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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Artist Date 62: Standing On…? Wondering Where I Am.

"Love is Pain." Artist, Judith Hladik-Voss.
“Love is Pain.” Artist, Judith Hladik-Voss.

Love is pain.

That is what the quilt says.  Right in the center on a big red heart.  All around it are stages, stops – like on a game board.  Candy Land or Risk.  Yeah, Risk.

Love.  Joy.  Desire.

Trust.  Faith.  Intimacy.

Jealousy.  Anger.  Betrayal.

Heartbreak.  Wound.

Anxiety.  Disillusion.  Despair.

Loss.  Grief.

It is Valentine’s Day.  I am at the Greenleaf Art Center for the exhibit – Be Mine.  I am meeting my girlfriends here, but they are stuck in traffic.  So I am alone.  Impromptu Artist Date 62.  My second this week.

I step back and look at the quilt that greets me as I walk in the door, wondering where I am on it.

Joy.  Desire.

I met a man.  Or perhaps I should say, re-met.  We knew each other once upon a time.  Kind of.   We are getting to know one another – not quite again – but now, for the very first time.

He is smart and funny, creative, sensitive and sexy.  I’m pretty sure he feels the same way about me.  We can talk for hours about anything and everything.  We laugh a lot.  And I find myself smiling a lot.  Friends have noticed this.

There are about a thousand reasons why this will likely not work out and I will land on the square marked Heartbreak.  I occasionally visit Anxiety already.  I hate uncertainty.  But I can’t not see this through.  I want to find out about us.

Trust.  Faith.  I am trying to practice both in my life.  Not so much with him, but with the universe, my higher power.  Intimacy.  Yes.  We are building that — slowly.  He lives several states away, so we are forced to go at this pace.  Although the recent addition of Skype dates – we have one tonight – have added a heat to the flame.

I have not told him every single thing about me – emotionally vomiting, as if to say, “So can you handle that?”  And, obviously, I have not slept with him.  I haven’t led with my sexuality – my one-time calling card – either.  Refraining from saying things like, “I think about you bending me over the butcher block and hiking up my dress around my waist.”  I think them instead.

"Ungentlemanly Behavior."  Artist, Cathi Schwalbe.
“Ungentlemanly Behavior.” Artist, Cathi Schwalbe.

Loss.  Grief.  I still find myself here sometimes too.  Not as deeply entrenched as I once was.  I am no longer up to my knees in it.  I am standing in the sun, my feet wet, in a puddle left from the storm.

Post-divorce, grieving the loss of the fantasy, that that one person will be there no matter what.  Always.  That this love will quiet that part of me that silently screams “Don’t leave me.”  It is a lie.

Day one of my life on the planet.  Separated from my mother.  I do not recall a second of it.  Yet I know a part of my work here is to heal it.

I watch it get kicked up and manifest in unconscious, desperate attempts for control and certainty.  As if that will heal me.  But it doesn’t.  Neither did a husband.  Nor meeting my biological parents.  The work is mine alone.

I move on to a series of men’s shirt collars embroidered with real messages from the artist’s experiences with online dating.  “What kind of underwear girl are u?”  “Every young man want to get laid by a gray hair lady.” “You want a naughty pic?”  It reminds me I have not finished my Match.com profile.  And that I probably won’t.

There are maps covered with pins and handwritten notes.  Heart-shaped boxes filled with broken glass and newspaper clippings. A video of a woman covered in striped fabric dancing with a bee.

I return for a third time to a piece titled, “Love Letter.”  It is long and tall, like a body.  With hair at the top, words winding down the center, like buttons, and rocks circling the bottom.  The artist, Sherry Antonini writes, “Love Letter is a meditation on listening inward and noticing outward; on persistence and on beginning again with what is left over.”

I read the poem running down her torso again.  It is still too much to take in.  So I photograph it – in pieces.

“Keep time.  But throw away most other things, including reasons to worry…Watch for signs, however small.  Push through with ideas, envisioning them as even bigger than you think they deserve to be.  Do this until you can once again see yourself shine…

"Love Letter."  Artist, Sherry Antonini.
“Love Letter.” Artist, Sherry Antonini.

“Make a list of the things you hold at core.  Those essences nearly forgotten, cast aside for too long…Months or years it is that you have been bound tight and stilled, silenced in some darkness.  But the beauty of light is insistent…

“First, you fill up a room, then you empty it, one piece at a time and all in its right time.  No one can tell you not to.  Or that you can’t.  That you never will.  Or won’t ever again.

“When you rotate the stones point them in line with your heart’s desire, you put your hands once again on your own gleam of power and touch possibility.”

I head toward the front door as my friends are entering.  Unplanned.  Serendipity.  I meet them, filled, spilling over.  Love.  Joy.  And later, this man who makes me smile big, on Skype.  He notices my grin and tells me he likes it.  I read him the poem, still trying to sort my way through it.  Intimacy.  Faith.  Desire.

Artist Date 59: Waiting. On The Journey To Becoming

I am waiting on some news.  Both personal and professional.  Nothing scary or life-threatening…as a loving friend of mine recently asked.  But all in G-d’s time, or at the very least, not mine.

The chime on my phone notifies me of messages received and my response is purely Pavlovian.  Hope rises.  And when I check my phone and discover I still have no news, hope falls.  I feel my heart literally sink just a little bit.  Awful.

Radio silence.  My friend Michael says it is normal.  Winter.  “‘Tis the season.”  His words, literally.

I want to punch him.

He sends me photographs of the shore of Lake Michigan, taken from the Indiana Dunes.  This is what quiet looks like.  It is at once both sad and beautiful.

lonely beach

He is right though.  It is in the silence that I find my center, that I soothe myself…even though it is the silence, the not knowing, that has me so uncomfortable.

I turn off my phone at dinner with friends.  No ringing.  No vibrating.  No notifying.  Silence.

I am completely present with the people about me.  I am not thinking about what I do not know.  I am happy and serene…until I turn it back on and watch hope rise and fall again.  And watch myself respond with a level of emotion that does not feel at all congruent.

Next day, at work, I turn the phone off again.  And when I power it back on later, I ignore the notifications alerting me to the messages waiting.  Instead, I bring my attention to my friend Nora, who is sitting across from me.  I am again happy and serene.

I feel empowered.

It feels a little bit like when I quit smoking, nearly 15 years ago.  That first week, I was high on not smoking.  That feeling of “I can’t believe I’m doing this…”

The weeks that followed, sans cigarettes, were not filled with that same awe and wonder.  But that is a different story.  And a different lesson.  Fifteen years later I am grateful for a different identity – one of a non-smoker.  And the absence of the yellow stain on my second finger that I could not scrub off – my personal breaking point, my bottom.

My bottom here is that I fundamentally understand I am powerless over people, places and things, and yet, I sometimes still find myself allowing the actions of others to determine my sense of happiness, security and well-being.  I watch myself hand over my serenity.  It is painful.

And it is in this painful awareness that I recognize I have a modicum of control over the anxiety I perpetuate.  That I can dial down my discomfort by simply turning off my phone, or ignoring its messages until I am in time and space to better receive them.

That I can receive the same relief by staying busy, and by pointing my attention to what is right in front of me.

Like Nora.  Like the Artist Date penciled in my calendar.  Number 59.  Chicago Cultural Center for the “Wright Before the Lloyd,” exhibit.

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I am here just a short time – about 45 minutes.  Just long enough to feel the fog in my brain clear, making way for new information, and for my whole body to exhale.

The show is small – photographs, sketches and placards covering either side of a long hallway.  It is a journey of becoming.  The transition from Frank L. Wright, to Frank Lloyd Wright.  A seemingly subtle, but significant, metamorphosis.

I read about his mother, determined that her son should become an architect, placing engravings of cathedrals in his bedroom for inspiration.  His uncle with wild long hair, unconventional fashion sense, and a memorable three-part name who served as role model.  His work with Adler and Sullivan and the “mistakes” he made on the way to creating his signature style.

I notice that many of the buildings shown on this trajectory from Wright to Lloyd Wright are no longer standing.  Either burned down or destroyed.  Gone.  Like the yellow stain on my second finger.

I think about my own trajectory, and the people and experiences that influenced my becoming the woman I always wanted to be.

The one who dances on red soil in Rwanda and glossed, wood floors in Chicago.  Who has been invited in to the intimacy of rooms where life begins and life ends.  The one who listens with her hands and her heart.

The one with her own signature style – cropped hair, second-hand clothes and super-fabulous shoes – the kind that strangers inquire about.  Who takes herself to museums, operas and lectures – comfortably alone.  And out for strong coffee and a really good piece of cake.

The one who has learned to soothe herself.  To quiet her own crazy.  To be responsible for her own wellbeing.

Post Script:  I got a call on some of the news I’d been waiting on.  It was positive and it made me smile.  But it didn’t change anything.  Not my thoughts.  My mood.  My beliefs.  It didn’t make me feel “ok.”  It couldn’t.  Because in my heart I already was.

Artist’s Date 21: Not Quite Alone at the Opera

opera glassesI called my friend Sheila from the Lyric Opera tonight.  I was seeing Oklahoma!   Artist’s Date 21.  Standing in the lobby, talking into my corded ear piece, I told her I felt at ease here by myself.  That it didn’t seem strange.  That I was comfortable.

Perhaps because I had been on 20 solo Artist’s Dates prior.

Or perhaps because I wasn’t really alone.

I got a call this morning.  My birth mother, Pharen, died.  She was 60.

We just met for the first time three years ago.  She had been looking for me for 12 years, but it wasn’t until I began my search for her that we were connected.  And then it was ridiculously and remarkably fast.  And easy.

We spoke for the first time two days before I turned 40.  I was on a plane to Charleston to meet her a few months later.

During that visit she gave me a pair of mother-of-pearl opera glasses — one of the few things she had to give me, she explained, apologizing that she had long ago given her “good jewelry” to her nieces, as she wasn’t sure she would get to meet me.

I patted the lump in my bag that was the glasses, tucked inside a soft purple Crown Royal bag.  Exactly how she gave them to me.

Sweet irony.  For it is only in getting sober that I finally mustered the courage to look for her rather than talk about looking for her.  That I found friends who had done the same and could walk me through it, step by step.

Sweet irony.  That I would be going to the opera the day she died.

My friend Lynn told me to be gentle with myself during this time.

This time when my stomach feels full with anxiety and yet I don’t know what I am anxious about.  She says it is my body responding to the uncertainty of experiencing something new.

Like losing a “parent” — even if she didn’t raise me.  Or going to the opera alone.

My body has grown accustomed to these Artist’s Dates.

Picking up my tickets from will call, I felt kind of cool and confident, like the girl in a Charlie! perfume commercial from the 1980s.  “Who’s that in the orange suede boots and short, pink-wool blazer by herself?   The one with the bindi and the cropped hair?”

I used to sometimes feel sorry for people I saw alone at events.  I don’t anymore — because I don’t feel sorry for me.

I settled into my aisle seat — main floor, row RR — relieved that I didn’t have to make conversation.  That I could sit.  That I could read from the book in my bag.  That I could return emails and texts from my smartphone, clicking “like” by every condolence I received on Facebook.  Right until the lights went down and the curtain went up.

I’d never seen Oklahoma! before, movie or stage production.  I loved it.  Who doesn’t love a surrey with a fringe on top?  I pulled out  my glasses to see the performers better.  I had a hard time getting a really clear view, but no matter.  I felt her with me.  I wasn’t alone.

I loved the simple story of courting and coupling — a different time, but the foibles and heartbreaks universal, transcending it.  I saw a little bit of myself in wildly flirtatious Ado Annie.  Always keeping her options open.  Easily swayed by pretty words and sexy kisses.

I thought of my Aunt Julie, Pharen’s sister, who I met this fall when I went to Charleston a second time — when I received a call that my birth mother was dying, but didn’t.

I had met a boy while I was there and fell head over heels over head.  And when it didn’t turn out exactly as I had planned, she warned me about “pretty words.”  And to “stop and pay attention” when I hear what I want to hear, words that make my heart race.

Aunt Julie is practical and wise.  Pharen was like me.  A dreamy romantic with her heart on her sleeve and her feet often-times not quite touching the ground.

I loved the singing.  I loved the dancing.  I loved that it was light and I could just smile through it.

I loved that I could, in fact, smile through it.

That I no longer had to be attached to my sadness.  That I could experience moments of joy amidst my sorrow.

That I could go to the opera without wearing the look of “rescue me” painted on my face.

That I coudl go to work today, rather than calling in “tragic victim,” and not feel the need to announce to my Weight Watchers members that my birth mom had died earlier that morning.  That I could engage in their stories.  And when one offered that her niece had recently died, I didn’t have to match her loss with my own.

That I could call my parents, the ones who raised me, and tell them about Pharen’s passing.  That I could go to them with compassion and without expectations, knowing that this isn’t easy for them — my having found my birth family.  That I could turn to others less affected for comfort and soothing.

That I could call my birth dad and not want a thing from him other than to tell him this news.

That I could experience joy when 45 minutes after receiving the call that my birth mother had died, I received another call letting me know I had won fifth prize ina  a writing contest I recently entered — my first ever.  Addressing the topic, “How Creativity Changed My Life,” I wrote about these Artist’s Dates and the book from which they come, The Artist’s Way — my companion in divorce, in my (mostly) chosen single-dom.  Chosen but not always embraced.

That I could take the Mother’s Day card I bought yesterday — signed, sealed and ready to be delivered — and drop it in the mailbox anyway.  Knowing she would “get it.”  Just like I knew she was there with me tonight…

Peering through the opera glasses to see which male performers were cutest.  Knowing Ado Annie but wondering how she might be more steely, like Laurey.  Admonishing me for wearing orange suede booties in the rain, while I waited for the valet to bring my car — the ones that clomped down the hospital corridor so loudly, causing her to yell, “I knew it was you from half-way down the block…”

No wonder I didn’t feel alone.