Artist Date 95: Temptation and Commitment. The Tapeworm is my Divorce.

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James Ensor. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1887. Regenstein Endowment and the Louise B. and Frank H. Woods Purchase Fund. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels.

My neck just did that thing where it snaps back my head as it is falling forward, as I am falling asleep sitting up.  It happens every time.  Every time I sit in a darkened theater.  It doesn’t matter if it is a movie or opera or lecture.  If it is engaging or tedious.  The darkness lulls me into slumber.  I feel like my father before he was diagnosed with sleep apnea and was fatigued all of the time — except that I don’t snore.

I know better.  I know I need to go to sleep earlier.  But I am back to my old habit of sitting in front of the computer until far too late, usually doing nothing of note — trolling Facebook or shopping for something I don’t end up buying.  And when I finally make it to bed, I’m left with five or six hours to rest before I do it all over again.

The habit started when I moved out of my then husband’s bedroom.  I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning talking to a friend who was also going through a divorce.  The late-night habit continued when I settled myself back into Chicago — although the conversations did not.

I began to consciously work on the habit.  Setting alarms at 10 p.m. — alerting me it is time to step away from the computer.  Getting accountable with my Weight Watchers groups — choosing “Get Seven to Eight Hours of Sleep Each Night” as the healthy habit I would work on each week.  I moved from five or six to six or seven, but never quite made it up to eight.

And then I started backsliding.  Call it a sleep relapse.  A divorce-habit relapse.  It began noticing its effects — finding myself “needing” a mid-morning tea to stay awake.  Struggling to make my way out of bed, trying to negotiate my non-negotiable morning exercise.  And today, dozing off during a lecture at the Art Institute, Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor — Artist Date 95.

My being here can only be described as a lazy Artist Date.  I know nothing about Ensor.  In fact, I’m not all that interested in or excited about the lecture.  But it was highlighted in the Art Institute of Chicago Magazine and it allowed me to fulfill the commitment I had made — first, to a year of Art Dates, and when I had completed that, to 100 of them.

This public accountability prods me on — even though no one is really paying attention, other than me — even as my head dips further forward, catching only bits and pieces of the lecture.

Belgium.  Seaside resort town.  Alcoholic father.

Tapeworm.

Yes, tapeworm.  I am suddenly awake.  Awake to this pain, this presence that ate away at Ensor, that his doctors couldn’t seem to rid his body of.

It dominates his art.  Images of the worm, its feeding mouth, skeletons and death.  I am struck by his commitment to it — even after it has left his body.  It changed him.  His story.  His work.

His worm is my divorce.  His drawings and paintings are my words.  I feel somehow comforted by this.  That it is ok that I am “still talking about this, writing about this.”  That this is what we do — at least some of us.  Rather than turning away from the pain, we work it out — on canvas, on paper, on screen.  We allow it to change us.  For ourselves to be changed.

I visit the exhibit after the lecture, wide awake.  The galleries are designed so I can go in the out and out the in.  There is no beginning or end.  Just middle.  The walls are a surprising choice of aquamarine.  I stand close to The Temptation of Saint Anthony — it’s 51 pieces of pencil-colored paper layered upon each other — and look for the worm, its mouth, its suckers.  I find it along with demons, a pair of red shoes and a vendor hawking frites.

On the way out, I pick up a sheet of four temporary tattoos — among them, the feeding mouth of the tapeworm from The Temptation of St. Anthony.  I slip the sheet into my bag, quite certain I will not put any of the images to my skin.

I don’t need to.  I have my own, permanent ones.  “Write” and “Left” tattooed on the inside of each wrist in typewriter font.  The tapeworm is my divorce.  A reminder of what changed me and how I am changed.  Of my work and how I work it out.  And my commitment to it.

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Be Willing to Walk Away

I wish I would have had this a few months ago…when I wasn’t willing to walk away from a man. There were all sorts of red flags. I knew he had an unkind tongue. He said things that took my breath away. Not in a good way. Things like “What’s up with the Jews?” (Knowing I am Jewish.) And “I’m not into fat chicks.” (Knowing I had been overweight…and so had he.) His communications via text and phone were erratic at best. But just like Lisa writes here, I (unconsciously) believed I needed something he had to give, and in the process I leap-frogged right over my own boundaries. It now seems terribly obvious, and somehow harshly poetic, that because I wasn’t willing to walk away, he was. And did.

However, I recently did walk away from a different situation. There was no great betrayal. No terrible harm. In fact, there was no real “there there.” I just knew in my bones I was no longer available to and for the possibility being offered. Or as my Divorce Buddy once said, “That was a limited time offer, and sadly, the offer has expired.”

Simple language. Difficult lesson. But I am learning.

Lessons From the End of a Marriage

Brock, a seasoned salesman, was telling me about a car he almost purchased many years ago. He was ready to sign but when the dealer wouldn’t acquiesce to the desired terms, Brock stood up and walked out. He knew that in order to be successful in any negotiation, you have to be willing to walk away.

As he finished his story, I thought about the times in my life when I was willing to walk away:

The first (and second and third) dates with men I was curious about but not invested in.

The job interviews and possibilities when I already had something paying the bills.

A blog submission to an outside site when they had already picked up at least one post.

The books from the library or the free movies on TV that failed to maintain my interest.

In every case, I was more relaxed and curious than anxious…

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Artist Date 94: Do Something(s)

strongherA month has passed since I returned home from my solo sojourn to Italy.  It feels like forever ago.

Life comes on — quickly, strong, demanding — and I struggle to hold on to the peace and freedom I felt abroad.  The joy in getting lost, not knowing the answer — or sometimes even the question, in being alone.  My face looks pinched — the wrinkle between my eyebrows, smoothed by Umbria, has returned.

The decisions I made, the desires of my heart — to live overseas, to publish a book (or more to the point, to be published) — begin to slip into the category of “all talk.”

I recently read that most people would prefer to fail by not trying than fail by trying.  I get it.  I understand.  I wish I didn’t.

And so I find myself at Pizzeria Sera on a Tuesday night listening to six women tell stories about how and where and when they found confidence — hoping to be inspired, or at the very least, to borrow some — Artist Date 94.  The monthly event, called About Women, is the brainchild of my friend Nikki Nigl.  A force of confidence, not to mention nature, in her own right.

The mere decision to be here bolstered mine some, helping move me forward in the hours before arriving.

Sitting at the computer, doing nothing but waiting for something to happen, I mutter, “Do something.  Anything.”

I write an email and send it off.  (Two somethings.  Write — one.  Send — two.)  A few lines to the sister of a friend of a friend who just returned from Spain, where she taught English for several years.  I ask if she might meet me for coffee and share her experiences — how she got there, what it was like.

I tell myself it is something.  It is enough and move on with my day — meeting with my rabbi a final time before he leaves our congregation.  We talk about his departure, my desires, and deciphering the will and whim of the universe.  Especially when it seems to only speak in whispers.

It feels like a game of telephone and I constantly wonder if I’m hearing it right.

Until I get to the parking lot, into my car and check Facebook.

“Anyone want a job in Portugal NOW?”

The post describes an academic coach position at a school outside of Lisbon.  Scrolling down, I am tagged.  “Lesley Pearl, could it be you?”

My heart swells, leaps.  Not because I believe I will get the job and move to Portugal (although I might), but because the universe seems to be speaking loudly, clearly — the message undeniable,”Yes, Lesley, it is possible.”

Settled at home, I write a response.  It begins, “Yes.”  (Three somethings.)  Shortly thereafter, I am Skype-ing with a teacher at the school in Portugal, the one who extended the possibility, dangled the carrot — gathering more information.  (Four.)

Turns out I’m right on course, so say an advertising executive, a scientist, a minister, a mud wrestler, a mother and a writer — this month’s About Women storytellers.  While the details differ, at the core of each woman’s parable is fear — and the decision to do “it” anyway.  Ask for a raise.  Leave a job.  Leave a husband.  Take an improv class.  Ride a roller-coaster.  Pet a dog.  Live as an outsider.

Each took action when the pain of inaction became too great. Was no longer an option.  Or when “the worst that could happen” seemed less scary than living with “what if” and “I coulda.”  And their confidence blossomed.

“Stop focusing on the heart-pounding, vomit-inducing, brick-shitting aspect of everything and start focusing on the payoff,” Kira Elliot — a personal trainer, mud wrestler and Mary Kay Sales Director — says from the stage.  “Pretend until the point of no return…then reap the rewards.”

Amen.

Post Script.  Three days after the event, I send a resume and cover letter to the school in Lisbon.  I am amazed to see the resistance in myself.  Fear masquerading as logic and practicality.  It feels “heart-pounding, vomit-inducing and brick-shitting.”  I fazê-lo de qualquer maneira.  (That’s Portuguese for “I do it anyway.”)

Artist Date 93: The IS in HIStory

album-David-Bowie-Heroes

I’ve been listening to David Bowie a lot lately.

It’s a bit like returning from travels abroad and insisting on eating as I did while away.  Toasted bread rubbed with fresh garlic and tomato following a trip to Spain.  Cucumber-tomato salad for breakfast after a press trip to Israel.  And most recently, coffee made in a stove-top moka upon returning from Italy.  Each time, holding on to that place, that experience, for as long as I am able.

Except Bowie takes me back to a place and experience I mostly do not care to hold on to — high school.  It begins at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the David Bowie IS show — Artist Date 93.  I am transported.

I am 14 and wearing a baseball jersey from the Serious Moonlight tour.  My cousin from Los Angeles has turned me on to Bowie.  The same way he turned me on to weed, the Culture Club and all things French.  He is cool with bleached-blonde hair and skinny ties that match his skinny body.  He lights my cigarettes, walks on curb side of the sidewalk and stands up when I leave the table.  He is my ideal man.  He has been all of my life, and although I don’t yet know it, he will continue to be — long after I stop smoking weed, and Boy George gets sober too.

I am rifling through bins of used albums at Sam’s Jams in Ferndale, Michigan and find ChangesOneBowie.  Soon I will commit the words of each song to memory.  I will know them like I know my own name.  My hair is a pinky-red, spiky and sticky with Aqua-Net Extra Hold.  I am wearing iridescent blue lipstick, a plaid pleated skirt from the Salvation Army that doesn’t quite zip all the way up and a Cranbrook Lacrosse sweatshirt  — hooded with a torn front pocket — that I “borrowed” from a boy named Simon, who I met just once and never saw again.

I am in Ann Arbor visiting my friend Stacey.  We have taken the bus from her house to the University of Michigan campus.  There are no buses in suburban Detroit, where I live, save for a yellow school bus.  I feel urban and cool.  We are watching The Man Who Fell to Earth on a big screen.  It is terrible but we love it anyway.  Stacey has also seen The Hunger and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.  I have not.  She is clearly the bigger fan.

I am sitting on multi-hued blue shag carpeting in my bedroom holding the cover of Heroes in my hands — singing every word printed on the sleeve.  “And you, you can be mean.  And I, I’ll drink all the time.”  Little do I know how true these words will turn out to be.  A few years later it is TonightBlue Jean and a cover of Brian Wilson’s God Only Knows passing my lips.

I am on the cold sidewalk outside of Record Outlet with my best friend A.  We are here overnight, in line for tickets to the Glass Spider tour which go on sale tomorrow.  I cannot believe my mother has agreed to this.

I cannot believe how long it has been since I have talked to A.  Nearly five years.  That the last thing she said to me was, “Keep them.  They look better on you anyway,” referring to the sunglasses I borrowed and that were still tucked in my bag as I drove away from her apartment.  I no longer have them.

I cannot believe I left Heroes and Tonight in Seattle with my ex-husband, along with The Specials, Thriller and the original soundtrack from Hair.

I cannot believe I remember Simon’s name, how long I held on to that sweatshirt, or that I am waxing nostalgic about high school.

But it is.  And I did.  I do and I am.

In 1990, David Bowie played his greatest hits on tour “a final time.”  “…it gave me an immense sense of freedom, to feel that I couldn’t rely on any of those things. It’s like I’m approaching it all from the ground up now.”  In 1996 he resurrected Heroes onstage.

There is an IS in hIStory — as well as a story.

Alone Again…Naturally

A few weeks ago, over dinner, a woman I know asked me who traveled with me to Italy.

“No one,” I answered. “Myself.”

Silence.

Like the silence I heard when I was a we, and responded to the question “Do you have children?” with a simple “No.” The quiet, uncomfortable space while they waited for some sort of explanation.  Something to make them feel more comfortable with the answer that made them uncomfortable.

The same silence that often greets me when responding to the question, “Are you seeing anyone?” with “No.” The same quiet waiting, for “But I was…” or “Well there is this guy I just met.”  Or my friend Patsy’s genius answer, “I am seeing a lot of different men.”

For a while I acquiesced…talking about my not-quite-relationships. My Divorce Buddy.  The Southern Svengali.  The friendships, flirtations and occasional dalliances that made me feel like I had something going on.  The relationships that ended seemingly before they even started.  I think it made us both feel better.

This time was different. I felt no need to explain my solo voyage.  In fact, I was downright chuffed (to turn a British phrase), pleased with myself and the situation I consciously and happily put myself in – alone for 17 days in Italy.

A few days later, I was asked the same question about travel mates.  And I watched as the woman’s smile wrinkled into a pained frown.  “You were alone…on your birthday?”  The same question my mother asked me before I left.  The same question I had asked myself.

Happy on my birthday, in Paris.
Happy on my birthday, in Paris.

“Yes! It was awesome!”

I told her about my 15-hour layover in Paris. About walking along the Seine, seeing Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, laughing out loud, asking no one in particular, “Who goes to Paris for dinner on their birthday?” and replying, “I do.”

I told her about being present to the moment. About the real birthday present – of not wanting anything to be other than it was.  Not wishing for a man or a friend.  Not wishing I had worn something different, eaten something different, stayed in a different apartment.

She looked confused.

I’ve been thinking about why this trip was different. Why I was different.

I have traveled by myself before – on press trips and volunteer projects and meeting up with friends on the other end. But only truly “alone” once before – in the few days before and after participating in a volunteer project in the south of France.

I had longed to travel alone.  It represented who I wanted to be.  Adventurous.  Glamorous.  Strong.  A world traveler.  And yet, when I arrived in Paris alone in 2006 I only felt sad, scared and alone.

My answer, or at least part of it, came in an email from my friend Melinda.  In it, she mentioned going to a play reading – by herself – completely spur of the moment.

“It kind of reminded me of your Artist Dates.”

Artist Date. Balm to my soul.  Savior of my heart and mind.  The simple suggestion by Julia Cameron in the book The Artist’s Way of a once a week “walkabout” to fill one’s creative coffers.

I took on the challenge nearly two years ago. Newly divorced and painfully licking the wounds of my first forays “back out there.”   I had heard others talk about feeling free, having great sex, or at the very least, a lot of it, following the dissolution of their marriages.  My efforts and experiences only left me feeling scared, desperate and crazy.

In a moment of grace, I turned away from convention, from the promises of partnership, and toward myself through weekly Artist Dates. To the opera.  To the Art Institute.  To ethnic grocery stores and new neighborhoods.  To theatre and concerts.  Alone.

Reading Melinda’s email, it occurred to me that perhaps all of this “structured aloneness” had prepared me for this – a seeming marathon of solitude.

Arriving in Rome alone last month, I felt the same anxious fear that had accompanied me to Paris. But this time I didn’t try to act cool.  I didn’t try to pretend I was a local or that I even knew where I was.

I held a map in my hand, asked a lot of questions and opened myself to the possibility of getting lost, or worse, of looking stupid.

I challenged myself to not take cabs. To depend on trains, buses and trams.

On my feet. On myself.  And the time-tested kindness of strangers.

Strangers who reminded me I was never really alone. Leonardo, the 19-year-old man/boy, who saved me from boarding the wrong bus – twice – in Arezzo.

With Leonardo, who saved me from going to God-Knows-Where. Twice!
With Leonardo, who saved me from going to God-Knows-Where. Twice!

Delilah, another volunteer at Altrocioccolato – the fair trade chocolate festival in Umbria where I began my journey – who sent me to her brother, his wife and cousin in Florence for Aperitivo – the Italian version of happy hour, but with a much better buffet, and a drive through the city.

Who organized a dinner party – which became my birthday party, complete with candles, singing and gifts – among her English-speaking friends when I arrived in Rome a few days later.

Roman Birthday Party. Delilah, the hostess, is in black.
Roman Birthday Party. Delilah, the hostess, is in black.

Seems my Artist Dates, my time alone, prepared me to be alone. For long walks, shopping at flea markets and eating fatty pork sandwiches while sitting on the edge of a fountain in Campo De Fiore.

It also prepared me to be with people – with ideas and experiences to share.

But mostly it prepared me for my life, the one I dreamed of not so many years ago in Paris— Adventurous. Glamorous.  Strong.  A world traveler.

 

 

Artist Dates 91 and 92: Schooled

How do we know this is David?

I never thought about it. But here I am in front of him at Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence – Artist Date 91.

David is a boy and this is a man. David is a Jew and this man has a foreskin.  And what is he holding anyway?  And why do we have to walk around him to find out?

Paul, the tour guide from Walks of Italy, lobs the questions rapid fire until I feel like my brain might explode, but instead, cracks wide open.

I purchased my first walking tour – my first tour ever – last fall, in Dublin. It was my friend Steven’s idea.  And, much to my surprise, I enjoyed it.  Even looking like a tourist.  Which I was.

Which I am.

Paul takes me and 11 others to the Galleria dell’Accademia . To the Duomo.  To Piazza San Marco.  Ultimately dropping us at Ponte Vecchio.  Stringing us along with juicy bits of history.  Linking them together, telling a linear story.  Ultimately letting us know why we should care about these tourist attractions.

Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio

It is like Jeopardy – Italian style. Where everything comes in the form of a question.  Or at the very least, begins that way.

And it works. It is sticky in my grey matter.  Days later.  Weeks later, when I write this.

I learn that in religious art, the one wearing fur is always John the Baptist.

That Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor and was pissed off when asked to paint or to build.

That he never had sex, slept in his clothes – to save time – and thought art was for the people – and sculptures, the newspapers of the day. But that as a reporter with a chisel he was never neutral — a Michael Moore of Renaissance Art.

Outside the Duomo I learn why Renaissance Art was born here. A simple Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  The temporary capital of Italy, Florence was flush.  Issues of survival were no longer issues here, so the people of Florence could turn their attention to things of intellect and beauty.  They could build the largest church known at that time, its dome an architectural quandary.

And it is at this basilica that christening changed from a dunk to a sprinkle.  Seems while no one was dying of the plague, newborns were dying in record numbers following baptism, and someone figured out that while the water might by holy, it wasn’t particularly sanitary.

duomo1700
The Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence

I learn that families claimed turf by marking corners of buildings with the family crest. An early form of tagging.  And a series of balls is the sign of the Medici family.

That Ponte Vecchio survived World War II, while all the other bridges in Florence were bombed by Nazis upon their crossing, because of a Medici. That in 1565 Grand Duke Cosimo de’Medici had a private passageway built into the bridge for the occasions when communication with his estranged wife, living across the Arno River at Palazzo Pitti, was necessary.  He filled it with Renaissance Art – art that remained there.  Art that Hitler commanded be “saved,” along with Ponte Vecchio.

A few days later in Rome, Cecilia (also from Walks of Italy) similarly schools me on the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Sistine Chapel, as well as Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and a killer gelateria. Artist Date 92.

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Getting schooled at the Colosseum.

 

Suddenly I am a history nerd, walking at her hip, never losing sight of her umbrella – the raised symbol moving us forward as a group. I think about how much I missed in high school.  In college.  Because I was hung over, hanging out or just plain disinterested.

About how much I surely missed in Madrid and Barcelona, Amsterdam and Brussels, Paris and London. Because I didn’t believe I needed someone to school me in their city.

I receive my final lesson leaving Vatican City when I ask Cecilia the way back to Trastevere – the neighborhood where I am staying – either via foot or cab. She offers me another option, inviting me to take the bus with her instead.

On our ride, Cecilia tells me I am brave. That she noticed me traveling alone.  Heard me talk about volunteering in Umbria.  That for all of her education and seeming worldliness – she is terrified to travel alone.

I hear her.  I believe her – that I am brave. I own it.  And share the greatest lesson I have learned.  That I am terrified too.  Of getting lost.  Of looking stupid.   Of…insert fear du jour here.

That I am terrified…but do it anyway.