Artist Date 54: Sew, Here I Am Again

I am afraid of fabric stores.

I am aware that this is a somewhat unusual fear.  Sharks.  Spiders.  Speaking in front of large groups.  Of course.  But fabric stores…

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And yet, I love them.  Floor to ceiling bolts of brightly colored cloth, every pattern imaginable.  Zebra skin.  Tiny elephants.  Frida Kahlo faces.

Shiny scissors of every size and price range.  Silky ribbon and trim.  Envelopes stuffed with patterns – what I imagine to be the Holy Grail of well-fitting clothing.

Trouble is, I can’t sew.  And I am terrified that I wear this deficiency like a scarlet letter.  An indelible ink tattoo on my forehead which reads, “She doesn’t know what she is doing.”

I’ve tried.  In high school, when I had designs on a career in fashion design.  I knew this skill was non-negotiable.  My mother’s friend offered to teach me.  Together, we made a skirt out of a blue-green burlap-y material.  I was pretty delighted, and I wore it a lot.  But I still couldn’t sew a button-hole, make pleats or even thread a bobbin on my own.

About 20 years later I took a sewing class in Berkeley, at the shop next to the cleaner who washed and folded my massage sheets each week.  Up the hidden staircase at the back of the store to the loft above it, I sat with six other women on Tuesday afternoons for four weeks.  And when it was over, I walked out with a very expensive kimono – which I wore for years, until it became greasy from the oil I slathered on my  body every morning and no amount of cleaning could take it out.  And no closer to knowing how to sew.

I visited a fabric store on Queen Anne Avenue in Seattle a couple of years ago.  I was embarking on The Artist’s Way for the first time and took myself there on one of my tentative, first Artist Dates.  I felt intimidated and scared, hoping, praying no one would ask me if I needed any help.  No one said a word to me.

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When I returned to Chicago, I stated my intention to make curtains using ironing tape on Facebook.  My friend James was horrified. He sent me a private message saying “Please,don’t,” and offered to sew for me.  He did.  Mustard-colored with sprigs of white blossom hang in my living and dining rooms, one set tied back with bow ties, the other with scarves.  Cartoonish leaves in grey, orange and green cover my bedroom window.

All of this comes rushing back to me as I walk into The Needle Shop, Artist Date 54 – a crazy mingling of curiosity, desire and fear.

Hanging in the windows are bolts of the happiest, most whimsical fabrics I’ve ever seen.  I promised myself I would go in “one day.”  Ever since it opened up across from the Trader Joes where I shop no less than twice a week.  Today is “one day.”

It is small inside.  There is nowhere to hide.  I take photographs of the bolts.  If anyone asks, I will say I am thinking of making pillows and want to see the fabric in my living environment.

This is not untrue. My friend Julia said she will show me how.  And that she can help me shop for a starter machine so I can really learn – through practice and repetition.

No one asks.  Instead, a sales clerks encourages me to take swatches, pre-cut and pinned to the bolts, along with tags of price per yard.

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Brown cotton with turquoise doves and cream-colored plants.  White with graphic grey and yellow flowers.  Green with turquoise ginkgo.

I wander over to the bin of patterns.  They are “high end.”  Nothing like the McCalls and Simplicity patterns strewn around my ex-mother-in-law’s sewing room.  (Although they have these too.)  Sassy 1950’s style tap pants and bras.  Messenger bags.  Wrap dresses.

The fantasy returns.  I will learn to sew.  I will make my own clothes.  I will have trousers that fit like they were made for me.  Because they were made for me.  I will make couture.  I will make curtains and pillows.  I will surround myself with gorgeous, happy, sumptuous fabrics.

I sit down in a stadium folding chair with a sewing book written by a cool-looking, hipster chick.  I am immediately overwhelmed and quickly put the book back on the shelf.

I pick up a card listing sewing classes.  Easy alterations.  Roman shade.  Ragland sleeve top.  Sewing 101.  “We show you how your machine works.”

Yes.  But first I need a machine.

Not today though.

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Today, this “one day,” I leave with a fistful of fabric scraps and the notion that there may be something here for me – a reason I continue to find myself in fabric stores nearly 30 years after my first visit.

Perhaps I am bound for a fourth or fifth-act career, in fashion.  Perhaps I will just learn to hem my own trousers.  At not-quite 5’3”, petites are still too long.

Or maybe it is nothing more than my Libran birthright, which calls me to surround myself with beauty.  The swatches in my bag, a talisman – guiding me.

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Further From The Flame Than I Knew

I sometimes have a one-plate rule.  Actually, it’s not even a rule, it’s just how I eat.  Except for when I don’t.  Today is one of those days.

The table at Martha's, post meal.  The pies have been put away, but my copy of "Love, Sex and Astrology" has not.
The table at Martha’s, post meal. The pies have been put away, but my copy of “Love, Sex and Astrology” has not.

It is Christmas and I am at Martha’s house with her son Louie, his girlfriend Katie, Jack and Jonnie.  There is enough food in the kitchen for triple the size of our party.  I have reloaded my plate, even though I have not finished what is on it, adding a second piece of ham and a small spoonful of macaroni and cheese, which I did not try the first time around.  I pile it on top of my salad – greens with roasted root vegetables, gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and pear.

The macaroni is delicious.  Made with sour cream, cream cheese, and cheddar and parmesan cheeses.  I say it is perhaps too rich, and laugh, thinking about those people who say that foods are too rich or too sweet.  No such thing.

Except for when they are.  This is one of those times.

I put my fork down.  My brain wants more but my belly says no.  Or perhaps it is not my belly but some higher-self that is constructed of painful memories.  The higher self that says don’t put your hand on the hot stove.

Trouble is, I’m the type that likes to bring my hand really close to the burner, to see how close I can get, to feel the heat without getting burned.

It is this second plate.  It is the boy I spent the night with several months ago. And, knowing he could not possibly give me what I want, and that once I am physically involved my perception gets blurry, spent a second night with him anyway.

It is my years of vain efforts to try to drink like other people.

The higher self speaks to me.  Passover.  1990-something.  I still live in Detroit and my parents are still married, but they do not live in my childhood home.  Neither do I, which means I am somewhere between 21 and 24 years old.

I am thin for the first time in my life.  Really thin.  I am rigid about my eating and exercise.  The kind of rigid that makes me not all that much fun to eat with.  I feel like I have cracked the code.  That I will never be heavy again.  That I am fixed.  I am mistaken.

My mother has made some sort of gelatinous kosher-for-Passover dessert.  It is an experiment, as is every kosher-for-Passover dessert, where chemistry and good taste are at odds in the never-ending quest to make tasty sweets without flour.

I have one.  Then another.  And another.  They are not even good but I cannot seem to stop myself.  My mother clears the table and brings them into the kitchen and I follow, secretively, wolfing down a few more.  As if anyone is paying attention.

Next I know I am in the upstairs bathroom, on the floor, trying to make myself throw up. But I cannot.  My mother asks if I need to go to the hospital.  I say no because I cannot imagine what they will do to help me.  I lie on the cool tile with my pants unzipped and wait for this feeling to pass.

I tell Martha and Jonnie this story, and that eating too much feels scary.  Which is not to say that I don’t overeat, because I do.  And today is likely to be one of those days.  But I do not eat to sickness and have not in many, many years.  The desire has been taken from me.  It is a miracle.

As is my reaching out to that dear, sweet boy only one more time.  And when the response was tepid, not returning to him, trying to convince him, or myself, that it, that we, could be otherwise.

As is my not trying to drink like other people for more than six years.  Instead, putting down the drink entirely.

I finish my plate.  Slowly.  A bit later I have a sliver of pumpkin cheesecake and one of chocolate pecan pie.  I tell Martha to cut them as wide as her finger and she does.  I am breaking one of my holiday rules.  Kind of.  I do not eat anything not homemade.

The pies come from First Slice – a not-for-profit which sells “subscriptions” for homemade meals and uses the money from those subscriptions to feed the same meals to hungry families in Chicago.  Martha assures me the pies are more homemade than if she made them herself.

I have a second round of slivers.  Am I playing with fire?

Walking home, the streets are freakishly quiet.  I am carrying a bag of leftovers – salad, ham, roasted roots, sweet potatoes – leaving the pies, and the Lindt truffles at my place setting, on Martha’s table.

I feel the snow on my face.  I feel my gut.  Satiated, but not stuffed.  I have “broken” several of my “rules,” and, miraculously, feel further from the flame than ever.

Artist Date 53: You Don’t Say

I used to swear like a sailor.  It was part of my tough-talking, cigarette-smoking, don’t-mess-with-this-Jew personae – affectionately known by my newspaper colleagues as “Brooklyn Les.”

Until I got hired by Weight Watchers.  My friend, and mentor Stan told me I would need to watch my mouth.  That I might think people thin-skinned, but that not everyone cottons to the liberal and casual use of the word fuck.

I trusted him, and learned to curb my four-letter tongue.  I found the more I didn’t use those words in the workplace, the more they slipped away from my vocabulary entirely.

Don’t get me wrong.  I still like a well-placed fuck.  (Double entendre not intended, but appreciated.)   Especially the unexpected sort that shocks.

tribes

Like in Tribes.  Artist Date 53 at the Steppenwolf Theatre.

The word punctuates each breath of the play’s first lines, followed by cunt and a graphic, fairly vulgar description of the much-older object of Ruth’s affection.

Uproarious laughter covers a collective gasp.  There is a shared sense of ok-ness.  That we have chosen our mores.  That we have agreed upon this use of language.

I am a part of this conscious collective too.  But I don’t feel that way.  I am self-consciously aware of feeling “not a part of.”  Disconnected.  The word rattling in my head since I lost Internet connectivity minutes before leaving the house.

It is exacerbated by the series of phone calls I make while driving that dump me into voicemail.  And even more so by the conversation to my right, once in my seat.  Flanked by two couples, I listen as they share highlights of their collective creative genius.  She leads workshops teaching artists how to write grants.  He is a photographer.  The other she is an actress.

I am envious.  Irritated.  It does not occur to me that I am a writer.  That I too have a creative genius.  One that connects me to others every time I engage it.  I am, as my friends like to say, looking for the differences.  All of the places where I don’t measure up.  At least in my mind.  I have been all day.

This afternoon, interviewing with a recruiting firm — really more of a temp-to-permanent staffing agency.

I went in worried about not wearing a suit.

I haven’t owned one in more than 12 years.  Ever since I traded prestige for peace of mind and left a nearly six-figure job to answer phones at a massage school for $12/hour and 50 percent off future classes – supplementing my new cobbled-together career as a massage therapist and Weight Watchers leader.

It had not occurred to me that my plaid, Pendlelton coat and patterned spectators might be the least of my concerns.

All around me – on both sides of employment table – are “kids.”  They appear to be born the same year I graduated from high school.

I lose myself in self-conscious concern.  About my age, my appearance, that I have not looked for work in 12 years.  And when the questions come about desired salary, and ideal work environment, I stammer.

Photo by Sandro. Steppenwolf Theatre.
Photo by Sandro. Steppenwolf Theatre.

Like Daniel in Tribes, when his sense of security – false or not – is taken from him and he reverts to old patterns.

The old tendency to try to be what you need me rushes in.  People pleasing.  Like Billy, learning to read lips rather than pushing his family to learn to sign – which seems selfish, at the least inconvenient, and might make them uncomfortable.

It is an old behavior and yet it sneaks back in as effortlessly as the fucks that can still fly from my mouth.  I feel tired and small.  And sort of stupid.  Even though I know that none of that is true.

But suddenly not so separate.  I see myself in bits of the universal dysfunction unraveling on stage.

I am like Beth.  A tentative, later-in-life writer.  Like Christopher.  Using bluster and swagger to cover up my own not knowing.  Like Ruth.  Looking for love.  Except I no longer ask “What is wrong with me?” while sobbing in my mother’s arms.

Nor do I succumb to the urge to call a boy I know while driving home, when the separateness has returned to me.  A boy fighting demons far greater than my own right now.  A boy who could never give me what I want – which right now is nothing more than to be held.  I know that this is beyond his capabilities – so I think better than to ask for it.

Age, experience – it is grace.

Once home, I write a note to my friend Melinda, as I do most nights – sharing an inventory of my day via email.  I will receive hers in the morning.

Connectivity has been restored.  To the Internet.  To my friend.  To my truth.

Artist Date 52: Exactly Where I Am Supposed To Be

This time last year I was on my knees.  Literally.

It was my first holiday season divorced and living back in Chicago, alone.  My girlfriend called me out on my obsession with the man I like to call the Southern Svengali — the one I kissed for two nights while in Charleston in late October.  She said she could not hear about it, or him, anymore.

My non-relationship was affecting my relationships.

I felt desperate and scared.  I called a friend who advised me to get on my knees and ask God to remove my obsession him every day.

I did.  But I needed something more.

the artists wayI remembered the comfort I had found in the structured creativity of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and decided to pull it out again —  a hopeful, albeit artsy, roadmap out of myself.

This time, in addition to taking on the weekly reading and writing assignments, I committed to the weekly Artist Date – the weekly hour or so block of time, alone, to fill my creative coffers – and to a weekly blog about it for a year.  Fifty-two Artist Dates.  Fifty-two blogs.

Thursday is Artist Date 52.

I am sitting in a Starbucks on Michigan Avenue killing time before Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.  It is 6 p.m. and I have been downtown since 11.  I am tired.  I am questioning the wisdom in staying here as opposed to driving home at 2 p.m. when I was finished with my work and returning later.

Until I get the text which lets me know I am exactly where I should me.  It is from my friend Matt.  He is at a coffee shop around the corner, also killing time, before his couple’s therapy session where he will ask his wife for a divorce.

I tell him where I am.  Within moments he is standing over me and then we are hugging each other tightly.  Teary.

I remember when he told me that he and his wife were separating, more than a year ago.  I still lived in Seattle, but was visiting Chicago – smack dab in the middle of my own divorce.

Matt is appropriately anxious.  I reflect back to him how thoughtful he has been through this entire process – never rash.  We hold hands and we pray together, in the middle of Starbucks.  It doesn’t seem strange.

He leaves.  And shortly after, I do too, pulling my wool long-underwear back on over my tights.  It is December and the temperatures are already in the teens.

I love Chicago at night.  Especially during the holidays.  Michigan Avenue twinkles with white lights, and skaters glide around in circles on the tiny patch of ice in Millenium Park.

Photo: The Inside Scoop Chicago
Photo: The Inside Scoop Chicago

I walk up “the hill” that is Randolph Street to the Harris Theater.  My body has once again adjusted to the flat Midwest and takes note of the incline.

I pick up my ticket at will-call and make a beeline for the bathroom, peeling off my long underwear.  Winter in Chicago is a lot of work.

My friend Lori is coming out.  We embrace and talk excitedly about her ceramics show.  Lori is a genius potter.  We met her at Lil Street Art Center, where I was stumbling through a beginners’ class.  Lori taught me how to glaze.

She asks if I will come back to Lil Street.  I am not certain as I have committed my creative energies to my writing and my dance – at least for now.

She asks if I remember Kevin from the clay studio and reminds me he is a member of Hubbard Street.  I do remember.  It is one of the reasons I am here.

We part company and I run into a woman I have danced with.  She is enrolled in Level three West African Dance.  I am in Level two.  Later, I see Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The world seems small and I am a citizen of it.  Or, at the very least, a citizen of Chicago.

The woman in the seat next to mine is alone.  As is the woman next to her.  We make easy conversation.  She is a Weight Watchers member.  I am a Weight Watchers leader.  She is looking for a massage therapist.  I am a massage therapist.  She is a widow.  I am a divorcee.

She tells me she lost her husband four years ago, and she tears up.  For the second time today I am clear that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.  Right down to my seat: BB10.

The performance, One Thousand Pieces by Alejandro Cerrudo, is inspired by Marc Chagall’s America Windows – the installation I visit every time I am at the Art Institute, my favorite.  I shared it with Matt a few months ago when we met downtown for a member’s-only café re-opening.  It was summer and we sat in the courtyard noting who was checking the other out.  It seems a long time ago.

One Thousand Pieces, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
One Thousand Pieces, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

It is my first time seeing Hubbard Street Dance.  The dancers’ bodies are strong.  Gorgeous.  Not sinewy, like ballet bodies.  I think my legs approximate the same shape as theirs, albeit less toned and I feel at the same time cocky and ashamed admitting this to myself.

The stage is glossed and looks like water.  I am looking for Kevin.  My eyes occasionally roll back into my head.  This almost always happens to me at performances.  The lights go down and my sleepy kicks in.  Except for last year when I saw Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre  – twice.

My seats were good – dress circle one night, main floor the other.  My experience was dramatically altered by looking straight at the dancers as opposed to peering down at them.  I vowed then I would always buy good seats for dance.  These seats are good – the Harris Theatre is small and there are no “bad seats.”  But not good enough.

And then it is over.

The performance, but not my Artist Dates.  They “work.”  Like being on my knees works.  Not so much in desperation (although I am certain I will find myself there again many times in this life), but in prayer – the antidote to it.  Exactly where I am supposed to be.

Arttist Date 51: Now I Know

There are a couple of memories that permeate my childhood.  Stories I asked to hear again and again until I knew them word-for-word, by heart.

detroit 67My origins, my adoption and my first eight weeks on the planet – captured with typewriter ribbon on onion-skin paper and tucked into a red vinyl bag with my report cards and school pictures.

The loss of my mother’s biological child.  One she didn’t know she was pregnant with until she lost it.  The event which, to my mind, secured my role as my parent’s child.

The day my parents packed up their bags and their bird and moved from Oak Park to Birmingham, Michigan to live with my father’s sister for a short time.

It was the summer of 1967.  The city of Detroit was on fire — literally.  Residents rioted and looted.  Police unleashed with unrestrained force.  Both the Army and the National Guard were called to quell the mayhem.

My uncle living in California called to say he was watching the news, and did my mother know that tanks were rolling down Woodward Avenue.

She did.  Oak Park was just a few miles over the 8 Mile Road border that separated the city from the suburbs.  It felt close.  Too close.  And the tony suburb of Birmingham seemed safely a world away.  So they went.

Photo by Phil Cherner
Photo by Phil Cherner

I don’t recall any more of the story than that.  How it ended.  When it ended.  When they came home.  Only that the chasm – racially, culturally, financially – between Detroit and the suburbs appeared to be sealed that summer.

Over the years I asked my parents what started the riots.  They hypothesized.  But the truth was, they weren’t quite certain.  Neither were other white people of their generation, and the one just behind them, that I asked.

I got my answers last Saturday night at the Northlight Theatre – Artist Date 51.

The first time I saw a poster for Detroit ’67, with its black upturned fist of Joe Louis, I knew I would see it.  That I needed to see it.  I didn’t consciously think I might get answers to the questions left hanging from my childhood.  I merely felt the pull, a tug that took me to Skokie on a dark December evening — alone.

The audience is mostly older – boomers and above.  Mostly African American or Jewish.  I recognize the latter by the smattering of kippot (head coverings) and conversations about Israel.  And, at risk of sounding politically incorrect, as a Jew raised among mostly other Jews, I “just know” my people.  Many of them are dancing – some in the aisles, but mostly in their seats – to Motown.

Martha and the Vandellas.  Smoky Robinson and the Miracles.  Stevie Wonder, when he was still called “Little Stevie Wonder.”

It is the music of my childhood.  The Big Chill soundtrack, and Big Chill-like gatherings at my cousin Wendy’s house.

The couple behind me is singing.  They know every word.  During the performance, they respond to the actors.  More than a mutter but not quite “out loud,” either.  I like it.  I feel like we are all, “a part of,” and I am not so much alone.

Meanwhile, I tuck into the program and get schooled.

This is what I learn:

Detroit’s 12th Street Riot began on July 23, 1967, with the police raid of a blind pig — a home illegally selling alcohol under the guise of “an attraction…with complimentary beverages.”  (Not unlike memberships sold for experimental AIDS treatments in Dallas Buyers Club.  Artist Date 47.)

The raid itself was not unusual.  Detroit’s white police officers were known for harassing, and even brutalizing, the city’s black residents.

The aftermath.  Detroit Free Press photograph.  Public Domain.
The aftermath. Detroit Free Press photograph. Public Domain.

But unlike other raids, this one did not resolve quickly or quietly.  And what began as a conflict between police and patrons soon engulfed the whole city.  To end the disturbance, Governor George Romney ordered the Michigan National Guard into Detroit.  President Lyndon B. Johnson sent Army troops.

Five days later, 43 people were dead.  More than 500 were injured, and 7,231 arrested.  Half of those arrested had no criminal record.  Sixty-four percent were accused of looting and 14 percent were charged with curfew violations.

Losses from arson and looting ranged from $40 to $80 million.

But I don’t see any of it.

Only the actions, and reactions, of five residents of Detroit, black and white, who want to feel safe.  Who want something better for themselves.  Not unlike my own family.  In a basement in the city’s near west side, with an eight-track player, a phonograph that skips, and a dream.

Artist Date 50: When the Messenger is Hot

My friend Betsy gave me a book of hers a few days after I turned 40 – one that she wrote, as opposed to one that once upon a time made a difference in her life but is now collecting dust on the shelf.  Just after I told her about my crush on a mutual friend of ours.

when the messenger is hotI told her that I was committed to the commitment of my marriage.  That I loved my husband.  That we had grown in wildly different directions, and were continuing to do so.

That I would see this other guy, our mutual friend, every Saturday morning in a church basement, where we would sit across the table from one another.  That he was funny and smart, a writer.  That he spoke my brand of crazy, which meant that when I talked, he would nod in that knowing way.  The same way I nodded when he spoke.

That I was pretty sure he liked me after he brought me an entire smoked salmon for my 39th birthday.  And that I liked him.  (Blog: I Think the Fish Guy Likes Me)

Or perhaps I just liked the way he made me feel.  Seen.  Heard.  Understood.

Betsy made a happy-sad face and told me the story of When the Messenger is Hot.

I’m standing in The Brown Elephant thrift store in Andersonville – Artist Date 50.  Her book of short stories by the same name stares back at me from the shelves of fiction.

I smile a big toothy grin.  It’s some sort of message, I think.  Which is really the crux of the When the Messenger is Hot.

That people, objects, and experiences come into our lives for a reason.

Sometimes their appearance, or disappearance, is painful.  Sometimes it looks nothing like what we imagined.

And sometimes, according to Betsy, God provides a pretty attractive delivery vehicle to make certain we pay attention.  In her case, a bad boy with the heart of a poet and a tattoo on the inside of each of his wrists, Chinese symbols for “child of God.”

She thought he might be the love of her life.  Or at least great sex.  Instead, she came to see him, and their single date – which she rated among her top 5 – but never led to another, as a template of what a date should look like – “…love songs and flowers and candles and lollipops.”  A reason to have faith.  A harbinger of things to come.

I’m still not sure what message the Fish Guy came to deliver me.  That there are attractive men all around who will bring me clever and intimate gifts that say, “I know you?”  (Because really, I don’t know any women other than myself who would swoon over a piece of fish.)  That my then-husband wasn’t the only one?  My own harbinger of things to come?

That my brand of crazy really isn’t so crazy?  That that “too much” that I fear being, really isn’t too much?

The Fish Guy moved away from Chicago – to Florida, so he could fish.  Seriously.  But the message of When the Messenger is Hot stuck with me.

The words became my shorthand for meeting someone seemingly special and not getting what I thought I wanted.  And an opportunity to look for lessons where I thought there might be love.

The teacher who taught me about spiritual intimacy through shared prayer and meditation, and long conversations about God.

When I was the muse.
When I was the muse.

The Southern Svengali who taught me about creative companionship.  What it was to be inspired by another, to have a muse.  And to be a muse.

The divorce buddy who taught me about unconditional love and friendship.  Who packed my car and drove me home from the West Coast to Chicago, even when things were awkward and clunky between us.

I think about buying Betsy’s book, just because it is here.  Even though I already have a copy.  Even though I have sent copies to several of my friends.  But I leave it.

I pick up a collection of short stories titled Tongue Party, and a hardback copy of Like Water for Chocolate, both for $1.37, instead – curious what messages they will deliver.