Artist Date 57: California, Coming Home

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.

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Francis Towne’s “Naples”

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.

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Marguerite Thompson Zorach’s “Nevada Falls”

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.

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Marc Chagall’s “Das Haus”

“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.

Artist Date 53: You Don’t Say

I used to swear like a sailor.  It was part of my tough-talking, cigarette-smoking, don’t-mess-with-this-Jew personae – affectionately known by my newspaper colleagues as “Brooklyn Les.”

Until I got hired by Weight Watchers.  My friend, and mentor Stan told me I would need to watch my mouth.  That I might think people thin-skinned, but that not everyone cottons to the liberal and casual use of the word fuck.

I trusted him, and learned to curb my four-letter tongue.  I found the more I didn’t use those words in the workplace, the more they slipped away from my vocabulary entirely.

Don’t get me wrong.  I still like a well-placed fuck.  (Double entendre not intended, but appreciated.)   Especially the unexpected sort that shocks.

tribes

Like in Tribes.  Artist Date 53 at the Steppenwolf Theatre.

The word punctuates each breath of the play’s first lines, followed by cunt and a graphic, fairly vulgar description of the much-older object of Ruth’s affection.

Uproarious laughter covers a collective gasp.  There is a shared sense of ok-ness.  That we have chosen our mores.  That we have agreed upon this use of language.

I am a part of this conscious collective too.  But I don’t feel that way.  I am self-consciously aware of feeling “not a part of.”  Disconnected.  The word rattling in my head since I lost Internet connectivity minutes before leaving the house.

It is exacerbated by the series of phone calls I make while driving that dump me into voicemail.  And even more so by the conversation to my right, once in my seat.  Flanked by two couples, I listen as they share highlights of their collective creative genius.  She leads workshops teaching artists how to write grants.  He is a photographer.  The other she is an actress.

I am envious.  Irritated.  It does not occur to me that I am a writer.  That I too have a creative genius.  One that connects me to others every time I engage it.  I am, as my friends like to say, looking for the differences.  All of the places where I don’t measure up.  At least in my mind.  I have been all day.

This afternoon, interviewing with a recruiting firm — really more of a temp-to-permanent staffing agency.

I went in worried about not wearing a suit.

I haven’t owned one in more than 12 years.  Ever since I traded prestige for peace of mind and left a nearly six-figure job to answer phones at a massage school for $12/hour and 50 percent off future classes – supplementing my new cobbled-together career as a massage therapist and Weight Watchers leader.

It had not occurred to me that my plaid, Pendlelton coat and patterned spectators might be the least of my concerns.

All around me – on both sides of employment table – are “kids.”  They appear to be born the same year I graduated from high school.

I lose myself in self-conscious concern.  About my age, my appearance, that I have not looked for work in 12 years.  And when the questions come about desired salary, and ideal work environment, I stammer.

Photo by Sandro. Steppenwolf Theatre.
Photo by Sandro. Steppenwolf Theatre.

Like Daniel in Tribes, when his sense of security – false or not – is taken from him and he reverts to old patterns.

The old tendency to try to be what you need me rushes in.  People pleasing.  Like Billy, learning to read lips rather than pushing his family to learn to sign – which seems selfish, at the least inconvenient, and might make them uncomfortable.

It is an old behavior and yet it sneaks back in as effortlessly as the fucks that can still fly from my mouth.  I feel tired and small.  And sort of stupid.  Even though I know that none of that is true.

But suddenly not so separate.  I see myself in bits of the universal dysfunction unraveling on stage.

I am like Beth.  A tentative, later-in-life writer.  Like Christopher.  Using bluster and swagger to cover up my own not knowing.  Like Ruth.  Looking for love.  Except I no longer ask “What is wrong with me?” while sobbing in my mother’s arms.

Nor do I succumb to the urge to call a boy I know while driving home, when the separateness has returned to me.  A boy fighting demons far greater than my own right now.  A boy who could never give me what I want – which right now is nothing more than to be held.  I know that this is beyond his capabilities – so I think better than to ask for it.

Age, experience – it is grace.

Once home, I write a note to my friend Melinda, as I do most nights – sharing an inventory of my day via email.  I will receive hers in the morning.

Connectivity has been restored.  To the Internet.  To my friend.  To my truth.

Artist Date 52: Exactly Where I Am Supposed To Be

This time last year I was on my knees.  Literally.

It was my first holiday season divorced and living back in Chicago, alone.  My girlfriend called me out on my obsession with the man I like to call the Southern Svengali — the one I kissed for two nights while in Charleston in late October.  She said she could not hear about it, or him, anymore.

My non-relationship was affecting my relationships.

I felt desperate and scared.  I called a friend who advised me to get on my knees and ask God to remove my obsession him every day.

I did.  But I needed something more.

the artists wayI remembered the comfort I had found in the structured creativity of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and decided to pull it out again —  a hopeful, albeit artsy, roadmap out of myself.

This time, in addition to taking on the weekly reading and writing assignments, I committed to the weekly Artist Date – the weekly hour or so block of time, alone, to fill my creative coffers – and to a weekly blog about it for a year.  Fifty-two Artist Dates.  Fifty-two blogs.

Thursday is Artist Date 52.

I am sitting in a Starbucks on Michigan Avenue killing time before Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.  It is 6 p.m. and I have been downtown since 11.  I am tired.  I am questioning the wisdom in staying here as opposed to driving home at 2 p.m. when I was finished with my work and returning later.

Until I get the text which lets me know I am exactly where I should me.  It is from my friend Matt.  He is at a coffee shop around the corner, also killing time, before his couple’s therapy session where he will ask his wife for a divorce.

I tell him where I am.  Within moments he is standing over me and then we are hugging each other tightly.  Teary.

I remember when he told me that he and his wife were separating, more than a year ago.  I still lived in Seattle, but was visiting Chicago – smack dab in the middle of my own divorce.

Matt is appropriately anxious.  I reflect back to him how thoughtful he has been through this entire process – never rash.  We hold hands and we pray together, in the middle of Starbucks.  It doesn’t seem strange.

He leaves.  And shortly after, I do too, pulling my wool long-underwear back on over my tights.  It is December and the temperatures are already in the teens.

I love Chicago at night.  Especially during the holidays.  Michigan Avenue twinkles with white lights, and skaters glide around in circles on the tiny patch of ice in Millenium Park.

Photo: The Inside Scoop Chicago
Photo: The Inside Scoop Chicago

I walk up “the hill” that is Randolph Street to the Harris Theater.  My body has once again adjusted to the flat Midwest and takes note of the incline.

I pick up my ticket at will-call and make a beeline for the bathroom, peeling off my long underwear.  Winter in Chicago is a lot of work.

My friend Lori is coming out.  We embrace and talk excitedly about her ceramics show.  Lori is a genius potter.  We met her at Lil Street Art Center, where I was stumbling through a beginners’ class.  Lori taught me how to glaze.

She asks if I will come back to Lil Street.  I am not certain as I have committed my creative energies to my writing and my dance – at least for now.

She asks if I remember Kevin from the clay studio and reminds me he is a member of Hubbard Street.  I do remember.  It is one of the reasons I am here.

We part company and I run into a woman I have danced with.  She is enrolled in Level three West African Dance.  I am in Level two.  Later, I see Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The world seems small and I am a citizen of it.  Or, at the very least, a citizen of Chicago.

The woman in the seat next to mine is alone.  As is the woman next to her.  We make easy conversation.  She is a Weight Watchers member.  I am a Weight Watchers leader.  She is looking for a massage therapist.  I am a massage therapist.  She is a widow.  I am a divorcee.

She tells me she lost her husband four years ago, and she tears up.  For the second time today I am clear that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.  Right down to my seat: BB10.

The performance, One Thousand Pieces by Alejandro Cerrudo, is inspired by Marc Chagall’s America Windows – the installation I visit every time I am at the Art Institute, my favorite.  I shared it with Matt a few months ago when we met downtown for a member’s-only café re-opening.  It was summer and we sat in the courtyard noting who was checking the other out.  It seems a long time ago.

One Thousand Pieces, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
One Thousand Pieces, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

It is my first time seeing Hubbard Street Dance.  The dancers’ bodies are strong.  Gorgeous.  Not sinewy, like ballet bodies.  I think my legs approximate the same shape as theirs, albeit less toned and I feel at the same time cocky and ashamed admitting this to myself.

The stage is glossed and looks like water.  I am looking for Kevin.  My eyes occasionally roll back into my head.  This almost always happens to me at performances.  The lights go down and my sleepy kicks in.  Except for last year when I saw Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre  – twice.

My seats were good – dress circle one night, main floor the other.  My experience was dramatically altered by looking straight at the dancers as opposed to peering down at them.  I vowed then I would always buy good seats for dance.  These seats are good – the Harris Theatre is small and there are no “bad seats.”  But not good enough.

And then it is over.

The performance, but not my Artist Dates.  They “work.”  Like being on my knees works.  Not so much in desperation (although I am certain I will find myself there again many times in this life), but in prayer – the antidote to it.  Exactly where I am supposed to be.

Artist Date 49: Content In My Role As Second Tenor

I am a second tenor.

rain 2
Lake Street Underpass, by Errol Jacobson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

back lit
Back Lit, by Errol Jacobson

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

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

It is Paris.

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

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

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

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

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

And for once, I don’t mind.

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

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

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

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

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

Shaking The Coke Bottle and Other Sexy Little Gifts From the Universe

My friend Dina calls it “shaking the Coke bottle.”

coke bottlesThat feeling when “nothing” is going on.  When life doesn’t feel sexy.  When I am going about my business doing what other people do.  Grocery shopping.  Paying bills.  Taking out the trash.  And, seemingly, not much else.

I don’t like it.  Given my druthers, every day would be my birthday, New Years’ Eve and the 4th of July all wrapped into one.  (Actually, I don’t really care for either of these holidays, but they speak to the notion of fireworks and something shiny, new.)

I want to make “something happen.”  Anything.  Ergo, Dina’s Coke bottle.  I imagine it as glass, and filled with soda made from sugar, not corn syrup – before it was retro.  My thumb covering the opening.  Fingers wrapped around the body.  Shaking violently and knowing when I let up a spray of sticky sweetness will shower me, and anyone in my midst.

Sounds great, actually.  The sweet spray, that is.  Trouble is, the mess.  And the dreaded clean-up.  Sticky residue.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way series, writes that “too much drama equals not enough work.”

There is no drama right now.  Not enough work either.  Correction, it is there.  I just don’t seem to be doing it.

Entering billable time for the past month.  A tedious and mundane task that will take me, at best, 45 minutes.

Submitting two pieces – already written – for publication.  Their titles and the word “pitch,” scrawled on my white board months ago and never erased.

Tackling the looming job search.

What I am doing is writing.  This is a good thing.  (Consider that the word “write” is tattooed on my right, inner wrist.  “Left” on the opposite.)

writeExcept when it keeps me from taking small actions that chip away at what appear large and overwhelming tasks.  When it keeps me from making those satisfying little check marks on my to-do list.

This morning, while journaling my morning pages, I gave words to the hidden fear that the Coke-bottle fantasy seeks to remedy, or at the least, cover up.

That I will run out of subject matter to write about.  My blog will grow dry and fallow.  My life will grow dry and fallow.  I will grow dry and fallow.

There is no romance.  No big, new job.  No decadent travel in the works.  There is “nothing” going on.

What I forget is, when I do what’s in front of me, the rest, somehow, seems to magically take care of itself.  And often, sexy little gifts from the universe emerge – if I choose to see them that way.

Strangely, it is not a linear process.  A plus B does not equal C.

It is like weight loss.

There are weeks when I do everything “right,” the scale registers a gain and I call it a liar.  And weeks when I do everything “wrong.” It shows a loss.  And I thank the weight-loss goddess and keep on moving.  When this happens to my Weight Watchers members, I remind them that it is what they do most of the time that matters.

Or like marketing.  My spiritual business teacher insisted that we students reach out to 20 people a day and speak our vision – what we do, what we offer, what we promise.

“I am a massage therapist and bodyworker.  I help people fall in love with their bodies, take care of their bodies, and do things they never imagined possible.”  Twenty times a day.

When I did this, clients came to me.  Not a single one directly from the outreach.  But from other places.  The universe answering my call.  Proof that energy begets energy.

Or, as my friend Teresa used to tell me, “Nature abhors a vacuum.”  Or, eventually something is going to happen.

So today, I will do what is in front of me.  I will lead two Weight Watchers meetings.  Meet for another informational interview.  Go to a friend’s gallery opening.

I might even drop an email to my friend Steven about a trip to Italy we’ve been considering.

As I commit to this not-so-sexy stuff, the footwork, I feel my grip loosen – fully aware that the sticky, sweet will go flat.  But that my life has not.  Even if it sometimes feels that way.

Post Script.  I met a milliner at tonight’s art opening.  She shared that she used to make hats full-time, but that she had to get a “real job” when she got divorced.  She found one, with great benefits and vacation.  And that leaves her time and energy enough to continue to make hats.

“We’re looking to hire,” she offered.  I smiled at the synchronicity.  I told her our situations are strikingly similar, handed her my card, and asked if we might talk further.

Sexy little gift from the universe.  And no clean up.

Artist Date 45: The (Sometimes) Kindness of Strangers

This woman is wearing a knit hat, striped in colors of the Rastafarian flag.  It was a gift from a woman in Australia, while she was in Australia.  A woman who fed this woman lunch and beers but accepted no payment.  Her listening to the stories she was regaled with was payment enough.

kindness of strangersPlus, she would need it while camping in the outback.

She flew to Australia following the demise of a relationship.  Seems it is what she does.  Camping in the Outback.  Hiking in Wales.  Meditating on a mountain outside of Tokyo.

She is standing on a small stage in Rogers Park talking about it.  Coming clean, as it were.

Artist Date 45.

My friend Clover will also be reading and performing a piece .  It is about her mother.  About art school and being a performer.  About helping a man across the street who has fallen and everyone around him just keeps moving as if this hasn’t happened and the universe calls upon her to play the part of his angel.

There is a third.  Eric.  Who will talk about his need to go to a place where his father had been.  The father he didn’t know.  And then he did.  But who he never really knew.  And is now dead.

But right now I’m watching Jennifer.  I know her name because I looked it up in the program, which is black and white.  Folded but not stapled.  And reads, “The Kindness of Strangers: A Festival of Storytelling.”

And then, “A 3-week rotating mix of more than 30 storytellers weaving tales of connecting, or not, with strangers.”  The words encircled by drawings, like a globe – buildings, a boat and a lighthouse, water.

I want to be this woman with a knit hat and a beer-stained hiking map, marked up by pub patrons who laugh each time she says the word “garbage.”  This woman who takes off on serious adventures – by herself – when love goes south.  When the re-bound from the break up proves not to be the antidote to her pain.  Who is standing on this tiny stage telling her story.

I want to be that brave.  To travel alone.  Even though I’ve done it – albeit briefly — and my experience is that solo travel is most satisfying when it is connected to purpose.  And people.  Like my volunteer trips to Rwanda and the South of France.

I want a rebound.  Even though it has been suggested I don’t date.  Even though I have probably been divorced too long for anything to be called a rebound.  And my short-lived dalliances, both emotional and physical, have been painful to the extreme.

Even though my experience of being alone this past year has brought me closer to myself.  My craft.  My writing.  The very thing that might put me on stage.

Clover.  Very likely telling a story.  Just not on stage.
Clover. Very likely telling a story. Just not on stage.

I am comparing my insides to someones outsides once again.  Devaluing my own experience when confronted with someone seemingly doing what I think I’d like to do.  What I think I should do.

I well up listening to her.  While the details are different, I recognize the story as my own.

I see pieces of my story in Eric’s too.  Reconnecting with a parent who was physically absent for so many years.  His through desertion.  Mine through adoption.  Losing them again.  And what is left.  For him, a ring.  For me, a pair of opera glasses and a too-big mink coat, her name embroidered on the inside, hanging in my closet.

But I do not see myself in Clover’s story.

I’m not even looking, let alone comparing.  It is not that I am not interested.  I am.  I am teary, ass-glued-to-the-seat, riveted.

Maybe it is because I know her story.  Her stories.  She has trusted me with them over the years.

Her mother selling her art work, without her consent, as payment to her therapist.  Lying down in the street in downtown Chicago when the light is turned red.  A classroom performance piece.  The ants that crossed in front of her mattress, on the floor, in the basement of her mother’s friend’s house, in the toniest part of upstate New York.

And I have trusted her with mine.  They are less the same.  But our feelings, and our responses, match perfectly.  This is where we found our “me too’s.”

Like I am just now doing with Jennifer.  With Eric.  Connecting with strangers – who may or may not become more than that.  (Turns out, I have danced with Eric’s girlfriend on and off for years.  I’m pretty sure I’ll see both of them again.)  The place of beginning.

Artist Date 43: It Never Occured To Me I Was Good

I used to hate Harry.  Not him personally.  Just dancing with him.

And not exactly hate.  More like fear.  Dread.

It’s not like that anymore.   It hasn’t been for a while.  But that came later.  Much, much later.

andersonvilleSo it was a pleasant and still somewhat unexpected surprise to find myself pedaling to the Andersonville Arts Weekend, specifically to see his work – Artist Date 43.

Harry is like my friend J, who I have written about before (as have other bloggers – cursing his talent).  An artist savant.  J made Mission-style bedroom furniture his first go at woodworking.  He didn’t even know what Mission-style was.

I imagine it is like that for Harry too – that his fingertips simply release the art locked up in the canvas, the stone or metal.

I am not this kind of artist.

Consider my recent foray into clay, my first in more than 25 years.

I enrolled in a first-time potter class at Lil Street Art Center.  Bought my bucket and toolkit.  Attended all of the five, three-hour sessions.  Came in on the weekends to practice.  And never came close to mastering centering.

Or even getting the hang of it.  Which is problematic as centering – which is exactly what it sounds like, getting the clay centered on the wheel — is pretty much essential for anything of beauty to emerge.

I didn’t have much more success with trimming – cleaning up or “editing” my pots.  Ditto for slab work or glazing.

I left the class with a few sad pieces I have scattered around my house – doing utilitarian duty.  A tray I lean spoons on when cooking.  A tiny bowl with salt in it, sitting on top of the stove.  Another sitting on the window sill of my shower, filled with stones and glass I collected at the beach.

2013-10-17 22.48.20A cylinder glazed white, where my sponge lives.

I realized this work would be work if I wanted to be any good at it.  Or even just better.  Like dance.

While dancing always felt natural to me – at clubs and at parties – moving across the floor in a structured class was something else entirely.  Which is probably why I avoided it for so long.  For fear of not knowing what I am doing.  Looking “stupid.”  Not in control.

The take away from my early years regarding art, music and sports was that talent was innate.  Period.  There was no talk of practice.  Learning a craft.  Or of doing for sheer joy.

I learned those lessons late.  First, from my step-mother, who began painting in her 60s.  I recall her early efforts – shared with me in cards and notes.  Then seeing her work, in her home studio, years later.  Whimsical watercolors of cows on oversized paper.  Framed.  I wanted them for my wall.

I learned them again, a few years later, in dance class.  I have a visceral memory of my instructor Idy going right and me moving left.  Him reaching up, and I, down.

“Like this, Lesley,” he would say.  I swore I was doing the same, but clearly I wasn’t.  Again and again.  Looking at one another in the mirror.  Me giggling.  Them him.  Until I fell on the floor in a heap.

Learning to laugh at myself.  To feel the drums.  My bare feet on the floor.  The joy and wonder of my body leaping.  Contorting.  Flying.

That is, until I met Harry.  He was, and is, what I call a teacher’s teacher.  Reaching for rightness.  What is correct.  He filled in when Idy traveled.  I hated it.

Walking into the studio and seeing him, my heart would sink.  Frustrated by his seemingly constant corrections, I would bite my bottom lip to hold back tears.

One January, when Idy returned to Senegal, Harry led the entire session.  Driven by my frail ego and fear of being found out as a “dance fraud,” I did not enroll in class.  It was the first time I would not dance on a Sunday in more than a year.

I missed it.

I talked to my friend Lisa at length about it.  She suggested I pray.  For the resentment to be removed? To be right sized?  To be teachable?  I don’t recall her exact directions.  I just remember, being desperate.  Praying.  And things changing.

I found I could dance with Harry.  And I could even enjoy it.

Especially when I nailed a step, or a series of steps.  He would stand in front of me clapping his hands shouting, “Yes! Yes!”  I was both thrilled and embarrassed at the same time, grinning ear to ear.  Then losing my footing.  And laughing.  I knew he wasn’t lying.

Or when he had me demonstrate a step, moving across the floor, with the other dancers following.  Because I “had it.”  This happened just once.

Truth told, I developed a little crush on Harry.  The safe kind.  I was pretty sure he was married and had been for a long time.

I found out for certain on Sunday, meeting his wife – who showed me his jewelry.  Rings with enormous oversized stones – too big for my tiny hands.  A copper and silver band that made my fingers look long.  A snaking chain of tiny stones, each marked with a symbol.  I wrapped it around my neck again and again until there wasn’t anymore.  Heavy.

2013-10-13 16.19.58We talked about dance and artistry.  About marriage.  And giving one another space to grow.

I saw Harry a bit later that afternoon, showing his paintings and sculpture at a different location.  He waved to me from inside the store as I was approaching.  And once inside he introduced me to his daughter and told me about his work.  His inspiration.  His process.  I listened.

And then I told him how I used to feel about dancing with him.  And how today I love it.  That I am a better dancer because of him.

His response floored me.

He told me he can’t stand idly by when someone is so close.

It had never occurred to me that I was close.  That he pushed me because I was good.  Not because I was bad.  That if I were hopeless, he wouldn’t have bothered at all.

He saw me, right-sized.  Teachable.

(Video: Dancing with Harry)

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10151412384026731&set=vb.554046730&type=3&theater

Artist Date 40: Dublin, A Fillling Station

I am not as healed as I thought I was.  I hate that.

It is September 16.  One year to the day since my divorce was finalized in the state of Washington

I arrive in Dublin for Tim and Martin’s wedding.  Everything is new.  Everything is the potential Artist Date.

Full-fat yogurt in glass jars with rhubarb layered on top.  Breakfast at the airport Spar.

A bus ride to Trinity College followed by a taxi to Tim’s house.  The driver’s brogue so thick I make out only about a third of what he says.  Among it, “Is your liver ready for your visit?”

A shower.  Tim shows me how to turn it on.  It is not intuitive to my jet-lagged American mind.  He shows me how the heat booster works.

So much shiny newness.  Other-ness.  And yet…my mind and my mouth reverts to my divorce like a rubber band.  Anger toward my ex-husband I didn’t know was there.  Anger that the dissolution of my marriage is so much a part of my story, my identity – still.  In journalistic terms, it is “what I lead with.”

By design the Artist Date is an individual endeavor, although I’ve played fast and loose with that dictate.  But it is in my alone moments here, in Dublin, where I find my grounding, my feet under me, and I am able to open myself to everything outside of me.  I discover this on my third day here, when I peel off for a few hours on my own – Artist Date 40.

The Thai storefront where I eat noodles out of a cardboard container with chopsticks, sitting on a bench on the sidewalk with locals.

2013-09-20 09.17.50St. Stephen’s Green.  I stumble on to it.  I feel like I have wandered into Central Park from the Upper East Side.  Or am perhaps along the Seine, as here too artists line up their wares.

It is sunny and mild.  Long legs stretched out on the grass.  Suits eating sandwiches on wooden benches.  I snap photographs of the geese wandering outside of the pond before they change their mind and retreat to the water.

Break dancers on Grafton Street.  A large circle forms around a gaggle of boys dressed in yellow.  Each takes a turn in the center.  I want to jump in with them.  Spin on my head.  Be a part of the dance.  Or at the very least, clap.  But I am filming them – a step removed from full presence.

I meet Steven in front of the bank at the corner of Grafton and Nassau Streets, eager to share my finds.  I take him for Pad Thai and to St. Stephen’s Green, stopping first in front of a band set up on the street.  There is a cajon, a xylophone, an accordion. A saxophone that sounds like a snake charmer.  I grab Steven’s hand and we break into spontaneous dance in the street – swing style.

I haven’t danced with Steven since my wedding in 2001.  My shirt is rising up at the waist, exposing my belly.  The cajon player is looking at me.  Is he looking at my belly?  Or my ear-to-ear grin?  Someone is filming us.  Another couple joins in.  I feel deliriously in love with the world.  With myself.  That I am the kind of woman who breaks into spontaneous dance on the streets of Dublin.

2013-09-20 10.03.54Next day we visit Kilmainham Gaol, Ireland’s most “famous” jail, and the National Museum of Ireland – History and Decorative Arts.  We hop on and hop off a red double-decker bus.  We are quintessential tourists – sans fanny pack and white sneakers.

Inside Kilmainham we receive explicit directions not to wander off from our guide and group, lest we get lost.

We peer into cells, stand in others.  We learn about its political prisoners.  Its leaders.  Women in the fight for independence.  And how, during the potato famine, some vied for a spot in this overcrowded, infected, squalid place – five to a cell with one bowl of watery soup a day – because it was better than life on the streets.

We wander into a furniture exhibit at the History and Decorative Arts Museum.  It is cool and retro.  1950s.  I remember Steven’s desire to make furniture.  I tell him about my ex-boyfriend J – how his first foray into woodworking resulted in a Mission-style bed and side table.  He is a creative genius.

I visit the collection of Adolph Mahr – an Irish Jew who immigrated to San Francisco in his teens and became a pillar in the fine arts community.  I witness the unfolding of Eileen Gray’s career – home furnishings artisan come environmental designer.

Eileen Gray, at the beginning of her career.
Eileen Gray.

That evening, I sit next to Helen, Martin’s cousin from Sheffield, at a cocktail crawl – sans cocktail.  I tell her about the gaol.  The Jewish collector and the designer.

It reminds me of a conversation I had a few months ago.  Thick in the newness of my Artist Dates, telling a man I just met about the biography I was reading.  The small theatre production I had just seen.  The couture exhibit at the History Museum.

I felt smart.  Interesting.  Artistic.  That I was the woman I had always hoped to be.  Or am at least becoming.

I feel that way again tonight.

I have something else to discuss, following so many days of talk about relationships.

I am more than my marriage.  My divorce.  My flirtations.

I already know this.  I remember it in the stillness of being alone – where I can bring the outside in.  A filling station.

Artist Date 34: In It’s Proper Place

2013-08-11 15.45.12I hired a professional organizer.

I have admitted that so many areas of my life had become unmanageable, and then asked for help.  So why not here?  I’m tired of the stacks and stacks of paper that have no home.

I am, as Maggie – the professional organizer – said, “the tidiest, unorganized person” she has ever met.

We met last week for a consultation.  My assignment prior to our first paid meeting, this coming Tuesday, was to go to The Container Store and “just browse.”  My only guidance was to think of “boxes” – four of them.  In.  Out.  To Be Dealt With.  Want to Keep – Just Because.

We agreed I would take photographs of items that interested me, but that I would buy nothing.  It seemed like an easy Artist Date – Number 34.

I was mistaken.

I rode my bike over to The Container Store this afternoon.  Tossed my basket in a cart and began my work.  Up and down every aisle.

Almost immediately, I was overcome with sadness.  All around me, groups of people.  Couples shopping together.   Roommates shopping together.  Moms and dads and bound-for-college kids shopping together.  Together.

I remembered shopping here with my ex – when we moved to Chicago for his residency.  I felt wistful stumbling over the collapsible mesh cubes – the kind we bought to store our record albums.  He didn’t think they would work well, but I knew better.  Three of them sat under the Parson’s table, holding our music collection – his and mine.  I left them in Seattle.

Albums I bought in high school at Sam’s Jams in Ferndale.  The Specials, debut album of the same name.  Elvis Costello, “Punch the Clock.”  Howard Jones, “Human’s Lib.”  My mother’s copy of the original Broadway production of “Hair.”  My brother’s copy of Queen, “A Night at the Opera.”  There is a piece of masking tape on the front cover with his name and our telephone number written in magic marker.  I’m not sure how I ended up with it.

hairI knew every word to every song, having spent hours on my blue-shag carpeting, in my bedroom, singing along with the words printed on the album sleeves.

I don’t have a record player, so I left them.  Plus, they were too cumbersome to pack.  Funny thing is, it’s not the lost records that choked me up.  It was the damn mesh cubes.

And the laundry aisle.  I remember spending hours trying to find just the right laundry bin to collect my massage sheets and take them back and forth from my office to home, to be washed and folded.  First I bought a cart with the idea that I would take the train to and from my office.  With sheets.  In the winter.  I quickly gave up this environmentally-conscious fantasy and started driving to work.

I found a lot where they cut me a deal because I was a local business owner – $14 a day.  A steal, considering I was right off of Michigan Avenue.

Tony, the Palestinian kid who hooked me up, got fired right before I moved away.  I always felt badly about it – even though I hadn’t done anything wrong.  I used a red, collapsible “laundry” backpack to haul my sheets the six blocks from the lot to my office.

I missed having someone to discuss options with today.  I suppose that is why I took photographs, to discuss them with Maggie.

I looked at fabric bins.  Metal bins.  Cardboard bins – some made of bright, solid colors, others printed with flowers and graphic designs.  Bins made of recycled paper.  I snapped photographs of each product and its accompanying card, describing the item and listing its price.

2013-08-11 15.38.34I got distracted by travel supplies.  Luggage tags.  Hanging dop kits.  (I need a new one.  Mine is torn.)  And Ziploc bags for creating more packing space – like the space bags I used when moving cross-country.  I stacked my dresses and trousers inside, while Michael used a vacuum cleaner to suck the air out.  We were giddy when the first was complete.  Shrink wrapped clothes.

I remembered that I needed hooks for hand-towels in my bathroom.  Milk crates for my prayer and meditation nook – to lift my deities and ritual items off of the floor,  and to be covered with a piece of fabric I bought in the market in Kigali.

I also remembered that Maggie and I discussed finding a solution that didn’t involve putting anything else on the dining table – which is also my writing desk, my art table, and where I spend about 80 percent of my time when I am home.

I looked at hanging solutions.  There weren’t many.  A few different kinds of folders that hang from the wall.  Some painted metal.  Some plastic.

Then I wandered into the Elfa department – custom solutions for the closet.  So complex there are employees specific to just this department.  I know people go wild for the yearly Elfa sale, as it is pricey.

And yet, open, wire drawers on casters seemed to make sense.  With a top to hold my printer.  I looked at other shelving units as well.  I remembered our conversation about rethinking how I consider my dining area.  That is it really more multi-purpose.  Think function rather than fois gras or fondue.  I serve neither.  But I do throw a hell of a dinner party.  And it needs to work for those occasions too – especially as Rosh Hashanah is right around the corner and for the past 19 years I have, more often than not, hosted a holiday meal for stray Jews and others.

I thought about my friend Tom who is going to string two lines of wire across the wall opposite the windows so I can hang photographs, cards and collages with metal clips – slightly reminiscent of the drying lines in the darkroom I once inhabited.

I picked up several catalogs, tucked them into my bike basket, and did a final sweep of the store.

I felt myself welling up the entire ride home.  I wanted to be excited but I wasn’t.  I was sad.  Acutely aware that this was yet another step in creating my home, my life, without my ex.  Acutely aware that we don’t talk much lately – my choice, to save both my heart and my sanity.  All of this necessary, but still painful – nearly a year after our divorce was final.  Time takes time.

I thought about something Maggie said.  That there is always something more under the disorganization – something else going on.  She believed the stacks of paper, the lack of “home” for my things, was me being afraid I couldn’t put my hands on something when I needed it.  A need to keep all of my things near.

My friend Kevin refers to this as my issue with object impermanence.  The notion that until a certain age, children do not believe in that which they cannot see.  Put a towel over your hand, et voila, you have no hand.  At least in their minds.

It’s like that with me and people sometimes.  If I can’t put my hands on them – see them, feel them, hear them – it is as if they were never there.  It’s better than it used to be.  At least to me.  I’m not sure what Kevin would say.

So this organizing business – finding a home for my things, learning to be ok with them in their proper place – maybe it will spill over into the other areas of my life.  That the people I can’t put my hands on anymore – for a variety of reasons –perhaps they too will find new homes.  Tucked away in my heart.  Never gone.  But in their proper place.

Artist Date 30: Among the Flora, Invited Out

Stephanie
Stephanie

One of my readers invited me on an Artist Date.  Number 30.

Actually, she’s a friend…and a reader.  Her name is Stephanie.  Last week, she sent me an email inviting me to the Bucktown Tree and Garden Walk.  Hers would be among the 80-plus featured.

I was touched, delighted that she had somehow become “involved” enough in my story, in my process, to join in, to help me along.

So Saturday morning I pedal my vintage Raleigh to her neighborhood.  The day is sunny and hot, but not humid.  A Chicago miracle.

I tie up my bike at Club Lucky and buy a ticket for the walk. In exchange for $5, I receive a map of the gardens with descriptions of each, access to a complimentary trolley, and a coupon for $10 my next meal of $35 or more.

I hear my name called.  It is a woman I used to know.  I didn’t recognize her.  She isn’t surprised to see me.  She heard I moved back to town.  That I am divorced.  Chicago feels like a small town.  It is comforting.

We embrace.  And I jump back on my bike, headed to Stephanie’s, forgoing the trolley.

Her partner Errol is on the porch painting, plein air.  She is inside sautéing onions and baking a pizza – snacks for the other artists expected today.

She gives me a tour of her home, its walls spilling over with her artwork, Errol’s and that of other creatives.  Her first still life hangs in the stairwell.  It is a pear.  Or is it an onion and ramps?  There are several, grouped together.  I don’t recall.  In some ways it doesn’t really matter.  Her raw natural talent is obvious.  It is the kind that makes me wonder why I bother.

Stephanie and Toulousse
Stephanie and Toulouse

I meet her cat Toulouse, and a black one whose name escapes me.  He is missing some bone in his head, which makes his face appear somewhat smushed.

I leave my helmet and my basket with her, and receive explicit directions to stop by Sam and Nick’s.  She points out their location on the map.  “Just tell them we sent you.”

On the way I stop at my first floral garden, (Stephanie and Errol’s was planted with art – some framed and hanging.  Other funky and environmental.  A striped sidewalk created with a power washer and wood planks.  Painted sticks growing out of the soil.  Their colors “changing” from orange to green depending on your position.  Like a painting by the Israeli artist, Agam.)

Marsha is watering plants.  She seems surprised to see me.  Actually, many of the garden owners do.  As if they have forgotten that the garden walk is today.

She shows me her zinnias and her tomatoes.  Nothing remarkable, but lovely. Sweet.  Growing.

Walking into the private space of a stranger, I am reminded of being in Amsterdam.  According to my Frommer’s guide residents intentionally keep their shutters open – proud of their homes, inviting a peek inside.

This is Marsha’s first season in the garden.  She moved in recently, leaving the suburbs and joining her husband in the city.  Her house is on the market and she is keeping her fingers crossed.  She gives me hope – seeing her in this new space, putting down roots, with a partner.  And also knowing that she had a life all her own before this change.  And I assume, to a certain degree, still does.

I don’t tell her any of this.  Instead I tell her about my recollections of Amsterdam, how I recently killed a cactus, and about being invited on an Artist Date by her neighbor.  I run my hands through a tomato plant and bring them to my face.  I love the smell.  I rub my hands on my neck, as if putting on the earth’s fragrance.  I thank her and say goodbye.

2013-07-13 12.31.31

A wading pool is set up at the corner of Hoyne and Moffat, along with a glass bubbler filled with ice water, cucumber, melon and strawberries.  A few chairs are perched in the shade of a tree.  There is a note, “Relax and Hydrate.”  I fill up my water bottle and keep moving.

I stop at Nick and Sam’s.  Sam is wearing a white bee keeper’s hat.  I go inside and talk with Nick about his artwork.  Striking etchings using photos from the Kinsey Institute.  He points out the racy elements because I don’t see them – not at first.

I admire his collection of roller-skate cases lined up on a shelf, each with a tag hanging from it – letting him know what is stored inside.

I visit more than a dozen gardens.  Some consisting of little more than sod on a double-wide lot – one with a basketball net and cement court, another with a large inflatable swimming pool.  Two toddler girls in matching hot pink bathing suits and white sun hats are wading in it.  Their limbs, deliciously chunky.

Others sit on top of garages, tucked behind homes.

I follow arrows and stairs climbing up.  Water spills out of the wall and is caught in a ceramic bowl, a chalice.  Suspiciously clean, striped pads sit on top of teak furniture.  Several blue umbrellas block the sun.  A man, presumably the owner, offers me a bottle of water from a cooler.  I feel like I am at a spa.

At another, an intruder.  I am greeted by a man eating his lunch under a wooden canopy covered with vines, listening to the radio.  His daughter hangs shyly behind him, swaying side to side, her head following her hips.

Most of the homes are noticeably without “hosts.”  Only a laminated card, with a number corresponding to the map, identifies them as part of the walk.

I had expected storybook gardens, like something from the south.  Manicured.  Dense.  Sweetly pungent.  Or wild and overgrown, with tall, smiling sunflowers – like my favorite one in Mendocino, a sleepy resort town on the northern California coast.  A sign implores visitors to photograph, but to refrain from picking.

Instead I encounter mostly neatly trimmed hedges, modest groupings of plants and flowers that clearly thrive, creative use of small space —bringing nature into the city.

2013-07-13 12.54.05I remember moving to Chicago the first time, in 2007.  I was heart-sick for San Francisco.  For pastel-painted Victorians, rolling fog and rolling green hills.  I made it my mission to take the most beautiful path I could wherever I went.  The one with the most trees, prettiest homes.  I had forgotten about that.

Eventually I settled into Chicago.  My surroundings ceased to be new.  And I ceased to notice them.  Until today.

I return to Stephanie and Errol’s to pick up my things.  A few of Errol’s painter friends are here.  They ask if I am a painter.  I shake my head.  I tell them that I am a writer, a dancer, a frustrated potter.  A girl on an Artist Date, being reminded of the loveliness all around me.