Fearing Week Four

In the last 10 minutes I’ve gotten up off the couch at least half a dozen times.  To make tea.  Check texts.  Sharpen my pencil.  

I can’t get comfortable.  I am editing as I write.  I am thinking about the zipper on my jeans that won’t stay up.

I am entering Week 4 of the Artist’s Way: Recovering a Sense of Integrity.  I am anxious and afraid.

I am thinking about the last time, the first time, I “worked” through Week 4. 

March 2012.  I scheduled a trip to San Francisco to reconnect with friends and clean up old messes.  I booked a ticket before asking my friend Rainey if she would be in town.  Turns out, she wouldn’t.  But she assured me I was more than welcome to stay in the house she and her partner share.

Theirs is a great, big, funky house built in the 1970s.  Lots of wood, brick and glass, with a gas fireplace in the center and a panoramic view of the green hills of Marin County.   Zack, a sweet but neurotic dog who likes to poop in a litter box, and a cat whose name I’ve forgotten, stayed with me.

Each morning I would drink coffee, look out at the expanse before me and write my Morning Pages.  And each morning the same words slipped from my fingers through my pen.  “I am alone in this house because I am getting ready to be alone.”  The thought didn’t frighten me.  It just seemed true.  A prophesy.

I visited my former bosses from the Jewish Bulletin.  Woody served me bagels and lox at his house nearby.  We watched the deer eat from his wild lawn.  And we cried.  I don’t recall why.  I met Marc for Chinese food in Alameda.  He looked frail and his skin was the color of cardboard.  He told me he needed a kidney transplant.  That I was a good writer.  That he attributed my “bad behavior” to youth.  And that he was sorry he never invited me for Passover.  Both told me they had not spoken to the other for several years.

Rachel and I drank tea at The Grove.   We recalled meeting at the train station in our 20s and our weekly  Saturday brunch dates.  Often teary, waxing about relationships gone awry – most notably, “the former symphony conductor.”

I met Stan for miso and sashimi salad.  And Lillie at the Cliff House where we ate crab salads and happily paid for the view.

Alex and Cara, my first friends in Chicago, fed me from the garden of their new home in San Anselmo.  Marc, my last boyfriend before Lee, and I sat at the bar at Il Fornaio, drank espresso, and talked about the truth about us.

And I visited the grave of my old rabbi and teacher, Alan Lew. 

I studied with him in my 20s after an orthodox Jewish woman, upon learning my biological mother was not Jewish, exclaimed “You’re not really Jewish.”  We were preparing for my conversion.  But we never finished our work.    

I’m not sure why.  Maybe because I met Lee.  Because I started drinking again.  Because I got scared.  Whatever the reason, one day I just stopped showing up.

 Years later, new to Chicago, in pain, and blessed with competent spiritual direction, I made plans to return to San Francisco to ask if we might complete our work.  I never had the opportunity.  Rabbi Lew died unexpectedly, two weeks before that trip.  And now, several years since his death, I was finally at his grave.

Rain pelted down in sheets all morning, then easing up as I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge.  When I reached Colma, the sun was shining brightly through the usual fog.  I found Rabbi Lew’s grave, dropped to my knees and read him the letter I had written.  I meditated.  Traced the letters of his name on the tombstone.  And when I was done, rather than leaving a stone on his grave (as is custom for Jews), I left a small token that let him know exactly how I had gotten there.

And finally, I met with the rabbi who replaced him.  I told him about our relationship.  Why I was there.   That I wanted to be a rabbi, but I was living in Seattle and working on my marriage.   I didn’t see how it was possible.   “If Rabbinical school is your path, it will find you,” he said.

Lee met me that evening in San Francisco.  Our reunion was awkward and clunky.  Neither of us seemed thrilled to see the other.  We drove around the city, looking for a Wells Fargo Bank and ended up in the branch inside the Safeway on Potrero Hill – the store we shopped at when we first lived together nearly 15 years ago.  Wistful.

We ate ice cream, walked around South of Market and met a friend for dinner.  We drove back to San Rafael through the Marina district where I first met him as a client on his massage table.  I told him about the memories that flooded me over that week as I passed our old haunts and the routes we rode our bikes.  I told him I missed it.  He said it got too hard.  That he didn’t want to do it anymore.

“Ride with me?  Or be married?”

“Both,” he said, quietly.

My tires rolled on to the Golden Gate Bridge.  The calm I had felt writing about this in my morning pages was gone.  I was incredulous.  Swearing.  Shrieking, “Are you telling me you want a divorce?”  And “You’ll be sorry.  One day someone will consider himself lucky to be with me.” 

When we arrived at our friend’s home I told him not to talk to me.  I locked myself in the bedroom, called my friend Kevin, and told him I felt like drinking. 

“Of course you do, Pearlie Pants.  But you don’t have to.  You can do divorce better than most people do marriage.  And you can do it with grace and dignity,” he said.

I told him it appeared Rabbinical school had found me.  

Nine months have passed since that day.  I am free to pursue that Rabbinical calling, and yet, I have lost all desire.  Seems it was lifted from me.  I trust if it really is my path, it will find me again – eventually.

I did recover a sense of integrity that week.  With friends and within my marriage. We could no longer lie to one another about our marriage.  It’s little wonder I’m feeling anxious about approaching it again.

And then there’s Week 4’s suggested “fast” from reading.

Last time, my personal fasting rules included all media, most specifically Facebook.  Posting and checking email allowed.   But no trolling.  Or as my friend Mimi says, “No consumption.”  Same rules apply this time.

I fear “losing touch” in that easy, distanced way that social media allows.  That allows me to believe I am connected, when really I know only a piece of you and you of me.  I fear having to continue to look inside my life rather than inside of yours.  Tthat old adoption fear, that I will be forgotten, pokes at me.  And I am challenged to see what and who is there when I “return.”

Of the suggested fast, Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, writes, “For most blocked creatives, reading is an addiction.  We gobble the words of others rather than digest our own thoughts and feelings, rather than cook up something of our own.”

I’m tying on my apron.  It might get messy in the kitchen.


Artist’s Date 3: How Do You Know if It’s a Date?

Shortly after I moved back to Chicago, I ran into a man/boy I used to know.

We discovered I was moving to his neighborhood and made a date to meet for coffee.  Instead, we got dinner.  The conversation was fun and easy and flowed.  And when the bill came, he picked it up and said, “I’ve got it.  Welcome home, Lesley.”

He drove me to my apartment, “Mrs. Robinson” playing on the radio.  I laughed to myself.  I am eight years older than he.  I wasn’t sure if it was a date or not.

Kind of like my Artist’s Date – my third – this past week.

The plan was to go on Wednesday – between massage gigs.  First stop, Blick Art Supplies, followed by a trip to the Art Institute.  I bought myself a gift membership in November.  The 20 percent discount offered on Cyber Monday had me paying just over $5 a month.   I haven’t been there once since my membership card arrived in the mail.

Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way, suggests two hours or more for one’s weekly Artist Date.  However, my massage schedule filled up and I found myself with only a little more than an hour to myself.  I opted for Blick, painfully aware I would not have allowed this to happen on a “real” date – meaning a date with another person.  I would have held this time sacred.

Once inside, I immediately felt panicky and overwhelmed.

I remembered working at an art-supply store at 12 Oaks Mall in Novi, Michigan the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college.  I thought it would be the coolest job ever.  It wasn’t.  I sold a lot of framing jobs.  And mostly, I felt like an impostor. 

I wasn’t as naturally gifted as the others who worked there … or so I believed.  And yet, I recall seeing the handy work of just one of the other employees – Doug.  He was quiet and kept to himself.  He had a penchant for airbrushes and purple planets.

Also, I was no longer an art major.  The summer before, under the guidance (read: strong suggestion) of my parents – the benefactors of my college education – I switched from a fine arts to a journalism major.  The rationale being journalism was a more practical education than art.  I was a good writer.  And I could have an emphasis in photojournalism. (Never mind that its application of film and camera seemed diametrically opposed to that of my dream – working as a fashion photographer.)

I had long imagined myself in the shmata (Yiddish for “rag”) trade – initially as a designer.   I sketched ensembles in 11th grade Humanities class and passed them on to Rachel Plecas and Karen Howard for their nod.  That same year my mother connected me with her friend Marge who taught me how to sew.  Or more accurately, took me through a sewing project.  Together we made a skirt – with buttons.  Advanced skills.

I didn’t seem to have the exacting patience for sewing.  Or for most of my art classes.  My ceramics were sloppy.  Beautiful on the outside only.  The bottoms of my platters and the insides of my slab-built boxes were “unfinished.”  In jewelry class I spent as much time buying saw blades as I did anything else, constantly snapping and breaking mine.  It was only in Ms. Ciotti’s photography class that I found home.

I loved setting up the studio lights and shooting in black and white.  I loved reaching into the change bag, popping open the film canister with a bottle opener and rolling film on to metal reels.   I loved holding the long strips up to the light after they had been developed to see what I had – even when they came out milky because I hadn’t loaded the reels properly and the film stuck together.

I loved the smell of the chemicals in the dark room and its dim lights.  How I could alter bad shooting by good printing, burning and dodging.  I loved hanging the shiny 8X10 paper on clothes pins to dry.  It was an art form with fast-ish results and more immediate gratification than most.  How I saw the world determined much of my success.

When I moved my files from the ivy-covered Kresge Art Building, which sat unassuming along the Red Cedar River, across campus to the modern College of Communication Arts and Sciences Building, I was certain I had sold out.  That I was no longer an artist.  I questioned if I had ever been one at all.  For if I had, how could I have “agreed” to this plan? 

I punished myself for years, saying a “real artist” would not have attended a Big 10 university paid for by her parents.  She would have taken out loans or applied for grants and scholarships to go to art school.  I cringed, recalling receiving the print catalogue from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, California, fingering its salmon-colored cover and knowing I would never go there.  I wondered out loud if I loved creating art or just the idea of being an artist.  As if it mattered.  But mostly, I just stopped making anything at all.

That summer, working at the art-supply store, I felt guilty and ashamed by my complicity.  But I told no one.  And so no one could tell me that I was a kid.  That I made the best choice I knew how at the moment.  No one could let me off the hook.  Least of all, myself.

Walking into Blick on my Artist’s Date, I felt that familiar flood of shame.  Mixed with excitement and a dose of overwhelm.

I stopped at card stock and envelopes first – thinking I might make cards again.  For years I sent my friends and family mini “vision-boards” in the mail, honoring their birthdays and anniversaries.  They were always met with delight.  My friend Kimmy even asked that I make her one. 

I looked at beautiful papers laid over wooden rods and sold “by the each.”   I wanted to scoop them up and take them home, but wondered what I might do with them.  I picked up expensive notebooks and wondered why they cost so much.  Upstairs I looked at stencils of birds.  Pads of paper.  Pastels.

I located the Modge Podge I needed for pasting words and images on my collage cards.  I looked at brushes, trying to determine which would be best for the job.  I chose a nylon, round “wonder white” 12.  The description reading “good for all mediums.”

I fingered guaches and sets of block watercolors.  I put a package of 20 Staedtler triplus fineliners into my handbasket.  Expensive.  I wondered if I really needed them.  Out of the basket.  Back into the basket.  I remembered buying the same set in Oakland years ago and that I used them faithfully until they dried up – writing entries in my gratitude journal each night.  A different color for each gratitude.

I dropped in a package of origami papers from Japan.  Thin, brown butcher paper stamped with dragon flies, water lilies and butterflies in varying shades of red, orange, green and blue.  I had no idea how I might use them, but I liked them.  And at $4.89 they were a frivolous luxury I could afford.

I looked at colored pencils and supply boxes and recalled that once upon a time I owned all of these things.  Some I had bought that summer at the art supply store.  Others were accumulated over the years, in spurts of faith and sometimes drunkenness, when I dared fancy myself an artist.  Or even a wanna-be artist. 

I gave away my brushes.  My paints.  Crayons.  Pencils.  Scissors.  Canvas boards.  I put them in a box and gave them to my friend Michelle who teaches “Art for the Soul” classes just outside of Seattle.  I didn’t think there was room in the car when I moved back to Chicago.  Room for them?  Or room for me – to create again, no matter how sloppy, unskilled, uneducated?

I smiled at the craft project kits for children and remembered the ones I received as gifts when I was less than 10.  I lingered in front of the bird stencils again.  Love birds, facing one another.  Beak to beak.  Painfully sweet and dear.  I thought they might work nicely with some colored pencils.  I looked into my basket and told my child artist “another day.”  But not, “no.”

My bill came to a little more than $50, and I wondered if I was doing this right – this Artist’s Date. I wondered, am I supposed to be spending money?  Is it even possible to do this “wrong?”  I constantly think I am “doing it wrong.”  Whatever “it” is.  It’s an old refrain.

I decided it wasn’t unreasonable to imagine I might spend $50 on a date.  That’s a nice meal for two.  Admission to a museum and cake and coffee for two.  Besides, last week I was a cheap date – a matinee for $5.75.

I thought about how my heart pounded as I perused the aisles.  Was it fear that someone would find me out?  Know I was an impostor?  Or was I delighted, excited and thrilled at the possibilities in front of me?  Once upon a time, only the possibilities of men tickled me this way.  But now I was enchanted by the pretty colors, tidy packages and thoughts of “what can I make with this?” 

I walked to work pretty clear one hour isn’t long enough for an Artist’s  Date.  I was only getting started. 

That night when I got home, I finished.  A collage card for a friend – the first I’d made in years.  I hope he likes it. 


Deciding What Is Mine

I just opened the last of the boxes my ex-husband shipped from Seattle.  They arrived a few days ago and have been sitting in a corner next to my futon.  I didn’t want to open them.  Any of them – coming in dribs and drabs since October.

I thought I had already decided what to take and what to leave when I drove out at the end of summer.  But my ex asked me to revisit the issue.  A gift really, for I was in no condition to make good decisions when I left.

I remember talking on the phone to my friend Lisa.  I told her I didn’t know what to pack.  What I could fit in the car.  What to do.  I slid down the refrigerator door and onto the floor.  Sobbing, I said, “I kept waiting to be in a heap on the floor.  I kept waiting.  And now I am.  I am literally on the floor in a heap.”

My friend Michael mostly packed me, me pointing out what I wanted to take.  Clothes.  Some massage sheets.  Paperwork – the kind one accumulates having survived nearly 43 years on the planet.  Leases.  Mortgages.  Attorney and mediator bills.  Client files.  Health records.

He put too-big-trousers and sweaters and dresses (I had lost 12 pounds since Lee asked me for a divorce) into large, plastic Ziploc-type bags and sucked the air out with a vacuum.  He made sure each box was filled to maximum capacity and slid into place in the hatch.

Prior to my leaving, my soon-to-be ex-husband assured me I didn’t need to worry about cleaning up.  To take what I wanted and leave the rest behind.  And so I did.  I left on August 28.  And a few days later, he left for Italy.  When he returned, he came back to the reality of what I left behind.  A lot.  He wasn’t pleased.

I had left the house like a ghost town. 

Some years ago, Lee did a medical rotation in Binghamton.  He said the town, and the neighboring towns, appeared to have closed up overnight.  That if one walked into a house, they might find a hot bowl of soup still on the table – the residents having fled quickly.  I imagine that is what I left the house on Wheeler Street looking like.

We agreed he would ship me my books and my Bianchi road bike, helmet, lock, riding shoes and snow shoes when I found a permanent place to live.  After sending those items, he asked what else I wanted.  Photographs I took in Spain and France?  Artwork we purchased together in Napa?  CDs my friends made specifically for driving cross country?  A travel journal from Amsterdam?  Boots?

I was angry.  I didn’t want to decide again.  I had left Lee to deal with the remains of our 15 years together.  And now he was asking me to share the pain.   It felt like pulling off an only partly-healed scab and my tender new skin oozed and bled when exposed to light and air.  I didn’t want to do it. 

And I was angry he didn’t pay for the shipping.  My entitled, 5-year-old, victim-y self didn’t want to pay the cost to ride the bus of my own life.  But I didn’t tell him so.  Instead, I kept it to myself.  Toxic.

And so we began the process of cataloguing what remained – together, long-distance.

Some decisions were easy.  The cookbooks I hadn’t packed in the first round.  The ones stained with food, dog-eared, and with Weight Watchers Points values noted in the corner.  Vegetable tagine.   Thai coconut shrimp.  Curried lentils with spinach.

Next came CDs.  Ceramic appetizer plates with Chicago landmarks drawn around the rim – cartoon style – a gift from my Thursday morning Weight Watchers group.  A small tray I keep my assortment of vitamins and supplements on – a wedding gift from my ex-boyfriend and his wife.   More massage sheets.  An air-popcorn popper.  An unopened, collapsible lunch box.  A small, iron teapot.  Two books of cut-out art by Nikki McClure.  A print I kept in my office – “Masks of the Healer.”

We argued about splitting up flatware and serving pieces.  He wanted to keep it even though I couldn’t imagine he’d ever have a dinner party for 12.  “You said I could have it, “he insisted.  And I had.

Sometime in November he asked that we “finish this.” It had become too much for him to move around the remnants of me.  He had changed out some photos.  Put my things in the garage.  “Moved some energy around.”  But I was still there. We agreed we would be “done” at year’s end.

I struggled with the final decisions.  I told myself it was because I didn’t know if I wanted to pay for shipping.  Or I wasn’t sure if I really wanted certain items.  Or if it even made sense to ship them rather than re-buy.  In truth, I think I was afraid to be “done.”  Even though our civil divorce was final in September, our Jewish divorce in November.

I let go of my hot-stone cooker and rocks.  Too heavy.  And I told him to keep my cross-country skis.  I was never very good at it.  And our ski trips usually ended in a fight.  I wasn’t sure if skiing was my thing, his thing or our thing.  Same with cycling.  After 15 years together, the lines of me and we had become somewhat blurred.  And I’m now just beginning to figure out what is mine.

Some of it came in those last two boxes.  In one, the karaoke machine he bought me last Hanukkah.  A last, ditch-effort at togetherness.  My friends Mike and Rachel have the same one.  I loved it so much that I asked them to host my 40th birthday party so we could sing all night.  They did.  Lee and I used ours last on New Year’s Eve 2012.  We rented a house on the river, just south of Steven’s Pass.  It had heated floors and no cell-phone reception.  I sang my “best” karaoke songs.  Dream a Little Dream of Me.  And Easy, by the Commodores.  “I know it sounds funny but I just can’t stand the pain….I paid my dues to make it….Everybody wants me to be what they want me to be….I’m not happy when I try to fake it….” 

In the other box: North Face winter-hiking boots.   Cougar rain boots with felt shafts.  A bowl from Vietnam made of lacquered paper – another wedding gift.  I called it my prosperity bowl, collecting loose change in it and cashing it in once a year. 

Green glass dessert plates, a gift from my client Joanne when we left California for Chicago. We stayed with her our final days, when our belongings were packed on an ABF truck and we had planned to sleep on hardwood floors.  A pair of winter cycling gloves.  I don’t recall buying them.  Two contact lens cases.  Three CDs.  Disc Two of the Donna Summer Anthology.  Neil Young, Harvest – a gift from Lee.  Michael Jackson, Off the Wall.

He also threw in a copy of Eat, Pray, Love.  I read it several years ago but Lee just now read it.  On the phone he would recount stories of her story to me.  How it spoke to him.  And we would talk about our own Eat, Pray, Love trips taken mid-divorce.  Mine to Rwanda.  His to Italy. 

There are no more boxes to open.  Just things.  Many of them still on the floor.  Things I thought I didn’t need.  Didn’t want.  Had already decided about.  Turns out, I get to decide again.  I get to change my mind.  Always.