticking my cold hands in my pocket I felt the card the man had given me. Pulling it out, I saw it was a card for a local church, a little reminder from the Universe that someone was looking after me.
I flew over the sidewalk, eager to get back home. Checking the phone, I discovered a voicemail from an unknown number. A patient at Northwestern Hospital requested a Reiki treatment. She was stuck in the hospital for the holiday and wanted a treatment to ease her stress. My visit to the unemployment office had taken two hours out of my day. I really needed to finish packing for my trip but my heart overruled my head. I returned her call, said I could be there within the hour, grabbed my coat and headed back out into the rain.
As a volunteer at Northwestern, I know my way a bit around the hospital and found my way to E’s room easily. We recognized each other having both taken classes at Equilibrium Energy & Education. We chatted for a bit. Her hospital stay forced her to cancel her flight home. For the first time in her life she was going to miss Thanksgiving dinner with her family back on the East Coast. She said she felt at peace with the situation, but her sad smile told me otherwise.
We turned off the bright hospital lights and she lowered the bed to a comfortable height. I placed my hands gently upon her brow and began the energy treatment. She relaxed under my hands and I worked gently with her for an hour. I felt the tears in her heart and allowed them to wash through me to help release her sadness. I sat next to her bed in the dim light, waiting for her to wake.
When E woke, she smiled. The worry lines in her forehead disappeared, her breathing was deep and easy.
“I know you didn’t really have time to do this today but I haven’t felt such peace in a long time. I’ll be able to sleep tonight. You have a gift. Thank you for sharing it with me.” E said.
“My Thanksgiving gift to you.” I replied giving her a hug.
Like the nature of the city streets, my mood changed in an instant. I no longer felt like a drain on society. I knew everything was as it should be and that I would be OK.