Artist Date 2.2: Hello, Old Friend

“Hello, old friend…”

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.

Colleen’s visitor.

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.

american_landscape

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.”

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The rolling hills that make up the naked, female form in Alexandre Hogue’s “Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare.”

mother earth

The cartoonish characters and cartoonishly thick pain in William H. Johnson’s “Street Life, Harlem.”

street life

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.

saturday night motley

On the bench in front of “America Windows,” where today I see nothing new at all. The sameness – both beautiful and comforting.

“Hello, Old friend.”

Artist Date 114: Residence

IMAG3067
Image by Anna Katharina Scheidegger. Collection 2016. Casa de Velazquez.

I’ve lost some work.

Last week my boss forwarded a text from the company where I’ve been teaching. They need to cut costs and will not be continuing with English classes. So I have to cut costs.  Or find more work.

I mention this to S over lunch.

He doesn’t inquire about teaching. Instead, he asks why I am not submitting my work to writing contests with cash prizes…like he has done. Or artist residencies where I can be housed and fed (and occasionally paid a small stipend) while I write.

I don’t have an answer.

He continues, casually mentioning that he will be living in Italy for five weeks this fall. In a castle. Writing.

“How’d you swing that?” I ask.

“Artist residency.” he says, right on cue. “I applied. You can too, you know.”

Yes, this is the same S who, a little more than two months ago, casually mentioned I might consider applying to the Institute of Sacred Music at the Yale Divinity School. (Which I did. And from which I am now eagerly awaiting an answer.)

Clearly he is a messenger, sent directly to me.

That night I poke around the Writers and Poets website, researching writing contests with cash prizes. I am too fixated on financial concerns (and already dreaming of New Haven) to give much thought to artist residencies.

Not until the next day. Artist Date 114.

My student A has invited me to Casa de Velazquez for “Puertas Abiertas” – literally “open doors” or , more accurately, “open studios.”

A has warned me that it is a bit difficult to find. And that Google Maps isn’t particularly helpful.

She is right.

My mood is low and the weather matches it. Windy. Grey. Cold.

But I’m determined.

I walk up and down the same street again and again, looking for Avenida Arco de la Victoria, only to learn I am already on it when I finally ask for directions.

I am reminded of a huge billboard on I-75 North, on the drive from Detroit to Saginaw, Michigan to see my nana. A picture of Jesus with a caption that reads, “Are you on the right road?”

I am now.

And eventually I make my way to the large, stone structure that is less than a 15-minute walk from the metro – although it has taken me close to 45.

I send A a message, letting her know I’ve arrived. She meets me outside of the library and takes me on a short tour – at which time I learn it is not her work I’ve come to see , but that of more than a dozen artists in residency.

The timing is not lost on me.

I tell A about my conversation with S. She smiles. “Yes, you could apply for an Artist Residency,” she says, gently adding “Just not here. Because you don’t speak French.”

Indeed, I hardly speak Spanish. And some days, I’m not sure I speak English anymore either.

We walk down the hill, past the empty swimming pool and a sculpture of a pig face, to the cottages where the artists live and work. A introduces me a photographer who speaks English, and who wears the same haircut as me.

We do that, “I like your hair.” “I like YOUR hair,” elbow-nudging thing. I ask where she is from.

Everywhere. Nowhere. Last stop – Paris.

I understand. When asked the same question I pause, stymied. I’m from Detroit. But I lived in San Francisco for 14 years. Chicago for seven. A year in Seattle…I never know quite how to answer.

We talk about this. About creating a life with the whole of one’s belongings fitting neatly into one or two bags. She feels liberated by it. I feel a bit untethered.

For her, this residency is as much her residence as any other.

I leave, thinking about the word residence. Later, I look it up in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster offers several definitions, among them:

1b: the act or fact of living or regularly staying at or in some place for … the enjoyment of a benefit.

2a: the place where one actually lives as distinguished from one’s domicile or a place of temporary sojourn.

4b: a period of active and especially full-time study, research, or teaching at a college or university.

And then I understand the difference in our perspectives.

What I have is a room in a flat in the center of Madrid. What I crave is a residence. A residency.

 

 

 

Artist Date 102: Driving Me in Reverse Down a One-Way Street

From "Drunken Geometry" by Allison Wade and Leslie Baum
From “Drunken Geometry” by Allison Wade and Leslie Baum

I thought I would be used to this by now. Going it alone.

More than 100 Artist Dates, more than 100 solitary sojourns in an effort to fill my creative coffers, as suggested by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way.

Lectures, live lit events, ballets, book readings. Fabric stores. Operas. Walking tours. A handful taking place in other countries. And yet my stomach does flip-flops driving to an art opening a few miles from my apartment.

If I’ve learned anything in this grand experiment it is to put one foot in front of the other, regardless of how I feel — this time, up concrete stairs to the third floor of a warehouse in Garfield Park, to my friend’s exhibit, Artist Date 102.

Allison is an inspiration.

Once upon a time she wrote marketing materials for the financial services sector. Until the day when she turned right where she would have gone left and applied to art school. Several years, several moves and an MFA later, she is a working artist and an adjunct professor in the Art Department at Northwestern University.

I hear voices and laughter before I make it to the top of the stairs. I poke my head into the first gallery. I circle the room. Large painted swaths of fabric on the wall. Furniture taken apart, mismatched and reassembled — table legs sticking straight up out of a chair, pointing at the ceiling. Deconstructed still life. Or, as Alison and her partner Leslie call it “Drunken Geometry.”  But no Allison.

I poke my head into the second gallery and see my friend. She walks me through the exhibit, explaining its meaning, its genesis. Her process, her partnership. I am all in my head…thinking about my friend Rainey, the first artist I knew who created installations, introducing concepts rather than canvases.

Thinking about my own desire to go to art school.

For fashion. For photography. For the sake of being and calling myself an artist. I recall pictures I drew of myself in elementary school — wearing a beret and holding a palette — and a Saturday morning sketching class I briefly attended.

I did not go to art school.

Instead, I spent one year as a fine arts major at a Big Ten university before transferring to the journalism program at my parents’ prompting.

I tell myself I was more committed to the idea of being “an artist” than to making art. This may or may not be true. But being a visual artist was never “easy” for me.

I was fast-moving, my work somewhat sloppy. Stitches ran crooked on the waistband of a skirt. Film stuck onto itself, improperly loaded on the development reel. The inside of a ceramic slab box left rough, unfinished — the internal belying the external.

Writing came easy to me.

I placed out of freshman college English, enrolling in a senior writing seminar instead. Somewhat grudgingly wrote for the daily college newspaper. And then later, for weeklies in Detroit and San Francisco.

I did not think writing was art. Writing was…writing.

It didn’t feel sexy or tragic or dark. I didn’t wrestle with it, so I didn’t want it. But it followed me anyway…loyal puppy of a boyfriend.

I resented it. Ignored it. Didn’t take care of it. Until I needed it.

In Africa, in the middle of my divorce. When I couldn’t not write. The way junkies can’t not shoot-up. When writing felt like breathing. Like the only thing that gave me relief — the antithesis of how I feel now in this moment. Anxious.Uncomfortable. Squirrel-y.

No one is drunk. No one is ridiculously hip. On the contrary. There is a bowl of Chex Mix on the table near the drinks, and a handful of children stopping short of running around.

I see faces I know — including my own. Myself as struggling, wannabe visual artist. Perhaps this is what makes me uncomfortable.  Seeing my former in-love-with-the-idea-of-being-an-artist self.

I would have turned myself inside out for if my parents would have let me. Just as I have done with the idea of so many lovers and would-be lovers in my past. The title — artist, girlfriend — who I think I want to be, driving me in reverse down a one-way street..

Talking for two in romantic pursuits, attempting to create a connection or intimacy that isn’t organically there. Chasing what’s hard — dark, sexy, tragic — rather than embracing what is light, easy, what would one day feel like breathing.

I pick up a large piece of heavy paper with words printed in pink and blue — a conversation between the artists about their process in creating.

“In all honesty for me, and I think for you, this work is agenda-less. It’s about formal play and making connections.” Allison writes.

Leslie adds, “The beginning and the end. A looping. A circle that wobbles a bit, like a drunk. Our logic and our vocabulary are of this wandering yet insistent geometry.”

Yes, for me too. Except I’m no longer drunk. Just insistent and Wandering (Jewess).

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 96: Kind of a Big Shot

The Three Graces. Ethel Stein. 1995
The Three Graces. Ethel Stein. 1995

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.

Working.  Passionate.  Respected.

At the top of my game.

A little bit of a big shot.

It begins with working.

Artist Dates 91 and 92: Schooled

How do we know this is David?

I never thought about it. But here I am in front of him at Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence – Artist Date 91.

David is a boy and this is a man. David is a Jew and this man has a foreskin.  And what is he holding anyway?  And why do we have to walk around him to find out?

Paul, the tour guide from Walks of Italy, lobs the questions rapid fire until I feel like my brain might explode, but instead, cracks wide open.

I purchased my first walking tour – my first tour ever – last fall, in Dublin. It was my friend Steven’s idea.  And, much to my surprise, I enjoyed it.  Even looking like a tourist.  Which I was.

Which I am.

Paul takes me and 11 others to the Galleria dell’Accademia . To the Duomo.  To Piazza San Marco.  Ultimately dropping us at Ponte Vecchio.  Stringing us along with juicy bits of history.  Linking them together, telling a linear story.  Ultimately letting us know why we should care about these tourist attractions.

Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio

It is like Jeopardy – Italian style. Where everything comes in the form of a question.  Or at the very least, begins that way.

And it works. It is sticky in my grey matter.  Days later.  Weeks later, when I write this.

I learn that in religious art, the one wearing fur is always John the Baptist.

That Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor and was pissed off when asked to paint or to build.

That he never had sex, slept in his clothes – to save time – and thought art was for the people – and sculptures, the newspapers of the day. But that as a reporter with a chisel he was never neutral — a Michael Moore of Renaissance Art.

Outside the Duomo I learn why Renaissance Art was born here. A simple Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  The temporary capital of Italy, Florence was flush.  Issues of survival were no longer issues here, so the people of Florence could turn their attention to things of intellect and beauty.  They could build the largest church known at that time, its dome an architectural quandary.

And it is at this basilica that christening changed from a dunk to a sprinkle.  Seems while no one was dying of the plague, newborns were dying in record numbers following baptism, and someone figured out that while the water might by holy, it wasn’t particularly sanitary.

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The Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence

I learn that families claimed turf by marking corners of buildings with the family crest. An early form of tagging.  And a series of balls is the sign of the Medici family.

That Ponte Vecchio survived World War II, while all the other bridges in Florence were bombed by Nazis upon their crossing, because of a Medici. That in 1565 Grand Duke Cosimo de’Medici had a private passageway built into the bridge for the occasions when communication with his estranged wife, living across the Arno River at Palazzo Pitti, was necessary.  He filled it with Renaissance Art – art that remained there.  Art that Hitler commanded be “saved,” along with Ponte Vecchio.

A few days later in Rome, Cecilia (also from Walks of Italy) similarly schools me on the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Sistine Chapel, as well as Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and a killer gelateria. Artist Date 92.

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Getting schooled at the Colosseum.

 

Suddenly I am a history nerd, walking at her hip, never losing sight of her umbrella – the raised symbol moving us forward as a group. I think about how much I missed in high school.  In college.  Because I was hung over, hanging out or just plain disinterested.

About how much I surely missed in Madrid and Barcelona, Amsterdam and Brussels, Paris and London. Because I didn’t believe I needed someone to school me in their city.

I receive my final lesson leaving Vatican City when I ask Cecilia the way back to Trastevere – the neighborhood where I am staying – either via foot or cab. She offers me another option, inviting me to take the bus with her instead.

On our ride, Cecilia tells me I am brave. That she noticed me traveling alone.  Heard me talk about volunteering in Umbria.  That for all of her education and seeming worldliness – she is terrified to travel alone.

I hear her.  I believe her – that I am brave. I own it.  And share the greatest lesson I have learned.  That I am terrified too.  Of getting lost.  Of looking stupid.   Of…insert fear du jour here.

That I am terrified…but do it anyway.

Artist Date 88: Tied

rcfIt’s Sunday and I’m not at dance class…which feels really weird. I’ll be away more than here – to San Francisco in September and Italy the following month – so it didn’t really make sense to enroll this session.  Except it’s “what I do.”  Except today.

The sun is hot, the air is crisp and the sky is a perfectly blue sky blue. The kind of day I would lament missing if I were in the dance studio.

I jump on my bike and pedal to Wicker Park for the Renegade Craft Fair: Artist Date 88.

There’s a DJ spinning records and it’s all I can do to not spontaneously bust into dance. Although I’m pretty sure no one would mind.

There is leather and pottery. Fibers and lithographs.  And lots and lots of jewelry.

I strike up a conversation with a young jewelry maker from Wisconsin. We talk about art school – where she went, my desire to go.  She is flanked by her mother who notes the wholehearted support she offered her daughter in following her bliss.

For years I blamed my parents for my not going to art school. Truth told, I don’t think I had the drive, let alone the chops.  I fancied myself a fine artist but I didn’t have the discipline.  A discipline I only found later in life – much later, in my 40s, when I took on Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way for a second time.

Feeling desperate, crazy and on my knees, I embraced the book as others might the Bible or the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Viewing it as a salvation.  The keys to the kingdom.  The yellow brick road.

I took on nearly every suggestion – most noteworthy, the bogeyman – the Artist Date. That hour or so alone each week to fill my creative coffers.  Scheduled.  Planned.  And penciled in to my calendar.

A commitment to myself and my creativity.

It changed my life. And I’m pretty sure saved it.  Or at least my sanity.  It forced me to focus on me.  Not in a navel-gazing way, but more in a “What have you done for me, lately,” Janet Jackson kind of way.  Except I’m not asking some no-goodnik while dancing at a diner…I’m asking myself.

When I speak of it, I feel like the Pied Piper.  And today I should have brought my flute.

I run into my friend Whitney, who introduces me to a colleague, who innocently asks, “What brings you here?”

The answer seems obvious. The art.  The weather.  The promise of Black Dog Gelato.  Instead, I tell her about The Artist Date.

As I speak, I become excited by own story. Almost as if it is someone else’s story.  And I am reminded that my life is really quite magical.  That I AM the woman I always wanted to be.  A cool, creative, urban chick.  Like the women I saw in photographs when I was 12 – waiting on line for a shave or a Mohawk on Astor Place in New York.

It is the same feeling I have talking to the boys from San Francisco – where I lived for 14 years – who make and sell tea, T-We. We talk about what took me there – a job.  And what brought me here – love.  For my then husband, when I followed him to Chicago for medical residency.  And later for myself, the people, and the place itself – when I returned by choice, alone, a little more than two years ago.

It’s the feeling I have trying to put a ribbon into an old manual typewriter – part of a salon set up on Division Street by a woman renting vintage furniture. I tell her I learned to write on a typewriter – an IBM Selectric – when I was in journalism school.  About editing the newspaper on boards.  Printed stories rolled on to glass with wax and hacked at with a blue marker to fit the page.  It is the work that took me to San Francisco.  To Germany and Israel.

It’s the feeling I have talking with the woman who make shoes with ribbon laces – MOPED. I am lacing up a pair with gold ribbons and wonder aloud if they might not serve me well in Italy.

We talk about volunteering overseas. My upcoming flight of fancy at a fair-trade chocolate festival in Umbria, where I will live in an apartment with other volunteers from around the globe, and play out my “I live in Europe” fantasy.  I tell her about volunteering in Rwanda and in the South of France.  How traveling this way allows me to go alone without being alone.  How it ties me to people and place and purpose.

Like the ribbons I pick to take with me – seven in total. Purple.  Black.  Grey.  Pink stripes.  Navy stripes.  Silver glitter.  Gold.

Ribbons that tie me to these shoes.

To the ground.  To myself.  To this life.  The one a 12-year-old imagined – right down to the shave.