Artist Date 87: This Is Not

This is not us wearing bowler hats.
This is not us wearing bowler hats.

This is not an Artist Date.

I have written these words here before.  More than once.  Every time I act contrary to Julia Cameron’s prescription of the Artist Date in The Artist’s Way.

“An artist date is a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist.  In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers.  You do not take anyone on this artist date but you and your inner artist, a.k.a. you creative child.  That means no lovers, friends, spouses, children – no taggers-on of any stripe.”

I have written these words when choosing to spend a precious few hours with Clover before she gives birth to baby Juniper.  When going to Story Club, with hopes of getting to read my work on stage, with Debbie.  When reading an Anne Sexton biography on the airplane.  When staying in and cooked.

And today, when I invite Julie to the Rene Magritte exhibit and lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago – Artist Date 87.

The words are both literal and playful.  Like the way we don bowler hats in the gift shop, take a selfie and post it to Facebook with the words, “This is not us in bowler hats.”  Paying homage to the iconographic The Treachery of Images – a painting of a pipe, (but clearly not a pipe) with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”  This is not a pipe.

This is not a pipe.
This is not a pipe.

Since beginning my commitment to the weekly Artist Date, I can count on one hand the number of times I have asked someone to join me at the Art Institute.  There have been two.  Both of them impromptu.

Rescuing Alex from the long line for admission on free Thursday nights.  I whisk him through the member entrance and into a seat for a lecture on “The Return of the Modern Masters.”

Eating free appetizers in the courtyard with Matt before heading off on a shopping pilgrimage to Costco.  I show him Marc Chagall’s America Windows.  I visit the blue glass where Ferris kissed Sloane in the John Hughes classic every time I am here.  But Matt has never seen it.

My date with Julie is by design.  We planned it weeks ago, when we ran into one another at a party.  That night, we talked about our writing.  Our work.  Choosing to be alone rather than settling.  About my Artist Dates…and I invited her to join me on one.

Flanked by her, I walk through the exhibit differently.  I am not taking photographs.  (None are allowed anyway.)  I am not taking notes.  I am not blogging in my head.  I am much more present.  In the moment.  In thought.  Not about my words but about the work.  In relation.

The Eternally Obvious.  Five pieces of a woman – face, breasts, cunt, knees, feet – each individually framed and strung together vertically.

For years, this is how I offered myself.  Pieces of myself.  Body parts.  I say this to myself.  And to Julie.  She nods, understanding completely.

Attempting the Impossible.  A woman “becoming,” as a man paints her into existence.  Does she exist only as he creates her, or is he painting what is already there – like the painter in La Clairvoyance, who stares at an egg while his brush forms a bird?

Le Viol (Rape).  Eyes replaced by breasts, mouth by vulva.  Julie calls it violent.  Is this how we are really seen?

Conversations I might not have alone.  Intimate.  Heady.  Vulnerable.  Hats I might not otherwise try on.

Artist Date.  “A block of time…especially set aside and committed to nurturing…creative consciousness…an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers…”

Il s’agit d’une date de l’artiste.   This is an Artist Date.

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Artist Date 35: Disgusting, Filthy, Transcendent, Delicious Neruda

nerudaThe other day my friend Gene asked what poetry I was reading.   I wasn’t.  I wasn’t reading anything at all.  Nothing since the juicy Anne Sexton biography, the one that served as an introduction for us.

I asked him to make a suggestion.  He didn’t hesitate.

Pablo Neruda.

“Disgusting, filthy, transcendent, delicious.”  His words not mine.  I was immediately hooked.

A few days later, I am at the Harold Washington Public Library, looking for Neruda – Artist Date 35.

I saw this place for the first time just a few months ago, on the way to a party in the South Loop.   Driving down State Street, I asked my friend Liz what the building was with the great green gargoyles on top.  She told me it was the library.  I made a mental note and kept driving.

The gargoyles are calling me as I approach it.  I feel giddy and excited to be here, in this place I’ve never been before.

Disgusting, filthy, transcendent, delicious.  Seemingly homeless men are sitting on the low wall outside of the library.  I take a photograph of the El train sign and am hit by the stench of sewer.  I suddenly realize this is the Library stop.  The only time I pass it is on my way to Midway airport, when I have to travel the whole of the Loop before heading south.  I feel silly.  Like I should have known.

2013-08-15 15.36.13I walk in a side door and follow the marble hallway to the main entrance.  I have never been in a library this grand.  The one at Michigan State University may have been larger, but it looked like post-Cold War “throw-up architecture.”  Like the kind I saw in Dresden.  Utilitarian.

I don’t recall visiting “the main library” in any city.  I have tended toward community branches in Oakland, Seattle, the suburbs of Detroit, and here in Chicago.  I am shocked and a little horrified.  In fact, I don’t want to admit it here.

I think of George Peppard slipping his book into the stacks at the New York Public Library, Audrey Hepburn at his side.  Genius.

Kids are playing ping-pong in the room to my left – some sort of summer program.  Ping-pong.  It feels almost quaint.

I climb the stairs to the third floor – circulation.  I look up Neruda on the research computer that has replaced the card catalog.  Seventh floor.  On my way up, I read the quotes painted on to the walls.

“My Alma Mater is the Chicago Public Library,” David Mamet.  “Wisdom begins in wonder,” Socrates.

I look at the sculptural art.   Twisted wood.  Women leaning against the wall.  They look so serene.  So comfortable.  I want to lean in like that.  Feel that safe.

I stop at the post highlighting today’s activities.  “Inside the Whale,” a dance performance.  The story of a woman swallowed by a whale, and how she learns to live in her own skin.  Too bad I missed it.  I could use a few tips.

I am looking for PQ8097.N428713.  I wander into the language section.  Books and magazines in Japanese, Russian, Arabic.  I like how the characters look, neatly lined up in rows.

Continuing on, I am face to spine with a slew of books on publishing.  How Fiction Works.  Writing Erotic Romance.  How to Grow a Novel.

2013-08-15 16.08.21I pull So You Want to Write: How to Master the Craft of Writing Fiction and Memoir by Marge Piercy and Ira Wood from the shelf.  It does not seem like a mistake.  I tuck in under my arm and keep walking until I find Neruda … waiting for me.

He is sloppy.  His books are not lined up neatly, orderly.  Some are lying on their sides.  Others are upside down.  I randomly pull a few and find a table.

Odes to Opposites.  “Ode to the present.”

“This/moment/as smooth/as a board,/and fresh,/this hour/this day/as clean/as an untouched glass/ – not a single/spiderweb/from the past:…

“This is our/creation,/it’s growing/this very/instant,/kicking up/sand or eating/out of our hand./Catch it,/don’t let it slip away!/Keep it from vanishing into dreams/or words!/Grab it,/pin it down,/make it/obey!/Make it a road/or a bell,/a machine,/a kiss, a book/ or a caress.”

Yes.  Make it into a kiss.  Or a caress.  Please do.

“…try a ladder!/Yes,/a ladder:/rise/out of the moment…Up and/up/but not too much – just high enough/to/patch the holes/in the roof./Not too far;/ you don’t want to reach heaven…You/are/your own moment,/your own apple:/pluck it/from your apple tree./Hold it up/in your/hand:/it shines/like a star./Stroke it,/sink your teeth into it – now off you go/whistling on your way.”

And I do.  With this.  With Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.  With Marge Piercy and Ira Wood.

Later that evening I receive an email from Gene.  He wants to know if Neruda showed up for our date.  I tell him that he did.  That he was a total gentleman.  But that I kind of wish he wasn’t…being divorced for nearly a year and all.  I laugh at my own joke…and sink my teeth into this present.

Artist Date 26: Some Kinda Love

10 poems to set you free

I have come to crave myself.

The words surprise me.

It is subtle.  A quiet yearning.  It doesn’t scream with white-hot fervor.  It is not that impulsive.

It guides, rather than drives, me.  Less a need, more of a desire – a siren calling with patient intensity.

I am not certain I have felt this way about anyone.

But how could I?

I’ve been “seeing’” myself (pun intended) for six months now.  Twenty-six Artist Dates.  Half a year.

This is my third-longest relationship, the longest being my ex-husband, followed by my first real boyfriend – who I dated for just shy of a year.  The others have been days, weeks, a couple of months.  Until now.

Some dates are exciting, juicy, aimed to impress – the Lyric Opera, Steppenwolf Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet.  Others are simpler, without fanfare or tickets.

Saturday is the latter.

I am on my way to the Conrad Sulzer Library in Lincoln Square.  An Artist Date return destination.  I want to read poetry.  Anne Sexton poetry.

I’ve been chipping away at her biography for several weeks, renewing it twice from the library, and paying $7.50 in overdue fines.  I read a chapter each night before bed.  I had been reading old journals.

One detailing a love affair with a man I imagined was beyond my reach.  Movie star handsome.  Devilishly sexy.  With a name to match.   Fantasy sex.  It was 19 years ago.  I had forgotten.

Another notes that I have stopped reading.  Stopped writing.  I have been dating my now ex-husband for one month.  My therapist has called me out on this.

In many I have written” I want to drink.”  Again and again.  I know I can’t.  But I don’t know how to not.  Not yet.  I lament the end of early love.

A trusted friend suggested I put the journals away.  At least for now.  An exercise in being fully present.  It’s been Anne and I, mostly, ever since.

I imagine poring over, pouring myself into, her work.  To Bedlam and Part Way BackAll My Pretty Ones?  Love Poems?  I’m not choosy.  Whatever is on hand.  I want to go to the source.  To the one who now keeps me up late at night.

But there is no Anne Sexton here.  None of her writings, that is.  Most of it is housed at the Harold Washington Library downtown, the one with the huge gargoyles on the roof.  I’ve yet to go inside there.

Plan B.

I roam the poetry stacks.  Ten Poems to Set You Free, by Roger Housden.  Lofty promise.  I’m intrigued.  Hopeful.   I grab it, find a seat near a window – near the jigsaw puzzle half done, inviting patrons to add a piece to its completion— and begin to read.

My head softens.  Opens.  Like when I meditate.  I didn’t realize I had a headache but now it is starting to clear.  It is quiet.  Blessedly quiet and I am blessedly alone, reading – once again.  Like I used to.

“Shake off this sadness, and recover your spirit; sluggish you will never see the wheel of fate that brushes your heel as it turns going by…the only thing which lasts is the work; start then, turn to the work.  Throw yourself like seed as you walk, and into your own field,” Miguel de Unamuno

“Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others.  Unfold your own myth, without complicated explanations, so everyone will understand the passage, We have opened you.  Start walking toward Shams.  Your legs will get heavy and tired.  Then comes the moment of feeling the wings you’ve grown, lifting.” Rumi.

The poetry is like prayer, each word a meditation.

My nose feels hot.  My nostrils flare.  My eyes are wet.  Emotions greeting my senses.

“And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away from wherever you are, to look for your soul?”  Mary Oliver.

No one, I whisper.

“Quickly, then, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk!”

I cannot move fast enough.  Suddenly I know that I’ve come here only to receive my map and my marching orders.  Not to stay.  Not today.  My soul isn’t in this place.  It is outside the window.

In the park across the street where 10-year-old boys are playing baseball; where parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, sit in folding chairs, drinking beer and soda, watching.

In the gelato shop where this date began.  Where I let cinnamon and toasted coconut and sea salt caramel play on my tongue.

I rush down the stairs, adding myself to the check-out queue.  Quickly, it is my turn.  “Come on down,” the librarian cries.  “I don’t watch the Price is Right since Bob Barker retired,” I say.  She laughs.  Neither does she.

I rush out into the sun that made itself known just an hour ago, after a wet, grey morning.  The air is hot and thick.  Moist.  Steam rising up out of the sidewalk.

I cross the street, walking into the park I pass nearly every day, but have never stepped inside of.  I find a quiet bench, mostly, and continue reading.

“…don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now, work gone wrong, your plans all proving deceptive – don’t mourn them uselessly…say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.  Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say it was a dream, your ears deceived you: …go firmly to the window and listen with deep emotions, but not with whining, the pleas of a coward; listen – your final delectation – to the voice, to the exquisite music of that strange procession, and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.” C.P. Cavafy.

I read the words again, flummoxed.  Surprised.  Affirmed.

My experiences are real.  All of them.   No matter how long or short.  No matter if another understands or believes.  Each is real because I felt it, thought it, lived it.  It is true.

This is what I hear.

Celebrate it.  Honor it.  Mourn it.  Give it a proper send off.

The former symphony conductor.  My traveling companion in Germany.  The horny artist from New York.

The photographer, fantasy-sex lover, from journals 19 years old.

My ex-husband.

I savor each word, read them over and again – like a mantra offering me permission, I tenderly hold each little love.  Precious.  Complete.  Over.

I lie down on the bench and close my eyes.  I feel the sun blanket my body.  Lie on me heavy, like a lover.  Church bells merge with traffic and the dull empty whack of a bat hitting ball.  Clapping.  Squealing.  A man is doing lunges on the cement patch in front of me, groaning.

I walk home slowly, eyeing the cute boys on Lincoln Avenue.  They do not look back at me.  They never do, I think.  And then, “Lesley, that is simply not true.”  My own voice.

I walk into my apartment, turn Pandora to Lou Reed.  He sings to me.  Straight to me, through me.  Always.  I bypass songs, one, two, three, four, five.  Six, I cannot bypass.  “Some Kinda Love.”  It is what I had hoped to hear.  God is with me in the little things.

I chop onions and garlic, cook them with wild cod, capers and tomatoes, grill a side of bright green asparagus.  I sit at the table.  Cloth napkin.  Sunflowers in a vase.

Some kinda love.

Artist’s Date 19: We’re Only As Sick As Our Secrets

anne sextonI met Catherine Kaikowska my senior year of college, in an 8 a.m. poetry class.

She was all black.  Turtleneck.  Boots.  Leggings.  All hair.  Brown.  Shoulder length.  Wide and kind of frizzy.  She hiked herself up on the desk, crossed her legs in front of her and cracked open a can of Diet Coke.  “Fuck, it’s early,” she mumbled.

I liked her right away.

She liked me too, and invited me to meet her at The Peanut Barrel – an East Lansing institution known for good burgers, cheap pitchers of beer, and peanut shells covering the floor – where we sucked down Labatts Blues, chain smoked and talked about sex until closing.

She was from Ohio, and used to work the door at a club where Chrissie Hynde played before she made it big with The Pretenders.  The place she vowed she’d never return to until that time.

I haven’t thought about Catherine in a long time.  Until last Thursday, when I slipped a biography of Anne Sexton into my robin’s egg blue Samsonite carry-on bag, circa 1972, and boarded a plane bound for Nashville.

I was first introduced to Sexton in Catherine’s class, along with Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich and her mentor at Michigan State University, Diane Wakoski.  Yet my interests lied with the testosterone-rich voice of Charles Bukowski.  The beatnik fantasy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

I pulled the book out – a tomb, really, nearly 500 pages, hardcover and wrapped in acetate that is supposed to protect it – at Midway Airport, after checking my orange hard-case luggage and picking up a mediocre Americano.  Artist’s Date 19, surrounded by fellow travelers with faces tucked into ipad and smartphone screens.

If we are only as sick as our secrets, then Sexton was the picture of health – for she had none.  She was transparent, as I have been described.  Only more so.

Teacher and mentor John Holmes begged Sexton not to publish her darker, highly confessional poems.  Advice she ignored, and turned into, “For John, Who Begs Me Not To Enquire Further.”

And yet, clearly she wasn’t well, as she took her own life at 45, just two years older than my 43.

Sexton threaded the stories of her life through men – how they reflected her.  She was wildly flirtatious.  A presence.  And, at times, profoundly sad.

She tended to sexualize significant relationships.  She had fluid boundaries.

She felt, at times, in competition with her mother.  And was considered alcoholic.

She gave away her heart too easily.

In “More Than All the Rest,” a poem to her long-term psychiatrist Dr. Martin Orne, she writes:

“Oh, I have raped my inner soul/And give it, naked, to you,/Since my warm mouth and arms/might love, and frighten you.”

I saw myself.  I looked around the airplane to see if anyone else saw me too.

I felt sick, like the medical-school student convinced she has contracted each disease she studies.

But I am not Anne.  I didn’t suffer post-partum depression.  I didn’t hand over my children to be raised by my mother-in-law.  I don’t have children.  I’ve never been pregnant.

I haven’t been institutionalized.  I didn’t take my own life.

Sexton’s gift was making something out of her sick.  Creating art.  Allowing others to see inside the most shameful parts of herself and whisper, “me too.”  In the process, she found both “her people” and herself.

Me too.

The plane touched down.  I was 78 pages in.  I slipped an index card into the book to hold my place, on it is a prayer I had written.  My own words.  My own healing.