In the days between soccer games, we decide to do some sight-seeing in the Old City of Jerusalem. RHJ has done this many times before – most recently, just before I arrived in town – but he arranges a tour without complaint.

We visit the City’s different quarters; we make our way towards the Western Wall; I am there to place prayers in the cracks for the friends who have sent them on to me but I am hesitant in offering up my own written prayer. This feels too familiar; too much like the Tibetan Bells at that Monastery in China nine years ago. There, you could tell your prayer to the monk and he’d write it on the clapper of a clay bell, then the freshly made ornament would be hung in the temple’s gazebo until it disintegrated or was smashed. That was how your wish was supposed to come true – in the breaking down part.

Back then, I had gone to the Far East to rid myself of my longing for Frederic and I prayed on the bells that he and I would be happy together, ever after. Not since my high school sweetheart had I wanted anyone as much as I wanted Freddy; never had I loved any complicated, complete man the way I adored him. But we were both flawed people in the middle of messy divorces and I’m not sure we could help ourselves, even if we could have seen what we were doing to each other. So now I make it a point not to wish or pray with that kind of specificity.

As I am lost in thought about wishes and prayers, our tour guide takes us around the Old City’s sights, and eventually we reach the plaza where the Western Wall is located. By this point in our trip, I have come from the camino in Spain; through the portal of the Cathedral of Santiago; by way of a late night argument at the Old Train Station in Jerusalem; up, down, over, around, and through the football fields at Bayit Vegan. I am an exhausted and unlikely pilgrim who is Just Hanging On; trying to rid herself of longing for certainty and stability and embrace the mess of the moment. I am trying to Become Whole; I am trying not to lose my head, and yet, at the same time, do exactly that.

Men’s and women’s prayers are separate at the Wall, and our tour guide waits with me as I approach on the women’s side – first, to write out the few words I want to say; and then to place them inside the cracks. After I am done, we retreat back into the plaza where men and women can mingle.

We leave the square, and we finish walking around the Old City. We start to head out towards the Tower of David and Jaffa Gate. It is then that I realise where we are; where I am. We had entered the City just down the hill a bit, in the Armenian quarter. And now, we are walking past the Cathedral of Saint James – the site of the Martyrdom of James the Greater – where inside the Sanctuary, Saint James’s head is buried under the altar beneath a red marble slab.

In a flash, I see that I have traced the steps of the body in reverse – I have come from the Cathedral of Santiago in Spain where the body is entombed, to the Cathedral of Saint James in Jerusalem, where everything happened. I found the heart before the head; I found Santiago before Saint James – the vulgar before the Greater; the remote mission before the home base.

I am so obsessed with doing things perfectly; in order – in things making sense. But here I am, having completed this voyage so messily; so haphazardly. I have begun at the end and ended at the scene of the crime. How did I get here?

We do not enter the Cathedral; I do not even make mention of the thing I have just discovered. We part ways with our tour guide just outside Jaffa Gate, where a group of young soldiers are unstrapping their guns, which they cannot bring inside the City on their cultural day off. And we walk away from the Old City; away from the walls, to our lunch in Mamilla in a modern shopping plaza, where I eat salmon and soba noodles for the third time that week

The thing I do not realise at the time is the utility of brokenness. I am too arrogant; too dense to understand that we pray at the Wall because of the cracks in it; that we wish on the bells because they break down. I cannot fully fathom that I have just traced the broken pieces of a saint – finding his body in the land of my family and his head in the homeland of the man I love. I have perhaps been on the wrong pilgrimage all this time – I have travelled these different paths to try to make myself whole again, and I do not understand that first, I need to find the beauty in being broken.

It is the Sabbath in Jerusalem, which is a religious city, and because we are not religious, for us it means that absolutely nothing is open.

We decide to go to the Israel Museum, which is a mixed bag of ancient and contemporary; religious and non-religious art. There is also a giant model of the Second Temple there, as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls. I do not admit that I know very little about religious history except for what I had to learn to be confirmed as a Catholic in order to marry my first husband, and what I have picked up from the ad hoc Hebrew School lessons my first husband’s second wife – a professor of Jewish Studies – has given me during the downtime at funerals.

After our tour of the model, we fight several Birthright trips in order to descend into the cavern that contains the Scrolls, then we make our way into the Museum’s main building. We are hungry; we are tired, but there is an element of Just Needing Things to Do on a Saturday, so we stay and wander.

Almost by accident, we make our way into an exhibition called No Place Like Home, where the signage promises it will restore a transformed object to its natural place within the…home. This is right up my alley. We pass Duchamps; Warhols; etc. – the masters of pop and contemporary art – giant, absurd spoons; the Brillo boxes; exactly everything you’d expect.

And then, in the Utility Room, I see Yayoi Kusama’s (Untitled) Ironing Board under a spotlight, and instantly, am the one transformed.

In that moment, the gallery becomes twenty years ago at Christmastime in my Hometown. My high school sweetheart has come home from college. We have arrived at a party together, and everyone assumes I am there as his date, but instead, he takes the opportunity of the gathering to tell all our friends he is gay. In one horrible instant, it is the first time in my life I understand what it means to be a woman; what it means to be sexless; what it means to feel the light and air be sucked out of the room. It is the moment I learn to be hard to read.

We have come in one car. I find another ride home.

I am still obligated, after this, to go to a Hanukkah party at a mutual family friend’s house and my high school sweetheart will be there. Mums and Daddy send me with wine for the hosts and for the rabbi and his wife. I arrive at the party, and in a final fit of pique over my circumstances before I enter, I smash one of the bottles of wine on the front walk. I walk into the party with my head held high – no longer the beloved girlfriend of the favourite son. Now, I am a woman scorned.

My recollection of the scene is a little hazy from this point, but what ensues is me running through the house, yelling at my high school sweetheart, and his mother not far behind. I am so helpless; so angry. But I do know that memory is fallible – my recall is probably incorrect. It may have never happened this way at all. But everything from that night feels fraught; chaotic; tense; horrible – like a running, screaming match that definitely happened in real time.

But mostly, I remember that it is the last time I ever really lose my head.

I retreat, defeated, into the rainy El Nino night, and a few weeks later, start making out with the rabbi’s son as if to send a threat to these nice people to refrain from inviting red-haired shiksas to any more of their holidays. But behind my back, the rabbi’s son makes out with one of my friends. With the last of my sexual power, I scream and shout about it, but it does not matter anymore.

A few months pass, and the furore from Christmastime dies down. Eventually, no one remembers anything ever happened, except for me and the teachers at my conservative school who keep reminding me to hate the sin and love the sinner. The rabbi’s son, too, forgets about our angst, and and gets a new girlfriend, and the three of us go to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to see the opening of Yayoi Kusama’s Love Forever, because they are artists, and I am not, but I am always game for a museum.

The Love Forever exhibit is a series of white rooms full of stitched and painted protrusions; objects covered in canvas phalluses, representing Kusama’s fear of male domination. I am floored. It is the first time I have felt anything in months; the first time I have felt swept away by art. My heart aches all day.

And then in another flash, I am back here in Jerusalem, with that Christmas twenty years ago feeling very present tense as I stare at the Kusama Ironing Board under the spotlight. How did this get here? I want to rip the protrusions from their roots; I want to smash the board like I did that bottle of wine; I want to crush the steam iron and scream: Why are you doing this to me?

You okay? RHJ asks.

Yes, yes, I say, moving on to look at a shower enclosed in a plexiglass case, dripping honey into a waiting drain.

The drip is soothing; it calms me. I am trying not to lose my head. But the fear is so present, still – of loving, of following, of being humiliated, abandoned. I am trying so hard not to lose my head.

I leave Madrid for Santiago de Compostela on a sunny Sunday morning. The evening before, at a Spanish friend’s house, I had admitted that my family was from Galicia, and Lady of the House’s son immediately piped up, But you do not seem crazy! You know that all Gallegos boast they are 10% crazy, right? He shook his head, confused at the idea that anyone could be proud of that. I did not tell him that if what he said were true it would explain Quite A Lot about one side of my family.

I don’t know what to expect in Galicia, other than 10% of the people being nuts. Nearly twenty years prior, my high school sweetheart had studied abroad in London, and capped off the adventure by travelling the Camino de Santiago before joining the Peace Corps in Mauritania after graduation. His trek down the Camino had been fruitful for him, creatively speaking, and it had resulted in a play – a musical – which he’d sent to a select group of readers via his mother. It was the first in a series of many musicals he wrote, and he’d ultimately grown up to be a Broadway composer.

The envelope containing That Particular Play had arrived at my college apartment in a manila envelope with the soundtrack on CD or a cassette tape – I don’t remember which it was and given the era, either was plausible. He’d also sent word that a single bird flying overhead seemed like a sign, and when he reached the church at the end of the trek, the floodgates opened, and he cried, because then he felt like he had found God.

I ripped the manuscript up without reading it; I listened to the tape once, because I loved the sound of his voice more than I hated him; and I burned the postcard where he described the bird, the sky, the church, and God. He had broken my heart – broken me – so profoundly that I didn’t think I’d ever feel whole again. After losing my first love in such a public and humiliating way, I didn’t think that my head and my heart would be part of the same complete person again.

At the time, I didn’t know he was travelling the roads that my family had lived on; that he was exploring the places I was From. Back then, I had no idea how we would both grow, and more importantly, how much work time actually does. I was just angry in the way that Hurting Young People often are.

Before I left for Spain, this past June, I had bumped into him in California. Someone snapped a photo of us, arms around each other, smirking into the camera like we might have done Way Back When, and it reminded me of being on the cusp of all the things we could not contain twenty years ago: Our love; our anger; our fear; our knowing that This Was A Finite Thing.

That’s heavy stuff for teenage hearts.

I am thinking of him again as I land in Santiago de Compostela, in their modern airport nestled amongst the greenery that makes the approach look like I am landing in Norway or Ireland. My heart aches with old fury; untapped grief; with feelings I cannot identify but that feel vaguely familiar.

Is this what it feels like to be a pilgrim? 

I am only in Santiago for two days, so I am only planning to walk the last ten miles or so of The Way of Saint James; of the Camino de Santiago. The pilgrimage derives its name from the patron saint of Spain – Saint James the Greater – whose body is entombed in the grand cathedral at the Camino’s end. The name Santiago itself comes from the Spanish derivation of James from Latin – Sanctu Iacobu – which, translated from Vulgar Latin to local Galician, became sant iago, hence Santiago.

The story goes that after James was martyred at the hands of King Herod in Jerusalem (Acts 12:1-2), his body was returned to Galicia, but was thrown into the sea – emerging covered in scallop shells. As a result, travellers come to Santiago and carry bleached shells on red cords, emblazoned with the shield of Saint James as evidence they are pilgrims who should be granted a safe passage. 

I pick up my red lanyard and hit the trail mid-morning on my first full day in town, the sun bright overhead. When I reach the first scallop-shaped trail marker, a bird flies across the perfect blue sky, and the floodgates open, and the tears come in a tidal wave that I did not know was contained behind my eyes. I snap a photo of the trail marker and I send it to my high school sweetheart, without any text, because I know that in this moment, almost twenty years after his own journey, he is the only person who will understand my heart.

Then I walk for ten miles, crying. I am crying because these are the roads my people have walked for generations and this is the first time, ever, I have been in a place that I know I am From. I am crying because I came all this way, and did all this work, and married all these men, and at the end of it, it is just me here, alone, with nothing to show all these dead ancestors for it. I’m also crying because I’m probably at least 10% crazy, just like the rest of them. 

How did I get here?

As I emerge from the Spanish woods and near the cathedral at the Camino’s end, my phone buzzes with a text message from my high school sweetheart. He has received my picture of the trail marker.

The start of everything, he says.

And I understand, suddenly, in this hot, stark moment in the north of Spain, that who I am is not just a disappointment; not only a litany of failures or a sum-total of endings. I am just at the start.

Can I tell you a story? I text RHJ. I am in a south-bound Uber, in a rainstorm, headed to meet JRA at a Richard Shindell concert.

Sure, I will read it – I am on the treadmill, RHJ replies.

I am listening to Lyle Lovett’s If I Had a Boat, which I disclose for context.

I love Lyle Lovett, I say, I’ve seen him in concert multiple times, all over the country. And I call “If I Had a Boat” the “Pony Boat Song,” and most people have no idea what I’m talking about. But there’s a verse in it about Roy Rogers. Which is what this story is about.

My dad is the kind of guy who stops at weird roadside attractions – who will even drive us out to the middle of nowhere just to see some off-beat museum. One day, he drove us to Victorville, with his parents who were visiting from Pittsburgh, to go to the Roy Rogers Museum. I have no idea why he did this, but I think he thought we’d like it; maybe we were headed somewhere else and it was on the way. But I think he thought he was capturing some America that he wanted to live in as a kid.

I am definitely my father’s daughter. For years, I pretended that I hated those side trips, but they grew on me; got into my consciousness. When Andrew and I drove across the country when we were in law school, I took him on a detour to Mt. Rushmore, which wasn’t that odd, but I made him stop everywhere along the way – from the Corn Palace, in Mitchell, SD; to Wall Drug, to Carhenge, in Alliance, NE. This was back before GPS; back before you could simply plug an address into the super computer in your pocket. We’d gone to AAA and picked up stacks of maps and guide books. The navigation was all done by hand.

Even as I got older, I continued the family tradition. On the way back from my hen weekend in Newport a few years ago, I’d stopped at the Pez Museum in Orange, CT, and dragged Jade and eee into the cavernous factory for a look at How Pez Was Made (in truth, they were happy to do it). Those sorts of things were just part and parcel of Being My Friend.

So we walk around the museum for hours – HOURS – pretending to be interested in Roy Rogers and we lose Grandpa Henry. Finally, we find him outside chain smoking beneath the larger-than-lifesize fibreglass statue of Trigger, Roy’s horse, in the parking lot. And then we get back in the car to go home, and my dad’s in a huff because the trip has been something of a failure, and then my grandfather says: “Tommy, did you see the set on him, Tommy?! Did you see the set on that horse?!”

Because the horse HAD had a set on him. The horse had been not only anatomically correct, but perhaps exaggerated to show what a MAN’S MAN Roy Rogers had been. (Trigger, for his part, had been taxidermied and was located inside the museum for anatomical comparison).

At the time, my dad must’ve laughed; he must’ve agreed with his father – my dad probably pointed out the set on the horse as well, because in the deeper end of thirtysomething years I have known my father, my dad has never been one to shy away from a dick joke.

I must have been younger than 10 when we took that trip. They closed the museum in Victorville and moved it to Branson, MO and it closed for good a few years ago. But even at like, eight years old, it dawned on me that day that families were much more complicated than I had previously understood.

Now whenever I hear the Pony Boat Song, I think about how families are not very simple.

It is funny to me, to think about the West like this, in the context of Westerns. Of growing up in the Land of Reagan, and being one of those Didion-esque girls who moved East for school and then became lodged in the New York orbit – at first uncertainly and then intractably. I think, growing up in the West, you develop a weird sense of nostalgia for things that never happened. Everything is new, even the history, so maybe you struggle to find a sense of Where You Fit In, especially if you are not a native.

But I realise, too, that maybe it’s not just Growing Up in the West. Maybe we are all Fundamentally Lonely and trying to connect with each other and with our memories of things past; things that never existed. Sometimes the adventures form new memories. Sometimes they’re abject failures.

But sometimes, they connect us in other ways. Like how the Great Roy Rogers Incident of Nineteen Eightysomething made me realise how intensely my dad loves us; how much he loves to explore; how deeply ingrained in me that Loving-by-Doing is.

I think this is a blog entry, RHJ texts back.

(This conversation actually happened, but the messages have been significantly edited & condensed for privacy and clarity)

April is National Poetry Month. In honour of that, I’m digging through my archives and posting a series of poems I’ve written over the years.

Wicked tongue
You have me lashed to you now.
Your vain voice,
The gentle rolling cadence
Lilting laugh,
Falling timbre.
Darling,
It’s a vicious, thrilling ride.

(March, 2008)

I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song
I’m twenty-two now, but I won’t be for long
Time hurries on
And the leaves that are green turn to brown
– 
Paul Simon

Sarah, Kat, Kim & I are continuing to host Reverb through 2016 as a way to share writing prompts and providing a space for writers via our Facebook group. Here’s September’s prompt. 

September // Back to School: Back when you were in grade school, what were your favourite and least favourite subjects and why?  Did you become what you dreamed you would be when you grew up?  Or did your interests completely change?

I have been best friends with my best friend since grade school. The story of how we met has something to do with her moving to our town, and me offering her some orange candy in the schoolyard (to this day, I love orange candy), and that was that. We were both weird kids in a ticky-tacky suburban town – where all the houses were pink boxes with tile rooves and everyone lived in Planned Communities and swam on swim teams at community pools.

At first blush, my family could have Passed for Normal in that kind of town, because we were waspy, and preppy, and my father had a fancy job where he wore suits and was gone a lot. But my parents were from Elsewhere, and gave zero shits about my social status in the hierarchy of vicious packs of LA County blondes. Jade’s family, on the other hand, had moved south from the Bay Area, and she was a Child Actor, so there was basically nothing she could do except join a swim team if she wanted to be Normal.

But we found each other, and together we were invincible. There’s something special about finding a friend who makes you feel…normal.

Jade and I were both good students – she was more of an artist and I was more of a jock. In school, we were both good at language arts, and because we grew up in the era where if you were so inclined as a kid, you could just kind of disappear from the house all day in the summer, we used to vanish from one home to another and put together our own shows, and films, and dramatic productions. I’d walk or ride my bike to her house (which I now realise was Not Near to Mine, and undertaking this sort of ride as a child of 11 would probably result in a call to Child Protective Services today), or she’d come to mine, and we’d spend all day and night Doing Creative Things.

We were especially clever and creative in the days leading up to the return to school, when I think the anxiety of facing our classmates and peers ramped up in our unconscious. We’d stay up all night singing songs into the tape recorder, or making weird videos on my parents’ giant CamCorder (legendary among these is the night we decided to make a music video to If I Had a Hammer, including an actual hammer, which we shook menacingly at the camera as we lip-synched to Peter, Paul & Mary – totally missing the point of the song – until the head of the hammer shot off the handle and hit the camera lens.)

Even as a good student, there was something about the anxiety of school for me. I was an A+ kind of kid; lots of activities; varsity athlete; a strawberry blonde almost-Tracy Flick. I was good at school, but I didn’t like it. My mother always told me I’d be nostalgic for those First Days, and those dusty halls, and those shitty subjects, but xx number of years out, I still feel relief that it’s over.

So as Jade and I got a little bit older, we expanded the scope of our arts lessons from merely playwriting and filmmaking to interpretive dancing. We were Very Serious Tweenagers in the Greater Los Angeles Area, exposed to too much, but not enough, and so we’d sit on the lawn outside her family’s house, and Make Up Dances.

We were young so we were pretty limited to our parents’ music as the backdrop for our dancing. We’d flip through the tapes and find something “cool.” This usually limited us to the Beatles or Simon & Garfunkel. So we began making up interpretive dances to Simon & Garfunkel songs.

One afternoon, we created an epic interpretive dance to Paul Simon’s Leaves that are Green. We were 12. We practiced and practiced and practiced, and lip-synched our way through the song. For some reason, every dance move became second nature to us and deeply ingrained in both our memories. We very obviously did not understand the lyrics, or what the song was about, because, well, we were 12.

From there, we went on to an illustrious career in interpretive dancing to nihilist songs, including a turn in Eighth Grade Drama class when the actual assignment was to perform an interpretive dance, and none of the other kids even understood what that was. We not only had to debate which one to choose from our extensive repertoire, but selected The Sounds of Silence, and performed it from memory.

This is all a long-winded way of saying, my favourite subject in school was interpretive dance, and to this day, if you ask nicely, Jade and I will still perform The Leaves that are Green. 

 

The world has been fairly awful over the past few weeks, and I have no real desire to comment on it at this point. I think we all have a responsibility to ourselves and each other to be actively engaged in current events, but as a privileged, white Western woman, I think I have a lot of listening to do before I start making proclamations about The State of The World.

As recent events have unfolded, I have watched about half my friends take serious political and moral positions and share them on social media. I have watched the other half post photos of something called the Spouse Challenge, wherein they post a bunch of photos of themselves and their spouses to show the rest of us how much they love each other. I have gotten a little bit of crap (some good natured, some not) for not having a Hot Take in either direction.

Because Paul does not use/understand social media, he finds things like the Spouse Challenge deeply intrusive and upsetting. I find them unnecessary. We are the sort of people who don’t sit next to each other on planes because we both like the window seat, so the thought of us posting photos on social media celebrating Our Love in order to prove it to the world is…ridiculous.

We both came to this point in our lives, and this relationship, Gently Used. It would be weird to pretend that I’d never loved anyone before Paul, or that my entire life Up Until This Point had had no meaning, or bearing, on Anything I’m Doing or Experiencing Now.

With all of that said, here is a brief playlist for your enjoyment detailing the past decade of my romantic history, and how I got to where I am now. This has absolutely nothing to do with politics, police brutality, gun control, race relations, or how much I love my spouse.

Okay, maybe a little bit with why I love my spouse.

Bonus points if you can guess which of these songs corresponds to which era.