It all started innocently enough a few weeks ago. A sunny Chicago winter’s day. A piece of opera torte and a cup of coffee served on a silver tray. A descent into love. Or an ascent.
Love with myself, that is.
All my life I’ve heard I have to love myself before anyone else can love me. Bull. It’s simply not true.
I have been loved. By parents. Relatives. By friends. Lovers. A husband. And I have not loved myself – abusing my body and my spirit with alcohol. With food. Drugs. With nicotine. With people. I’m not sure I ever loved myself – perhaps until now.
As the Talking Heads’ David Byrne so aptly asked, “Well, how did I get here?”
Quite simply, Artist’s Dates.
Those two-plus hours alone, just for me. To fill my senses. To gather new input for my sticky-with-old-ideas mind. A prescription. A non-negotiable weekly practice in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.
In the beginning I planned and scheduled the Dates, penciling them in my yellow hardbound calendar. I had to, or else I would have found something “more important” that required my attention.
And yet, somewhere along the way, about Week 10 of the 12-week “course,” the Artist’s Date became a creative habit. Something I just “did.” Like brushing my teeth.
The first time I noticed was that sunny day with the opera torte.
I have about a hundred things I can be doing. Should be doing. Of course, I cannot remember a single one of them now. But the sun is shining. (Which was once reason enough to drink.) I say, “Fuck it!” and start walking.
Past the antique store with the really cool 50s glassware, the one that is never open. Past the Buddhist Temple I’ve been too afraid to go into.
It feels so lovely, so novel, to be nice to myself. It is something I have unconsciously looked to other people to do for me. I’ve fallen head over heels for men who were nothing more than kind to me. Because I couldn’t, didn’t know how, to do it myself.
I want ice cream, and this kind voice says, “Yes.” I am thinking of gelato. A single with three flavors, but always sea salt caramel. And then I see Julius Meinl, the Viennese coffee shop with fancy pastries, and the voice says, “Go. Sit. Relax. Enjoy.”
I grab a Chicago Reader from the free box, tuck it under my arm and head in. I peer into the case of desserts. I almost always get the Ezerhazy – a layered hazelnut torte. The layers are reminiscent of seven-layer cake from the Jewish bakeries in Detroit. But it is better. Much, much better.
It reminds me of sitting on Ron Elkus’ kitchen counter the first time we met. I was interviewing him for a newspaper story and we ate frozen seven-layer cake as we talked. I knew right then we would be friends. It reminds me of my girlfriend’s mother Carole who used to eat it over the sink, layer at a time.
But I know what Ezerhazy is. I want to know something different. As I am doing something different.
I consider the banana cake. The opera torte. They both are layered. But the opera torte is covered in chocolate. It is not something I would ordinarily order. So I do.
I sit at a marble café table, where the sun is hitting just right. I don’t have a notebook to journal in. A book to read. I peruse the Reader. I look at other people. Most of them are also alone, doing exactly what I’m doing. Eating dessert. Drinking coffee. Simply being.
My coffee arrives on a silver tray along with a glass of water, a biscuit and a tiny spoon. A tiny fork is on the plate with my torte.
In the words of my friend Stan, I am having a relationship with my torte. I am present with it. Savoring every bite. Dragging my finger along the plate so I don’t leave behind any chocolate. And in true Weight Watchers fashion, I box up half to take home.
It’s the kind of date I adore. Simple. Breezy. Cheap. Like one of my early dates with my now ex-husband. We wandered through North Beach in San Francisco, stopping at an outdoor café for an espresso and a lemon bar. Waves of physical rushing sensation course through my body. I call them “big love surges.” I tell him about them. He doesn’t seem afraid.
I am having big love surges this day too. I am in love with this person who has been so kind to me. Who lifted me out of the house, took me for a walk and treated me to a $6 piece of cake in the middle of the day for no good reason other than the sun is shining.
I don’t count it as an Artist’s Date in the moment. Only later do I recognize it. I’ve had a string of serendipitous Artist’s Dates since.
Week 11. I am swimming at Welles Pool. It is my first time in the water in more than five years. I am sharing the slow lane with a group of ladies in their 60s, perhaps older. They are wearing suits with skirts, goggles and bathing caps. Underwater, their bodies belie their age. Their skin is pearly, luminous white. Their torsos strong, twisting side to side.
I swim side stroke. Not a “real” stroke. I remember training for my triathalon in the Napa Valley. Swimming laps in Las Vegas at the Flamingo Hotel while everyone around me is drinking. “Come On Eileen” is playing through the speakers. There is snow on the ground outside. The water humbles me.
Week 12. I stop at the Mt. Sinai Hospital Resale Shop on Diversey Parkway. The ladies who run it are getting to know me. I snag an $18 cashmere sweater from the designer room. It is pinky-purply-grey. A color I would never ordinarily choose, but it looks surprisingly good on me.
I pick up a $40 tablecloth. Or is it a bed spread? I’m not certain. It is intricately embroidered. Well loved. A few torn seams. A faded silk panel. Imperfect. It is purple and gold on one side. A granny-flower print on the other. Hip-looking flowers are embroidered over the print in red and flesh tones. And there is a single red patch in the corner. A repair. I’m not sure what to do with it. But I know that it is mine.
I show up for my first of eight Latin dance classes. Eight guaranteed Artist’s Dates. I am anxious in my orange suede booties.
The instructor walks in. He says hello with a voice like Barry White’s. It feels like gravel. Resonant. But with a little lisp. His head is shaved and he is wearing chunky glasses, a black turtleneck and spectator shoes.
He has been dancing professionally since the early 1950s. I try to do the math in my head and calculate his age. Seventy-something, I think.
I am immediately glad I am here.
He lines us up. Five women and one man. He is from France. In his 20s. He is here for six months on and internship and only now, here, away from home has the time to learn to dance. He blushes when Saladeen, our instructor, tells him he will be turning all of us around.
He tells us to what kind of shoes to wear. That we are going to learn to listen to the music. Musicology. I just want to dance. And soon enough we are. The mambo.
First step is on the second beat. A response dance. Left is in the front. Right is in the back. “Ah. Ah. Ah. Ah. Onetwothreefour,” he calls out as we watch ourselves in the mirror, repeating again and again what seems like it should be easy.
He stands in front of me, takes my hands in his and walks me through a turn. I am blushing. This is better than sex, I think. It has been a long time since I’ve had sex….And yet, this is exactly what I need. It is the reason I signed up for this class. To feel that physical contact. In a way that feels safe and fun. That doesn’t leave my heart wide open, vulnerable.
“We’re going to have a good time,” he says and winks at me. I smile and nod.
And we do. I leave the studio. I am aware of my hips. The sides of my thighs.
I stop for frozen yogurt on the way home. The shop has just re-opened and it is buzzing inside. The last time I had frozen yogurt was in Charleston, South Carolina. My birthmother was dying and I met a boy who was kind to me. I want to text him and tell him what I’m doing, but I don’t.
Instead, I treat myself to dessert. Just like he did. And I walk home under a clear winter sky, falling ridiculously in love with myself. It’s impossible not to. How else could I feel about a person I am so lovingly “spoiling,” tending to?
The Artist’s Way was my companion during the early days of my divorce. And again, a second time, in its fall out – when I found the prospect of partnering again too frightening. Too painful. When I learned how to be my own companion – because I was teachable, and the book showed me how.
In Week 12, “Recovering a Sense of Faith,” Julia Cameron writes, “We are what’s important…dead plants go; mismatched socks bite the dust. We are stung by loss, bitten by hope…You buy a first edition, splurge on new sheets…you take your first vacation in years.
“The clock is ticking and you’re hearing the beat. You stop by a museum shop, sign your name on a scuba diving sheet, and commit yourself to Saturday mornings in the deep end.
“You’re either losing your mind – or gaining your soul. Life is meant to be an artist date. That’s why we were created.”