Artist Date 98: What Sylvia Says

Image.  Moira Whitehouse, PhD
Image. Moira Whitehouse, PhD

My alter ego’s name is Sylvia.

She’s about 4 feet, 10 inches tall, wears coral-colored lipstick — a little bit outside of the lines — and sandals with stones in between the toes.  She likes pedal pushers paired with a cropped mink coat.  And now 80 something, has recently taken up smoking again.

I’m not exactly sure when Sylvia came into my life.  However, I distinctly remember when she came into the lives of others.

I was 25 and living in San Francisco.  A single girl.

My friend Teresa was performing a one-woman show, The Life and Death of Stars, at The Marsh.  And Sylvia appeared in a cameo role.

“Men are not magical beings,” Sylvia said through Teresa, taking a long drag off her Virginia Slim 120.  “They’re just people.  With penises.  And problems.”

She appeared again when I was dating Alex, who Teresa fixed me up with.   He was a foot taller than me, from my home town and said he couldn’t wait to get old because he was going to wear “Sansabelt pants up to my tits and the biggest fucking gold Chai I can find.”  He seemed like a good match for Sylvia, if not for me.

He wasn’t…for either of us.

Sylvia was wise.  Loving.  Kind.  Funny and to the point.  A straight shooter.

I had not thought about Sylvia in a long time, until last Thursday — watching Birdman at the Davis Theatre — Artist Date 98.

Riggan Thomson’s (Michael Keaton’s) alter ego, reminded me of my own.  Except mine is more gentle and far less destructive.  And I found myself wondering what she might be whispering to me right now.

I do not even have to ask.

“Honey, go!,” she says, in a voice much louder than a whisper.   “Why are we even talking about this?

She is referring to my noodling — or, as she calls it, sitting — on TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification and moving to Spain or Italy or Portugal, to teach.

She reminds me that I am husband-boyfriend-booty call-child-pet-plant-mortgage free.  But that I might not always be.  That my parents –now both in their 70s — are in good health.  That they do not need me.  That I have no obligations or responsibilities.  And that this may not always be so.

But what about finding work as a trainer and facilitator?  What about making money?  Being fully self-supporting?

What about sloughing off the title of chronic under-earner?  About being a responsible adult?

She brushes me off —  literally waving the back of her liver-spotted hand dismissively as if I were a waiter asking if she’d like more decaf rather than her uncertain, 40-something self.

“All the time in the world for that…” she says, adding that the two are not mutually exclusive.

It seems that what I know if my head, Sylvia knows in her heart, in her bones.  She’s lived it.  And then some.

She knows there will always be jobs.  And, God willing (She puts up her hand again, this time her palm out as if testifying.  “Preach.”) there will always be Italy, Spain and Portugal.  France too, she adds.  But that time and ideal conditions are not similarly static truths.

She knows that security is an illusion.  That the work will come.  That the money will come.  And yes, and even though I didn’t ask, that the man will come too.

It always does.

So what am I waiting for?

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.”)

Things Change. Feelings Change. I Change.

I recently received a packet in the mail from my synagogue, alerting me that the anniversary of my birth mother’s death is this month.

One year.

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

I should have remembered, for so many reasons.  But mostly, because the Mother’s Day card I sent her last year arrived on the day of her funeral.  It was delivered after the service, while her sister, brothers, nieces and I cleaned the house, preparing it for sale.

The past three years, the time that I had known her, I struggled to find a card.  I didn’t think of her as my mother or my mom.  I already had one – the woman who raised me.  But biologically, she was.  No question about it.  And I knew it would mean a lot to her to receive it.  So I bought her one each year.  Something not too schmaltzy.  Not too love-y dove-y.

But last year was easy.  We had had a tremendous healing that fall – when I flew to Charleston for what I thought was to say goodbye.  In a sense, it was, as I never saw her again.  However, she lived for another six months and during that time we spoke fairly frequently.

Things change.

When her brother phoned me last May to tell me she had died, I felt sideswiped.

My job back at the house was to toss everything that either wasn’t necessary or someone didn’t want. Notes on a criminal case she was following and perhaps hoped to write about.  Minutes from meetings of the Daughters of the American Revolution.  Charleston history.  Credit cards that had never been activated.  (As I write this, I look at my own on the table next to me.)

All of it, and so, so much more into big, black garbage bags used for lawn and leaves.  One for shredding.  One for tossing.

I came downstairs when I ran out of garbage bags and saw the card on the counter.  I knew my own writing.  I said nothing.

I went to the store for bags instead.  While I was out, I texted my friend – the man who had captured my heart when I visited six months earlier – and confirmed our meeting the next day.

The Southern Svengali.

I fell head over heels over head for him.  And when I left, I was certain I would never see him again.

I was wrong.

Me and my mom mom, the one who raised me.
Me and my mom mom, the one who raised me.

I saw him the next night.  People around us asked if we had known one another forever.  It seemed that way.

Although I longed for more, our romance never moved beyond hours-long make out sessions on my first visit.  And while intellectually I knew better, I was convinced I would never get over him.

I was wrong about that too.

We had a falling out after my birthmother’s death.  He took exception to the moniker I had assigned him.  He latched on to the deceptive characteristics of the Svengali character, while I chose to focus on the Svengali as teacher – the one who pulled out the artist inside, as he had me.

We haven’t spoken in nearly a year, although we have exchanged a few kind messages.  He left Charleston for the winter, and I didn’t know about it for months as I had stopped visiting his Facebook page.  And I fell head over heels over head for someone else.  Which is all a complicated way of saying I did get over him.

Things change.

It is important for me to notice the changes, because lately it feels like nothing has changed.  Including me.  At times, I feel as sad and unsteady as when I moved back to Chicago in the late summer of 2011, just after my divorce.  It is a feeling.  It is not truth.

It hadn’t occurred to me that my heightened bout of sadness and dis-ease, at least in part, may be connected to the anniversary of my birthmother’s death.  It is a comfort to recognize.  To realize that the feeling of going backward may be connected to the act of reflection, of turning back.

The good news is, I don’t have to stay back.

My birthmother as a teen.  She's in blue.  And pregnant with me.
My birthmother as a teen. She’s in blue. And pregnant.

Inside the packet from the synagogue are several items.  The words to Kaddish – translated as “holy,” – the ritual prayer of mourning, praising God.  A showing of gratitude amidst pain.  And suggestions for honoring the deceased through Tzedakah – an obligation of charity, righteousness.

I see these rituals as a reminder of what the Buddhists call “right action,” or what 12-Step programs call “doing the next right (or indicated) thing.”

I used to believe I would think my way to happiness, contentedness or change.  That if I only dug deep enough I would finally “figure it out.”

What I’ve learned, and then forget and re-learn, is that things change.  Period.  That includes my feelings and my perceptions.

And that I change when I avail myself of the suggestions contained in the packet from the synagogue.  What the Buddhists and the 12-Steppers and all the spiritual traditions espouse – prayer and action.

I do different.  I feel different.  I become different.

Artist Date 55: Saving Myself. No Wand or Wings Required.

I’ve been having a hard time getting myself out on weekly Artist Dates.  Ever since I hit that “magic” one-year mark.

Carmel and I.  Extras.  Fans.  And Friends.
Carmel and I. Extras. Fans. And Friends.

Maybe it’s because, as suggested, I didn’t date for a year after my divorce became final.  The passing of 52 Artist Dates meant that that year had passed.  And perhaps on some subconscious level I thought it was time to date others instead of myself.

Even though nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed in my romantic life.  Even though I don’t even have a crush.  And for perhaps the first time in my life, the world still feels full of possibilities.  That is a big change in my romantic life.

Or maybe it’s because maintenance is hard.  Of anything.  Eating well, moving my body and maintaining a healthy weight.  Staying sober.  Meditating.  Artist Dates.

Each serves me, makes me feel better, be better in the world.  It would seem I would only want to perpetuate these patterns.  But somehow it doesn’t work that way.

My brain is a liar.  It tells me “I’ve got this.”  Which, when it does, is the exact moment I need to redouble my efforts.  And I need other people to do that.  To remind me that my brain is, in fact, a liar.  And of what actions I can take anyway.

It’s why I work for Weight Watchers.  Surround myself with sober individuals.  And probably why I only meditate in the morning but not the evening, even though Vedic meditation is a twice-daily practice.  I’ve been doing it alone ever since I left California in 2007.

The Artist Date is a solo process.  No one would know, or probably care, if I did or did not engage in it.  Except me.  By stating my intention and blogging about it, I invite others in, and I stay in the action of it.  Action that always makes me feel better.

So I was grateful when I saw a Facebook post from my friend Lori late Friday night, asking if anyone was available to be background talent for a music video she was filming the following day.  Without thinking, I said “yes” – Artist Date 55.

“Who knows?” I thought.  “Perhaps I will meet Mr. Right…”

skatersBy morning I wasn’t so sure about that.  When I opened Lori’s email with details for the shoot, I found myself feeling incredibly resistant.  So much so, I told her I may have spoken too soon.

I shared my “dilemma” with a friend who reflected back to me that I am a woman who does what she says.  And so I did.

But when I arrived, the first words out of my mouth were, “Do you have enough people?  Because if you do…”  Yes, she said, adding, “If you have somewhere to be, go…”

But I didn’t.

Knowing that, something shifted.  And I decided to stay.

I took a seat on an empty bench where the Windy City Rollers practice and watched the girls go around and around in circles, fading in and out of the fog of the smoke machine – the set for the music video, for a song written by one of the skaters, Xoe.

I joined about a dozen extras as a Windy City Rollers fans.  Our job was to rush the red team after winning the bout.  To jump up and down and high-five the skaters, and each other.  Simple enough…even for a non-sports fan like myself.  But first, we waited.

angelsI watched the big cameras zooming in and out.  Xoe’s stunt double — dressed like a guardian angel with wings, a wand and a sequined dress — “saving her” from herself, and knocking out a couple of the Rollers in the process.  I looked at the snack table and thought it could use a makeover.  That I would replace some of the donuts, Oreos and chips with fresh fruit and vegetables, hummus and low-fat cheese.  But nobody asked me.

A woman I know just a little, but like quite a bit, showed up and she and I talked like old friends for the better part of the afternoon – telling stories about boys, our bodies and travel.

I noticed the high concentration of men on the set – lots of tattoos and wool hats.  But I didn’t “recognize” my mate.

The day ended with a whack upside the head.  Literally.  It was an accident.

During a “pretend” fight scene,I leaned into the fist of a wisp of a girl standing next to me.   She apologized profusely.  I laughed.  It somehow seemed right.  Like I had definitely “connected.”

This morning, I put my hand to my forehead.  It was sore.  A little tender spot reminding me of how much I fight myself.  And of how I can save myself – no wand or wings required.