Artist Date 99: Like a Motherfucker

tiny beautiful thingsForgive me, it has been 16 days since my last Artist Date and 19 days since I’ve blogged.

I feel like a Jewish Catholic at confession.  Except the only one I’m asking for absolution is myself.

I miss my alone time.  Artistic input into my body.  My head feels foggy.  Squeezed.  Heavy and thick.  As if there is no room…no room for anything more.  No room for anything at all.

I am daydreaming about when and where I can get my fix — my dose of solitude and creative sustenance.

I didn’t expect this, didn’t expect to be “hooked” when I entered into this commitment a little more than two years ago.  I didn’t know what to expect.  Only that I needed help.

I was newly divorced.  My biological mother — who I had only met just four years earlier — was dying.  And the relationship I wasn’t having  — the one with a handsome southerner who lived some 900 miles away, who I kissed for two nights like a horny but innocent teenager —  was effecting my relationships.

My friend S. told me in no uncertain terms she could not, would not, hear his name again.

I was on my knees, desperate.  The humbled position where all change grows from.

On Christmas night 2012, a voice I’ve grown to know — my wise-self voice — suggested I work through The Artist’s Way again.  Adding that this time I go on weekly Artist Dates — a once every seven-days solo sojourn to fill my creative coffers — as is suggested in the book.

I went to lectures, museums, opera.  To pottery classes, dance performances, walking tours.  Movies, thrift shops and book stores.  All of it, alone.

On occasion, I miss a week — choosing to spend a final day with a friend before she becomes a mother or sharing my artsy outing with another — but it is rare.  And I’ve never gone this long without…until now, at the Davis Theatre — Artist Date 99.

My therapist in Seattle was the first to suggest Cheryl Strayed.  “I read her before Oprah,” she insisted, imploring me to pick up Wild, as well as Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar — the best of Strayed’s advice column from The Rumpus.

Queen Anne Books placed a special order for both books.  They arrived the day after I left for Chicago.

I mostly forgot about them until this past summer — two years later — when my friend Lori insists I buy both books.  She tells me “writers read,” and drags me into the Book Cellar where she puts a copy of each into my hands and guides me to the cash register.

Both are dog-eared now, and tear-stained.  Sentences underlined, entire pages bracketed.  Words resonate.  Lessons I do not want to forget.  Whispers from the universe reminding me where I came from, where I am today.

“Unique as every letter is, the point each writer reaches is the same: I want love and I’m afraid I’ll never get it.” (Tiny Beautiful Things)

“…for once it was finally enough for me to simply lie there in a restrained and chaste rapture beside a sweet, strong, sexy, smart good man who was probably never meant to be anything but my friend.  For once I didn’t ache for a companion.  For once the phrase a woman with a hole in her heart didn’t thunder into my head.” (Wild)

Sitting in the darkened theater, Strayed words — now images — alive before me, I say, yes.  And yes.

I still fear the possibility of not finding romantic love again, but it doesn’t drive me anymore.  It doesn’t dictate my every action.  My every reaction.

I can be in “chaste rapture beside a sweet, strong, sexy, smart good man who was probably never meant to be anything but my friend.”  Lying next to one another on my couch following morning meditation, the Reluctant Shaman’s lips pressed to my forehead — my third eye.

I no longer ache for a companion.  The words, “I do not wish a man were here,” crossing my lips as I cross the Seine last October, alone on my 45th birthday..

Strayed took to the Pacific Crest Trail  — alone — to learn these truths.  To feel them in her bones.  Mine was a different path, made of clay and dance and music.  Of film and paint and spoken word.  Of pasta and gelato and nearly three weeks in Italy.  All of it, alone.  But the truths, the same.

“So write…,” Strayed writes in Tiny Beautiful Things.  “Not like a girl.  Not like a boy.  Write like a motherfucker.”

Yes.

Artist Date 90: Full

Outside Mercato Sant'Ambrogio.
Outside Mercato Sant’Ambrogio.

There’s an empty space in front of me where a wine glass used to be. It was there just a few minutes before I got up.  But now it’s gone.

It’s a God thing. I’m sure of it.

It is 10 a.m. and I am at a wine shop – the first stop on a walking food and wine tour of Florence – Artist Date 90.

I was the first to arrive on the piazza, to meet our guide Ishmael.  I refrain from any The Old Man and The Sea references.

He is from Latin America, but has made Florence – or more accurately, its environs – his home for more than 30 years. He is bearded and handsome and gentle.  As is the case with so many men here, I cannot tell for certain whether he is straight or gay.  I decide not to worry about it.

We wait for 10 others to join us. They come in groups of twos, like animals on Noah’s Ark.  I feel wildly liberated, untethered and free.

We walk a few blocks to a wine shop, where a long table is set up with stools, glasses and a variety of bruschetta.

I have not had a drink in nearly seven years. It is strange to be here.

And yet, this used to be my life. Conversations about the dwindling availability of cork, comparing plastic versus screw top.  Stainless steel versus oak.  I was living just an hour from the Napa Valley and spent a considerable amount of time there – tasting, learning, drinking.

I fancied myself fancy because I knew just a little bit.  Until the day when a stranger said to me, “Wine aficionado is just a fancy name for a drunk.”  I was incensed.  But in regards to me, he was right.

About half-way through the tasting Ishmael notices I do not have a glass. He asks if I would like one.  I shake my head, smile and say no.

“Are you sure,” he asks. I am very sure.

At the wine shop...I focused on the bruschetta.
At the wine shop…I focused on the bruschetta.

We stop at a food cart – like the ones in Portland, San Francisco and New York, like the one made famous by a pre-teen’s Tweeting in the movie Chef.  Except there are no hipsters here.  Only work men.  And instead of hawking clever cupcakes or Asian-Latin fusion, this one sells tripe.  Just tripe.

Ishmael asks if any of us would like to try it. I raise my hand, along with the Greek painter from Lawrence, Kansas, and a few minutes later receive a white plastic container, along with a plastic fork and a hunk of bread.

I am a bit nervous, but tell myself “when in Rome”…or Florence. But, like Mikey in the 1970s Chex cereal commercial, I like it!  It is well-spiced, like a fiery, paper-thin calamari.

I ask the woman from New York traveling with her mother to take a photograph of me eating it, my MAC “Kiss Me Quick” lipstick staining the plastic fork – lest anyone question my story.

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Not many ladies eating tripe off a food cart…

I was a picky eater growing up.  My mother would serve me a silver-dollar size piece of steak that I would cut up, cover in ketchup and move around the plate for a quarter of an hour until my father, exasperated, would say, “Make her a grilled cheese sandwich.”  I lived on grilled cheese, hot dogs and Spaghetti-Os until I was about 14.

We wander over to Mercato Sant’Ambrogio. Outside vendors are selling grapes, carrots, herbs, mushrooms – truffles.  I recall the chef I briefly dated kissing me in his kitchen, and asking when I would be in Italy.

October.

“Mmm…truffle season…except you cannot afford them.”

I should have told him to fuck off.  Or how he was so certain what I could and could not afford.  But I said nothing.

I think he would enjoy this culinary tour of Florence.  And then decide not to think about him at all, but instead the cured meats, cheeses and olives that a butcher is serving us with toothpicks off of a polystyrene tray.  From the North, the South, Tuscany.  Aged six weeks, six months, 16 months.

We sit down on long benches and sample orecchiette with finely chopped broccoli, spaghetti with pancetta, olive oil and parmesan, pomodoro.  Once this was simply a place for market vendors to have a meal.  Today it is a restaurant.

I am generally not one to get too excited about pasta. Until now.  It is silky and warm on my tongue, along my cheek.  I taste every ingredient.  Minutes old.  I am silent.  I am, as my friend Stan says, “having a relationship with my food.”

Yes...I left a little bit.
Yes…I left a little bit.

We end with gelato from one of Ishmael’s favorite shops – Il Procopio. I pair carmelized figs with cream, almonds and pine nuts with the shop’s namesake of pistachios and orange peel.

I have eaten gelato every day since arriving in Italy more than a week ago, congratulating myself on always ordering a piccolo.  But today, grinning and completely conscious, I order a medio — and congratulate myself that it is not a grande.  It’s a God thing.  I’m sure of it.

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Il Procopio. Firenze, Tuscany. Enough said.

 

Happy On My Birthday

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

I walked out on my 21st birthday party.

A little past midnight, noticing no one had noticed it was now officially my birthday, I stood up and drunkenly announced, “You’re all fuckers. Good night.”

I still cringe thinking about it.

Ten years later, I didn’t behave much better.  I spent my birthday in Paris.  Yet all I could do was lament about dinner at the restaurant that had been suggested – Chez Chartier.  Loud, boisterous.  A place where working-class families had fed their families since 1896.  Where surly waiters leave your tab written on paper tablecloths and patrons climb ladders to reach the mezzanine dining room.  A Parisian institution.

I didn’t think the meal was very good.

My birthday has always been fraught with anxiety. Anxiety created by expectations.  Of others.  Of myself.  Of experiences.

Never mind my friends gather to honor my being here on the planet – some driving more than an hour to join the festivities. Never mind I spend the morning in Amsterdam and the afternoon at the top of the Eiffel Tower.  Somehow, in my mind, each celebration missed the mark of being “special enough.”

Until this year..when I turned 45 and decided to spend my birthday alone.  Dinner in Paris, breakfast in Rome.

It was the end of a 17-day trip to Italy. A trip where I had gifted myself with hand-stitched Roman sandals in Assisi, and aubergine leather gloves in Florence.

Where I stopped inside a boutique in Rome to inquire about a coat in the window and left wearing it.  A short, smart, cream-colored trench with a ruffle.  I slipped on a size small – both surprised and delighted to find it fit considering I had eaten gelato every day since my arrival – and looked at myself in the mirror.

I liked it. The coat.  My reflection.  I didn’t need it, and yet, the words “I’ll take it,” tumbled out of my mouth.

And where 30 minutes later, on Piazza Navona, I questioned what I “deserved,” and if I could justify “more.”   Where I pulled a leather bag over my shoulder and across my body — like the one my tour guides Ishmael and Paul wore and which I had twice admired – but left it behind because it felt “too decadent.”

Never mind my mother had sent me a check as an early birthday gift. Never mind a client had given me a several-hundred dollar tip, instructing me to use it for something wonderful in Italy.  Never mind I had enough for it.

I went to dinner where I ate pizza with impossibly thin crust, covered with four kinds of cheeses, arugula and bresaola…but I was still thinking about the bag. Strolling back towards the piazza I called out to the universe, “If I am supposed to have this bag, give me a sign.”

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I received it, but not until after the salesman wrote up my purchase. When he placed the leather satchel inside of a green fabric bag, wrapped it with string and tied a bow.

I smiled recalling my Aunt Ellie taking me shopping at Jacobson’s – a tony department store in a tony suburb of Detroit – when I was 10-years-old.  When I was doughy and awkward and wore a bad Dorothy Hamill haircut.

After purchasing trousers, a sweater, and a bag shaped like a roller skate, she asked that each item be placed in one of the store’s signature silver boxes, embossed with a J, and wrapped in shiny ribbon.

“Everything is better gift wrapped,” she informed me. Opening the packages at home an hour or so later, I knew she was right.

Thirty-five years later, she still is.

And yet, a few days later, I once again questioned my right to gift wrap my life. This time, to end my travels with a 15-hour layover in Paris.  Just long enough to have dinner and to spend the night — on my birthday.

It had sounded like a wonderful idea when I booked the ticket, but as the days grew near it only sounded like a lot of traveling, a lot of navigating, a lot of work for one night.

I ignored that seemingly practical voice and went anyway – roaming the streets of Paris for the third time in this lifetime.

Crossing the Seine in my cream-colored trench, my leather bag strapped across my body, I saw the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame – all lit up. Just like me.  I could feel it.  I giggled out loud wondering, “Who stops in Paris for 15 hours just for dinner on their birthday?”

I do.

I ate a pistachio macaron on the streets before dinner, and later, mussels and pommes frites. And for perhaps the first time in my life, I could not imagine anything making the moment better.

I didn’t wish for a man or a friend. For a different meal.  For anyone to sing me happy birthday.

I was delighted by my own company.  That I had given myself everything I had wanted most.  And in doing so, rather than hoping someone else might, I was happy on my birthday.

 

 

 

 

 

Why Yes, I Am A Tourist

First gelato in Rome...
First gelato in Rome…

I used to have this thing about being a tourist.

I never wanted to ask for directions. Carry a map.  I didn’t even want to do anything “touristy” – including going to the top of the Eiffel Tower.  (Thank goodness it was rainy and cold and there was no line, so I submitted.  And, of course, it was fabulous!)

Instead I got lost in the neighborhoods of Puerta Vallarta – where a kind stranger took pity on my ex and me, intuitively knowing we couldn’t possibly be in the right place and asked us where we were trying to go.

Somehow I associated it all with white Reeboks. A fanny pack and speaking very loudly.

The last time I traveled alone – and by alone I mean not meeting a friend or traveling together as a group, which means Dublin and Rwanda don’t count – I went to France.

I was participating in a volunteer project, but I started off with a few days on my own in Paris. Intent on playing the part of the Parisian.

That night I wandered the streets of the City of Lights, slightly drunk – alone. I was scolded for smoking in the non-smoking section of an outdoor café. (Who knew there was one?  In Paris!)  And I called my then-husband sobbing.  I had wanted to travel alone.  And suddenly I felt very alone.  I didn’t like it.

The days that followed weren’t much better. That is, until the day I left for Avignon to join my volunteer team, when I was able to remember a single word of French and use it, thus communicating with an old woman at the train station.  “Plutar.”  She lit up.  “Plutar!  Plutar!”  Yes, yes, I was going to Avignon too – later.

So I was a little bit nervous about coming to Italy alone. Even though I chose it.

I know traveling alone can be lonely. And scary.  There is no one to get lost with.  And it has been my experience that getting lost together is far less scary than getting lost alone.  And yet, at the end of my first day in Rome, I haven’t gotten lost.  And I don’t feel lonely.  Or alone.

Perhaps because I’ve asked a lot of questions. Of the teenage boys on the train from the airport.  “Why did so many kids get on all at once at this stop?  Is there school on Sunday?”  (Nope.  Game and comic festival.)  Of the man behind the counter at the newsstand.  “Can I buy a ticket for Tram 8 here?”  (Yes.)

And of a woman on the platform in the middle of the street. “Is this the right stop for Tram 8 going towards the city center?”  (Yes.  And she even reminded me when we got to the third stop, my stop.   I had mentioned it to her.)

I asked my host where I might eat and he suggested the very same place as a friend of mine in the United States had. And then I asked him to show me on a map how to get there.

I ambled. I rambled.  I looked for street names on buildings and found them on about one-third.  I held out my map and “stood in it” like Joey did in London on Friends.

I got lost. I got found.  Or maybe I just got turned around.  But I didn’t panic.  And along the way I heard music in Piazza Santa Maria Trastevere and enjoyed my first gelato of the trip – yogurt, pistachio-hazelnut-chocolate and single-sourced cocoa.  And just before handing me the cup, the server lopped on an extra spatula full…just because.

I took things slowly. I found my way to the river, crossed over and made my way to Piazza Campo De Fiore.  Yes, given the time I can read a map.  I also found the famed Grom gelato – there’s an outpost shop in Manhattan – but decided to save it for another day.  However that didn’t keep me from checking out the flavors at another shop and tasting the ginseng and one with candied fruit when invited to.

I finished with dinner at Ai Spaghettari – where my host and my friend had suggested and I had the carbonara, also suggested, along with melon and prosciutto and a macchiato.

All around me were Italians glued to the soccer match on television, and a fair number of Americans plotting their next move.   And I was one of them.

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.

Artist Date 61: Permission to Want Love

I cannot remember the last time I was carded.  My friend Debbie reminds me that I don’t drink, so I am not often in bars.  So my lack of recent experience with carding shouldn’t be a surprise.

But I am in a bar tonight –the night before Valentine’s Day.  I have been “invited” for the final performance of “Solo in the Second City” – a live lit(erature) series about the nature of relationships.  Artist Date 61.

solo in the second cityI wish I would have known about this sooner, but I didn’t.  And the only reason I know about it at all is because I participated in my first ever live lit event last week – Story Club, a monthly event featuring three invited storytellers, and three audience members whose names have been pulled from a hat.  Except it’s not a hat, it’s a monkey carved out of a coconut with the words, “Have Fun” scrawled on it.

It is the winter of the Arctic Vortex in Chicago and only three people have put their names in the monkey.  This is seemingly unheard of.  I am one of them.

I climb up on to the stage, pull on my “cheaters” and read an extended version of my blog post “I Love You.” “Thank You.”  About me and my divorce buddy.  About walking through hell together.  And learning to walk on my own.  It is tender and raw and real.  I feel like I have earned my place on this stage.  It feels amazing.

I am followed by Carly Oishi, a featured writer.  She weaves together three stories of love and loss.  I am riveted.  She is speaking my heart even though I do not recall her exact words.

At the end of the evening, I approach her and introduce myself.  I tell her I like her piece.  She tells me she likes mine and invites me to “Solo in the Second City.”  I mention it to Debbie and we agree we will go.

And so I am here, at Beauty Bar, sitting on a low bench surrounded by 1950s hairdryer chairs, listening to stories of breakups and broken hearts.

One woman reads about watching relationships bloom and wither.  But only watching.  She has closed her heart off.  Closed herself off.  I know there is more because I am overwhelmed with feeling and identification, but I cannot access it.

Another reads, perhaps more accurately shouts, about when a man drops off the face of the earth without a word.   Not a peep.  A text.  A fuck off.  Nothing.   She talks about body parts that are usually covered up meeting other body parts that are usually covered up.  About giving someone VIP access to that place where her children were born from.  She says it is a big deal.

story club magIt is a big deal.  To give someone VIP access to that place.  To literally let someone inside of you.  For so many years I did not think so.  There was no velvet rope.  No line to enter.  At least to my mind’s eye.  And each and every one who came (no pun intended) was given an all access pass.  Once upon a time.  Now single again after 15 years coupled, and solo in the Second City, I can play it differently.  I can have a different experience.

I am humbled by her cautionary tale of pain.  For taking me back to how it was.  And showing me how it still can be.  How I can be.

Carly, the co-producer of the series, is the last to read.  It is the story I heard last week.  But this time I can hold on to the words.  At least some of them.  The part about love and how you will do anything for it.  To taste it.  To experience it.  To feel it if only for a moment.

Yes.  That is how I feel.  How I have been ashamed to feel.  The message I can discern from the noise and static surrounding me post-divorce is “You don’t need it.”  “You shouldn’t want it.”  “You need to learn to be alone.”

I know how to be alone.

I go to the opera alone.  Dance performances alone.   Art shows alone.

I live alone.

I work and dance and write.  I have a large and diverse cast of characters I call friends.

I love my life.

And yes, I want love.  That kind of love.

Hearing Carly’s words I feel somehow lighter.  Less burdened by my desires.  Free to let go of this misplaced shame.

I tell her so after the show.  That I am grateful for permission to want love.  She is visibly moved.

I remind her we have met and she admits she didn’t realize I live in Chicago.  “So you ‘do this’?’  Write?  Tell stories,” she asks.

“Yes,” I say.

She smiles and tell me she is putting together a story-telling series of all women, and asks if I would be interested in reading my work.

I smile back and give her the only appropriate answer – “I would love to.”

Artist Date 49: Content In My Role As Second Tenor

I am a second tenor.

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Lake Street Underpass, by Errol Jacobson

So says Steven, who I met on Thursday at the Palette and Chisel, at the opening before the opening of my friend Errol’s art show, “City” – Artist Date 49.

Steven is a member of the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus – the beneficiary organization of 20 percent of tonight’s sales.  He is introduced to me by the Kent, the Executive Director, who is introduced to me by Stephanie, Errol’s partner.

We are chatting when he gets the nod that it is show time.  He grabs my hand and says, “Come on, let’s go.”

“I don’t sing.”  I protest, remembering my friend Teresa insisting the same when she was asked to audition for Beach Blanket Babylon in San Francisco.  “Can’t you just belt something out?”  So she did – the theme song to the Flintstones.  She didn’t make it past the first verse.

“Of course you do,” Steven says.  “You are a second tenor.”

He does not push further, but instead, joins his colleagues at the piano.

When he finishes, I ask him how he knows I am a second tenor.  “Easy.”  Everyone who claims to not sing is a second tenor.  It is an easy range to sing, he explains.  And there are lots of them – second tenors – so it is easy to be one among many.

2013-11-21 18.47.21I love the idea of me – a straight, Jewish girl who can’t carry a tune – surrounded by gay men singing Christmas carols.  It seems somehow “right,” although certainly not congruent to the notion of “one among many.”  I have weaseled my way into more unlikely settings.  But I am pretty certain he was jesting.

He reminds me of the chorus’ upcoming holiday shows, and invites me to come watch open rehearsals on Sunday afternoons – both potential Artist Dates (Stephanie mentioned my practice to Steven and Kent when she introduced us) – then warmly takes my hand in his and bids me adieu.

Tonight is actually the second Artist Date Stephanie has “invited” me to– the first being her and Errol’s home in Bucktown, which was highlighted in a garden walk this past summer.  I am humbled and touched by her interest.

However, I notice that tonight, unlike most of my previous Artist Dates, stirs up very little in terms of thoughts, emotions and memory.  I am decidedly – without having made a decision – present.

I notice the chicken satay and Vietnamese spring rolls.  The brownies and fruit pastries from Alliance Bakery.  All of which I avoid.

The mild flirtation from the bartender who tells me I look like a character from a show on A&E.  “But much better looking,” he says.  I smile and tell him I do not have a television.

Errol’s paintings.  So much rain.  Like tiny kaleidoscopes sliding down windshields.  It is wet outside tonight.  And cold.  Winter is coming.

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Back Lit, by Errol Jacobson

I am drawn to the saturated colors of “Backlit,” “Shadows” and “Days End.”  Purples and Yellows.  And I tell him so.

My friend Dina asks if I recognize where “Backlit” is painted.  I do not.

It is Paris.

She can tell from the roofline, she explains, using a fancy term I don’t know to describe the classically Parisian use of attics.

Dina lived in Paris 30 or so years ago.  I always imagined I would live there.  Or New York.  Or that I still might.  They feel familiar to me – they always have.  And I’ve never been lost in either one.

Yet, right now in this moment, I feel no desire to be anywhere but Chicago.  In spite of its cold, dark, rainy-ness.

I am driving my friend Leslie home and I mention that the man I asked out for coffee via Facebook has not responded.  It has been more than two days and I am surprised by his lack of contact.  It seems out of character.  Mostly because I think he is a man, and not a boy.  I am a little disappointed, but nothing more.  I’ve made no investment.  The crush diminishes.

“And then there were none,” I tell her.

And for once, I don’t mind.

Up until now, life without some sort of love interest felt sad. Somehow lacking.  The crush, the flirtation, gave me a sense of hope.  Of possibilities.

But I don’t feel sad right now.  Absent is the familiar pain stemming from the fear that I will be alone.

Frankly, I am a little stunned.  I am afraid to give this experience a voice.  That I will jinx it.

All I know is, right now, my life feels full.  With friends.  With art.  With possibilities.  And I am, blessedly, not particularly troubled by what I lack.  And by moments too far ahead.

It is as it was promised to me, that I would find contentment where I am right now.  Content in my role as a second tenor.  One among many.  Easy.

A Birthday Story: Celebrating What Is

It is four something in the morning.  I woke up at the same ungodly hour yesterday – my 44th birthday.

I have always loved birthdays.

My birthday didn't begin with laughter...it ended with it.
My birthday didn’t begin with laughter…it ended with it.

I’m a big celebrator in general.  Ask any of my Weight Watchers members.  I love to clap and give out Bravo! Stickers for behavior changes.  Those subtle little miracles.

“Where else do you go that they clap for you?” I ask.

Well, 12-Step meetings.  But I don’t bring that up as it isn’t germane.

Birthdays are like that.  It seems the whole world is clapping, rooting for you, that day.  Mostly.

This year I awoke feeling a little less clap-y.  A little less celebratory.

I’d been aware of a low-grade sadness tugging at me for a few days.  Aware this was my first birthday since my birth mother died.

We found one another in October of my 40th year.

Ours was not always an easy relationship.  Some days I think she would have jumped in my skin if she could have, while I took a more tentative approach to our relationship.  Timing.  Expectations.  Boundaries.  Those were our lessons.  And we were one another’s teachers.

She sent me flowers when I turned 40.  A card the following year.  And then phone calls the next two.  She wasn’t well and it was difficult for her to get out – both physically and emotionally.  This year there would be no flowers, no card, no call.  I felt sad.

Like I did when her name was read at the memorial service on Yom Kippur.  Like I did when I returned from Ireland last month and felt like calling and for the first time realized I couldn’t.  I find myself surprised by the sadness, although I’m not sure why.  It makes perfect sense – at least on a cellular level.

So there was that.

And there was the aloneness of being not-so-suddenly, but-still, single.

My ex was a great gift giver.

Birthday and anniversary mornings I would find a card on the bed, slipped into place when I got up to shower.  A gift would come later.  Usually something I had spied and mentioned in passing months earlier.  Something I had forgotten about until I saw it again.  A hand-carved wooden jewelry box.  Strands of smoky quartz and hand-colored pearls.

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Kristin. Who reminds me of the love in my life when I cannot see it.

He gave me a watch when I turned 42 – my last birthday with him.  I had been wearing the same Seiko tank since I was 14, gift from my Aunt Betty.  She had lost hers.  Found it.  And gave the original to me.

I replaced the band and battery several dozen times over the years.  Until the crystal broke and a jeweler told me it couldn’t be fixed.

I didn’t like the watch he bought me.  I don’t know if I would have liked anything he bought me at that time.  He had recently asked me for a divorce – and then recanted the next day – but it was there.  The truth about our relationship.  It was over.  We just hadn’t cut the cord yet.

He was hurt and offended that I didn’t like his gift, but offered to take me shopping so I could pick out something else, anyway.  I couldn’t do it.  I kept the watch.  I am still wearing it.

When I woke up early yesterday, I noticed the absence of a card.  Of a body in my bed.  Specifically, my ex’s.  I do not crave him being there – but I was used to it.  To him, for so long.

I rolled off my mattress and dropped to my knees in child’s pose – both a stretch and a prayer.   “modeh ani lefanecha.  Thank you G-d for returning my soul to me.”  I asked for several obsessions to be removed.  And then, still on my knees, I opened Facebook on my phone.  The messages had already begun to pour in.  Old neighbors.  Acquaintances from grade school.  Family – by origin and by choice.  From Africa.  And from just down the street.

I wrote. Meditated. Showered and went to work.  Weight Watchers.  It felt life affirming.  As did dance class.  I made lunch and took myself shopping at my favorite resale shop.  I bought a grey wool coat that ties at the waist.  It fits as if it were made for me.

I talked to a few friends on the phone.  Around five a girlfriend picked me up and we went to do what we do to make sure we don’t drink today.

I used to make a big “to do” out of my birthday.  Or at least try to.  Those expectations often left me feeling sad and frustrated.  I was unclear why.  But today was delightfully ordinary.

Indian sweets.
Indian sweets.

It ended with cheap eats at a large, bright Pakistani restaurant on Devon Avenue.  The kind with a menu posted on a TV screen.  Where you wait in line to order food and pick it up on a tray.  Where you eat with plastic utensils.

Where I feel conspicuously white.

There were eight of us.  Among them, my divorce buddy – the man I walked lock step with through the dissolution of our marriages.  And then watched my friendship with him dissolve.  I hadn’t invited him.  But there he was.  I was delighted.

“Of course he’s here,” Kristin said.  “He loves you.”

I decided to believe her.  And to believe in all the love around the table.  JB’s.  Tom’s.  Matt’s.

Rebecca’s.  Brian’s.  Kristin’s.

And to focus on it.  To focus on who was there, instead of who wasn’t.  The calls, texts, cards and Facebook greetings I did receive.  Instead of those I didn’t.  (Well, mostly.)

We took pictures and ate fried bits of goodness – both sweet and savory.  Drank lassis and tea with evaporated milk.

I came home and ate the last of my sweets.  I felt a little overly-sugared.  Overly stimulated.

And I fell into bed.  Alone.  Sated.  Full.

I Just Haven’t Met You Yet

walking in the worldI’ve been keeping a nightly gratitude list now for close to 10 years.  The practice was first suggested by my then spiritual-business teacher, Anne Sagendorph-Moon.

I would buy small, lovely journals and packages of 36 fine-point markers, and each night, in bed, write my list – a different color for each blessing in my life.

The practice has taken different shapes and forms over the years.  For the past few, I have done it on my computer, exchanging my list via e-mail with a friend in San Francisco.

So whenever a gratitude list is suggested as a part of any spiritual practice, in my head I tick it off as “Got it.”  “Done.”  Until yesterday.  When I had a *new* experience.

I am in week 2 of Walking in the World, Julia Cameron’s follow up to The Artist’s Way.  The book resonates deeply for me as walking and writing were the only things that made any sense during my divorce.  Either action had the power to ground me – almost immediately.  Still do.

My assignment yesterday was to take a 20-minute walk, with the intention of naming the blessings in my life with each foot fall.

Off I went, down Ainslie Street towards Winnemac Park – a few short blocks away from my home.  A place where I can duck into short paths, surrounded by tall, weedy plants, and feel like I am far away.  As I began walking, I began naming – to myself, my lips moving in the silence.

“I have a home.  I am in Chicago.  Japanese maples.”  It felt contrived, forced…but I kept muttering to myself anyway.  “My friend Julie.  Michigan blueberries.  I know how to be alone.”

I was flummoxed.  Was it really true?  Did I really know how to be alone?  Not just survive sans partner, all the while “wishin and hopin and dreamin,” but really know how to be alone and really be ok with it?  Even grateful for it?

Yes.  I think so.

This is not to say I wouldn’t like to meet a mate.  It’s a pretty universal desire, as my friend Mary Kate pointed out to me.  But it is how I live my life “in the in between” or “until that time” that determines my “ok-ness.”

I’ve been great with the action part, filling my life with dance, writing, friendship and family.  Travel.  Writing.  Recovery.  It’s the perception part that was kicking my ass.  Until it wasn’t.

I’m not sure what happened.  I used to think being alone meant I was a loser.  Unloveable.  Undesirable.  I suddenly don’t feel that way anymore.  I see my aloneness, to quote a good-bad Michael Buble song, as “I just haven’t met you yet.”

I remember being in my 20s.  My friend Carlos set me up with his business partner – a Jewish doctor.  He owned a great, stone cottage on a lake.  Good art work.   But we had little in common.  Little to talk about.  I wasn’t excited.  About him.  About us.

But I liked the idea of him.  Of us.  And I thought, “I can make this work.”

Thankfully I didn’t have to.  I got a job offer in San Francisco not long after we met.  The universe at work.

I recently had that thought again.  I met a man.  Nice looking.  Easy to talk to – especially about our divorces.  But that was where it ended.  We didn’t have much else to say.

As I was having those “this could work” fantasies, it hit me – why would I bother?

I know what it is like to meet someone and feel literally swept off my feet, equilibrium disrupted.  To wonder how it is we ever didn’t know one another.  To have so much to say to one another that we both wonder how we will ever get it all out…but delight in trying anyway.

This wasn’t it.

So I added to my list: Grateful to know what excited feels like.  To have experienced it.  To remember it.  To have faith that I will experience it again.

Grateful to know when I’m not excited.  And to know I would rather be alone than to settle.  To know how to be alone so that I am never beholden to anyone again.

And then…

I am grateful to know what great sex is like.  I am grateful to know what it feels like for someone to be wild about me.  To not be able to keep their mitts off of me.  Touching my hair, my face, my hands, my ass.  Kissing me in the middle of a crowded room because he “just had to.”

Thank you Mr. Sexy Photographer from Detroit.  Thank you short, horny, Jewish artist.  It was a long time ago.  But I remember.  And I have got to believe these weren’t limited-one-time exclusive offers either.

That is a new idea.  To believe in abundance in ALL things.  Including love.

I am grateful for that too.  And for the women who promised me I would arrive here one day.  The ones who cry when I share this with them.  They are abundance.  They are love.  I am loved.  And grateful for it.

Artist’s Date 25: Following Breadcrumbs and Cleaning Up My Insides

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Bowl by Andrew Gilliat

I believe in “following the breadcrumbs.”  Like Hansel and Gretl, noting the obvious signs and trusting that I will always be led – if I listen.

I was on the fence about my destination for this week’s Artist Date – Number 25.  My friend Kiki mentioned she might drop by a reception at Lillstreet Art Center – one of my considerations.  Her noncommittal musing was just enough to point my compass.

I’ve been to Lillstreet just once before, for a fundraiser.  I imagined I would return here often, but I have not.  I pass it all the time and I think about going in.  I pour over the website trying to decide which class to sign up for.  I am intimidated and ultimately do nothing.

This is ironic as I am greeted by a most friendly staffer at the door.  She tells me the photography show opening today, Midwest Contemporary, is on two floors.  That beer is on the main floor, wine is on the second – in case that helps guide my decision in terms of where to begin.  It doesn’t.

But the pottery does.  Porcelain slab platters etched with lines that look like a teenage girl’s cutting.  Bowls and plates covered with repeating whimsical patterns.  Forks and knives, swings, balloons and birds in matte glaze. 

I’ve considered the First-Time Potter class here but have been leaning toward Drawing-into-Painting.  Pottery is messy and I don’t really have “pottery clothes.”  I can draw anywhere.  Yet I keep picking up the fired clay.  Running my fingers over it.  Cupping it in my hand.

I remember ceramics class in high school.  Mr. B and I argued about everything – even about how often I peed.  He said I was a sloppy student.  That I didn’t clean my edges, my insides.  It sounds true – of my work.  Of my blurry boundaries and the messy parts inside of me.

I did craft beautiful pieces in his class though.  A platter with a teal drip glaze.  A coil vase with a long neck – large and genie-like, big enough for Barbara Eden to pop out of.  My mother displays both of them in her home.  

I look up toward the photography on the wall – my chosen medium in college until I switched my major from fine art to journalism.  There is a large, creepy photograph of a doll’s head – battered and old.  I don’t like it.  I read the artist’s statement.  She photographs vintage dolls.  The cracks in their exteriors representing the broken parts in us all – some that might never be “fixed” in this lifetime.  I still don’t like the picture, or the doll’s eyes.  But I like the idea of it.

There is work from an artist who earned his MFA from Michigan State University – my alma mater.  It wasn’t known for its art department when I was a student.  I wonder how it has changed.

There is another of a trailer park along the Russian River in California with a big Paul Bunyan figure looming over the camp.  It is part of a series chronicling the photographer’s vacation destinations as a child.  I’m pretty sure I’ve been here.

I wander up to the second floor.  There is a second photograph of trailers, this one from Williston, North Dakota.  Hydraulic fracking boom town.   Michael and I drove through here on our way back to Chicago from Seattle.  It reeked of testosterone and crystal meth.  Unsettling.

There is a photograph of a young African-American man looking straight into the lens.  Into me.  The photographer is from Saginaw, Michigan – where my mother grew up. 

midwest contemporary show
“Elliot,” by Sarah-Marie Land

I feel alone.  I go downstairs , returning to the pottery, and strike up a conversation with another woman, also alone.   She likes the bowls and goblets adorned with animals.  Anything with animals, she says.  I do not, but say nothing.   As the room fills up I am acutely aware of my single-ness.  I think about staying and listening to the live music, but I’m not sure where to perch myself.

I decide to leave instead. 

This is the first time my Artist Date feels lonely, that I don’t feel filled up by it.  On the way out I stop and talk briefly with the friendly staffer who greeted me.  I remember Kiki mentioning her friend’s reception is private, on the roof – that I would have to ask to get up there.  So I do.

I am directed to the back of the building, through the music and pottery and photography, through double doors. I ask a tall man/boy with a red beard and glasses if this is the way to the roof. He says yes and we climb the stairs together. Two of mine for every one of his.

It is sunny and clear.  People are drinking wine.  I do not see my friend.  I turn to go back down.  The bearded man/boy says, “Yep.  A lot of roof.”   We walk down together.  I am not sure why he has come here.  I ask him if he has a studio here.  He does not.  He peels off to a classroom on the third floor and I go down to two.  There are open artist studios.  I missed them my first time up. 

I walk into one.  There are slabs of clay with what looks like hieroglyphics on them.  The artist is talking with a couple about her work and they rope me into conversation.  I ask about the tall, smooth pieces with wild insides.  They are wide.  Almost as big around as I, and climbing higher than my waist. 

Each represents a character from Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.”  The blue queen is smooth outside, but inside “she is mourning.”   I see it.  I see the glazed clay crying inside, rounded discs turned down upon themselves like leaves.  I wonder if this is what I look like inside.

A second character is smooth and orange-y outside, fiery and sharp inside.  She is angered by how the king has treated the mourning queen.  A third is green.  A girl child left in the woods, raised by a shepherd.  She is smooth inside as well as out.  Peaceful.

I return to a jewelry studio I couldn’t make my way into before.  Too small.  Too many people.  Edith Robertson is talking with a friend.  She has a blonde-ish/white-ish bob and turquoise eye liner.  She immediately greets me, inviting me to try on whatever I like.  She puts her hand on my arm.  Warm.

I pick up a choker made of gathered strands of thin wire with a long crystal hanging from it.  It looks like a stalactite. Or is it a stalagmite?  A piece of lapis lazuli adorns the back side – a hidden surprise.

I think of my friend Julie and the days I spent with her after her mother died, offering massage and bodywork to her family.  Of her friend Karen whisking me off to her house, plopping me into an overstuffed chair and placing a crystal in each hand. 

The effect was immediate.  Electric.  Like a volt of energy seizing my body.  I imagined smoke coming off of me, as if I had fried a chip.  I was out.  When I awoke about 20 minutes later, I felt like I had been put back together.  I wonder if this crystal would do the same for me.

Edith and I quickly realize our paths have been crossing one another for the better part of 30 years.  In Detroit.  In San Francisco.  And now in Chicago.  That the universe has been conspiring for us to meet.

She tells me that making jewelry is her second act.  I tell her about mine.  About my Artist Dates and my return to writing.  We talk about Germany – her birthplace.  The first place I traveled overseas.   She has the same last name as my ex-husband.

We talk until a couple walks in and I hand her over to them.   I sign her guest book, leaving her with my email address and her necklace.  Perhaps another time. 

I walk down the stairs and out the door, thinking about connections.  About clay classes and cleaning up my edges, my insides.  About breadcrumbs.