Artist’s Date 1: It’s More Fun When It’s Gift Wrapped

I’m looking at a semi, see-through bag sitting on my red-leather dining chair.  Inside are three books.  All of them gift wrapped.  They are for me.  A take away from my Artist’s Date last Friday – a core practice from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.

It’s my second time around, doing this self-led 12-week course guiding me toward greater creativity. 

I struggled mightily with the Artist’s Date – a two or so hour time block, alone, with the express purpose of filling your senses in any way you please – when I first took on The Artist’s Way in early 2012.  I had a hard time making time “just for play…just because.”

I decided to stay close to home for my first date, exploring my own neighborhood and the independent shops on Lincoln Avenue that I say I’ll stop in “sometime.”

Last Friday was “sometime.”

I began at Gene’s Sausages  — a terribly, clunky and not-very-fitting name for a terribly upscale food store.  A large cow beckons from over the entryway.  And from the second floor window you can look down on it.

Inside I fingered cucumber sodas, ginger gelatos and chocolates from around the world.  I watched customers pull paper numbers and order lamb, chicken, beef, potato pancakes and, of course, sausage.  I saw slices of Sacher torte, tiramisu and mini macaroons being tucked into tiny cardboard containers.  Upstairs I photographed a bottle of cassis syrup and sent it to my ex-husband.  His favorite.  It was once a staple in our Oakland apartment for making snakebites with black.  Seems a lifetime ago.

I felt conspicuous.  Like I was trying too hard to “be” on this date.  Like trying to make conversation on a blind date with someone you feel no connection to.  I looked at my watch – 30 minutes.  How would I ever fill two hours?  I felt defeated, but moved on – assuming it takes a little while to get to know and feel comfortable with one’s inner artist, just as it does to know a new partner.

I was sucked in by the Staff Picks at the Book Cellar.  I love independent bookstores because they lay books on tables and in displays and not just lined up in cases to maximize space.  I can be drawn in by something I didn’t come for.  I picked up A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson and read the back cover.  It spoke to me.  I thought, “A nice date might buy me a book at the bookstore.”  So I carried it with me to purchase for myself.

I told my friend Nithin about this a few days later.  He couldn’t imagine buying someone a book on a date.  I told him I was pretty sure my ex-husband did early on in our courtship, in San Francisco at City Lights Books.  Or maybe we just shopped and bought our own.   Regardless, this date now involved presents and it was starting to look up.

Towards the back of the store, a large Annie Leibowitz coffee table book met me at eye level, a sticker on it reading “For the Photographer.”  That used to be me.

I began my college career majoring in fine arts with an emphasis in photography.  I graduated with a journalism degree, having been prodded into a more practical direction by my parents who were footing the bill.  Lately I find myself wondering if I have “punished” myself for the decision that 18-year-old girl/woman made.  Putting down my camera.  My paintbrush.  My pastels.  Insisting I must not have been that serious about it if I were so easily swayed.  That my school had a mediocre art department.  And I wasn’t “that good” anyway.

I plucked the tomb from its plastic display stand and brought it to a chair tucked in the corner, parking myself.  Next to me, a worker unpacked boxes and checked in new items, stopping only when interrupted by someone looking for Cheryl Strange’s Wild or books about Chicago.

I pulled out my reading glasses and read my own forgotten hero’s words.  She wrote about her family.  Her mother’s creative expression – dancing and swimming.  How her favorite photograph of her mother is the one her mother likes least – because she looked her age.  She wrote about her partner Susan Sontag.  Their travels.  Their apartment in Paris and its perfect light.  The home in New York state that accommodates their entire family.  Her cancer treatment and her death.  Choosing what she would be buried in.  Photographing her in life and in death.

She wrote about assignments for Conde Naste and Rolling Stone.  Photographing the war in Bosnia and how she was greeted by others in the field.  She wrote about her pregnancies and her children.  And how this book honors all of those experiences.  All of those images.

I read all of it.  Every word.  Lovingly fingering each page of photographs.  Some familiar, most of them not.  I felt excited and inspired and filled.  I remembered my aspirations of being a fashion photographer and felt my heart grow hot.  In high school, shooting my friend Michelle, sitting side-saddle, all in black on a stark white backdrop and knowing that it was good.

And when I finished, I brought the book back to its plastic stand.  Across from it a display of the America’s Best series.  I picked up America’s Best Essays and thought it might serve as useful fodder for the work I’ve been doing.  I tucked it under my arm, along with the Bryson book, and headed towards the register.

Paying, I reminded the clerk of a sign reading “Ask about a bonus book when you buy a Staff Pick.”  She handed me a book wrapped in brown butcher paper.  A surprise.  She asked if I needed a gift receipt.  I didn’t.  But eyeing the table to my right, told her I did need gift wrap.

The wrapper cut sheets of the same brown butcher paper and lengths of green and red sparkly ribbon.  I confessed that the books were for me, and told her this story:

When I was 10, my Aunt Ellie stole me away from the flurry of my brother’s Bar Mitzvah and took me shopping at Jacobsons in downtown Birmingham.   My family did not regularly shop at Jacobsons – or anywhere in downtown Birmingham.  It was too expensive.  But she insisted I needed new duds to be ready for middle school.

I still remember what I picked.  Navy trousers.  A navy and cream popcorn knit sweater. And a yellow bag shaped like a roller skate with red plastic wheels on the bottom.  After she paid, she guided me to the gift wrap counter and asked that each item be wrapped in a silver box with J’s stamped on it, and tied in white ribbon.

“It’s a present,” she said.

“But I know what I’m getting.  I picked it out,” I replied.

“I know.  But it’s more fun when it’s gift wrapped,” she answered.

And it was.  Back home, my brother was tearing open envelopes, checks falling onto the kitchen table, while I opened my J boxes.

 I smiled, feeling lucky to have an aunt who made me feel ok and worthy when I felt anything but – a pudgy, 10-year-old Jewish girl with a bad Dorothy Hamill haircut and no waist.

I walked out of the book store feeling smug.  Like I had a secret.  Like I as wearing crotch-less panties to church.  I crossed the street to Paciugo Gelato.  It was 29 degrees outside.  It didn’t matter.  Ice cream is the perfect date food.  It’s portable – you can walk and talk while you eat it.  It’s not-too-serious.  And you can share it – it encourages intimacy.

I ordered a waffle cone with gingerbread, sea-salt caramel, and banana Health-bar crunch.  Pulled up the faux-fur hood of my down coat, rolled on my grey and black leopard gloves and grabbed my cone. 

I thought about humid summer nights strolling with my ex-husband to the Tastee-Freez in Humboldt Park, the heavy air lit up by lightning bugs, and ordering a small twist.  Climbing the hills of Queen Anne up to Molly Moon’s for scoops of Honey Lavender and Earl Grey.  More recently, sharing frozen yogurt with wet walnuts on a steamy sidewalk in Charleston, talking to a handsome stranger I’d just met into the wee hours of the morning.

I walked home and put the bag of books on the chair – saving them, savoring them, to open…perhaps on Christmas?  I didn’t have to wait for someone to buy me a gift.  I bought my own.  And, my Aunt Ellie is right.  It IS more fun when it’s gift wrapped.

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