My first therapist used to ask what my fantasy was about my birth family. I told her I didn’t have one. And I didn’t – until about 10 years ago.
I was at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for a Marc Chagall retrospective, when I was beckoned by the whimsical angels, old-world Rabbis and flying goats that covered the canvases. As if they were calling out to me specifically. And I tumbled head over heels for their maker.
I remembered from my adoption records that my biological grandfather was also an artist of renown, as well as a Jew. Which is how I came to secretly ponder the possibility that Marc Chagall might be blood.
He isn’t. This was confirmed when I met my biological father three years ago.
And yet, I continue to feel a sense of affection and connection toward him.
In 2010, about six months before leaving Chicago, I received an email from the Art Institute announcing the return of Chagall’s America Windows – which had been taken down while the Modern Wing was being built. I promised myself I would see them before I left. I never made it.
Last Thursday I took myself on Artist’s Date Seven – to the Art Institute of Chicago, to see America Windows . It was my amends to myself.
Approaching the bronze lions out front, still dressed in their Christmas wreathes, I am positively giddy. I feel like I am going somewhere special. And I am.
I gave myself a gift membership in December, but have not been here since returning to Chicago.
Inside, I pick up a Visitor Guide and find America Windows. But I can’t locate its gallery on the map. Rather than ask one of half a dozen seemingly bored guards snapping their gum, I make my way toward the Modern Wing, as it appears the logical direction.
Walking through the Alsdorf Galleries, I am welcomed by ornamental gold deities. Pulled toward Greek cups, shaped like horse heads, I’ve never seen before. I linger only for a moment, stealing a quick look. I am on a mission. I have a plan.
Unfortunately, I don’t often stop simply because I am drawn in or curious. Too often, I take on life like an assignment. Each experience, something to be done. Checked off. And done right.
I have a picture of myself and my ex-husband in Paris. We are sitting at a sidewalk café in the Fifth Arrondissement, drinking wine. I had spent the morning pouncing on the city as if I would conquer it. I am frustrated and not having much fun. He insists we stop and have a grown-up “time out.”
I smile remembering him putting a choke hold on my leash, telling me to sit and me complying.
But Lee isn’t here to remind me to slow down. So I keep moving, past the glittery jewelry and big, stone Buddhas.
I drop into the Modern Wing. America Windows eludes me. Defeated, I climb the stairs to the second floor galleries and venture in – abandoning the Windows and the oversized deities.
I’ve been to the Modern Wing. It’s awesome and gorgeous and fantastic. And not where I want to be in this moment. I enter one of the galleries anyway and begin observing – the “right way.” I read each placard and step back to look at each piece – in order. DeKooning. Rothko. Richter.
I venture into the next gallery, which is really the first. I am out of order. I am greeted by Andy Warhol’s huge Mao. I look at some sculpture. Wood painted white and nails.
I am bored and frustrated. And in a moment of intuition, I hand the date over to what Julia Cameron calls my “child artist.” I (she) walk(s) out of the gallery, down the stairs and turn(s) left.
There is a sign and arrow for America Windows. It has been there all along.
The Windows greet me — glowing blue. My nose flares and my eyes get watery. My heart feels hot – as it always does when I recognize G-d.
I once told my friend Sean about this, assuming everyone has this physical experience of G-d. He informed me otherwise.
It is dark and quiet in this corner of the Art Institute, except for a man endlessly clicking photographs behind me. His family is waiting on a nearby bench. I pray he will leave soon.
I think he is missing the Windows as he is too busy photographing them. Like I almost missed Paris. The clicking of his camera and his shoes on the tile serves as a call to presence. To stillness. I settle in. And he leaves.
The Windows are dreamy. Images floaty and ethereal. I am in love. With the yellow horn player. The pink bird. The wispy outline of a woman cut in half by the lead of the glass.
I look at the guard standing next to the Windows. I want to tell her she has the best job here as she gets to stand in this glow, in this grace, in this G-d, all day long. But I don’t. Mostly because I’m pretty sure she doesn’t feel the same way about it.
I think about my secret-private grandfather fantasy. About meeting my biological father for the first time. He often wondered where the artist gene had gone, as neither he, nor his brother or his children claimed it. He decided it belonged to me.
I stand here for what seems like a long time, trying to store the Windows behind my eyes and in my heart, when I realize I don’t have to. I no longer have to hold onto them so tightly.
With the price of membership I also got a tote-bag, and freedom. The right to be here 363 days of the year, for as long or as short a time as I like. To visit a single piece of art or a dozen. To stop in just for tea or to watch art students copy the classics. To leave if I am tired or bored. And to come back the next day.
To sit with America Windows again and again. Or with the stone Buddha, who this time I stop and visit on my way out.
Nearby is a smiling statue of Ganesh. Boy with elephant head, Remover of Obstacles. I take a photograph, bow my head in reverence, and say “thank you.”