Artist’s Date 23: Seeing The Angels Who Have Stayed

The woman sitting next to me reeks.

Her two friends wave and come down the aisle to greet her.  One comments on how wonderful she smells.  She asks if it’s (insert name of fancy perfume here as I can’t remember it).  It is, she says, adding that she can only buy it in Paris now.  It’s no longer available in the United States.

“High class problems,” as my friend Dina likes to say.

She is coughing uncontrollably into a hanky.  Hacking,really.  She says she has been sick for weeks.  This is her first outing in as long as she can remember and she’s not even sure she can make it through the whole performance.

I am seething.  I say nothing.  I pray to myself, “Bless her.  Change me.”  My friend Dina taught me this too.  I say it like a mantra until the lights go down.

It is cold in here.  I pull on my wool hat.  It is May.

This is good.  I am not thinking about what I am going to write.  Not thinking that I have committed to 52 Artist Dates and that this is number 23.  I am simply “in it,” observing its smells, sounds, and temperature.

I am at Steppenwolf Theatre Company to see Head of Passes.  I’ve never been here before, but I know that it is a Chicago must – both a jewel and an institution.  The play has received good reviews.  Tickets were $20 plus a $7 handling fee on Goldstar.  When my friend Mimi called to cancel our plans, I took it as a sign and hit “purchase.”

head of passesOn the way here I have one of those “my life is really cool” gratitude moments.  I am driving to the theatre on a Thursday night, by myself, as casually as I might be driving to Trader Joes – as if “this is what I do.”  And it hits me, this IS what I do.  I fill my creative coffers every week.

They say it takes 30 days to create a habit.  I am only on day 23.

I pull into the garage as I realize I can’t feed the meters for the length of the performance.  $10.  A date would pay, right?  Why not me?  This has become my guiding principle – would someone who liked me do this for me?  If the answer is yes, I do too.  Another new habit.

The boy at will call is cute.  He hands me my ticket – second row, off-center to the right.  Awesome seats – illness and odor directly to my left notwithstanding.

The writing is good, rich with wonderful lines that make me laugh uncomfortably like, “Black people don’t like the rain.”  Another about the folly of loving something, someone, who is going to leave you.

Then I am full of folly.  My heart is big and shiny and open.  And someone is always leaving.  Through death, divorce, moving, changing.  I don’t take it as personally these days.  Not like when I was 18 and thought I was the only one experiencing the pain of loss.

I am sitting at my grandmother’s house with my mother and father.  They have come to visit me at university, and together we visit her, my father’s mother, who lives just a few miles away.  She and I are not close.

This visit is more painful than usual because the man I have lost my virginity to has left East Lansing for a spring internship in Illinois.  I am heartbroken.  He is gone.  He was never really there in the first place.  He is engaged, or engaged to be engaged, to a girl in his hometown.  I am not his only indiscretion.

My mother tells me these visits are hard for her too.  That she misses her own mother, my Nana.

“Everyone leaves me,” I sob, making it suddenly all about me.  Nana.  Bill, my red-headed Mr. Wrong.  My friends see him in the cafeteria and shake their heads.  They don’t see what I see.  He wanted me.  It was enough.

Selah laughs sweetly at the doctor – at his folly, for allowing himself to care for her, to be saddened by her imminent death.

But she doesn’t die.  Her children do – tragic, senseless deaths.  Two boys, now grown, delivered by the doctor. And a girl, also grown, brought to Selah as an infant by her husband, the father.

He reminds me of my red-headed Mr. Wrong.  He didn’t bring me a child, just a sexually transmitted disease.  I loved him anyway.  And Selah loved this girl, raising her as her own.

But first, the house collapses onto itself.  Onto Selah.

She emerges, covered in a white choir robe.  Her hair is closely cropped, like mine.  Her matronly dress and braided wig lost.  She is conducting church services – for herself, by herself.  She is the choir, the audience and the minister, all at once.  Her faith, if not her mind, intact.

In the final scene Selah slips back through the rabbit hole of sanity and out of the condemned house, assisted by a construction worker in a hard hat, a dead ringer for the angel who has visited her throughout the two acts.

I think of my own angels – the ones who have taken me by the elbow, guiding me out of my own mess, too many to name.   No longer focused on who has left – not even the woman to my left – I can clearly see who has stayed.

New Ring. Old Questions. Remembering Mr. Thursday.

IMAG0652

I spent last Memorial Day weekend with my friend Ernie at his beach house in Westport, Washington.  It was cool and grey, not unlike the weather here today in Chicago.  Except that it was expected, as it is usually that way.

We cooked and talked and listened to the soundtrack from Saturday Night Fever over and over.  We napped and read and took long walks on the beach where we created a healing ritual: The Sacred Spiral.

It was a response to the shame both of us had known in relationships, coupled with Ernie’s own experiences dragging a large stick in wet sand in a circular pattern, ever-widening, until it touched the shore on one side, the tide on the other.

We did this in silence, often crossing over one another’s markings.  At the end, we each wrote a message in the sand.  Mine was, “God is Good.”   A reference to a conversation I had just a few days before.

I haven’t thought about that weekend in a while, until this past Thursday.  I was buying an enviro-sac, an overpriced bag that rolls up small and lives in one’s purse, ready for the impromptu shopping trip.  As I was paying for it, I spied a ring in the display case –long and wide with a big, blue stone set in the center.  The typewritten tag next to it read: 1970s cocktail ring. $16.

I slid it on.  My small hand appeared longer, elegant.

I had the immediate thought that with this on my left hand, I could now sell my wedding and engagement rings.  Different finger, but no matter.  It closed the space.

I bought it.

IMAG0246Walking home, I thought about where I was at this time last year, and suddenly remembered exactly where I was at this time last year, the Thursday before Memorial Day.

I was kissing a man who wasn’t my husband.

Not long after asking for a divorce, my husband casually remarked that we were “free agents.”  I was floored, but I chose not to fight it, or fight him.  The ending had already been written.  We were just uncomfortably in the middle, clumsily navigating our way there.

The kiss was clean.

We had known one another for a couple of months.  We’d been flirtatious.  He too was going through a divorce.  It felt obvious.  That evening, electric.

His lips over mine.  My face in his hands.  New.  Unfamiliar.  Searching.

He showed me the scar where his gall bladder was taken out.  He asked me about the scars on my breasts.

We took a walk in the woods, our arms linked, talking and kissing and talking and kissing.  His dog leading the way, turning back from time to time to make sure we were still following.

He told me his story and when he was done said, “Now you.”   He wanted to tell me who he was.  He wanted to know me.

I sat on his lap in the kitchen before leaving that night.  Words rumbling in my mouth, behind my face.  I wanted to say them but I was afraid they sounded silly.  I told him anyway.  I said, “God is good.”

He laughed, looked straight through me with his crinkly eyes and said, “God IS good.”  And he kissed me.

I took to referring to him as Mr. Thursday, because I wanted to respect his privacy.  At least, that’s what I told myself.  I think somewhere deep in me I knew that was all he would be –Mr. Thursday.  Mr.-Thursday-right-before-Memorial-Day-2012 to be exact, as we never connected in that way again.

I talked to Ernie about him that weekend.  How I somehow already knew this wasn’t going to go my way, even though I didn’t want to know it.

Thursday and I had agreed that neither of us were remotely interested in a relationship.  Looking back, I probably would have jumped at one, given the chance.  Anything to get out of my discomfort.  But I bravely told him I was on my way to Africa, and then back to Chicago.  That perhaps we could just enjoy one another’s company.  He agreed.

The next day I woke up with that sick sense of dread.  That what was true yesterday was no longer true today.

It was painful.  All those relationship questions that first bubbled up when I was 12 and Alan Wittenberg didn’t like me back were waiting for me – still unanswered.

“Why doesn’t he like me?” “Why did he change his mind?” “What if I were prettier, thinner, less emotional?”

And then, a more adult concern, “Why do I attach so quickly?”

I didn’t think I would have to address these questions again at this point in my life.  I felt like I had learned nothing.  Like I didn’t know the rules.  My divorce buddy in Chicago, my friend who was three weeks behind in my footsteps, assured me that none of us do.

I haven’t thought about Mr. Thursday in a long time.  My fixation with him was replaced by a fixation on another man, which was replaced by a fixation on another man.  And then that fixation was replaced by truth.  What is versus what I would have liked it to be.

I find myself in a place I’ve never been – I am not with a partner, pursuing a partner or lamenting the loss of a one.  It’s strange new territory.  There is no one I’m interested in.  My attention falls simply “on me.”

I called Ernie this weekend and reminded him of where we were a year ago.  About Westport.  About Mr. Thursday.  About seeing his ex on the beach with their dog, Cordelia, and his new partner.  About turning on our heels before they saw us.

Ernie said he and his ex can sit down and talk now – civilized – with no need to turn away.

God IS good.  So is my $16 ring.

BoyFish

jaron

The air is cool

Waiting for your work.

I wrap myself in

A white hospital blanket

Cocooned

Pulling it over my head

In reverence

A chador.

Your husband snaps

A photograph and feeds me

Crackers and peanut butter

In small, cellophane packages.

I rest,

Waiting, like the cool air

For you,

For Jaron.

Holding your leg, strong

Open

Counting your contractions until

Hoarse, until

Life spills from you

Slipping out like

a fish.

Boyfish.

He is six today.

He wears glasses and reads

Chapter books.

We retell the story

Of the cool air

Of his arrival, once

Again.

One day he will

Say “Mom,”

“Enough.”

Yes, Boyfish, You are

Right.

To be invited into

Life, is

Enough.

Artist’s Date 20: When God Fills the Space, a Trip to the Island of Lost Souls

Luana_Danse_Savage-Small__07477_std“You look familiar.  Are you famous?”

This is an auspicious beginning to any date – even an Artist’s Date, one that I take by myself.

I assure Eric, the salesperson at Blackbird Gallery and Framing, that I am not.

“I love this,” he continues, gesturing to my bindi.  “All of this,” he adds, waving his hands in small circles around his face.  “You are beautiful.”

I like this man.  Of course, he is gay.

In my hand is a cardboard tube.  I’ve made a handle out of packing tape so I could carry it from Nashville to Knoxville to Atlanta and home to Chicago.  Inside are two posters.

I bought them at Hatch Show Print in Nashville – America’s oldest working print shop – where letterpress posters summoned me through glass.  Where nary a square inch of wall isn’t covered with iconic images of Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and the Grand Ole Opry.

A smattering of them are for sale, among them “Luana. Danse Savage” and “Island of Lost Souls with the Panther Woman.”   As soon as I spotted them, I knew they were mine.

Eric unrolls them onto a large table and places weighted felt bags at each corner so they lie flat.  They are made of heavy cotton paper, printed in single color ink.  Luana is deep purple – women dancing in short fringed skirts, with cuffs around their ankles.  Island of Lost Souls with the Panther Woman is forest green – a vamped-out, busty broad holding a wild cat on a leash.

Island of Lost Souls.  I feel like I took up residency there about a year ago.  I often times still feel wayward.  Uncertain.  Acutely aware that little in my life has stood on terra firma for some time now.

Island_of_Lost_Souls_01__08149_stdMarriage dissolved.  Another move cross-country, this time bringing little with me that feels like home.  At the time it felt liberating – packing the 13-year-old Honda Civic and leaving the rest behind.  Only later did it register as frighteningly impulsive and potentially foolish.

And yet, my ex doesn’t seem to feel any less lost than I – living in the house where we once lived together, sleeping in the bed we used to sleep in together, surrounded by “our things.”  Perhaps I got the better end of the deal.  Spiritually, at least.

I like the panther on the poster.  And the va-va-voom dress the woman is wearing.  A sexy new take on Cat Woman.  The possibility of living as a super hero.

Luana reminds me of Sunday afternoon dance class at the Old Town School of Folk Music.  Of the serendipity and just plain good luck I had to dance with a troupe in Rwanda this past summer.  The dancers’ surprise and delight that the muzungo (white person) could follow.

Luana seems the opposite end of the Island of Lost Souls.  Yet I am both of them at once.

The posters are big.  Big enough to make a dent on my big, blank canvas of a wall – painted  eggshell by my landlord.  The colors, the same as those in the fabric hanging on the adjacent wall – a few meters cut and carried from the Rwandan market.

They are not what I had envisioned here.

slade painting of meI had imagined my friend Slade’s sketch of me.  Shaved head, bindi, a whitish aura around me – he is not the first to comment on it.  I look a little bit African American, a little bit Hare Krishna.  Thin, wispy, spiritual.  I love it.  I love how he captured me.  But the piece is small, and it lives in his sketchbook.

I had imagined a map.  Or a series of maps, playing off the unintentional travel theme of the room.  Snowshoes on one side of the entry way, license plates from California, Washington and Illinois on the other.  Stacked suitcases turned on their side make a table.  There’s the Rwandan fabric, and a painting I bought from my friend Scotty of a woman leaving her home, leaving her tribe.  It’s called, “You Can Take it With You.”

I am amazed at how the space is filled when I let go of my ideas and make room for God.

Eric and I lay frame corners on the edges of the posters.  Painted wood.  Maple. Birch.  No.  Not quite.  I place a sample of metallic sage on one, metallic plum on the other.  A marriage is made.

Eric places a card on top of the posters.  It shows the differences between three types of glass.  Three price points.  I submit to the middle grade.  Less reflection.  Less distortion.  UV protected.

We talk about spacers and decide I can do without.

Eric crunches numbers and square inches.  I look at paintings and photographs on the walls.  The artists are young, accomplished – as evidenced by their bios.  Talented.  I feel woefully far behind in my craft.  As if I’ve been losing time for some time.  On that Island of Lost Souls for far longer than I realized.

He produces a framing estimate that shocks me.  Even with my $61 Yelp! coupon credit it is much more than I anticipated.  I consider leaving and sticking a tack into Luana and the Island.

I think about all the things I left behind so that I could create something new.  Something shiny.

I hand over my credit card and put down a deposit, hoping the second half will show up on next month’s bill.

I tell Eric about the posters.  About dancing in Africa in the middle of a divorce, leaving the Island of Lost Souls for a spiritual sojourn.  He tells me about his photography work.  We talk about my return to writing.

Perched up on a three-legged stool, I realize I am flirting.  It doesn’t matter that he is gay.  I feel light.  Like myself.  Or who I used to be.  I enjoy our easy rat-a-tat-tat repartee.

I ask him his sign.  Sagittarius, he says and I laugh.  I should have known.  I tell him I love Sagittarians.  I do not tell him that the book Love, Sex and Astrology says that Libra and Sagittarius meet at half past 7 and are in bed by 8.

I keep this to myself, along with stories of all the Sagittarians I have loved – my first real boyfriend in college.  My one-time drinking partner.  My religious studies professor – the object of my unrequited desire for so many years.  Unfinished business.

Instead, I tell him I am a Libra.  He tells me I seem strong.  Resilient.  I smile and nod.

“Sometimes,” I say.

After nearly an hour with Eric, I leave with a pink receipt and a card for his next open studio.

As I cross the threshold on the way out, a couple walks in with a large piece of art for framing.  So large it requires both sets of hands.  Divine timing.  God filling the space I am leaving.

My Last Conversation With My Birth Mom. Part Two.

My birthmother and I.  Our first meeting.
My birthmother and I. Our first meeting.
I said I didn’t remember my last conversation with her, but that isn’t exactly true.  For truly, the last one — the most recent — was on Sunday, Mother’s Day, after her funeral.

After I met my Uncle Thom for the first time.  The one who called me when she was dying and when she did die.  Who I knew from Facebook and with whom I share a special connection.  Who, after we embraced, said, “Come, meet the rest of your family,” and introduced me to uncles and cousins and spouses while I wept behind my sunglasses.

After I met her friends from the Daughters of the American Revolution.  The ones who told me how happy they were for our reunion.  The ones who knew every nuance of our story.  The ones who said I looked “just like my mother.”  And whom I felt no need to correct with terms like “birth” or “biological mom.”

After I introduced myself to the minister and he threw his arms around me and pulled me to him.

I hadn’t made it to town in time for the viewing.   The funeral was closed casket.  My Aunt Julie made arrangements for me to see her at the funeral home after the ceremony.  Before I went in, I called her and asked if I might tie a red thread around Pharen’s wrist, like the one I wear.

I explained in Kabbalah, mystical Judaism, this thread represents protection.  That one wears it on her left wrist, the pathway of the artery to the heart.  That one was placed on me after my Jewish divorce so that I would be reminded of what I am moving toward.  For me, it is greater love.  I didn’t know what it would be for Pharen.

She gave me her blessing and suggested I ask the director for help putting it on her.

We slipped the thread over her clawed hand and I tightened it.  The skin of the dead feels strange.  Rubbery.  I didn’t like it.  I felt badly about that.  And then the director left me alone.

The thread didn’t go with her outfit.  She was dressed in a gorgeous beaded suit, with a beaded clutch in her clutch.  She had chosen this outfit some time ago and had discussed it in detail with Aunt Julie and I — all the way down to the pantyhose.  I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been.  Though born in Detroit, she had become a Southern lady, after all.

I told her that I met the rest of the family.  That I was staying with my friend April, who I had met last time I visited.  That I would be seeing the boy we had talked about.  That he and I had fallen into a beautiful and loving friendship, yet still I was anxious I might not see him.

I told her about meeting her friend Ely.  That I said she had great style and she said I did too.  That we discovered we shared a few things in common.

To all of this she said, “I know.”

I apologized for the times that it was hard between us.  The times I put up walls.  The times that I was afraid.  Afraid she’d jump into my skin given half a chance.  I did not apologize for the boundaries I learned to set for myself.

I apologized that the red thread didn’t match her ensemble but mentioned I thought she would like the idea of us having matching bracelets made of string.

I told her I called Robert, my birthfather, and let him know of her passing.

And I sang to her, just like I did in the hospital and on the phone.  Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.  Gypsy.

“You come from far away with pictures in your eyes…”

And then I pulled up a chair and I listened.  She told me she loved me about a thousand different ways.  And she told me that I knew what to do.  And that was all.

I left knowing that it had all already been said — when she was alive.  And if perchance I had forgotten something, that I could tell her anytime.  And if I”m quiet and lucky, and if I believe, I will hear her response.

Likely another, “I know.”

My Last Conversation With My Birth Mom. Part One

My birthmom as a girl, in the blue.  My ex says I look just like her.
My birthmom as a girl, in the blue. My ex says I look just like her.

I don’t remember my last conversation with my birth mom.

I remember a brief talk we had from the car, when she told me to call her when I could sit down and really talk.  I did, a few days later.  But I don’t quite remember what I said.  Or what she said.  Something about paying bills.

I had gotten used to the idea that she would be around for a while.  I had forgotten she was sick.

A little more than six months ago I got a call that she was in the hospital, unresponsive.  That if I wanted to see her before she died, it was time to go.  So I went.

By the time I arrived in Charleston 36 hours later, she was sitting up, drinking chocolate milk — the occasional expletive flying out of her mouth.  She was “fine.”

But she wasn’t fine.  She was hooked up to tubes and machines.  She looked frail.  The doctors were pushing her to make decisions about the end of her life.  She wasn’t having any of it.

I had imagined sitting next to her, stroking her hand and telling her everything I never got a chance to tell her and wondering if she heard any of it.

Instead, we had a dance party in her room.  I danced.  She held  my hand.  We listened to Motown — naturally.

I sang to her and rubbed her feet and we talked about boys — the one I had just met, the one that was my biological father, the one I used to be married to.

She told me she had written my ex off as “dead,” as she and her friends were wont to do.  Fiercely protective of me.  I told her she didn’t have to.  That he was a good man.  “But he hurt you,” she said.

“It’s ok.  I’m ok,” I said.  And she softened.

And yet, when I left her I was certain I wouldn’t talk to her again.  Wouldn’t see her again.  Neither turned out to be true.

We continued our conversations as she was moved from hospital to hospital to rehabilitation center to home.  None of us believed she would ever go home, let alone live another six months.  But she was determined.  And when Pharen got an idea in her head, it was hard to derail her.

And so, over a six month period, I was lulled into a sense of security.  A belief that she would “be there.”  Our conversations felt less dramatic.  Less desperate.  Less “this might be the last time we talk.”

I was surprised when I got the call that she died. And yet, there was a peace in not knowing our last conversation would be just that. That we could just talk, like people do. Like we had learned to do. 

 

 

Artist’s Date 21: Not Quite Alone at the Opera

opera glassesI called my friend Sheila from the Lyric Opera tonight.  I was seeing Oklahoma!   Artist’s Date 21.  Standing in the lobby, talking into my corded ear piece, I told her I felt at ease here by myself.  That it didn’t seem strange.  That I was comfortable.

Perhaps because I had been on 20 solo Artist’s Dates prior.

Or perhaps because I wasn’t really alone.

I got a call this morning.  My birth mother, Pharen, died.  She was 60.

We just met for the first time three years ago.  She had been looking for me for 12 years, but it wasn’t until I began my search for her that we were connected.  And then it was ridiculously and remarkably fast.  And easy.

We spoke for the first time two days before I turned 40.  I was on a plane to Charleston to meet her a few months later.

During that visit she gave me a pair of mother-of-pearl opera glasses — one of the few things she had to give me, she explained, apologizing that she had long ago given her “good jewelry” to her nieces, as she wasn’t sure she would get to meet me.

I patted the lump in my bag that was the glasses, tucked inside a soft purple Crown Royal bag.  Exactly how she gave them to me.

Sweet irony.  For it is only in getting sober that I finally mustered the courage to look for her rather than talk about looking for her.  That I found friends who had done the same and could walk me through it, step by step.

Sweet irony.  That I would be going to the opera the day she died.

My friend Lynn told me to be gentle with myself during this time.

This time when my stomach feels full with anxiety and yet I don’t know what I am anxious about.  She says it is my body responding to the uncertainty of experiencing something new.

Like losing a “parent” — even if she didn’t raise me.  Or going to the opera alone.

My body has grown accustomed to these Artist’s Dates.

Picking up my tickets from will call, I felt kind of cool and confident, like the girl in a Charlie! perfume commercial from the 1980s.  “Who’s that in the orange suede boots and short, pink-wool blazer by herself?   The one with the bindi and the cropped hair?”

I used to sometimes feel sorry for people I saw alone at events.  I don’t anymore — because I don’t feel sorry for me.

I settled into my aisle seat — main floor, row RR — relieved that I didn’t have to make conversation.  That I could sit.  That I could read from the book in my bag.  That I could return emails and texts from my smartphone, clicking “like” by every condolence I received on Facebook.  Right until the lights went down and the curtain went up.

I’d never seen Oklahoma! before, movie or stage production.  I loved it.  Who doesn’t love a surrey with a fringe on top?  I pulled out  my glasses to see the performers better.  I had a hard time getting a really clear view, but no matter.  I felt her with me.  I wasn’t alone.

I loved the simple story of courting and coupling — a different time, but the foibles and heartbreaks universal, transcending it.  I saw a little bit of myself in wildly flirtatious Ado Annie.  Always keeping her options open.  Easily swayed by pretty words and sexy kisses.

I thought of my Aunt Julie, Pharen’s sister, who I met this fall when I went to Charleston a second time — when I received a call that my birth mother was dying, but didn’t.

I had met a boy while I was there and fell head over heels over head.  And when it didn’t turn out exactly as I had planned, she warned me about “pretty words.”  And to “stop and pay attention” when I hear what I want to hear, words that make my heart race.

Aunt Julie is practical and wise.  Pharen was like me.  A dreamy romantic with her heart on her sleeve and her feet often-times not quite touching the ground.

I loved the singing.  I loved the dancing.  I loved that it was light and I could just smile through it.

I loved that I could, in fact, smile through it.

That I no longer had to be attached to my sadness.  That I could experience moments of joy amidst my sorrow.

That I could go to the opera without wearing the look of “rescue me” painted on my face.

That I coudl go to work today, rather than calling in “tragic victim,” and not feel the need to announce to my Weight Watchers members that my birth mom had died earlier that morning.  That I could engage in their stories.  And when one offered that her niece had recently died, I didn’t have to match her loss with my own.

That I could call my parents, the ones who raised me, and tell them about Pharen’s passing.  That I could go to them with compassion and without expectations, knowing that this isn’t easy for them — my having found my birth family.  That I could turn to others less affected for comfort and soothing.

That I could call my birth dad and not want a thing from him other than to tell him this news.

That I could experience joy when 45 minutes after receiving the call that my birth mother had died, I received another call letting me know I had won fifth prize ina  a writing contest I recently entered — my first ever.  Addressing the topic, “How Creativity Changed My Life,” I wrote about these Artist’s Dates and the book from which they come, The Artist’s Way — my companion in divorce, in my (mostly) chosen single-dom.  Chosen but not always embraced.

That I could take the Mother’s Day card I bought yesterday — signed, sealed and ready to be delivered — and drop it in the mailbox anyway.  Knowing she would “get it.”  Just like I knew she was there with me tonight…

Peering through the opera glasses to see which male performers were cutest.  Knowing Ado Annie but wondering how she might be more steely, like Laurey.  Admonishing me for wearing orange suede booties in the rain, while I waited for the valet to bring my car — the ones that clomped down the hospital corridor so loudly, causing her to yell, “I knew it was you from half-way down the block…”

No wonder I didn’t feel alone.

Artist’s Date 19: We’re Only As Sick As Our Secrets

anne sextonI met Catherine Kaikowska my senior year of college, in an 8 a.m. poetry class.

She was all black.  Turtleneck.  Boots.  Leggings.  All hair.  Brown.  Shoulder length.  Wide and kind of frizzy.  She hiked herself up on the desk, crossed her legs in front of her and cracked open a can of Diet Coke.  “Fuck, it’s early,” she mumbled.

I liked her right away.

She liked me too, and invited me to meet her at The Peanut Barrel – an East Lansing institution known for good burgers, cheap pitchers of beer, and peanut shells covering the floor – where we sucked down Labatts Blues, chain smoked and talked about sex until closing.

She was from Ohio, and used to work the door at a club where Chrissie Hynde played before she made it big with The Pretenders.  The place she vowed she’d never return to until that time.

I haven’t thought about Catherine in a long time.  Until last Thursday, when I slipped a biography of Anne Sexton into my robin’s egg blue Samsonite carry-on bag, circa 1972, and boarded a plane bound for Nashville.

I was first introduced to Sexton in Catherine’s class, along with Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich and her mentor at Michigan State University, Diane Wakoski.  Yet my interests lied with the testosterone-rich voice of Charles Bukowski.  The beatnik fantasy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

I pulled the book out – a tomb, really, nearly 500 pages, hardcover and wrapped in acetate that is supposed to protect it – at Midway Airport, after checking my orange hard-case luggage and picking up a mediocre Americano.  Artist’s Date 19, surrounded by fellow travelers with faces tucked into ipad and smartphone screens.

If we are only as sick as our secrets, then Sexton was the picture of health – for she had none.  She was transparent, as I have been described.  Only more so.

Teacher and mentor John Holmes begged Sexton not to publish her darker, highly confessional poems.  Advice she ignored, and turned into, “For John, Who Begs Me Not To Enquire Further.”

And yet, clearly she wasn’t well, as she took her own life at 45, just two years older than my 43.

Sexton threaded the stories of her life through men – how they reflected her.  She was wildly flirtatious.  A presence.  And, at times, profoundly sad.

She tended to sexualize significant relationships.  She had fluid boundaries.

She felt, at times, in competition with her mother.  And was considered alcoholic.

She gave away her heart too easily.

In “More Than All the Rest,” a poem to her long-term psychiatrist Dr. Martin Orne, she writes:

“Oh, I have raped my inner soul/And give it, naked, to you,/Since my warm mouth and arms/might love, and frighten you.”

I saw myself.  I looked around the airplane to see if anyone else saw me too.

I felt sick, like the medical-school student convinced she has contracted each disease she studies.

But I am not Anne.  I didn’t suffer post-partum depression.  I didn’t hand over my children to be raised by my mother-in-law.  I don’t have children.  I’ve never been pregnant.

I haven’t been institutionalized.  I didn’t take my own life.

Sexton’s gift was making something out of her sick.  Creating art.  Allowing others to see inside the most shameful parts of herself and whisper, “me too.”  In the process, she found both “her people” and herself.

Me too.

The plane touched down.  I was 78 pages in.  I slipped an index card into the book to hold my place, on it is a prayer I had written.  My own words.  My own healing.