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.
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.