Looking For Myself At My Mother’s House

me and momI’m at my mother’s home.  I’ve only been here once before – three or so years ago.

When I pull up I am not sure I am at the right house.  It looks different than I remember, so I call her from the rental car to make certain I am in the right driveway.  That 173 is the correct address.  It is.  And she comes through the garage to greet me.

Inside, the house does not look familiar.  I did not grow up here.  It has been too long since I have visited.

I look around the house.  There is a photograph of my brother and his son.  Another of him with both of his children.  There are photographs of my stepfather’s children and grandchildren.  His mother.  My mother and her brother when they are wee.  A sepia-colored family photograph, taken when my Papa Barney, my great-grandfather, was still alive.

There is nothing of me.

The 43-year-old in me says, “It’s not all about you.”  The 7-year-old says, “Why aren’t there any pictures of me?”  The 7-year-old wins.   And I ask, as casually and with as much detachment as I can muster.

My mother responds without missing a beat.  “All the pictures I have of you have your ex-husband in them.  So we have to take new ones.”

My mother is black and white when it comes to her children.  Anyone who messes with her kids is out.  Period.  Even if she liked them very much, which is the case with my ex-husband.  I remember the first time they met. I woke up the next morning and found them eating leftover birthday cake for breakfast, still in their pajamas.  Thick as thieves.

She takes me into her bedroom and shows me a single photograph of myself, flanked by her and my stepfather.  We are eating ribs and pulled pork.  My mother swore I wouldn’t eat it but I surprised her.  I told her my friend Jerry had turned me on to pork ribs at a BBQ a couple of years prior.  How the little Jew now threw down pork with the best of them.

My mother has cut my ex out of the photograph.  I cannot tell that he was ever there.

Later we look at photographs, as we do every time I visit.  It is my desire, not necessarily hers, and she appeases me.  There are, in fact, photographs of my ex-husband.  Of visits.  Of our wedding.  His hair is dark.  I do not remember him that way.  He has been gray now as long as I can remember. 

The photographs are tucked away in a box, along with my wedding invitation, cards and notes, and her wedding photograph – the one from her first marriage to my father.

There are other photographs, lots of them.  Me as an infant, dressed in red and white checks, sobbing.  At 5, with my jeans rolled up, playing in the surf in Malibu.  At 16, in a black dress with a hood.  We are at a family party.  I think I am punk rock.  My mother is next to me, swathed in winter white, smiling.

My 27 years before meeting my ex, stacked, rubber-banded and tucked into a Ziploc baggie marked “Lesley.” 

I stretch out my arms, point my phone at our faces, and take a photograph of the two of us.  I love doing this. I never know how we will capture ourselves in the moment.  The photograph is always a surprise.  Sometimes we are half a face.  A nose.  Only eyes.

I turn the phone around to look at our picture.  We are framed perfectly.  Centered.




Return to the House Where Love Died

1825 n washtenawI just left the house where love died.  I can’t take credit for that line.  My friend Jonathan came up with it to describe the place where his relationship fell apart.  But I borrow it, because it is apt.

It’s the condominium my ex and I purchased together in 2007 when we moved to Chicago for his residency.  We still own it jointly, but I am not responsible for it in any way.

Our tenants are moving out, and I offered to do the final walk through before the next ones move in.

I never wanted to buy it.  Home ownership was never my dream.  I liked the idea of freedom.  To change neighborhoods.  To upgrade or downsize, as needed.  To leave paint and snow and water heaters to someone other than me.  But Lee thought it was an investment, an opportunity to step into the real estate market, something we couldn’t do in California.  And I went along with it.

When we are no longer under water, we will sell it.  Lee will pay himself back for any financial losses and we will split anything that remains.  I am expecting nothing.

The tenants have already moved out.  They’ve scrubbed it with organic cleaners they make themselves.  It is immaculate.  They are wonderful tenants.  We have been lucky.

I look at the floors.  I forgot how rich the walnut is.  That the kitchen is big enough for two to dance in.  How excited I was to have new appliances, cherry cabinets and granite countertops.  A bathroom with a pedestal sink and good water pressure.

The curtain hooks and rods we left are still up .  As is the full-length mirror in the second bedroom.  The shoerack.  And a piece of fabric I used to cover the master bedroom window that faces a brick wall.  I made a hem using an iron and tape I bought at Poppy Fabric.   I brought it from California.  I loved the pattern.  I forgot it is here.

There is a built-in wine rack next to the dishwasher.  I had big plans for it.  Ironically, I stopped drinking not long after we moved to Chicago.  I kept rolled up cloth napkins and tablecloths in the slots instead.

There are pin size holes in the wall where we hung a spice rack.  A nail drilled into the exposed brick where I hung the Napa Valley Mustard Festival poster.  I bought it my first year in San Francisco, years before I met Lee.

I remember arriving here on a steamy, grey July day.  Putting the keys we received via FedEx in the door and the relief we felt when it opened.  We slept in sleeping bags on the floor until our truck arrived later in the week.

I thought about Passover Seders – sitting on the floor, on pillows – sometimes more than a dozen of us, recounting the story of the Israelites liberation from bondage.  I thought about parties we had, cramming 50 or more of my coffee-swilling comrades into the 800 or so square feet.

I thought about the day we left Chicago for Seattle.  The movers had come.  The condominium was empty.  We stayed the night at my friend Pam’s.  She made us egg and cheese sandwiches for dinner and we watched her daughters perform an interpretive dance to Simon and Garfunkel – the oldest, a little bit flirty with my then-husband.

We came back to get the cats.  To put the pod on the roof, load up the car and go.  The pod didn’t fit.  Lee had to jerry rig it and hope for the best.  When we were packed, I went back inside a final time.

I walked to the back office – the only room where the sun streamed in.  It created a rainbow pattern on the dark, wood floor.  I got down on my knees.

I thanked God for this home.  For my time in Chicago.  For my friends.

I thanked God that I was sober.  For all that I got from this place I didn’t think I wanted to be.  In a home I never wanted to buy.  I knew I had been exactly where I was supposed to be.  And now I was leaving.

I wept.

Nine days prior Lee told me I didn’t have to come to Seattle.  That he had taken me from my home once before.  That he didn’t want to do it again if I wasn’t willing.  But it was too late to turn around.  It was easier to go than to not go.

And so I went.  Because it was easier.  Because, I believed, that’s what married people do.  Because I wasn’t quite done.

I thought I would feel more emotional being at the house.  That I might feel more sadness.  More anger.  Wistful.  But I didn’t.  I watched the memories as I would a current-events film loop in the third grade – the kind that was no longer current by the time it arrived.

Our tenant showed me photos of the home he and his girlfriend just bought, not far away.  The kitchen, the bath – not unlike ours.  The walls he painted – turquoise and slate.  He seemed proud. Hopeful.

He offered to hand over the keys to the next tenants.  I gratefully accepted.

He is done here.  Me too.

Artist’s Date 18: Letting Go One of God’s Creatures At the End of Her Rope

220px-The_Night_of_the_Iguana_posterI’m wearing a short dress and boots because the weather is mild.  It doesn’t occur to me that my seat at The Artistic Home theatre might be vinyl and that my thighs might stick to it during a three-hour production of The Night of the Iguana.

It doesn’t matter.  I am transfixed as pieces of my story fall from the mouths of Tennessee Williams’ characters.

“It’s almost impossible for anybody to believe they’re not loved by someone they believe they love,” Shannon shouts.  I should write down the words, but I don’t.  I suck in quickly through my nose, like I’ve been hit.

I bought my ticket a few weeks ago.  The production has gotten good reviews.  And my friend Ryan is in it.  The same night I purchased a ticket to Oklahoma! at the Lyric Opera Theatre – a future Artist Date.  I was excited.

But now it’s time to actually go and I feel anxious.  This is my first after-dark Artist Date.  The rest were matinees.  Most of them, with the exception of the Joffrey Ballet, naturally lending themselves to a solo outing.  The Art Institute.  The History Museum.  The Lincoln Park Zoo.  A lecture.  Thrifting.  But this is night-time.  Theatre.  Date stuff.

My friend April calls as I am wondering if I am too tired to go.  If the skies are going to open up again, monsoon-style, and I should stay home.  She tells me she has bought a board and is learning to surf.  She’s not waiting for someone to join her.  She says she learned that from me.  From my Artist Dates.

It’s the little nudge I need to get out the door.

There are 49 seats in the theater.  Yes, someone counted – not me.  I see other single ticket holders too.  A woman wearing rain boots with horses on them.  A tall Swede (I have no idea if he actually is, but he looks the part) with long, blonde hair, wearing a messenger bag slung across his body.  A man at the end of my row talking about pizza and where he likes to take first dates – to Spacca Napoli.  At least if the date is a drag, the pizza is good, he explains.

I want to join in the conversation and tell them my old trick of choosing a place where I know the staff.  I remember a small jazz bar in Detroit which served this purpose for me.  Looking back, I wonder if I liked it because it allowed me to play “the big shot.”  Or was it because I felt safe there?  I say nothing.  At the intermission I watch him chat up a tall, blonde in a turquoise tunic.

In my seat, with the lights dimmed, I watch painful, scripted pieces of my life with curious compassion.  They unfold in a different story – with different names, a different place, a different time.  But I know them.  The way I knew my friend Jennifer when I saw her in a hotel lobby for the first time in 30 years.  Not quite as I remembered or imagined, but more than familiar.

Maxine and Fred’s marriage – devoid of physical intimacy, where once-lively conversation has deteriorated to little more than grunting at one another.  Her attempts to force Shannon into Fred’s shoes, his socks, his bedroom – into the role she’d like him to play.

Charlotte’s insistence that Shannon return her love.

Hannah tending to Shannon, sharing the pain – his “spook,” her “blue devil” – and poppy-seed tea, one difficult night.  And, at her urging, cutting free the iguana tied up under the porch – letting go one of God’s creatures at the end of his rope.

I didn’t cut the rope.  But I dropped it.  Finally.

I saw the truth about my relationship with my Southern Svengali –the object of my affections for far longer than most would consider a reasonable shelf life.  We hadn’t spoken in months.  And when we did – just the other night – there wasn’t a whiff of flirtation left between us, from either direction.  Only deep, deep affection and friendship.

I was surprised.  A little bit relieved.  Sort of sad.  The fantasy had fallen away.

The struggle was over.  I could accept the inevitable, what was already written.  Like Shannon walking hand-in-hand with Maxine to swim in the liquid moonlight.  Surrender.

Artist’s Date 17: If You Knew What I Was Reading…a Little Bit Naughty at the Library

I am reading erotica at the Chicago Public Library.

I didn’t plan on it.    

I am here to pick up a Charles Bukowski biography.  Or perhaps Sylvia Plath.  Anne Sexton.  Or Pablo Picasso.

It is one of my weekly assignments in Finding Water, the second in The Artist’s Way trilogy – reading a biography (or autobiography) that details an artist’s life, especially the disappointments and hardships weathered.  It’s an easy and obvious Artist’s Date – number 17. 

But first, I’m going to need a library card. 

It’s about 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon and it’s busy in here.  I ask the guard what I need to do to get a library card.  She points me to a painted blue desk to fill out a form, and then to the check-out counter, where there is a long line, for processing.

A little girl in front of me is trying to balance a stack of large books she has chosen.  She is about five.  On the wall to my right is a display of staff picks, among them, Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert.  It is the follow up to Eat, Pray, Love.  I make a mental note.  I’ve wanted to read it, but not today.

I am handed a library card, my name printed on it with a Sharpie marker.  The librarian apologizes that there is no clear tape to put over my name so it doesn’t smear.  I lay it flat in my wallet and hope for the best.

The map on the wall guides me to the second floor.  I’ve been here once before – this past fall, to print out boarding passes for my trip to Charleston.  I forgot I could pull them up on my smart phone at the gate. 

It was raining and I was talking on the phone to my father, telling him about my plans to see my birthmother.  I had gotten a call just the day before.  She was dying.  It seems like a lifetime ago.

I point myself to a bank of computers, to locate the biography section.  My search does not pull up the results I am looking for.  I change my search terms.  Nothing.  It is not intuitive.  I miss the card catalog.  The tiny wooden drawers with typed cards sitting in alphabetical order inside.  It was easy.  Hello, Dewey Decimal.

I wander away from the computers to the shelves.  Each end cap lists what is contained in the stacks.  Of course it does.  I wander through the periodicals.  AARPPeopleThe Chicago Jewish Week.  There are bound books, entire years of Time, The Saturday Evening Post and National Geographic dating back to the 1940s.  I make another mental note, to come back to better acquaint myself with publications I plan to pitch.

I keep wandering, reading end caps.  Nope.  Nope.  One of my Weight Watchers members is standing in front of me.  She is wearing purple horn-rimmed glasses.  We exchange hellos and brief small talk.

“American Literature.”  Sounds promising.  I feel silly, like I should know my way around the library.   I remind myself I’ve only been here once before.

I remember feeling intimidated by the library at Michigan State University.  I avoided it, even when class assignments clearly dictated its use.  That is, until I started going there with my friend, Brian. 

He suggested we go to the library to study on the weekends.  And to look at cute boys.  We took cigarette breaks in the men’s bathroom on one of the upper levels, sitting on vinyl couches in the tiled bathroom lounge as if we were at Nordstrom’s.  Smoking.  Guys would come in to pee and look at me funny.   Confused, sometimes blushing.  No one ever said a word.

I am in the A’s of the American Literature section.  The first book I see is The Best American Erotica 2005, edited by Susie Bright.  I love the Best American series.  I have copies of several years of The Best American Food Writing, The Best American Travel Writing and The Best American Essays.  I didn’t know there was a The Best American Erotica.

I pull it from the shelf.  On the cover, a pair of women’s feet strapped into incredibly tall sandals.  The heels look like nails.  Thin.  Silver.  Blue, sheer panties dangle around her ankles.  I carry it with me, smiling to myself.  I hadn’t planned on this.

The section includes both literature and biographies.  I pull titles that speak to me.  Names I do not know.  Women war correspondents.  I put them back.  I think I should write them down so that I can mention them in my blog, but I don’t.  I’m trying to be “in the moment.”

I stumble upon Henry Miller.  There are several biographies.  I think about reading Tropic of Capricorn.  I had tried many times without success.  It “took” the day I approached it hopped up on coffee and cigarettes. 

I felt frenetic, like the writing, stretched out on the couch, reading the minimally punctuated stream-of-consciousness straight through.  I don’t remember much of what I read, but it made sense to me at the time.  I felt like I had cracked the code.

I settle on The Happiest Man Alive by Mary V. Dearborn and tuck it under my arm with the erotica book.  A theme is developing.  I scan for Anais Nin.  No biographies.  No Delta of Venus – my favorite.  Only her journals.

I pick up a biography on Anne Sexton, a black and white photograph of her on the cover.  She is wearing a sleeveless dress with a swirling pattern, and she is holding a cigarette – her hands gesturing.  She has great legs.

I read the inside cover and learn that she was a fashion model.  That she married in her teens.  That she attempted suicide after the birth of her second daughter, and that a therapist suggested she try writing poetry.

She wrote for 18 years, producing nearly a dozen books – including Pulitzer Prize winning Live or Die.  The final words on the inside back jacket read, “It is not a tale for children nor for the innocent, for Sexton’s complicity in her own self-destruction was the despair of her friends, to many of whom this biography will reveal more than they understood while Sexton was alive.”

I add the book to my stack.

The alphabet begins again and I find Bukowski, Philip Roth, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou.  I pick up the Bukowski biography.  It is much thinner than the Miller and Sexton tombs.  Most of his face is covered by a folded newspaper, but he is clearly smiling.  The crow’s feet at his eyes and the parentheses around his mouth give him away.  His hands have age spots.

I am limited to checking out just five books during my first 30 days, so I think it is best to stop.  I sit down at a table by myself and open the erotica book.  I scan the table of contents, looking for a short reading. 

“The Bounty of Summer,” by Carol Queen.  Pages 79-81. 

It is well written, neither violent nor overly sentimental.  It’s about play and surrender, trust and fruit.  Yes, fruit.  She writes, “It’s the honeymoon suite, though we are not married, just fucking like it’s the only thing we will have to do for the rest of our lives.” 

I like it.

I begin another story, “After the Beep,” about a man receiving anonymous, sexual instructions on his answering machine.  It is titillating but too long.  I do not finish it.  I begin another, “Sit.”  Three pages in and it’s all still set up.  Nothing dirty.  I cannot “sit” with it.  I close the book. 

I think about the journals I recently unearthed.  They are filled with poetry and prose.  Juicy, explicit details of my experiences in my 20s, when I was single.  The writing is good.  Better than this, I think.

I gather my books.  Before heading to the check out, I pull a second The Best American Erotica from the shelf – 2006.

The librarian scans the Miller biography.  Bukowski.  Sexton.  They are due back May 4.  I will never read them all by then.  She scans in the two erotica books.  “Figures,” she says.  “They are not in the computer.” 

What does that mean?

“I’m just going to give them to you.”

I giggle to myself.  There’s a dirty joke in there somewhere.  And I walk out with my stack.

Prelude to Artist’s Date 17: I Got Buk Back

Charles Bukowski used to be mine, but I gave him to my ex in the divorce.  Funny thing, my love for Buk drew him to me.  A chick who liked a dirty-old misogynist poet.

I got him back.  He showed up in the middle of week three of Finding Water, the second book in the Artist’s Way trilogy – the week titled “uncovering a sense of support.”

The assignment was to list five deceased artists.  Choose one to ask for help and guidance.  Be still and scribe what I hear.

I chose eight. 

Picasso – my high school Spanish teacher called me this during my pink hair, blue lips phase.  “You look like a Picasso picture.  Except your nose should be over here…” he would say, pointing far to the left, off of my face. 

Marc Chagall – the Jewish artist I imagined might be my biological grandfather but wasn’t. 

Jack Kerouac.  Adrienne Rich.  Sylvia Plath.  My teacher and friend Rabbi Alan Lew. 

Charles Bukowski and Anne Sexton.

I thought for certain I would hear from Sylvia – after all, hers was the name of my alter ego.  My friend Teresa used to do a one-woman show in San Francisco in which she would channel me, smoking, speaking like an old, Jewish woman from Queens…”Men are not magical beings.  They are people.  With penises.  And problems.”  She called me Sylvia.  I never really said those words.  I wasn’t that wise.

But it wasn’t Sylvia who wrote to me.  Nor Anne – who I knew little about except that she too took her own life.  It was Bukowski.  Buk.

I first became acquainted with Buk in college.  My roommate Natalie and I were spending the night in a hallway, in line, trying to secure a coveted room in a popular dorm.  A dorm where we spent so much time that everyone thought we lived there already.  Where my best friend Brian lived, as well as my first lover, Bill, and my first boyfriend, Stu.

We brought pillows and blankets and snacks.  A boom box.  Natalie brought a copy of Bukowski’s Love is a Dog from Hell.  She read to me.  Poems of drunkenness, debauchery and oftentimes a redhead, which I was then.  I was smitten.

My ex owned every Bukowski book published.  He packed them up – along with his stereo, massage table, and a few pieces of clothing when he moved from New England to California.  They soon landed on two entire bookshelves in my San Francisco garden apartment.

I didn’t love Buk the way he did.  I preferred The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses, written for Jane, his first love.  He preferred autobiographical Ham on Rye.  He shared it with me.  Gritty.  Dismal.  Difficult.  Painful.  I could barely make my way through it.

I put aside Buk.  Besides, I had Philip Roth.  Jason introduced me to him a few years prior.  Jason – the horny, Jewish artist who told me he would marry me.  He didn’t.  Every once in a while he pops up on Facebook.  With a single word he tells me everything I need to know.  Usually it’s liver.  Think Portnoy’s Complaint.

So imagine my surprise when Buk’s words came through me, to me – offering up what he knew about being a writer, what he knew about me.

He told me my story had value,that my experience mattered.  He said the life of a writer isn’t always pretty.  Made me promise I wouldn’t let anyone put me in a golden cage, like Tully, the wealthy book publisher, tried to do to him in BarFly. 

“It can happen,” he said.  “Especially to someone like you.  ‘A beautiful subject.’  Just like your friend the photographer said.”

It could be a publisher or an editor.  It could be a lover.  Especially as I don’t so much like to be alone.  He said that I believe more in what others say about me than in what I know about myself.  Dangerous territory.  “Makes you a victim.  Beholden to.  Dependent.”

He told me now is the time for writing.  For growing my backbone.  He wasn’t clear what would be my path to strength, but he was certain it wasn’t jumping into bed with someone.  “Trust me, I know.  Trust me because I love sex as much as you do.  Probably more.”

He continued, “The sex won’t dry up but your mind, your creativity and your opportunities will.  Your shelf life as a writer can and may.  I know it seems like it should be the other way around but it’s not.  Trust me…you won’t dry up.”

He told me to take this year and “do the fucking work.  Take your ex’s money and make something out of it.”  He said to quit worrying about the artists and to “be them.

“Actually, be you.  And keep sharing you and your art with anyone and everyone who will pay attention.

“Oh and I thought you’d like to know…yes, the artists, they see you.  But it doesn’t matter because they ain’t going to get you a book deal”

Then he surprised me, bringing greetings from the others on my list. 

Sylvia says don’t ever stick your head in an oven.  Seriously. And don’t ever be overshadowed by a man.

Rabbi Lew says he loves you, and to keep partnering with G-d.  (Buk didn’t know what it meant, but I did.  Referring to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Between God and Man, I asked Rabbi Lew, “What’s this partnership with G-d crap?”  He replied, “Lesley, tell me about your father.”  And I burst into tears.)

Picasso says do right by him, your namesake.  Yes, you have been a muse.  But it’s better to be the artist than the muse. 

Chagall says he’s sorry he wasn’t your grandfather.  That he liked your blog about him and your relationship with America Windows.

Kerouac says to read him again, especially as you get ready to go on the road again.  Rich says to remember that you are a poet also.

Then he wished me luck.  Called me kid.  Told me to keep writing.  To believe in what I have to say, because if I don’t, who will? 

He let me know he was “right here…if you need me,” used the word “muse” as a verb and laughed.  “Good one, kid.”  And he signed off,

“XO – Uncle Buk.”


Artist’s Date 16: There’s Always A Story

My friend Debbie called last Thursday to see if I would accompany her to Story Club.  It meets the first Thursday of every month at a bar called the Holiday Club.

Debbie is newly sober.  She knows that I don’t drink and wanted a little moral support.

I’d never been to the Holiday Club.  I had driven past it several times and liked the way it looked – kind of 1950s and kitschy, at least from the outside.  Inside, it’s like any other bar.  Pool tables.  Bad lighting.  The stench of beer oozing out of upholstered booths.

There’s a back room, too – where Story Club meets.  It was packed.

We found seats at a table with three other women.  Introduced ourselves.  And not another word was spoken between us for the next 90 minutes.

So while technically NOT an Artist’s Date, as I did not go alone – I’m counting it anyway.  I traveled outside of my sphere.  I opened my ears, my eyes and my heart to new input.  It was fun.  And it left me thinking, “Maybe…just maybe…”

Here’s the set up:

Perky blonde hostess with knee-high boots, a filthy mouth and a good dose of chutzpah – the creator of Story Club and Debbie’s writing instructor — brings four writers to the stage to read and/or perform their writings.  In between the featured performers, three audience members are invited up for Open Mic.  Their names are drawn from a clear, plastic pitcher and once chosen, they have eight minutes to try out what they’ve been working on.  Between performers perky hostess engages in improv storytelling.  “That reminds me of…”

The stories were small.  All of them.  Like the stories I tell.  Breathing life into the seemingly mundane.  Honoring the miracles, the sacred, around us at every moment.  But with attitude.  And swearing.

Amy, a self-described “tall drink of water” read her piece standing practically spread eagle.  She couldn’t raise the microphone. 

She told a story about her grandparents and the Baskin Robbins ice-cream shop they owned.   About the day she tripped on her words and asked her grandfather for a penis-butter sundae, to which he replied, “That will be right up.” 

I didn’t get the joke until much later, when Debbie pointed out the opportunity for a pause in the storytelling – to let the audience digest, laugh at the joke.  Penis-butter…That will be right up.  Good one.

She spoke of her grandfather’s passing and how it felt like he was “just away” – for a really long time.  Perhaps tinkering with tools in the basement.  About her grandmother claiming her brain was leaking into her ears and that that was the reason she couldn’t hear.  The first part was true.  But even after surgery to “stop the leaking,” she never regained her hearing.

There was a story was about a couple of summers spent selling educational guides door to door.  One about a theatre major’s dashed dreams, made worse by her high-school boyfriend dumping her for God after a summer at Bible camp. 

And a drunk-a-logue.  A story nearly each of us can tell.  Too much alcohol.  Bad behavior.  Different from my own stories only by the addition of poop – her shitting the bed, which she recounted in rich detail.  I thanked God I don’t drink anymore.

Open Mic was made up of stories about fraternity life, applying for a job as a pimply, high-school student, and one by Joe.  Older than most of the audience, Joe wore washed-out blue jeans and a belt cinched under his belly.  He had a large head and a lumbering walk.   

He stepped on stage, opened his mouth, and was transformed.  Immediately.  He was a presence.  A natural born storyteller.  He didn’t read from a piece of paper like the others.  This was his story and he knew it by heart.  He took us to varsity water-polo practice circa 1979.  To the state championships.  And he introduced us to the coach, and to his 16-year-old self.

He looked different when he stepped off stage, less schleppy.  He returned to the table across from ours, and we looked at one another, nodded and smiled.  Like the time I literally ran into Richie Havens after a concert.  I was leaving through one door while he was being ushered out through another.  We stopped in front of each other.  Put our hands in prayer before our eyes, greeting Namaste –I see the God in you, said “thank you” and continued to walk.

It was kind of like that with Joe.  That shared sense of “I see you.”

The show ended with three of the four storytellers performing as a Beastie Boys cover band, She’s Crafty – inspiring a couple of men to rise from their barstools and dance.  I wanted to dance too, but didn’t.  Not until I was walking back to the car.  I felt it in my body…a sense of joy.  And of possibility.

On the ride home, Debbie and I talked about what she is learning in writing class.

She told me about convention.  How we think in groupings of three. That three is pleasing to the eye and to the ear.  We talked about timing –making room for laughter and reaction.  And about balance –finding the right ratio of levity to heaviness.  We agreed it is easy to lean on profanity.  And poop.  To lean on style rather than story.

I thought about my old roommate Mona.  She used to tell me I should sit on a stage cross-legged, smoke cigarettes and tell stories.  I wasn’t so sure then, but after Thursday night I am considering it.  Sans cigarette.  And in a different position, as sitting cross-legged for an extended period of time hurts my hips – although it probably didn’t when she first made the suggestion 20 years ago.

A couple of weeks ago I was working at Weight Watchers.  A member of my team asked me a simple question.  I responded with a story.  She laughed and said, “Of course there’s a story.  There’s always a story.”  I nodded in agreement.  “Yes, Nancy, there’s always a story.”

Post Script:  I’ve come to enjoy the one-ness of my Artist’s Dates.  I missed it on Thursday.  I missed being alone with myself.  So Saturday afternoon I took that time.  Riding my bike, inviting the universe around me to fill my senses. 

I picked up pickled ginger and fish sauce at the Asian Market I discovered on a previous Artist Date.  I rode along the lake and marveled at the blue of Belmont Harbor.  Turquoise, really.  That it doesn’t look quite real.  I marveled at how slowly my cruiser bike takes me when riding into the wind.

I stopped for a gelato at Paciugo.  A piccolo cone with three flavors – sea salt caramel, black pepper olive oil and toasted coconut.  I greeted a pit bull and rode along side streets, admiring the homes on Hermitage, thinking “I’d like to live in one of these.”  I watched the wind create mini tornadoes of trash, swirling cyclones of winter’s residue.

And I heard the same words over and over in my head.  My own voice saying, “Let me take care of you.  Let ME take care of you.”  I said ok.

A story in everything.  I just have to look for it.

You’ve Come A Long Way Baby

blake photoThere used to be these great print ads for Virginia Slims cigarettes.  Each featured a small black and white photo of a woman toiling, sweaty and somehow compromised.  Next to it was a larger, color image of a fiercely-dressed, fiercely-headstrong “modern” woman.  It read, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

No wonder I smoked.

Newport Lights, a pack a day.  I don’t anymore; haven’t for a long time.  I forget that sometimes.

I forget about a lot of the things I used to do.  As a rule, this is a blessing.  But it also makes it hard to see when I have in fact, “come a long way…”

This week I was reminded as I was preparing for my Weight Watchers meetings.  The topic: Why We Do What We Do.

Each week, I receive a topic for discussion, a guide to help bring it to life, and some slides for use in the meeting room.  One of the slides this week presented three characters, three scenarios.

Joe, who eats a healthy breakfast…then scarfs two doughnuts at work.  Pat, who is “on program” all week, but can’t seem to do the same at Sunday night dinner.  Carla, who just moved to a new city, goes home each night and makes nachos “like her mother used to make.”

I am Carla.  Except it isn’t nachos.  And it isn’t like that anymore.  I had forgotten…until now.

I was 24 when I moved to San Francisco.  I lived in a second-story Victorian apartment in Haight-Ashbury with my roommate Tim.

We painted my bedroom walls pink and hung up three black and white photographs of me – taken by my friend Blake the day before I left.  I slept on a futon that I bought from a friend of a friend.  If I cranked my head just the right way, I had a partial view of the Golden Gate Bridge from my fire escape.

Getting to work and back without getting lost was a victory.  For six months, I walked to the train and thought I was a day closer to moving back to Detroit.  I told no one.  How could I?  How could I tell my friends I was homesick when I lived in arguably the most beautiful city in North America.

I turned to food.  Not eating.  Bingeing.  That wildly secret out-of-control consumption that feels both numbing and compulsive.  That once started, is hard to stop.  That usually resulted in me feeling physically pained and emotionally shamed.  A bigger secret than the one I was trying to cover up.

I’d had a few experiences of bingeing when I lived in Detroit.

Housesitting for my friend Carlos.  Sitting on the kitchen floor with a bag of peanut M&M’s and a sleeve of Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies.  He returned moments after leaving, having forgotten something.  I looked up at him from the floor, panicked.  I do not remember what was said.  I must have blocked it out.  We never spoke of the incident.  After he left, I continued.

That night I lied in his bed, bloated.  Sick.  I tried to throw up but couldn’t.

Passover. Perhaps the last year my parents were married, living in the country in their dream home.  Each time I passed through the kitchen I picked up a kosher-for-Passover apricot square, never putting it on a plate, never sitting at the table.  A perfect example of what I like to call a Weight Watchers’ Zen Koan.  If a Weight Watcher eats and no one sees it, did it really happen?

When I had no room left in my gut, I left dinner.  I went upstairs and lied on my side on the cool bathroom floor.  My mother came to check on me.  I was afraid.  Of her.  Of how I felt.  I was in pain.  I didn’t know how to get the food out of me.

She asked if I needed to go to the hospital.  I told her I didn’t think so.  I was too ashamed.  What would they do anyway?  I went back downstairs and waited it out.

Experiences like these became more frequent after moving to San Francisco.

Every night after dinner I’d go foraging.  I’d go to one corner market for yogurt-covered raisins.  A second for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.  And a third for cookies – Pepperidge Farm, soft-baked, chocolate and macadamia nut.

I don’t know why I couldn’t buy it all at one store.  Looking back, I don’t think I could even admit it to myself what I was doing.

The binges were never planned.  I’d go to one store.  Get the goods.  Eat.  Then repeat.  It was exhausting.

If it was too late to go to the market, or if I was too tired or too ashamed, I would make a concoction at home – usually consisting of sugar, butter, flour and an egg, microwaved until it puffed.  (I didn’t keep sweets in the house.)  Unable to wait, I’d dig in immediately, burning the skin on the roof of my mouth.

I remember having dinner with my new friend Tom and his partner after one of these binges.  We went for Thai food on Noe Street.  I ordered soup that I could barely choke down.  I told them I was sick.  Little did any of us know how true that was.  All I wanted to do was go home, take my pants off and sit in my shame, alone.

Strangely, all of these binges occurred when I was a normal weight.  Even thin.

I shared a truncated version of my story – the going from store to store and not being able to eat at dinner with Tom – with one of my Weight Watchers groups.  I hadn’t planned to.  It just sort of happened.  The room was silent.  Then finally, one of the women asked quietly, “How did you stop?”  Nearly a dozen heads nodded in unison.

I had no idea.  I’m still not entirely sure.

This is what I told them.  This is what I know:

I found a Weight Watchers leader I could trust and got honest with him about what I was doing.  I read Geneen Roth’s When Food is Love and sobbed my eyes out – because I related.

I quit and rejoined Weight Watchers more times than I can count, eventually deciding to stay – no matter what.  Regardless of what I did or didn’t do.  Of what did or did not happen on the scale.  I decided with them, I at least had a fighting chance.

As I write, it occurs to me that there is more.  I don’t remember my last binge.  It was probably 10 or more years ago.  Somewhere around the time I met my ex-husband.  Around the time I started drinking alcohol again.

Perhaps I merely made a trade, exchanging one fix for another as I tried to fill that insatiable hole.  And yet, when I quit drinking a little more than five years ago, the bingeing did not return.  Nor did it return when my husband called it quits a little more than a year ago.  Neither did the drinking.

Things change.  I change.  So much so I sometimes forget how it used to be.  How I used to be.

I’m not fixed.  I still engage in behaviors that make me cringe, make me want to lie naked on the cool bathroom floor, ashamed and alone.  And yet I’m fairly certain if I keep on the path I am on, one day they too will be vague memories.  Shadows emerging seemingly out of nowhere, tugging for my attention, saying, “Remember when?  You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Artist’s Date 15: Out of the Closet

I’m fingering through a book of paper dolls.

One is wearing a wired, strapless bra, waist cincher, and stretch nylon lace girdle.  Another, a corset clipped to thigh-high stockings.  There are six of them in total, waiting to be dressed in couture.  Coco Chanel, Jean Patou, Givenchy, Yves St. Laurent.  Christian Dior, Bill Blass, Mary Quant.

I picked up the books – Great Fashion Designs of the Twenties, of the Fifties and of The Sixties – at the Chicago History Museum.  They were on a rack with other tools for the budding fashionista.  How-to books for drawing bodies and forms.  Stencils for creating ensembles.    

I think about my friend Slade.  As a child he wanted to draw Batman.  Today he is a working artist.  I wonder if he had books like these.

I think about my stunted trajectory.  How I always imagined I’d work in fashion – as a designer or a photographer.

I had forgotten about that until a couple of months ago.  I was talking with my friend Kristen about all the things I might do now that I was beholden to no one.  I mused about picking up the camera again.  I told her about photographing my friend Michelle, sitting on a roll of white paper in the art corridor at West Bloomfield High School.  That I knew then that I was good – that I had an eye.

I had forgotten about that conversation until last Thursday.  Artist Date 15.  “Ebony: 50 Years of Fashion Fair” at the Chicago History Museum.

I grew up in a wealthy suburb of Detroit.  But we were not wealthy ourselves.  Rather than trying to keep up with the girls around me, I turned to thrifting– picking up one-of-a-kind gems and throwaways.  And I began using clothing as an outward expression of my internal landscape.

I vividly remember my first vintage piece – a Pendleton car coat in orange, green and blue plaid with faux mother-of-pearl buttons.  It held the smell of age and experience, a little bit of perfume, some cigarette smoke and moth balls.  A smell I would grow to know, to accommodate, but never love.  And that dry cleaning would never completely eradicate.

I matched the car coat with an orange wool skirt and a veiled pillbox hat.  My mother said it took guts to go to school looking the way that I did.  She feared I’d get my ass kicked.  I feared blending in.  Not being noticed.

My closet filled with a rag-tag collection of styles from different eras.  A pleated skirt from the 1950s, printed with black ovals and circles.  Brocade capri pants.  White go-go boots two sizes too big for my feet.  A plaid Catholic school-girl skirt I snagged for 89 cents in Toronto.  A short-sleeved paisley, button-down. 

At my 20-year reunion, more than one classmate reflected that I was “cool.”  A “trendsetter.”  It would have been helpful to know that then, because I didn’t feel cool.  Most of the time I felt jangly and awkward.  And yet, the look I cultivated, more Cyndi Lauper than punk rocker, seemed to belie my 16-year-old insecurity.

I learned to sew, and wore my one finished creation.  I took photography classes and bought a new camera.  But ultimately I did not pursue fashion.  My parents nudged me toward writing.  And the designers I knew dissuaded me with horror stories of the shmata trade. 

And yet, as I walked into the exhibit, it all rushed back to me.  Mr. McClew, the math teacher who moonlighted as a photographer, loaning me European fashion magazines.  Sketching ensembles and passing them them over to Rachel Plecas in sixth-hour Humanities class.

There were dresses from Bob Mackie, Halston and Bill Blass.  Paco Rabanne.  Givenchy.  Yves Saint-Laurent.  A waterfall of crystals cascading down the back of an evening gown.  Modest, high-necked floral brocade giving way to ass cleavage.  A handful of custom-ordered plus-size pieces.  A purple dyed rabbit jacket.  A spangled plaid suit.  A perfectly-cut grey car coat.

I knew the magazine, Ebony, but not Fashion Fair: The World’s Largest Traveling Fashion Show.  For 50 years it crisscrossed America, raising money for local charities, was the “it” place in the African American community to see and be seen, to see haute couture. 

Its founder, Eunice Johnson, set out to bring glamour, worldliness, and a sense of possibility to her community – inviting African American women to imagine who they might be, and bringing images of African American women as beauty ideals to the fore.

I sat on a red velvet couch that looked like a wave and watched a video loop of designers, models and patrons sharing their memories of the 50 years.  Fashion Fair being the first group of blacks to stay at the Peabody Hotel.  Its maids bursting with pride.  An audience member peering backstage, marveling to see that everyone –EVERYONE – working the show was black.

Grown women waxing nostalgic about “dressing” for the show when they were young girls, an annual date with their mothers.  One noting that while fashion may be fairly trivial, “but being comfortable in your skin, isn’t.”  That Fashion Fair offered her that possibility.

I was envious.  Like in sixth grade when my friends’ parents took them to the Fisher Theatre to see Annie.   Like when those same friends went to New York with their mothers on shopping trips.  I felt like I missed something special. 

I imagined my 10-year-old self seeing a Halston purple jumpsuit – designed for discoing all night and sharing breakfast in the morning – come down the catwalk.  Too young to understand the innuendo.  My 16-year-old self making mental notes of the fabric and construction of an Issey Miyaki outer-space inspired jumpsuit.

I can’t change my past.  I can’t take my “child artist” to Fashion Fair now.  The last show was in 2009.   

But I can take her to this museum show again.  I can buy her paper dolls, a tangible reminder of the show she did see.

I can express myself in wool, leather and cotton, perhaps a little more comfortably than I did when I was 16.

I’ve noticed that my closet has morphed into two discreet sides –Pre and post-divorce.

Pre-divorce holds a collection of mostly Calvin Klein dresses.  I lost weight during the divorce and they don’t fit me anymore.  Not just in size.

Post-divorce is filled with return-to-thrifting finds.  A Diane Van Fustenberg knock-off wrap dress.  A tangerine cashmere sweater from Barney’s.   A burgundy, leather trench coat that I like to wear when I ride my bike in cool weather, its seams splitting at the shoulder.  A cropped pink, plaid wool blazer I picked up in Milwaukee, along with a robin’s-egg blue Samsonite carry-on bag.  A long cotton dress – tan, gold and purple – that feels like India.  I grabbed it off the rack at Village Thrift while I was waiting in line to pay for something else.

They are classics, standing the test of time, both in make and design.  My marriage didn’t.  Perhaps without even knowing it, I wanted to wrap myself in things that do. 

And the embroidered, powder-blue polyester cowboy shirt I had to have…a reminder that there is always room for whimsy.  Always room for mistakes.  In fashion, and in all things.