Artist Date 82: Avec moi-même

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Big Kahuna Yard Sale.  The Chicago Mosaic School.  Viva Vintage Clothing.

I am walking down Ravenswood Avenue, following the elevated Metra rail tracks.  A pathway I have taken hundreds of times.  Except that I usually don’t go south of Montrose.  I haven’t had a reason to.  And I usually walk on the east side only.

Except today.

Artist Date 82.

Earlier tonight I ditched my plans to attend an end of Ramadan feast for Muslims and Jews.  I am tired and overwhelmed and this small gesture seems like a big step towards self-care.

It is not easy as I am of the variety who fears missing out on something fantastic.  Of the variety more comfortable going and doing than sitting and being.  Even though I have maintained a meditation practice for more than 12 years.  Even though I make my living, in part, doing massage – the stillest work I can imagine.

I like an Artist Date rich with stimulation – music, prayer, food, potential tumult.  Like an end of Ramadan feast.

But today I choose to fill myself in the quietest, stillest way I know how.  Doing one of the only two things that made any sense to me during my divorce and for months after.  I am walking.  (Writing being the other.)  Walking somewhere familiar.  (Ravenswood between Lawrence and Montrose.) And then somewhere new. (Ravenswood between Montrose and Irving Park.)

It seems like such innocuous newness.  Hardly worth mentioning.  And yet, I see all sorts of things for the first time.

A Latin restaurant.  A pilates studio.  Ballroom dancing lessons.

A beer-tasting room.  Several artist studios.  AVEC painted on a building.  And again on a bridge.

French taggers?

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I take photographs of the tags and send them to a friend along with a text that reads, “Um…how do you pronounce that?!”— referencing the hotel concierge who suggested he and his date have dinner at (emphasis on hard A)vec.

He texts back “Aye-Veck!” and “Aw, Heck” and continues on and on in French.  I get about two-thirds of it, then confess I know just enough French to order pastry and ask for directions without embarrassing myself in Paris.  (I may or may not understand the response, depending on the speed of the speaker.)

We go back and forth like this for a bit and I realize I am very much AVEC.  I am very much WITH my friend.  Which is lovely and fun.  I adore him and we laugh a lot.  But this is not why I am here, wandering Ravenswood Avenue, alone.

I think about the rules I created early on for my Artist Dates: Do not do anything I wouldn’t do on a “real” date.  Answer a telephone call or text.  Listen to music.  Check Facebook on my phone.

Eighty-two dates in, I’ve loosened up on the rules, perhaps even forgetting them – until now.

I stop texting and slip the phone in my pocket.

I am amazed how quickly, how easily I can be pulled from myself, from one moment into another, from what is right in front of me.

Forty-five minutes ago I took my ear buds out and paused Aretha Franklin on Pandora.  The sound of the Queen of Soul distracted me from myself, so I put the music away.  Now the words and this relationship distract me.  I put them away too and return to myself.

AVEC moi-même.  With myself.

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Artist Date 81: I Could Swim In Your Voice. And Drown In My Own.

With storytellers Carmen and James.  Carmen with trophy from the Dollar Store for Best Story of the Night.
With storytellers Carmen and James. Carmen holding Dollar Store trophy for Best Story of the Night.

I am nearly seven years sober and I am sitting in a bar by myself.  On its face, this does not sound like a good thing.  Except that it is a very good thing.

I’m at Story Club – a monthly “live literature” event where three featured performers tell true-life stories, and three audience members, invited up at random – their names pulled from a monkey carved out of a coconut, the words “Have Fun” scrawled onto the base – do the same.   Artist Date 81.

My feet are slick with massage oil and slosh around in my orange peep-toe wedges.  My head throbs, a reminder of the two cysts I had removed from my scalp just this morning.

I take a seat at a table up front, and immediately wonder if I should sit on a stool at the bar instead – where “singles” sit.  Even though I have trouble seeing and hearing and engaging when I am that far from the stage.

I wonder if I should see if I can join another party of one at one of the banquettes against the wall.

I wonder if it is ok to take up this much space – me alone.  It is a question that has haunted me my entire life.

I stay at the table, order a club soda with lime juice, pull out my reading glasses and dive into my book.

I am sitting at a bar alone with a club soda and a book.

At the table to my right, a gaggle of girls talk about San Francisco.  About writing.  And about a secret Facebook group of women writers – 26,000 strong.

I want to tell them I used to live in San Francisco.  That I too have been wooed into the fold of these female wordsmiths.  That they both excite and frighten me.  And that I’m not even sure how I came to know them.  But I say nothing.

My name is pulled from the coconut monkey – the first of the evening.  I climb to the stage, take a breath and begin reading…”The waxy brown cotton of my lapa feels soft between my fingers.  Like my body.  Like my heart.”

My voice is sing-song-y and gentle.  A heightened version of what I call my massage voice.  It is sweet and loving, lilting and melodic.  It tells you the things you wish your mother had told you.  That you are human.  That you are lovely.  That you are good.

I hear my poetry professor Catherine Kaikowska reading her work – perched on top of a desk.  Her legs crossed, Diet Coke in hand.  Hair wild.  “Deja-rendevous. Deja rende, rendezvous.”  Hypnotic.  I could swim in her voice.

But I would like to drown my own.  I have fallen out of love with it.  My voice.  My story.  Just this moment.  I am bored with it.  All of it.

I have not written about love and pain and loss.  I have not written about sex.  I have written about my connection to my body, to my spirit.  It feels esoteric.  Less familiar.  Less sexy.

I have left out the juicy bits.  The part about tearing off my lapa – my West African dance skirt – and jumping into a pond naked with my crush after the sweat lodge.  The part about him plucking me out of the water – naked – when my strength failed me and I could not pull myself onto the high dock.

I have not written about any of it.  I have not given him a clever moniker and chronicled the story of my heart.  I have held it instead.  Held my heart.  Held my words.  It feels unfamiliar.  Untrue.  It is the story I am used to telling.

But tonight, James and Carmen tell it instead.

James (AKA GPA – Greatest Poet Alive) who has committed to memory the story of Maria breaking his 5th-grade heart when she circled “no” in response to the query in his note – “Will you be my girlfriend?  Yes?  No?”  Not even a maybe.  Not even a spritz of Geoffrey Beene’s Grey Flannel to the paper could sway her.

Carmen who invites us into her bedroom and her psyche at the moment when her friend with benefits asked her to talk dirty to him in Spanish.  Her words are funny and irreverent, honest and sad.  She rolls her Rs and says things like, “Aye, Poppi.”  She feels like a caricature.

They are storytellers.

I fear that I am not.  That I am only a writer.  At least right now.

Carmen – one of the gaggle of girls talking about San Francisco and the secret group of women writers – tells me otherwise.  As does James, when we gather together after the final performance.

My story is lush, he says.  That he closed his eyes while I read.  Listened to my words.  Let my voice paint the pictures for him.

He let my lilting, sing-song-y massage voice – the voice that tells you that you are human, that you are lovely, that you are good – my storyteller’s voice, tell him a new story.

Jai Guru Dev. Thank You, Beloved Teacher.

With my teacher, Paul Brown, on Guru Purinimah in 2012 -- when we both found ourselves in Chicago, although neither of us lived here at the time.
With my teacher, Paul Brown, on Guru Purnimah in 2012. In Chicago.

“Today is celebrated as Guru Purnimah, Full Moon of the Guru. One honors one’s spiritual lineage.”

My meditation teacher, Paul Brown AKA Paul Edward Blackburn, posted this on Facebook today along with a story from one of his associates upon meeting his teacher, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

This is my story of meeting my teacher.

I am standing at the bar at a swanky anniversary party. I order a glass of champagne. Paul looks at me, smiles, and says, “We’re going to be friends.”

He says this as if nothing could be more obvious. And nothing can be more obvious.

He is tall, with a shock of white-blonde hair and blue eyes that I want to swim in – elementary backstroke, gentle, looking up at the sun. I don’t know if he is gay or if I am in love or both.

Both.

Over dinner he tells me about Transcendental Meditation. (Now commonly called Vedic Meditation.) He tells me about meeting the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – John, Paul, George and Ringo’s teacher – in Spain. He tells me he would like to teach me to meditate.

On the ride home I inform my husband that I will be learning to meditate. It is one of our first and few disagreements about money. We don’t have much as I have recently left a job in public relations and am answering phones at a massage school for $12/hour while I build my budding bodywork practice.

Meditation seems an unnecessary extravagance, but he relents.

I arrive at Paul’s home – a bungalow that he shares with his roommate Mikey, who runs an old-school soda fountain in Berkeley, California – carrying pears and oranges and a mess of star-gazer lilies, offerings for my initiation.

We place the fruit and flowers on a silver tray, next to a photograph of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, on an altar Paul has created. And he lights a stick of incense.

The rest is a blur.

I receive a mantra which Paul had chosen for me. He says it. I repeat it. He says it again. I repeat it again. And so we continue for 20 minutes. Saying the words to one another, and then eventually to ourselves.

I feel dizzy. And then like I am flying. I notice every sensation of my body. I feel like I have experienced this before, as a young girl…but I did not have words for it then. Or I did, but they sounded strange and silly. The feeling and the imagery is exactly the same – I am a cube of ice suspended from dental floss tied to a toothpick. Both heavy and light at the same time. And nothing more.

We finish the meditation with the words, “Jai Guru Dev. Thank you, Beloved Teacher.” And then count backwards from 100 to zero, allowing ourselves to settle back into this time and space.

When we are done, Paul makes me a martini – heavy on the vermouth, and we sit at the dining table with Mikey while he eats his dinner, sans shirt. And when he is done, he plays the guitar for us.

A few weeks later Paul teaches my husband to meditate – gratis. It is his gift to us. He thinks it is important that we be able to meditate together.

We meditate in the sun in our pajamas, camping in a field up in wine country. And on a rock face in Lake Tahoe, where we back-packed in for several days. My husband suggests we take off our watches while we are here. I agree but ask, “How will we know when we are done?” (This form of meditation is traditionally done for 20 minutes – once in the morning, once in the evening.) He laughs and replies, “We will be done when we are done.”

It seems like a radical notion.

We do this together for many years. And then we don’t. Our schedules change. He falls away from the practice. And then, we are no longer a we.

My practice changes and morphs too, and probably can no longer be classified as true Transcendental or Vedic Meditation. I add different prayers and “count” them towards my 20 minutes. At the request of a sick friend, I repeat a Durga (Hindu Goddess) mantra 108 times, at the time of her morning meditation. I let my evening practice fall away and lean exclusively into my morning sitting.

What remains true, 12 years since my initiation, is what Paul promised me early on – when I ask him how his life is different since learning to meditate. He thinks about it and replies, “I just think I have a really good and sweet and beautiful life, Honey Bunny.”

Yes. Me too.

Jai Guru Dev. Thank you Beloved Teacher.

Artist Date 80: Unbound

Tree of Hope
Tree of Hope

I cannot bear to buy a day ticket to the museum.  The pressure of having to get my money’s worth – no room for fatigue, boredom and to just change my mind and do something else.  So, more often than not, I buy a membership.

Sometimes it works to my advantage, like at the Art Institute.   My membership pulls me to lectures, and exhibits, and allows for a quick” drive by” just to see Marc Chagall’s America Windows one more time.  To stand in the still, blue darkness where Ferris kissed Sloane in the John Hughes movie classic and simply exhale.

Sometimes it doesn’t.  Like at the Chicago History Museum, where I was certain I would return to last year– to see the couture of 80 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair again.  Or the Vivian Maier exhibit.  But I never made it.

And sometimes it transcends financial considerations altogether, like the time my ex and I bought a MOMA membership in New York.  He was “sold” by the hardcover exhibition book and free coffee at the café which came with it.  But I got the real goods – standing in the museum’s Marron Atrium screaming into a microphone.

Yoko Ono made me do it.  Specifically, her 1961 Voice Piece for Soprano, which MOMA had re-installed – a microphone, a pair of speakers and the typewritten instructions: “Scream. 1. Against the wind.  2.  Against the wall.  3.  Against the sky.”

Several small children run to the microphone, squeak out a sound only slightly louder and more surprising than a fart, and run away just as quickly – red-faced and grinning.  But I observe no real efforts.  We are nearly out the door when I turn to my then husband and say, “I gotta do it.”

I approach the microphone, flushed, heart beating wildly and a little bit dizzy, and let out my first scream.  Tentative, but attention grabbing.  The second, slightly bolder.  The third, downright empowered.  I feel like I could go on and on and on, but I don’t.

I swagger toward my husband with a smug smile, “Now we can go.”

I uttered the same words to my girlfriend Julie at a party after sleeping with the two most attractive men there.  I was about 22 and thought this was power.  This is a different kind of power.

I haven’t thought about the scream, or the sex, in years.  Until now, buying a single membership at the Museum of Contemporary Art – Artist Date 80.

The MCA staffer remove my ex’s name from our expired family membership, changes my address and hands me two guest passes.

I find the exhibit I have come for – Unbound: Contemporary Art After Frida Kahlo.  The space is vast and wide open, and the walls are covered red, like my heart.  Two Kahlo paintings hang in the center – Arbol de la Esperanza (Tree of Hope) and The Wounded Deer.  Her emotions and experiences layered into the paint.  My heart hurts.

The remainder of the exhibit is composed of work by other artists, categorized by “Kahlo themes” – gender, national identity, the political body and the absent or traumatized body.

Ladies accoutrements lined up – gloves, slippers and panties.  A map of the world, the countries formed with repeating images of skulls and crossbones and Mickey Mouse faces.

Duet III
Duet III

Two pillows on the floor tug at me.  Hand-carved marble by Brazilian artist Valeska Soares, Duet III.  The exhibit label reads, “…They seem to have been recently used…the two pillows create a tension between presence and absence, suggesting a longing or desire for another body.”

Strangely, I linger.  I let the longing wash over me.  My longing.  I lean into my desire.

I can no longer sleep with two men in one evening.  I can’t even sleep with one unless I like him.  And there are not that many men I like that much – who turn me on above the waist, as well as below it.  My bed feels lonely.

On the way out, I stop at one of the many tables set up with chairs, colored pencils and coloring posters of the MCA.  I color a car pink with turquoise tires and the hair purple on a girl in a polka-dot dress.  I draw breasts on the woman throwing her child up in the air and write the words “I might have children” across her belly.  I draw two stick figures lying in the grass, holding hands, and the words, “me” and “you.”

The coloring feels soothing, hypnotic.  My own Tree of Hope.  My desires and longings Unbound.

Artist Date 79: Aho Matakuye O’yasin

Bent and tied river willows form the structure of the sweat lodge.  Photo: Paul Tootalian
Bent and tied river willows form the structure of the lodge. Photo: Paul Tootalian

 

The waxy brown cotton of my lapa feels soft between my fingers.  Like my body.  Like my heart.

I thought the African skirt would become this way over time, as I danced in it – but it remained rigid and stiff.  Until today, when, in the dark and heat of the sweat lodge – Artist Date 79 – it softened, pinning itself to my body.

I roll the fabric between my fingers like rosary or prayer beads.  I feel the moisture accumulate between my breasts – grateful for their small size.  Grateful for the darkness to peel off my sports bra, unnoticed, and let my t-shirt from the Knoxville Farmers’ Market cover me.  Given my druthers I would wear nothing.  But I respect the modesty requested at this ceremonial gathering of men and women.

I close my eyes, breathe in the sweet sage, and fix my ears on the beating drum and the sound of my friend Paul’s voice.

It has been a journey just getting here.

********************

I arrive despite a blinding thunderstorm, the need for on-the-road car repairs, and a bit of information which shakes my sense of perception and causes me to question if this is right for me, right now.  And with the aid and calm of friends who ferry me to and from.

I walk about a quarter of a mile through wet, freshly mown grass to where the lodge is set up – my orange, peep-toe wedges gathering silky, green slivers.

I remember wearing these shoes through Rwanda two summers ago – collecting the red earth of the land of 10,000 hills between my toes – and recalling Patsy and Edina schlepping their Louis Vuitton bags through sand in the Morocco episode of the BBC’s Absolutely Fabulous.  Dragging my rolling suitcase filled with towels, sweat and apres-sweat clothes, I feel like a bit actor in the Sweat Lodge episode.

********************

Paul is draping blankets over the hut he constructed out of river willows – collected from his sister and brother-in-law’s property a few miles away.  Rocks are heating in a pit outside of the lodge, and he has built an altar from the dirt inside of it.

Paul is the third in a line of spiritual teachers with the same name.  The first being my university religious-studies professor, the second, the one who taught me to meditate – leading me through initiation with an offering of fruit, flowers (star gazers, my favorite) and the bestowing of a mantra.

Our paths have been crisscrossing for most of our lives.  We agree the universe has been conspiring for us to meet.

 

The Altar. Covered Lodge. And our guide, Paul. (I call him “The Reluctant Shaman.”

There are eight of us, the last arriving in a John Deere Gator Utility Vehicle.  She looks like an African Queen, regal in her loose batik dress with dragonflies on it, her grey hair braided at the temples and wrapped around her head like a crown.   Her face is at once both sad and serene.

She reminds Paul they have been in ceremony together – with her former partner.  The break-up is obviously fresh.

Words tumble out of my mouth about divorce, change and the painful nature of endings – no matter how right or how kind.  How people will say all sorts of stupid things.  And that she is, no doubt, on the precipice of some sort of adventure.  She smiles in a way that tells me she has lived a thousand lifetimes and knows that this kind of pain is just part of it.  That she has chosen this and is not fighting it.

I mention that I wasn’t sure I would make it here today.  That I wasn’t sure it was right for me, right now.  “Until now.  You are why I am here.”

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Paul smudges each of us with sage and we enter the lodge on our hands and knees, proclaiming “Aho Matakuye O’yasin – Greetings, All My Relations.”

I remember Patsy smudging my ex and I when she officiated our marriage.  And me doing the same for my friend Chase when her divorce was final, smudging the entire house – making it “her own” again.

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It is hot and humid inside.  I feel a wave of nausea wash over me as Paul explains what will happen in ceremony.

Rocks.  Herbs.  Water.

Chanting.  Praying.  Smoking.

Complete darkness.

Connectedness to the earth.  To one another.  To ourselves.

I am afraid.  Afraid of the total darkness.  Afraid of what I might feel, what might “come up.”  Afraid I cannot physically or psychologically endure this – even though Paul has assured us that this will be a “gentle sweat.”

But the heat is like a balm – different from the still Midwestern humidity that settled heavy around me just moments before.  The drumming and chanting force all thoughts from my mind.  I only hear my friend’s voice – strong, confident, prayerful – and the African Queen’s.  It is sweet and slippery and hard to hold on to.  But very much there.  Just as I feel her, very much there, next to me.

Everything softens.  My body.  My brain.  My lapa.  I feel the sweat sliding down my body and I am deliriously in love with it.  This body I have fought for so much of my life.  That has brought me here and is sustaining me today.  It is strong and small and very, very feminine.  I feel my hands pressing into the earth beneath me.  My legs.  My feet.  My ass.  The soft dampness of moist earth is flesh, the spiky grass is hair and we are one.

 

Apres sweat — eyes wide open. Photo: Paul Tootalian

 

I pray for my stepfather and my two girlfriends who are battling mightily.  And I ask for prayers for myself.  For compassion and acceptance for myself, for where I am, not where I think I should be.  My voice cracks and I add, “May we all have compassion and acceptance for ourselves and for one another.”

I pray for the man who hurt my heart not so long ago.  I call out his name when I am certain no one can hear me.

********************

I smoke from the Chanupa — the sacred, ceremonial pipe.  Sober nearly seven years, my addict is awakened.

I am back in college, sitting in a circle.  My friend Brian stirs the bowl and lights it while I suck in all that I can, holding it in my lungs.  I converse easily while I do this – like one of the big boys.

But I am not talking.  And this is not weed.  It is tobacco, although it tastes like juniper and pine.  It is ceremony.  It is holy.  It is community.  It is what I longed for, sitting in a circle like this, so many years ago.

********************

I weep in the darkness.  I am certain no one can hear my dying animal letting go. And it is over.

We crawl out on our hands and knees, just as we had entered, saying “Aho Matakuye O’yasin – Greetings, All My Relations,” once again.

Paul greets each of us with an embrace, and we greet one another in the same way.  The African Queen’s eyes are wordlessly different.  Lighter.  As if the color has changed.  She presses me tightly to her.

The group walks towards the house for a celebratory feast, but I stay behind and wait for Paul.

While I am waiting, I do cartwheels around the lodge.  One after the other after the other, until I feel dizzy.  I feel the pull of my pelvis – the source of chronic pain – and I welcome it.  I feel the lightness of my body, of my mind and I welcome it, give thanks for and to it.

I had believed I was here to meet the African Queen.  That was only half of the truth.  In the stillness of the after-lodge, I know its other half, its twin — I was here to meet myself.  “Aho Matakuye O’yasin — Greetings, All My Relations.”