Artist Date 78: Both, And.

mcbeardo boodI just wrapped up a contract work gig – my first “straight job” in 12 years.

By straight I mean sitting at a desk, in front of a computer, and working 9 to 5.  (Cue Dolly Parton.)

At first I wasn’t certain how I felt about the opportunity.  I wasn’t clear on my role.  My body hurt from sitting.  My creativity suffered.

And then I hit my stride.

I appreciated having a place to come to – a single place, as opposed to the many I traverse to and from as a massage therapist and Weight Watchers leader.  I appreciated earning a consistent paycheck.  I loved working in a team toward a common good – and that I got to spend five days a week with one of my best girlfriends while doing it.

I even enjoyed the sometimes hour-long commute down Lakeshore Drive, listening to NPR.

And before I knew it, it was over.

I was recently telling my friend Gene about this while catching him up on my days.

I mentioned that had I missed several weeks of Artist Dates.  And that when I went on one last Saturday – number 78 – I still hadn’t blogged about it a week later.

“Sounds like you are living life rather than writing about it,” he said.

Ideally, I would do both.

However, his comment reminded me of a conversation I had a few months earlier with my friend Nithin. He had gone to a concert the night before and noticed the number of people watching the performance through camera phones – recording, photographing and uploading to Facebook.  Documenting rather than experiencing.  At least to his eyes.

I wondered if I had been doing the same.  Living with an eye on writing.

——————–

The Saturday before last, two days after my contract job ended, I said no to a sweat lodge in Michigan and to a birthday party across town, and called it self-care.

Instead, I rode my bike, ate ice cream from Jenni’s on Southport (Bangkok Peanut with coconut and dark chocolate) and napped naked under a ceiling fan, wrapped in crisp gray sheets.

And when I woke, I headed across town for a long-overdue Artist Date, the first in weeks – a reading at Quimby’s books, celebrating and promoting the publication on my friend Mike’s book Heavy Metal Movies.

He’d been working on it for years.  And I could not be more delighted for him.

Mike took the stage in a blue, fuzzy hat with horns – think Fred Flintstone and the Royal Order of Water Buffalos – and then shared it with his wife and a host of friends who gave voice to their own stories on what Mike referred to as “heavy metal, hard movies, and the torrid, torpid twain where both doth meet from a pantheon of ferociously funny, horrifically hilarious headbanging crackpots, visionaries, and mirth.”

I’m not a heavy-metal girl.  And at least one of the readings more than verged on the grotesque.  And yet, none of that mattered.

Each had moved beyond ego, to share their words and their work.  Work that came from their own passions, their own living.  Their presence onstage served as a reminder of possibilities — that there is, in fact, room for each of our voices at the table, and on stage — and also an invitation to do my own work, from my own living.  In sweat lodges and in bookstores.  On my bike and in my bed.  Fully awake and sometimes napping.

Writing AND Living.  Both, And.

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With Room To Grow

2014-06-15 15.12.42My friend Clover is a ridiculous optimist.

She arrived at my home yesterday – plant in hand.  Even though I have killed every seedling and shoot that has crossed my threshold.  Easy ones – amaryllis and succulent.  Even the cacti she brought me when I moved back to Chicago.

They lived in a large glass bowl with sand, rocks and driftwood, as well as a golden deity.  When the first one died, I brought the terrarium to the shop it came from and watched the owner delicately place a new cactus in its place.  During our conversation, he convinced me to try my hand at a succulent – a hearty jade housed in an earthenware vessel, surrounded by wire.  Protected.  Safe.

I too was optimistic.

I saw the jade in my morning meditation, and took it to be a symbol of preparing soil.  Allowing the ground to lie fallow every seven years – as is mandated in the Book of Leviticus.  Without crop.  Resting.  Rejuvenating.

It was during this time – in the first months after my divorce – that several people suggested I not date for a full year, and I saw the soil as myself – getting ready.

I flourished.  But both the cactus and the jade withered.

My apartment gets precious little direct sunlight.  And yet…

I tossed the jade, but kept the container.  The shriveled, grey cactus still sits in the sand terrarium.  A reminder?  A warning?  An omen?

Perhaps it is time to throw away this remnant – what couldn’t survive – to make room for something new.  Not necessarily another cactus.  But something larger and leafier, like the plant Clover brought into my home.

She insists this one is “easy.”  It doesn’t require much sunlight.  Just water – twice each week.  And a new pot, sooner rather than later, as it is a little big for its orange, earthenware container, and will soon outgrow it.

Like me?

For the past several days, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that something is about to change.  What?  I’m not certain.  But I feel the rumblings within.  I am both anxious and excited – eager to greet the shift.

Perhaps this one will be easy too.  Water.  A little sun.  A bigger container…with room to grow.

My Heart is a Surfboard

kaddish-coverThere are four cars in the synagogue parking lot in Evanston – mine being one of them.

I do not want to be here.  And I especially do not want to be here alone.

I asked Pam to join me.  Clover.  Michael.  Matt.  All were unavailable.  And then I stopped calling. I didn’t want just anyone to join me.  So I am here, alone, on the one-year anniversary (according to the Hebrew calendar) of my birth mother’s death.

The synagogue sent a letter reminding me of the date, 28 Iyyar, along with the words – in both English and Hebrew – to Kaddish, the prayer that accompanies the lighting of a yahrzeit candle, honoring the deceased.

Her name will be read in synagogue, and I feel l should be here to hear it. I think she would like that – even though she wasn’t Jewish.

I sit in the car a few minutes longer, re-reading flirtatious text messages my friend, Mr. Fashion, sent just before I left the house – trying to distract myself from my uncomfortable feelings about being here.  It only half works.

Eventually, I walk in and am greeted by both the rabbi and the cantor.  Each is a touchstone in my life.  And yet seeing them today does not shift my feelings.

Twenty or so congregants are here for the Friday night service, but I sit alone.   It is my choice.  I feel awkward and angst-y.  I keep my eyes cast down.  I barely sing.  I wonder how it is that I once thought I might be a rabbi.  It seems unfathomable to me now, as it is all that I can do just to be here.  And I again wonder why it is that I am here.

Until the last moments of the service, when I am reminded.

I am standing with my congregation saying Kaddish, the memorial prayer for the dead.  The prayer praising God.  The same prayer I read at home a few days ago when I lit a yahrzeit candle.

The rabbi reads the names of those in the congregation who have passed in the past week, and of those who passed this week in years past.

“Pharen Johnson, mother of Lesley Pearl.”  My rabbi’s voice catches a little – I think.

And without warning, my eyes are heavy and wet.  My nose flares – hot.  I feel a thud in my core, and then its energy rolling out in waves to my hands and feet.  I am riding the currents.  My heart is a surfboard.  My belly flip-flops and then, more heat.

The feeling is not unfamiliar.  I occasionally experience it when I meditate.  But I do not expect it here, now.

And suddenly I know why I am here.

I understand why we are called to go to synagogue in the days after death, and on the anniversary of it.  Why it is not enough to light a candle and say a few words in my kitchen – alone.

The synagogue gives me the space to grieve.  The service, to consider it — which I have not done.

I mentioned this to Pam the other day, on the actual anniversary of Pharen’s death.

Me and Pharen.  Our first meeting.
Me and my birthmom. Our first meeting.

I tell her that after I lit the yahrzeit candle and said Kaddish – alone – I noticed my desire to call Mr. 700 Miles, the “man” who slipped out of my life without a word a little over two months ago.

I remember him telling me he moved home to be with his mother when she was dying – 18 or so years ago.  That he thought about her every day.  That he wasn’t done learning the lessons she had to teach him.  That she and I were kindred spirits.

I think I should call him, because he knows what this is like.  Even more so.  But so do many of my other friends.

I do not call him.  Or them, either.

Pam responds with a gentle, loving “duh,” and suggests that perhaps I nudged out my grief with incongruent affections for the Southern Svengali – another man who swept me off my feet.  This time in Charleston, where my birth mother lived.  While she was dying.

I consider this.  That it might be true.

I couldn’t grieve.  I didn’t have the space, the energy or the capacity for it.

I hadn’t even grieved the end of my marriage.  Or the life I knew for 15 years that I had driven away from in a 14-year-old Honda Civic just a few months prior.  And I continued not to grieve it until only recently – slotting in affections with woefully unavailable men instead.

I consider that I didn’t believe I was allowed to grieve.

Finding my biological mother and father, and having relationships with them, was at times painful and disruptive to my family.  Over the years I have tried to minimize that pain by minimizing how much I talk about them.  About those relationships.

And so, I did not much talk about my feelings with my family — or with anyone else — when my birth mom died.  I talked about the Southern Svengali, and later Mr. 700 Miles, instead.

A year later, these distractions have long since lost their efficacy.

I cannot thread my sadness through another man.  I need to be with it.  And perhaps, for the first time ever, I do not want to run from it.

Tonight I  have a space and a ritual to honor this loss.  By myself, and in community, all at once.

And I understand why I am here.

I text Mr. Fashion when I get home, like I promised I would.  He asks if I would like to get together.  I decline.  I have no desire to distract myself from these feelings.

I ask him for a rain check, which he graciously offers – along with the promise that he will hold me to it, and some other things that I will keep just for myself.

I just smile and let myself feel it.  All of it.