The Naked Truth About My Decision To Shear Down

My nearly naked head has been ripe for conversation since the first time I put clippers to it, nearly seven years ago.  On Friday, xoJane published the story of my decision to shear down.  Read it here:

Why A Shaved Head Has Become My Signature Look

In Rwanda with a gaggle of what my girlfriend referred to as "Little Lesleys."
In Rwanda with a gaggle of what my girlfriend referred to as “Little Lesleys.”
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Surprise! You’re Divorced!

From Tim Burton's 2010 Alice In Wonderland.
Considering the other side of the rabbit hole. From Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland.

I haven’t heard from my ex in more than a week.  This isn’t unusual, except I have reached out to him twice during this time — once to ask for medical advice (I forget he is not my doctor), a second time to ask if he might talk with a friend of mine about the later-in-life path to medical school — and that is unusual.

Except for when it isn’t.

We recently saw one other for the first time since I moved out of the house we shared in Seattle and returned to Chicago, more than two and a half years.

I cried when I saw his blue polar fleece stocking cap — the one that makes him look like a tall Smurf– bobbing above the crowd as he got off the train, across from our favorite Lebanese restaurant.  Again when we embraced.  And again when, looking up for the menu, I inquired “The usual?” to which he replied, laughing, “That is what I was going to say.”

And so it was over chicken schwarma, hummus and fattoush that he admitted that the times he hadn’t called me back — there weren’t many — he simply, emotionally, could not.

This may be one of those times.

At first, I didn’t think too much of it when I didn’t hear back from him.  It was Valentine’s Day weekend.  I thought, perhaps, he might be out of town with his girlfriend.  A thought followed by strong intuition — “He’s moving in with her.”  I said the words out loud, as usual, to no one in particular.  “He doesn’t want to tell me.”

Later that day, I saw an MLS listing for a bungalow on his Facebook page, forwarded by his girlfriend.

When I reached out to him a second time, a week later, and again did not hear back, I was fairly certain of my inner knowing.  And much to my surprise, I felt rattled and sad.

Not so much because he may or may not be buying a house with his girlfriend. (I still do not know for certain, nor is it really any of my business.)  But because, in that moment, I realized I had been holding on to an unspoken agreement we never made.  Something like, “We may be divorced but you and I are in this together.  Forever.”

I was shocked.  I had no idea.

I have often referred to mine as the “lucky divorce.”  (Which sounds like it should come with soup, egg roll and an almond cookie.)

For a long time we were one another’s “In Case of Emergency” person.  We left passwords unchanged, and nursed each other’s broken hearts in post-divorce attempts at romance.

I never had to hunt down my spousal support.  I knew the money would be in my account on the 15th of the month, the same way I knew he would always be there.  Until he wasn’t.

Perhaps my divorce wasn’t so “lucky” after all, as it seems more than possible that this underlying, unspoken (not even to myself) agreement may have kept me from truly seeking out another partnership, or at the very least, being open to one.

I shared all of this with my friend Robin.  She replied, “He’s not your husband anymore.”

Not exactly news.  And yet, on some deep, gut, primal level — it was.  And I finally “got it.”  So perhaps I can finally let go of it.

It reminds me of when I returned to an old boyfriend, many years after we had broken up, to make amends for where I had been wrong in that relationship.

“You wanted a partner, I wanted a parent,” I said.  (Not surprisingly, he was 17 years my senior.)  Tears streamed down his face as the words slipped past my lips.  He hugged me hard, harder than he ever had in the time we were together.

“Why are you crying,” I asked.

“Because I am.”

I nodded.

I understood.  I saw the truth.  I saw what he knew all along.  Finally.  It was as if I had slipped back through the rabbit hole and we were living in the same reality, more than 15 years after the end of our brief relationship.

At least this time it only took three years.

Artist Date 103: Oh The Places You’ll Go

Backstage at the Museum of Contemporary Art
Backstage at the Museum of Contemporary Art

I don’t want to go.  I never want to go.

Artist Date “Dirty Little Secret” — I almost never want to go.  The same way I never want to get on a plane to somewhere I’ve never been before.

I do when I book the flight or when I make the reservation for a performance or workshop.  But when the actual time comes, I feel anxious and sick inside.

Like the first time I went to Europe.  The German Consulate in San Francisco sent me.  Lufthansa Business Class.  Four and five-star hotels in Bonn, Berlin and Dresden.  (Or as luxury as was available in Dresden in 1995.)  Access to end of World War II commemoration events where I spied Helmut Kohl, Al Gore and Francois Mitterand.

But I am at the airport in San Francisco, talking with my friend Peg from a payphone — in tears.

Ten years later I am on my way to France, by myself.  This time it is my husband and a cell phone.

And to Italy this past fall.  From Chicago O’Hare.  I call my girlfriends in quick succession.  Ann, Julie, Lynn, Chase.  No tears this time.  Just an overwhelming sense of dread.

Each time, I am anxious with uncertainty.  Anxious, that I don’t speak the language — German, French, Italian — that I won’t understand.  That I will feel foolish.  That I will fail.

My fears are not baseless.  Each time I depart the plane, I don’t speak the language — not fluently.  Just a little French.  A little Italian, leaning heavily on my high-school Spanish.  And German, none at all.

I often don’t understand.  And I sometimes feel foolish.  But I never fail.  Mostly because it is impossible to fail at traveling.  Unless one fails to get on the plane.

It is the same walking into the Museum of Contemporary Art for a flamenco workshop — Artist Date 103.

I am anxious as I don’t know the genre.  I do not know what to shoes to wear (if any), what clothing.  Afraid that I will feel foolish.  That I will fail.

I think back to the master class I joined with a principal dancer from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.  The workshop was described as intermediate.  I had been dancing for six years — once a week at the Old Town School of Music.  But the others had been dancing all of their lives.  It was my Flashdance moment — sans rolling on desks in front of an admissions board — I was out of my league.

I did feel foolish.  At best, I got one-third of it.  But I didn’t fail…because I got on the plane, as it were.

And I lived a fantasy I never imagined I really would or could — to dance with Alvin Ailey company members.

I remember this and call the MCA to inquire about attire.  I do not receive a phone call back.  I pack a pair of hard shoes with wooden heels, a sports bra, yoga pants and too-big jeans and go.

When I arrive the program manager takes me into the theater, through the side doors and into Dressing Room B.  “You can change in here,” she says.

I ask her what she thinks would be best — yoga pants or jeans.  Either will work, she replies.

It doesn’t matter.  I don’t care anymore.

I could leave now and be “good.”

I am in the dressing room at the MCA.  The same dressing room Mikhail Baryshnikov *might* have used when he performed here last year.  (There *is* a Dressing Room A.  And there may be more — C, D.)

I am giddy.

I feel like an imposter.  I take a photograph of myself, change into my yoga pants and go out to the stage.  (The same stage where Baryshnikov performed.  The same stage where Sonia Sanchez will perform tonight.)

I can't believe where I'm at...
I can’t believe where I’m at…

I could have worn jeans as it is not a workout, per se.

We do unwinding exercises and learn the foot pattern that matches the Flamenco rhythm.  (One. Two. Three-two, three, four.  Four-two, three, four.  Five.)  We create improvisational pieces with partners that we perform.

Some of the women have been dancing flamenco for years.  They wear Gypsy-style skirts and black, heeled dance shoes.  Others have never danced a day in their lives.  They are dressed for a winter’s day in Chicago.

And Sonia, she doesn’t speak English so much.  And I really don’t speak Spanish.  But I understand… enough.

Enough to be reminded that I really can’t fail if I show up.  And that when I do, I get access to places I could never go on my own — into dressing rooms, onto stages, into my fear.

Artist Date 102: Driving Me in Reverse Down a One-Way Street

From "Drunken Geometry" by Allison Wade and Leslie Baum
From “Drunken Geometry” by Allison Wade and Leslie Baum

I thought I would be used to this by now. Going it alone.

More than 100 Artist Dates, more than 100 solitary sojourns in an effort to fill my creative coffers, as suggested by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way.

Lectures, live lit events, ballets, book readings. Fabric stores. Operas. Walking tours. A handful taking place in other countries. And yet my stomach does flip-flops driving to an art opening a few miles from my apartment.

If I’ve learned anything in this grand experiment it is to put one foot in front of the other, regardless of how I feel — this time, up concrete stairs to the third floor of a warehouse in Garfield Park, to my friend’s exhibit, Artist Date 102.

Allison is an inspiration.

Once upon a time she wrote marketing materials for the financial services sector. Until the day when she turned right where she would have gone left and applied to art school. Several years, several moves and an MFA later, she is a working artist and an adjunct professor in the Art Department at Northwestern University.

I hear voices and laughter before I make it to the top of the stairs. I poke my head into the first gallery. I circle the room. Large painted swaths of fabric on the wall. Furniture taken apart, mismatched and reassembled — table legs sticking straight up out of a chair, pointing at the ceiling. Deconstructed still life. Or, as Alison and her partner Leslie call it “Drunken Geometry.”  But no Allison.

I poke my head into the second gallery and see my friend. She walks me through the exhibit, explaining its meaning, its genesis. Her process, her partnership. I am all in my head…thinking about my friend Rainey, the first artist I knew who created installations, introducing concepts rather than canvases.

Thinking about my own desire to go to art school.

For fashion. For photography. For the sake of being and calling myself an artist. I recall pictures I drew of myself in elementary school — wearing a beret and holding a palette — and a Saturday morning sketching class I briefly attended.

I did not go to art school.

Instead, I spent one year as a fine arts major at a Big Ten university before transferring to the journalism program at my parents’ prompting.

I tell myself I was more committed to the idea of being “an artist” than to making art. This may or may not be true. But being a visual artist was never “easy” for me.

I was fast-moving, my work somewhat sloppy. Stitches ran crooked on the waistband of a skirt. Film stuck onto itself, improperly loaded on the development reel. The inside of a ceramic slab box left rough, unfinished — the internal belying the external.

Writing came easy to me.

I placed out of freshman college English, enrolling in a senior writing seminar instead. Somewhat grudgingly wrote for the daily college newspaper. And then later, for weeklies in Detroit and San Francisco.

I did not think writing was art. Writing was…writing.

It didn’t feel sexy or tragic or dark. I didn’t wrestle with it, so I didn’t want it. But it followed me anyway…loyal puppy of a boyfriend.

I resented it. Ignored it. Didn’t take care of it. Until I needed it.

In Africa, in the middle of my divorce. When I couldn’t not write. The way junkies can’t not shoot-up. When writing felt like breathing. Like the only thing that gave me relief — the antithesis of how I feel now in this moment. Anxious.Uncomfortable. Squirrel-y.

No one is drunk. No one is ridiculously hip. On the contrary. There is a bowl of Chex Mix on the table near the drinks, and a handful of children stopping short of running around.

I see faces I know — including my own. Myself as struggling, wannabe visual artist. Perhaps this is what makes me uncomfortable.  Seeing my former in-love-with-the-idea-of-being-an-artist self.

I would have turned myself inside out for if my parents would have let me. Just as I have done with the idea of so many lovers and would-be lovers in my past. The title — artist, girlfriend — who I think I want to be, driving me in reverse down a one-way street..

Talking for two in romantic pursuits, attempting to create a connection or intimacy that isn’t organically there. Chasing what’s hard — dark, sexy, tragic — rather than embracing what is light, easy, what would one day feel like breathing.

I pick up a large piece of heavy paper with words printed in pink and blue — a conversation between the artists about their process in creating.

“In all honesty for me, and I think for you, this work is agenda-less. It’s about formal play and making connections.” Allison writes.

Leslie adds, “The beginning and the end. A looping. A circle that wobbles a bit, like a drunk. Our logic and our vocabulary are of this wandering yet insistent geometry.”

Yes, for me too. Except I’m no longer drunk. Just insistent and Wandering (Jewess).

Artist Date 101: Si, Es Verdad

2015-01-22 18.18.44
” Los Dias al Reves” — “Inside-out Days” by Pep Carrio. Part of “Think With Your Hands” exhibit at Instituto Cervantes.

I’m trying to download the app that goes with the exhibit “Think With Your Hands.”  I have been unsuccessful so far.

No matter, I am taken with the art — even without the 3-D animation I can control through the app.   If I can download it.

Organizer calendars, the kind kept pre-smart phone, the kind I still keep, filled with images — collage, watercolor, pencil –one for each day for a year.  Then for three more.  In the fifth year, a commitment to fine-line marker only.  The sixth, full-color on both pages of the spread.  More than 1,000 images, 1,000 days. ” Los Dias al Reves” — “Inside-out Days” by Pep Carrio.

Frames loaded with seemingly disparate objects, a wooden cut-out of a woman the only constant.  Wearing a dress made of Swiss cheese.  Sleeping in a horse’s belly.  Swimming, torso-less.  All arms, legs and head.  “Los Suenos de Helena” — “Helena’s Dreams” by Isidro Ferrer.

I am marking my own commitment, my own days — Artist dates, 101 of them today.  Swimming toward my own dreams —  across the Atlantic, to live and to work.

No husband.  No boyfriend.  No booty call.

No kids.  No pets.

My parents are healthy.

Not even a plant.

If not now, when?

I have been dreaming of living abroad for as long as I can remember.  Only really pondering it since my divorce almost three years ago.  Seriously considering it since returning from Italy in October.

And now planning it — researching TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) courses, reading blogs, Skype-ing with friends of friends living and teaching overseas and having coffee with those who once did.

Not so long ago, the only dream receiving this sort of effort and attention was love.  I only knew it when it was no longer true — a few months ago, when the Reluctant Shaman came to visit.

The morning he left, we meditated in front of my altar.  Then he ran his fingertips from the center of my forehead out to my cheeks — opening my third eye — wrapped his arms around me, kissed the space between my brows and said goodbye.

When he was gone, I lamented that we were only friends.

“He lives in Michigan, you live in Chicago,” I said out loud, to no one.

“His dream is to build a retreat center, yours is to live in Europe.”  As the words tumbled from my mouth, I could feel the next ones forming, pushing out, birthing themselves.

“I have a dream bigger than a relationship,” I said, excitedly, repeating the phrase as if to make certain it was so.

It was so.  A revelation.  A victory.

One that is now being tested — less than three months after my big aha — at Instituto Cervantes, Artist Date 101.

"Los Suenos de Helena" -- "Helena's Dreams" by Isidro Ferrer.  Part of "Think With Your Hands" exhibit at Instituto Cervantes.
“Los Suenos de Helena” — “Helena’s Dreams” by Isidro Ferrer. Part of “Think With Your Hands” exhibit at Instituto Cervantes.

I’m fiddling with the app when a man approaches me.

“Hello,” he says, slipping behind me so I have to turn around to face him.  “How are you?”

I search my mental Rolodex, trying to locate him.  How do I know this man?  Clearly we’ve met.  Why else would he stand so close?  Act so familiar?

I tell him I am fine and inquire how he is, stalling.  He grins at me.

I got nothing.

Finally I ask, “Do I know you?”

“No,” he replies.  “I just wanted to meet you and thought I’d say hello.”

This never happens to me.

I laugh at the novelty of his gesture, the simple wisdom in making an introduction to an attractive stranger without premise.

We exchange names and handshakes.  He asks what brings me here.  I tell him I am moving to Spain.

“Where?”

“I’m not certain yet.”

We talk about Barcelona — Gaudi.  The beach.  Sagrada Familia.  Madrid — The capital.  Prado.  Picasso’s Guernica.   A partner program whereby I can learn Spanish part-time and receive a student visa, allowing me to work legally.

He shakes his head.  How can I “just go?”  Don’t I have things?  Stuff?  Property?

“Very little,” I offer.  Whittling my life down to two suitcases shouldn’t be too hard — I hope.

He tells me he taught English in France, when he was in his 20s.  I am not in my 20s.  Not even close.

I smile, thank him for introducing himself, and excuse myself — returning to the exhibit.

I attempt to comprehend the Spanish spoken around me.  (I get about one-sixth of it, at best.)  And by the artists during their talk, taking off the headset that pipes in translation.  (I get even less.)  I try to download the app again.  I never do.

None of it matters.  Only that I “passed.”  That I chose a dream bigger than a relationship.  That I chose me.

A higher mark than I ever received in high school Spanish class.

Si’, es verdad.

Postscript: Less than 12 hours after my Artist Date, my path became clear.  Seven days later, I put down a deposit on coursework in Madrid.  I leave July 2015.