I whisper the words to no one in particular. Smiling as I take a seat in front of Marc Chagall’s “America Windows.” Moments ago, the bench was occupied, but serendipitously it is free… as if waiting for me.
My friend Colleen invited me here – to the Art Institute of Chicago – to catch up over coffee and “peel off for our independent Artist Dates.” Number 2.2 (118) for me.
She knows me. The sacredness of my weekly solo sojourn.
We breeze through admissions and before entering the exhibit –“America After the Fall: Paintings in the 1930s”– (my choice), I kiss her on either cheek, holding fiercely to the traditions of my year in Spain. I wish her joy on her Artist Date and thank her for bringing me here.
Here. This place that used to feel like my home. But that I am acutely aware I am a visitor in.
I used to be a member.
I loved sitting in on mid-day member lectures … the youngest in attendance by several times around the sun. Taking advantage of early viewings, free coat check, and complimentary coffee and tea.
But most of all, I loved the freedom to just “pop in” at any time … never worrying about “getting my money’s worth.”
I would always end up here. In front of Chagall’s Windows.
Usually I’d stand up close, looking for new details I might have missed. But today I find myself sitting back. Taking it all in. The whole of it.
It is a metaphor for the day.
The AIC is busy and the exhibit feels congested. I’m somewhat surprised as it has been up for almost two months now. There are a lot of children. And a lot of loud Midwestern accents.
It does not feel like mine anymore.
I snap photographs.
“American Landscape” by Charles Sheeler. Grimy and distinctly Midwestern. Something I kind of romanticized while living abroad. Kind of.
The frame from Grant Wood’s “Young Corn” which reads, “To the Memory of Miss Linnie Schloeman Whose Interest in Young and Growing Things Made Her A Beloved Teacher In Woodrow Wilson School.”
The rolling hills that make up the naked, female form in Alexandre Hogue’s “Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare.”
The cartoonish characters and cartoonishly thick pain in William H. Johnson’s “Street Life, Harlem.”
I wander out of the exhibit and take a photograph of the words on a door across the hall – “A Lot of Sorrow.”
Yes, there is. And I am.
Moving is hard … even when I choose it. The place that was mine has changed. I knew it would. It did before. There are new inhabitants. There always are.
And yet, if I look I can still find myself here.
In the words leaping from the panels introducing the exhibit. Eerily appropriate today.
“The title of America after the Fall refers in one sense to the (stock market) crash, but is also aptly describes the pervasive concern that the nation had fallen from grace.”
“Regardless of style, many painters hoped their art could help repair a democracy damaged by economic and political chaos. The diversity of approaches made the 1930s one of the most fertile decades of American painting.”
In Archibald Motley’s “Saturday Night,” which I saw for the first time a little more than a year ago. On another Artist Date, at the Chicago Cultural Center. The date before the date – the one with the man who would become my lover for the months leading up to my departure for Spain. I smile and my heart aches just a little.
On the bench in front of “America Windows,” where today I see nothing new at all. The sameness – both beautiful and comforting.
The following long-form piece was written for and performed at Nikki Nigl’s AboutWomen in Chicago on July 19, 2016.
I have been back in Chicago exactly 12 days.
I miss Madrid.
I miss the winding cobblestone walk to my metro stop at Opera. The flat buildings washed yellow, orange and pink with black wrought iron balconies on every window. Cartoonish by streetlight. I swear I could push them over and they’d tumble. Just like a movie set.
I miss the fountain at Cibeles. That “birthday cake of a building” as Dirk used to call it. The old Correos. Post Office. Now a museum I never made it to. A “Welcome Refugees” banner hanging from its top, a fountain in front. In the center of a roundabout that leads you to the Prado or Calle Gran Via, depending on your preference.
I used to walk here on Saturday nights alone when the sun had receded but the air was still hot and all of Madrid filled the streets, up from its collective summer siesta. The goddess Cybel and her lions riding on illuminated pink and blue water.
I miss my metro pass. Fifty euros for unlimited rides on the super clean, super-fast metro that would take me anywhere in Madrid. And if it didn’t the train or the light rail would.
I miss Turron gelato.
I miss private health insurance to the tune of 57 euros a month. Gynecological exam chairs that tilt down, working with as opposed to against, gravity. I miss not having to ask for a pelvic ultrasound instead of a pap as it is a matter of course.
I miss feeling safe walking home alone at night.
I miss taking the train to Seville or Valencia for the weekend. Or a quick flight to Portugal, North Africa or Nice. I miss swimming in the Mediterranean upon reaching the coast. The salty taste of my lips and the white streaks drying on my legs surprising me.
I miss tomates that taste like tomatoes, pimientos that taste like peppers and pepinos that taste like cucumbers. I miss their names. I miss Paco choosing them for me at the market and our impromptu intercambio. His corrections to my beginner Spanish. My approval of his modest English. His stories about his daughter and the victory I felt in understanding them. Mas o menos.
I miss cheap groceries.
I miss eating rye for breakfast instead of oatmeal. Eggs that sit on the shelf. Good, inexpensive coffee.
I miss Nick, the Greek waiter at Dionisos, flirting shamelessly with me.
I miss speaking Spanglish.
I miss all of this, and yet I chose to leave it. To return to Chicago. Where I pay for every El ride. Both financially and energetically. Nausteated by the slow, insistent rattling of the train. Knowing I would get there in half the time if I still owned a car. Knowing it’s best to ask someone to walk me to the train at night in some neighborhoods. My keys laced between my fingers as I leave the station and approach my own door.
Chicago. Where politicians are proudly corrupt. People hold signs on freeway off ramps … begging for money. And 2 bags of tasteless produce cost nearly $50.
Where zero degree FARENHEIT winters are a real possibility. As is a shooting death every weekend.
I chose this.
I chose home.
Lumbering Greystone buildings, summer rainstorms and leafy maple trees. Sunday dance classes at the Old Town School of Music. Lectures at the Art Institute. Lake Michigan.
I’ve moved several times in my life. Four states, seven cities, two countries … if you count where I was born and raised. Which is not the same as home.
I learned that the first time I moved to Chicago in 2007. I’d been living between San Francisco and Oakland for nearly 14 years when my husband and I packed up our two cats and all our worldly belonging and headed east, to the Midwest, a place I vowed I’d never live again, for his medical residency.
God has a sense of humor.
It was grey and sticky, drizzly and hot when we arrived. We opened the car doors and felt the steam rise up around us, looked at one another, and without saying a word asked “What have we done?” Followed by “We are Californians. (Albeit adopted ones). This is a temporary residence. A sojourn. We will hate Chicago together.”
For months I wore ear plugs on the El and held my hand over my heart as I walked up Michigan Avenue. Each felt being accosted, until my own vibrations rose to match those of the city.
Whenever people asked where I was from, I responded, “I was born in Detroit. I live in Chicago. Oakland is my spirit home.”
But eventually … I got worn down. I surrendered. To this city. It’s people. To my addiction. I made a life for myself here. I grew my business. Got sober. And converted to the faith of my childhood – righting a religious technicality.
I stopped beginning every sentence with “In California …”
I found my biological parents. I learned to dance. I took my husband to the place where I spent my childhood summers, 8 hours away in northwest Michigan.
I began having experiences rather than talking about them.
And somewhere along the way I fell in love with this sometimes dirty, noisy, violent city. I fell in love with its architecture. Its people. Perhaps, most of all, I fell in love with myself.
Four years later I moved to Seattle. The wife of a now doctor, I felt obligated to go.
I cried like a wounded animal. Like I cried when I left Bay Area. Mourning the loss of morning hikes in Redwood Park, Peets coffee, and KFOG radio. The Golden Gate Bridge. My old house in Haight-Ashbury. The place where I met my husband and was married.
Except this time, the loss felt strictly internal. Chicago, the place, has never spoken to me. Its topography. Its flatness and lack of nature feel uninspired. But there is something in its soil, in its DNA, that takes root in me.
It called me back after a year in Seattle. When my marriage ended and for the first time in a long time, I got to choose where I would live.
And it called me back after a year in Madrid, where I was teaching English. Fulfilling a childhood dream of living overseas. One I spoke about here, just before I left, a year ago. My only lament that my passport is far less sexy than it would be pre-European Union.
Since arriving, I’ve been greeted with warm “welcome backs” and tentative “welcome homes.” And the inevitable, “What brought you back?” It’s a fair question. One I’ve grappled with myself since making the decision not to renew my visa a couple of months ago.
There are lots of reasons.
Living in a country where you don’t speak the language – at least not fluently, is at best, frustrating. At worst, infantilizing. Without words, one’s personality changes. Mi casera, my landlady, once commented “You are quiet.” To which I replied, “Not in English.”
I needed, and asked for, a lot of help. Scheduling doctors’ appointments. Opening a bank account. Translating government documents. Buying a Spanish cell phone to replace mine which didn’t work.
I slept in a twin bed in an already furnished room in a grand, old Spanish apartment. I felt like a child. I moved the bed. Removed a chest of drawers. A few pictures. I hung up a batik of Ganesh, a string of elephants on a gold chain and a vision board I created around Thanksgiving time. I was still acutely aware that the place was not “mine.” It was not “home.”
The thought of living alone, setting up internet and utilities felt overwhelming. Even friends who were fluent in Spanish waited two months or longer for connectivity. Making due with coffee shops and on occasion, cold showers.
I focused on gratitude. For the opportunity to live with this 83-year-old former UN translator who lived through the Franco era and who was willing to speak with me in halting Spanish or easy English. For my inexpensive rent and the courtyard our apartment looked out on to.
For the community I created. With other teachers. Other expats. And others I met traveling.
For the ability to see Eastern Europe, North Africa and a good deal of Spain. For getting paid, albeit not as much as I had hoped, to talk.
My students adored me. And I, them. But I was acutely aware that they were my students and not my friends … much as I wanted to talk. And much as they were eager to listen.
I had a life. But it was a smaller life.
The English-speaking community in Madrid is transient, making it difficult to build and sustain long-term friendships. And I couldn’t imagine beginning a romantic relationship … in part due to my lack of language skills. But also because of cultural differences. And while my work as a massage therapist surprisingly followed me to Spain, offering me a few clients and a few extra euros a month, my opportunities for employment would always be limited.
I felt limited.
I didn’t know that until a few weeks ago when I was talking with my friend Pam … who had spent six hours in the Social Security office. Playful, friendly and highly communicative, she said to the workers on her way out, “We’re such good friends, I’m going to invite you all to my wedding.”
“That’s it,” I said, pointing to the air, which she – of course – couldn’t see.
I can’t make small talk. I don’t have the language to strike up a conversation on the metro, in the elevator or at the grocery store. I’m too busy thinking about what I’m going to say and how to say it … and by the time I know how, the moment is gone.
And in that moment I realized what home was.
Yes, in its simplest form, home is where I reside. Where I know how to get where I’m going and the fastest way to get there.
Home is the place where restaurants know my face, possibly my name, and often my order. Where I speak the language. And where I sometimes hear my name called out in the street.
But mostly it is a place where I can get bigger. Where I feel expansive. Where I can grow. And to grow, I need to root. Home is a place where the soil is loamy. And conditions are favorable to temperament. A place like Chicago.
I used to use the Birchwood Kitchen as my office away from my office.
It was at the center of where I often found myself when I was neither at home nor at work. For the cost of an iced tea (and sometimes not even that, as I was a “regular” and often received drinks and desserts “on the house”) I had a place where I could check my emails, do some writing, take meetings or just stop and sit in between where I was and where I was going.
Sometimes the Art Institute feels like that too. Like today — Artist Date 96.
I’m sitting in the member lounge drinking puerh ginger tea and checking Facebook on my phone. Behind me, a couple is telling the bartender their story. It appears they met online — he is from London — and they are meeting now for the first time. Perhaps not now exactly — but this day, this week, this visit. It sounds crazy and exciting. I wonder how it will all turn out. I wonder if the bartender wonders, or if she is even listening.
My ex-husband used to love to come here because it made him feel just a little bit like a big shot. Flashing his card and drinking free coffee. And hey, who doesn’t like to feel just a little bit like a big shot every once in a while.
I suppose in some small way, that is what membership is about. A reward for faithfulness and patronage. Be it a free beverage, a bag with a logo, discounts or a place to stop in between here and there. And when done well, evokes a sense of identity and belonging. “One of us.”
It whispers to my unrealized teenage dream of attending art school, which at the time, I thought was the only way to be an artist. (I was wrong.)
I am reminded of this as I make my way downstairs to the Edith Stein: Master Weaver exhibit.
The exhibit is small, and there is just one other person in the gallery viewing the work. (There are two Art Institute employees here also — one of them, in my opinion, talking too loudly.)
It doesn’t move me in quite the way I had hoped. I imagined my internal seven-year-old, the one who made potholders on a plastic loom with loopers, awakened, inspired to create. Instead, I am completely enchanted by this 90-something-year-old woman.
Trained in sculpture, she turned her attention to textiles when she was in her 60s. A video loops over and again, showing her working in the studio — clad in heavy sneakers, mixing dye in a pot on top of the stove and immersing wool yarn into it as if it was pasta.
I sit on the bench in the center of the room, watching the short film several times. It is both soothing and inspiring. I want to be like her. Still working, still passionate, respected, at the top of her game.
I want to be like her when I am in my 90s. I want to be like her now.
My neck just did that thing where it snaps back my head as it is falling forward, as I am falling asleep sitting up. It happens every time. Every time I sit in a darkened theater. It doesn’t matter if it is a movie or opera or lecture. If it is engaging or tedious. The darkness lulls me into slumber. I feel like my father before he was diagnosed with sleep apnea and was fatigued all of the time — except that I don’t snore.
I know better. I know I need to go to sleep earlier. But I am back to my old habit of sitting in front of the computer until far too late, usually doing nothing of note — trolling Facebook or shopping for something I don’t end up buying. And when I finally make it to bed, I’m left with five or six hours to rest before I do it all over again.
The habit started when I moved out of my then husband’s bedroom. I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning talking to a friend who was also going through a divorce. The late-night habit continued when I settled myself back into Chicago — although the conversations did not.
I began to consciously work on the habit. Setting alarms at 10 p.m. — alerting me it is time to step away from the computer. Getting accountable with my Weight Watchers groups — choosing “Get Seven to Eight Hours of Sleep Each Night” as the healthy habit I would work on each week. I moved from five or six to six or seven, but never quite made it up to eight.
And then I started backsliding. Call it a sleep relapse. A divorce-habit relapse. It began noticing its effects — finding myself “needing” a mid-morning tea to stay awake. Struggling to make my way out of bed, trying to negotiate my non-negotiable morning exercise. And today, dozing off during a lecture at the Art Institute, Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor — Artist Date 95.
My being here can only be described as a lazy Artist Date. I know nothing about Ensor. In fact, I’m not all that interested in or excited about the lecture. But it was highlighted in the Art Institute of Chicago Magazine and it allowed me to fulfill the commitment I had made — first, to a year of Art Dates, and when I had completed that, to 100 of them.
This public accountability prods me on — even though no one is really paying attention, other than me — even as my head dips further forward, catching only bits and pieces of the lecture.
Belgium. Seaside resort town. Alcoholic father.
Yes, tapeworm. I am suddenly awake. Awake to this pain, this presence that ate away at Ensor, that his doctors couldn’t seem to rid his body of.
It dominates his art. Images of the worm, its feeding mouth, skeletons and death. I am struck by his commitment to it — even after it has left his body. It changed him. His story. His work.
His worm is my divorce. His drawings and paintings are my words. I feel somehow comforted by this. That it is ok that I am “still talking about this, writing about this.” That this is what we do — at least some of us. Rather than turning away from the pain, we work it out — on canvas, on paper, on screen. We allow it to change us. For ourselves to be changed.
I visit the exhibit after the lecture, wide awake. The galleries are designed so I can go in the out and out the in. There is no beginning or end. Just middle. The walls are a surprising choice of aquamarine. I stand close to The Temptation of Saint Anthony — it’s 51 pieces of pencil-colored paper layered upon each other — and look for the worm, its mouth, its suckers. I find it along with demons, a pair of red shoes and a vendor hawking frites.
On the way out, I pick up a sheet of four temporary tattoos — among them, the feeding mouth of the tapeworm from The Temptation of St. Anthony. I slip the sheet into my bag, quite certain I will not put any of the images to my skin.
I don’t need to. I have my own, permanent ones. “Write” and “Left” tattooed on the inside of each wrist in typewriter font. The tapeworm is my divorce. A reminder of what changed me and how I am changed. Of my work and how I work it out. And my commitment to it.
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.
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.
On Wednesday, Linda emailed me to cancel our date to the Art Institute. Understandably, as she recently fell and cracked a few ribs. She is on the mend, but not quite well enough to go out.
And just like that, the universe provided me with my Artist Date – Number 72.
I’ve been struggling with them lately. Planning. Going. Writing.
I thought about messaging R. to see if he wanted to meet me. We’ve been messaging one another on OKCupid, but haven’t met yet. We will next week, over coffee.
Yes, I just not-so-subtly slipped that in…that about two weeks ago I somewhat hesitantly joined the world of online dating. Although I haven’t had a date yet.
Yes, my entire blog centers on life after divorce. The heart-breaking dalliances, and the more than year-long commitment to dating myself, courting my own creativity. But I neglected to write about this. Amazing.
Yes, blog forthcoming.
And yet, something knew better. A higher self? Just the universe at work? For several weeks now, despite my feelings and my best efforts, time and space for my solo sojourns has serendipitously appeared. And my feet have followed. Habitual. Almost like brushing my teeth. But coupled with a craving –for time. With me. Outside of me.
And so I nix the message to R. Grab a banana and a latte at Starbucks – the divorcee’s dinner – and head to the Art Institute for the lecture, “Return of the Modern Masters.” I hadn’t even realized they’d been gone.
Crossing the street I see A. reading a newspaper, waiting in line to enter the museum for free after 5 p.m. I invite him to jump the line with me – pulling out my member card.
We are early for lecture. We wander into the Nilima Sheikh’s exhibit “Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams.” I saw it the day Mr. 700 Miles slipped out of my life without a word. When the heart space between us –which up until then had been just inches –became a chasm I couldn’t seem to reach across, no matter how I tried. Artist Date 68.
I tell this to A. while we view, Farewell,” a red scroll with two bodies entwined. A man peeling open his chest, exposing his heart. It reads “If only somehow you could have been mine. What would not have been possible in the world?”
I tear up.
“I’ve done that too,” he says quietly. Somehow, this makes me feel better.
He tells me he couldn’t face hurting her. That he told himself he was sparing her. Sober now, he understands he was only sparing himself.
I tell him that 700 Miles is active in his addiction to drugs and alcohol. He nods. “That’s what we do.” This is not the first time I’ve heard this in regards to him and our story. I nod, but I still do not understand it.
I show A. Marc Chagall’s “America Windows” outside of Rubeloff Gallery, where the lecture is. He hasn’t seen it before. I tell him that Ferris kissed Sloan here. I am not sure he is old enough to remember the movie. I feel like a docent, showing A. my Art Institute.
The lecture moves quickly – giving context to the positioning of the paintings and sculptures that have been returned to their rightful homes.
I am tempted to take notes. I have before, knowing I was going to blog. Sitting with A. I feel somehow self-conscious. As if he might ask why.
I think about my friend Nithin commenting on kids and not-kids filming concerts on their phones. Experiencing the music through a screen rather than directly. Disconnected. Too busy “showing” everyone where they are – via Facebook, Twitter and the like – rather than “being” where they are.
I imagine my note taking might fall into the same category. I allow myself to just listen. I free myself from the need to remember.
A. and I part ways after the lecture. He is meeting a friend for a concert at the Chicago Theatre. (I wonder if he will watch it through his phone.)
I climb the open-backed stairs – the kind that make my ex-husband nauseated and panicky – to the third floor galleries, to see the “Returned Masters.”
The galleries are crowded. I wander. Thinking about the lecture. About artist life in Europe before and during WW II. But ultimately seeing the work through my own lens.
I drink in the juicy, ripeness of Max Beckman’s “Reclining Nude.” And I wonder why I am so set on waif-y thinness for myself.
I smile at Chagall’s “White Jesus,” recalling it is a favorite of the current Pope. I notice my tendency to breathe deeply when facing his work. As if I might inhale something of him.
I recall “Human Figure with Two Birds” from the Max Ernst show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I greet it and Loplop – the bird which comes to represent Ernst, “the private phantom attached to my person” – like an old friend.
I giggle at the “Exquisite Corpse,” a game played on paper by Man Ray, Andre’ Breton and Yves Tanguy while they waited for WW II to end – each adding to an unseen figure, folded back accordion-style, out of sight.
I long to feel the smoothness of Alberto Giacometti’s “Spoon Woman” and Constantin Brancusi’s “White Negress II.”
The “returned Masters” have helped return me to my own. Out of my head and my heart. Into my feeling body. Like the Masters, I hadn’t even realized it had been gone.
I feel vulnerable. Ashamed. I am “that woman,” wringing her hands about “that man.”
I gave my power away when I said, “I can’t do this.” Telling him I needed more. And that he didn’t seem capable of giving it to me. And did it anyway, becoming more and more deeply entwined in our long-distance intimacy.
I did it when I told him I could not Skype with him. That it was too hard to look into his green eyes. To see him look back at me in a way I can’t ever recall being seen. And did it anyway.
I did it when I promised myself I wouldn’t reach out to him for 30 days. Not as a game or a test. But to find out how he shows up. And reached out anyway.
I did it every time he mentioned bad timing, money or miles between us, and chose not to listen. Only paying attention to the part where he changed his mind, usually about 10 minutes later, saying he did want to “find out about us.”
I made the rules and I couldn’t keep them. Just like when I used to drink. And it left me feeling the exact same way – anxious, obsess-y, over-thinking. Knowing in my heart that something isn’t right, and trying to make it work anyway. Somehow believing “this time will be different.” Powerless.
I am standing in my bedroom in front of a batik wall hanging of Ganesh — Hindu boy with an elephant head, Remover of Obstacles – like I do every morning.
I kick my meditation cushion to the side, put my hands in prayer, in front of my third eye, and inhale deeply.
“Lord Ganesh, give me back my power.”
I feel a surge through my body, a response, and am flooded with words of direction.
Carry Ganesh with you. Visit India. See Nilima Sheikh’s “Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams” at the Art Institute. Artist Date 68.
It is the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day. The train headed downtown is filled with drunk twenty-somethings in oversized green, foam hats, green socks and beads. I put on my sunglasses and turn up Nina Simone and try to forget that he did not show up last night.
That he has not responded to my text.
That I am the one with the problem.
I get off several stops earlier than necessary and walk. It is cool and sunny and I feel happy in my grey wool coat, knit hat and red ankle boots. I make note of the galleries on Superior Street. Future Artist Dates. I feel my power growing.
I step inside the Special Exhibit Gallery. It is quiet. Still behind glass doors. I stand in front of a painted scroll titled “Valley.” The canvas is green. Lush and gentle. A verdant map. I begin to cry.
“That really affected you, huh?”
It is the museum guard –a woman named Denise. She wears long braids gathered together. I nod. She says a few more things but I cannot take them in. I am lost. I politely tell her I need to be alone in my quiet. She nods. I feel my power growing.
I approach the canvas, “Farewell.” Red, with two entwined figures – one holding open his robe, displaying a map of Kashmir where his heart should be.
“If only somehow you could have been mine. What would not have been possible in the world?” The words stenciled in gold at the top of the canvas. “We’re inside the fire, looking for the dark,” on the back.
I feel like I have been punched in the gut.
The tears return. I am breathless.
I return to “Valley.” “…And though the guards searched for him with the sun in one hand and the moon in the other the demon baffled them.” Stenciled on the back.
He sought me. I am baffled, wondering where he is now. But knowing I must continue to seek myself. I feel my power growing.
I share a bench and a cup of tea with a couple in the member’s lounge. We talk about shoes. About art. About recovery and vibrators and relationships. They tell me I need a man who is here. I know they are right. I feel my power growing.
In some ways I feel like I have been waiting all of my life for this man. And I am “Dying Dreaming.” (The words, like all those in quotes, names of Sheikh’s canvases.)
But I also know that his life is still a “Construction Site,” while I am “Gathering Threads” — stringing together the people, places and pleasures that bring me joy, that make me whole. Power cords.
Christopher Wool’s iconographic piece. The words stenciled in red enamel. TR. Drop a line. BL.
“Or True Blue,” he offers from the stage at the Art Institute of Chicago. Artist Date 63.
Yes. And that is trouble too.
I have decided to do something I’ve done just once in my life. Leave first.
The one other time I did this, the relationship had turned abusive. I felt I had no choice.
I always have a choice, I am reminded.
There is no abuse here. Not even a relationship really. Not yet. An exploration. A friendship ripe with feelings and confessed crazy attraction for one another. And 700 miles between us.
He once commented it was 400 miles between us and I didn’t correct him. When he later said 700, I knew he had looked it up. “You’ve been thinking about this (visiting),” I said. “I haven’t stopped thinking about it,” he replied. We were on Skype. I saw myself bat my eyelashes coquettishly like a shy giraffe, without even thinking.
But 700 miles aren’t really the problem. It’s the every thing else. We are in decidedly different places in our lives. I am in the clearing, coming out of the forest. He is, appropriately so, tied up in the weeds. Almost available. Like the tables I would hover over at the bar in college, waiting to settle into. Almost.
Lately, there is more time between our communications. I find myself in knots. Wide open. Vulnerable. Uncertain of where I stand.
I wonder when I will talk to him. What is going on in his head. In his life. I don’t like it. I don’t like how I feel. This poor use of precious psychic energy.
I woke up Friday morning. As my knees hit the floor, I began crying. “I can’t do this,” I said, to no one in particular. “I need more.” Tears. Shock. Relief.
In the past, I would wedge my way into “almost available” anyway – finding an opening in a man’s attraction and desire for me. But untrue to myself and to him. Acting breezy, when I felt anything but. And soon pissed off when I didn’t get what I really needed. And lying to myself and to him about needing it at all.
This time feels different. I like him too much to ask that of him. I like me too much to ask it of myself.
All of this is running through my head, as I sit in a somewhat broken chair, listening to Wool speak. Everything he says reminds me of this relationship. My heart. What I have to do. Am afraid to do. Am afraid I won’t get the chance to do because I will either lose my nerve or he will somehow slip away without me having had the chance to speak my truth.
TRBL. Trouble. True Blue. Wool says art is most successful when it does what it says.
Does he do what he says? Do I?
I think about my vision board hanging from a wire on the wall in my apartment. Mr. 700 Miles asked about it the last time we Skyped. I brought the computer to it, showing him the words and images I’d torn from magazines on impulse and pasted on a large piece of cardboard. “Power of the Pen.” “Happiness is not for Sale.” “Effortlessly Simple.”
“In Full Bloom.” “Yourself.” ““Make love.”
“Find your true blue.” The words are small compared to all the others. In typewriter font like my tattoos that read, “left” and “write” and overlaid on a couple standing nose to nose. I pointed to the picture and the words and he just smiled.
More slides. SEX. LUV. He Said, She Said.
Wool talks about process. Creating images through loss. Drawing and erasing. Drawing and erasing. And sometimes even scraping. The tearing away became “the most interesting part.”
But he insists process isn’t that important. That the work should stand on its own.
It all seems a metaphor for my romantic life. My willingness to tear away from this man romantically to see what the universe has in store for me. For the first time – perhaps ever – truly believing I deserve more.
I wander through the exhibit after the lecture. FO. Drop line. OL. I laugh out loud. Yes. FOOL. TRBL. SEX. LUV. I am all of it.
Post Script: Later that day, I did say the words I first uttered on my knees, “I can’t do this. I need more.” To him. I felt sad and strong and sad again. But ultimately, I felt LUV. For him. For myself. True Blue.
My friend Sherrod was the first artist I knew personally who made money at her craft. Which meant she covered her expenses and then some.
I remember seeing her painting on Liberty Street, where I lived in San Francisco. Victorian houses in oil. She was prolific. One night, as the sun began to go down, I invited her in for dinner. It was the first time she met my then-boyfriend/now ex-husband. Being somewhat filter-less, she named him “Pretty Boy” on the spot.
That year Pretty Boy bought me a copy of one of Sherrod’s pieces for my birthday.
It was a view of Dolores Park, from above it, and downtown San Francisco in the distance. Done in watercolors. Light. Almost cartoonish. Nothing like her other work which was darker and moody.
Pretty Boy put it in a white-wood frame he found in the alley and hung it over our bed. It followed us from San Francisco to Oakland, Chicago and Seattle – where I left it – a little piece of our first shared home.
I get emails from Sherrod now and again, telling me about her shows in the Bay Area. But I hadn’t really thought about her work much until now, standing at the Art Institute of Chicago. I am at the “Dreams & Echoes: Drawings and Sculpture in the David and Celia Hilliard Collection” exhibit – Artist Date 57.
My friend Jack suggested it.
I like the sketches in the process of becoming – Degas’ “Grand Arabesque,” Matisse’s “Still Life with Apples.” The ripe, sexy suggestiveness of Rodin’s “Leda and the Swan,” Povis de Chavannes’ “Sleeping Woman.” The eerie, ethereal quartet in Toorop’s “A Mysterious Hand Leads to Another Path.” But I don’t quite see how it all hangs together.
Francis Towne’s “Naples: A Group of Buildings Seen from an Adjacent Hillside.” An accurate, albeit not terribly inspired, title. It is from 1781, done in pen and black ink, with a brush, and black and gray wash over traces of graphite. Italy. But all I see is Dolores Park.
I am wistful and happy at the same time – remembering this place I used to call home, where the sun wasn’t a stranger in January and, rumor had it, Tracy Chapman lived on my street. This place where I met and married Pretty Boy.
It is the second time I’ve rubbed up against California today.
“Nevada Falls, Yosemite Valley, California,” painted in 1920 by Marguerite Thompson Zorach. The dreamy, translucent watercolors whisper to me of Sherrod’s Dolores Park.
I know the view. I’ve seen it many time,s driving down from Badger Pass to the Yosemite Valley floor, coming through the tunnel carved into granite. Surprising and spectacular. I’ve hiked a part of it, along with Vernal Falls and the John Muir Trail, forming a loop. I was with Pretty Boy and our friend Tim –my first foray into camping.
We stayed in Curry Village in a canvas tent cabin with a wood platform and a single light bulb. Tim threw baby carrots to the squirrels, although the signs all around instructed him not to. Hilarious – until one scurried into our tent.
We bought water and painted wood disks strung on elastic at the adjacent store. “Camp beads,” I exclaimed, handing a strand to Pretty Boy. Not unlike the ones he had given me off his own neck on our first date.
I got boot bang on the trail descending and had to rip off my toenail. And once back at Curry Village, I jumped into the Merced River, and then sat on a rock, drying and shivering in the sun.
After that trip I graduated to a real tent, the lightweight kind I could use to backpack in for a few days.
“Das Haus.” The Marc Chagall woodcut jumps from the wall. All four woodcuts, displayed in a row, do. But it is Chagall who paints my heart. Lead glasses my heart. Woodcuts my heart.
A house erupting from a man’s shoulders. According to the placard, it was produced following Chagall’s exile from Belarus. “…the work can be seen as an image of the artist metaphorically carrying his home with him.” Like the movie, Up. Like the painting in my living room, “You Can Take It With You,” that I bought from my friend Scotty before leaving Chicago in 2011.
I return to the placard at the exhibit’s entryway. It ends, “Even with its diversity of artists and time periods, the Hilliard collection possesses a remarkable consistency in sensibility: these works are unified by their ability to transport the viewer to other eras, other worlds.”
Chagall’s house. My stories. Towne’s Naples. My California.
Feathered, painted and beaded. Like the one I’m standing in front of at the Chicago Art Institute – Artist’s Date 42. According to the description, it is meant to express a sense of beauty, while spiritually protecting the wearer, providing potency in battle, diplomacy and/or courtship.
I could use that – spiritual protection and potency. Especially in courtship. I feel like I’m fumbling all over the place in this suddenly, or not so suddenly, single world.
Perhaps a wig would suffice. Cover up my naked head. My naked heart.
My cousin Andrew told me I should consider wearing them. Over dinner a few weeks ago at a trendy, too loud, see-and-be-seen, restaurant, he leaned in and said, very seriously, “I’ve been giving it some thought…I think you should wear wigs.”
I laughed, but he was dead serious, waxing the possibilities of an Uma Thurman Pulp Fiction bob. I showed him a photograph of me wearing a large Foxy Brown afro wig many years ago in Oakland. I told him I wished my hair grew like that. How I longed to wear a wig but worried about offending people – lest those whose hair grows that way think it is a joke, this seriously small white girl sporting a do belonging to someone else.
We made a date to go wig shopping but never quite made it.
I had forgotten about it until now.
And really, I probably shouldn’t be thinking about it now. Or even be here at all. My friend Julie arrives from Detroit in a few hours. Her visit comes on the heels of my friend Ernie’s visit from Seattle, which came on the heels of my trip to Dublin, and precedes my trip to Minneapolis – for my cousin Andrew’s wedding – by just days.
And yet, I am here. Stealing away for an hour or so, by myself, with no intention any more noble than to see with different eyes, hear with different ears, feel with a different heart. To leave here a little better than I arrived. To fill my mind with something other than “me, me, me.” It is a relief.
My plan was to visit the African Art. But I am stopped in my tracks in the Native American section. Thinking about wigs. About my cousin. About my other cousin – Diane.
I visited her in Albuquerque when I was 17. The trip, my first time traveling alone – to see Diane in New Mexico and Andrew in Los Angeles – was a high-school graduation gift from my parents.
I bought suede fringed boots, the kind with no hard sole, on that trip. They snaked up my legs, stopping just beneath my knees and tied with crisscrossing leather cord. Burnout style. And also, a wooden box, the top decorated with a sand painting of Father Sky – it says so in pencil, written on the underside, good for storing treasures.
Diane bought me a miniature wedding vase, a smaller version of the kind I would drink from at my own wedding 15 years later.
It seems like forever ago. As does my trip to see Diane. Except the memories of my marriage feel sneakier – unexpected – and not as purely sweet as those of my trip to New Mexico.
So I keep on moving, rather than sitting (or like my friend Sheila likes to say “bathing”) in the feelings. I look at pipes, teepee covers and silver jewelry, eventually moving on to the African Art section – something without connection to the past. Something entirely my own. Sort of.
Unless you consider it is my ex who bought me a gift certificate to the Old Town School of Music and Dance, where I study West African dance. Or that I found myself in Rwanda right in the middle of our divorce.
And yet, Africa is mine. It always was. A dream since I was a child. He just helped get me there.
The collection is small.
A few voluminous robes – the kind I have seen my instructor Idy dance in, constantly moving the sleeves in gorgeous gestures to keep from getting the fabric caught up in his feet. A couple of headdresses and costumes, one depicting the ideal mature woman in the 17th century – prominent nose, jutting chin, and large breasts.
I think of my own breasts. Small. No longer pendulous. Faded scars run from breast fold to areola – subtle reminders of my reduction surgery. A different beauty ideal.
I am struck by the words tacked to the wall.
“Dress is among the most personal forms of visual expression, creating a buffer and a bridge between the private and the public self…Special forms of luxury dress…may (also) signal particular standing within a community or a moment of transition from one role to another.”
I think about the Native American headdress. Of my own dress. My friend Tori says I dress differently since my divorce. Sexier. It was not my intention, but I believe she is right.
Across the room is a timeline of events, highlighting key moments in both African and world history. I snap photographs so I can remember them.
1884: European nations meet for the Berlin West Africa Conference, initiating the European scramble to colonize Africa. By 1900 only Ethiopia and Liberia remain independent.
1957: The nation of Ghana gains independence from British colonial rule, launching a continent-side decolonization movement.
1980: Zimbabwe gains independence from Great Britain; it is the last European colony to do so.
1990-94: Civil war in Rwanda leads to genocide.
I remember my friend Geri’s map-of-the-world shower curtain – so old, Rhodesia was still on it.
I think about my own map. My timeline. My dress. My independence. Messy. Uncertain. Liberating. But unlike Rhodesia, I got to keep my name.