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.
It’s a bit like returning from travels abroad and insisting on eating as I did while away. Toasted bread rubbed with fresh garlic and tomato following a trip to Spain. Cucumber-tomato salad for breakfast after a press trip to Israel. And most recently, coffee made in a stove-top moka upon returning from Italy. Each time, holding on to that place, that experience, for as long as I am able.
Except Bowie takes me back to a place and experience I mostly do not care to hold on to — high school. It begins at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the David Bowie IS show — Artist Date 93. I am transported.
I am 14 and wearing a baseball jersey from the Serious Moonlight tour. My cousin from Los Angeles has turned me on to Bowie. The same way he turned me on to weed, the Culture Club and all things French. He is cool with bleached-blonde hair and skinny ties that match his skinny body. He lights my cigarettes, walks on curb side of the sidewalk and stands up when I leave the table. He is my ideal man. He has been all of my life, and although I don’t yet know it, he will continue to be — long after I stop smoking weed, and Boy George gets sober too.
I am rifling through bins of used albums at Sam’s Jams in Ferndale, Michigan and find ChangesOneBowie. Soon I will commit the words of each song to memory. I will know them like I know my own name. My hair is a pinky-red, spiky and sticky with Aqua-Net Extra Hold. I am wearing iridescent blue lipstick, a plaid pleated skirt from the Salvation Army that doesn’t quite zip all the way up and a Cranbrook Lacrosse sweatshirt — hooded with a torn front pocket — that I “borrowed” from a boy named Simon, who I met just once and never saw again.
I am in Ann Arbor visiting my friend Stacey. We have taken the bus from her house to the University of Michigan campus. There are no buses in suburban Detroit, where I live, save for a yellow school bus. I feel urban and cool. We are watching The Man Who Fell to Earth on a big screen. It is terrible but we love it anyway. Stacey has also seen The Hungerand Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. I have not. She is clearly the bigger fan.
I am sitting on multi-hued blue shag carpeting in my bedroom holding the cover of Heroes in my hands — singing every word printed on the sleeve. “And you, you can be mean. And I, I’ll drink all the time.” Little do I know how true these words will turn out to be. A few years later it is Tonight. Blue Jean and a cover of Brian Wilson’s God Only Knows passing my lips.
I am on the cold sidewalk outside of Record Outlet with my best friend A. We are here overnight, in line for tickets to the Glass Spider tour which go on sale tomorrow. I cannot believe my mother has agreed to this.
I cannot believe how long it has been since I have talked to A. Nearly five years. That the last thing she said to me was, “Keep them. They look better on you anyway,” referring to the sunglasses I borrowed and that were still tucked in my bag as I drove away from her apartment. I no longer have them.
I cannot believe I left Heroes and Tonight in Seattle with my ex-husband, along with The Specials, Thriller and the original soundtrack from Hair.
I cannot believe I remember Simon’s name, how long I held on to that sweatshirt, or that I am waxing nostalgic about high school.
But it is. And I did. I do and I am.
In 1990, David Bowie played his greatest hits on tour “a final time.” “…it gave me an immense sense of freedom, to feel that I couldn’t rely on any of those things. It’s like I’m approaching it all from the ground up now.” In 1996 he resurrected Heroes onstage.
It is 70-something and breezy. The kind of day all of Chicago has been waiting for. The kind that should have me grinning ear to ear. But it doesn’t.
I am walking and I figure if I am out here long enough, I will end up somewhere I’ve never been before – which is the point of the Artist Date, Number 71. New input.
I point my feet towards Andersonville – an old Swedish neighborhood on the north side that became popular some 15-plus years ago, yet somehow still retains a whisper of its original feeling.
I have the overwhelming urge to call someone to meet me for ice cream. Because, it is an ice cream kind of day.
I consider my date from last Saturday. Or the man I ran into Friday night. The one who told me he had been feeling lonely.
I seem hell-bent on getting away from myself. I’m not sure why. I try to observe this but not over think it.
I walk into Pars – the Persian store I have passed so many times – instead.
There are hookahs and flavored tobacco. Stacks of soap made from laurel. Rows and rows of loose tea in jars.
Packages of frankincense and sumac. Pots for making Turkish coffee. Halavah. Mildly gritty. Somewhat sweet. Made from ground sesame seeds, it is an acquired taste. I’m pretty sure only Jews and Arabs eat it.
The store is sort of sad and sparse. I leave after 20 minutes of so, no more filled than when I arrived.
I land at Roost. Overpriced, salvaged items line the sidewalk out front. The kind one gets for a song at estate sales in the country, out-of-the way places where those left behind have little to no idea of the value of what they hold.
Inside are candles with man-ish names and smells like “tobacco and oak.” There are mugs with the Lipton Cup-a-Soup logo on them. Cardboard produce boxes that read, “Glass Grown Brand Greenhouse Tomatoes” and “Michigan Zucchini.”
A vintage typewriter.
Two older men giggle. “Where is the screen?”
I tell them I learned to write on an IBM Selectric in journalism school. One recalls saving his birthday money to buy his first typewriter – because his handwriting was so terrible. The other received his as a high-school graduation gift.
We press the keys. They are clunky and heavy. I show them my tattoos, “write” and “left,” in typewriter font. The “f” and “i” raised for effect.
I feel a smile curl on my lips and realize I no longer have a desire to call a boy and get ice cream. At least right now. Even though it is still an ice cream kind of day.
Walking towards home, I cut down Balmoral – a street I never walk down. I am summoned by Greensky.
I hear the shopkeeper mention to customers that most everything is sourced from “Up North” – a term only Michiganders understand – referring to the northwest part of the Lower Peninsula.
I spent my childhood summers Up North. It is a magical place. When I returned to it some 30 years later, I found it was just as I had remembered.
I finger through the Positively Green cards and buy two to send to myself. One is yellow with sunflowers. It reads “Some people are so much sunshine to the square inch. – Walt Whitman.” The other, “As no love is the same, no loss is. – Alla Renee Bozarth.”
I think about the man who walked out of my life without a word exactly one month ago. My friends pointed out all the red flags, but I still don’t really see them. All I know is he touched my heart deeply. And that I am still sad.
I think about what I will write. What I tell myself. What I will tell the child that resides inside of me, the one who once said out loud, “I thought he loved us.”
I respond to her with compassion I can never muster for myself.
“He did love us. As best as he knew how.”
She is filter-less, honest and wise. A little bit younger than I those summers Up North.
I will tell her I am sorry she is hurting. That time takes time. That I love her. Then I will address it, stamp it, and pop it in the mailbox.
I know I will feel differently one day. I just don’t yet. Like I know that today is still an ice cream kind of day.
And later I will have some. Brown butter and salted peanut. I will eat it with a boy, my friend. And together we will share our lonely.
I keep waiting for it to happen. This movie. Inside Llewyn Davis. Artist Date 58.
I am sitting in the Davis Theatre in Lincoln Square. There are about six other people here besides me. It’s a Thursday night and the temperature is hovering around 5 degrees. The streets are noticeably, eerily quiet.
There is a single, double seat tucked into the aisles. Like a love seat. I am tempted to sit in it and sprawl out, but I don’t.
There is a preview for a movie about Jesus, one about an escaped convict – wrongly accused, of course – falling in love. And one for Dallas Buyers Club, which I saw a few months ago. Artist Date 47. I well up all over again.
And I am waiting. Not for the feature to actually begin, because it already has. But the story. I’m waiting for “it” to happen.
I think maybe “it” is about the cat who runs out of Llewyn’s friend’s apartment. The one Llewyn carries with him, a guitar in his other hand, until he can return him. The one he feeds cream to out of a saucer at a café.
I am reminded of silly, sassy cat asses. And that I miss having a cat. That maybe I should get one.
“It” is not about cats. Or just that cat. Or about carrying around shit that doesn’t belong to you.
I think maybe “it” is about taking a journey. In this instance, with John Goodman – who looks suspiciously like one of my clients – and his driver. Like the one in Deconstructing Harry, where Woody Allen takes a road trip with a black prostitute, up to his kid’s college graduation. Like my many road trips from east to west and back again. The one where I took photographs of myself at the Mitchell Corn Palace and ate butter pecan ice cream at Wall Drug. And the one where I learned to shoot a gun in rural Montana.
“It” is not about journeys and road trips.
I think maybe “it” is about Llewyn getting Jean, his friend’s girlfriend, pregnant. About responsibility and taking what isn’t yours. That “it” is about Llewyn finally arriving in Chicago and meeting the man who might change this musical trajectory. About dreams and taking chances and storybook endings.
But “it” isn’t.
I keep waiting for “it” to happen. And “it” never does.
Because waiting for a movie to happen is like waiting for life to happen. I can spend so much time and energy sitting on expectations – how I think it should look – that I miss all the gorgeous, perfect moments along the way. The movie moments. The “it’s.”
Like playing your guitar for your father in an old folk’s home and for a brief moment seeing his eyes register recognition. That he knows you. Knows this song. And then shits himself.
Like when the woman who calls you an asshole like it’s your given name, discloses a single act of kindness and you reject it. You tell her you love her. And she doesn’t call you an asshole.
Like when you finally make it to Chicago to see “the man” and he says to show him what you’ve got. His eyes are soft and the lighting is perfect, streaming through dusty windows on to a dusty floor. And your pitch is right and you are singing from inside, just like he asked you to.
And he tells you that you’re not front-man material. That he might be able to make it work if you shave your beard into a goatee and stay out of the sun. But that your best shot is to get back together with your partner. Because he doesn’t know your partner is dead. That he jumped off the George Washington Bridge. And that someone, anyone, singing his harmony sends you into a PTSD-like rage.
Like picking up the phone and your meditation teacher asking you to sing “Easy to Be Hard” while he rides his bike in Golden Gate Park.
Like connecting with an old acquaintance who has been living your marriage and is now living your divorce – except you didn’t know it, until now. Who speaks your heart and your story. Talking to one another and saying over and again, “me too.”
Like sitting in a movie theatre alone. Because you have chosen to be alone in this moment. Because you enjoy your own company.
Maybe that’s what “it’s” all about. These moments. That, and a couch you can sleep on no matter what you have said or done. A place to call home for a minute or two while you wander around in your boxer shorts eating scrambled eggs. Friends who love you. And a cat –something soft to hold onto, something to care about besides yourself.
My friend Betsy gave me a book of hers a few days after I turned 40 – one that she wrote, as opposed to one that once upon a time made a difference in her life but is now collecting dust on the shelf. Just after I told her about my crush on a mutual friend of ours.
I told her that I was committed to the commitment of my marriage. That I loved my husband. That we had grown in wildly different directions, and were continuing to do so.
That I would see this other guy, our mutual friend, every Saturday morning in a church basement, where we would sit across the table from one another. That he was funny and smart, a writer. That he spoke my brand of crazy, which meant that when I talked, he would nod in that knowing way. The same way I nodded when he spoke.
Or perhaps I just liked the way he made me feel. Seen. Heard. Understood.
Betsy made a happy-sad face and told me the story of When the Messenger is Hot.
I’m standing in The Brown Elephant thrift store in Andersonville – Artist Date 50. Her book of short stories by the same name stares back at me from the shelves of fiction.
I smile a big toothy grin. It’s some sort of message, I think. Which is really the crux of the When the Messenger is Hot.
That people, objects, and experiences come into our lives for a reason.
Sometimes their appearance, or disappearance, is painful. Sometimes it looks nothing like what we imagined.
And sometimes, according to Betsy, God provides a pretty attractive delivery vehicle to make certain we pay attention. In her case, a bad boy with the heart of a poet and a tattoo on the inside of each of his wrists, Chinese symbols for “child of God.”
She thought he might be the love of her life. Or at least great sex. Instead, she came to see him, and their single date – which she rated among her top 5 – but never led to another, as a template of what a date should look like – “…love songs and flowers and candles and lollipops.” A reason to have faith. A harbinger of things to come.
I’m still not sure what message the Fish Guy came to deliver me. That there are attractive men all around who will bring me clever and intimate gifts that say, “I know you?” (Because really, I don’t know any women other than myself who would swoon over a piece of fish.) That my then-husband wasn’t the only one? My own harbinger of things to come?
That my brand of crazy really isn’t so crazy? That that “too much” that I fear being, really isn’t too much?
The Fish Guy moved away from Chicago – to Florida, so he could fish. Seriously. But the message of When the Messenger is Hot stuck with me.
The words became my shorthand for meeting someone seemingly special and not getting what I thought I wanted. And an opportunity to look for lessons where I thought there might be love.
The teacher who taught me about spiritual intimacy through shared prayer and meditation, and long conversations about God.
The Southern Svengali who taught me about creative companionship. What it was to be inspired by another, to have a muse. And to be a muse.
The divorce buddy who taught me about unconditional love and friendship. Who packed my car and drove me home from the West Coast to Chicago, even when things were awkward and clunky between us.
I think about buying Betsy’s book, just because it is here. Even though I already have a copy. Even though I have sent copies to several of my friends. But I leave it.
I pick up a collection of short stories titled Tongue Party, and a hardback copy of Like Water for Chocolate, both for $1.37, instead – curious what messages they will deliver.
I don’t know if I filled my creative coffers this week. By my spiritual and social ones are brimming over. And that will have to do this week for Artist Date 38.
Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year. 5774. I’m at Dawes Park in Evanston for the ritual of tashlich – where we empty bread from our pockets into a body of moving water. Some think of it as casting away one’s sins. I prefer a gentler interpretation. That I am simply cleaning out the residue of the last year. Whatever is stale. Has been sitting around in the corners of my consciousness slowly growing a somewhat furry mold.
I’ve stuffed a package of naan bread in my bag. It’s been in my freezer since November. A friend brought it to a party I had, to go with the curried lentil soup I was making. I’m not much of a bread eater, so I tucked it away for just such an occasion.
Another woman has matzo. I could have brought that two. I buy too much every year.
It is my third High Holiday season with the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, so I know where we meet. But this year is different. I not only know the place, but I know many of the people here too.
My friend Phil is here with his family. He introduced me to this congregation – specifically the Rabbi — a number of years ago, when I was feeling particularly wayward and spiritually lost.
Since that time I have developed a close relationship with Rabbi Brant and Cantor Howard. They are tuning up for this short, mostly musical, service that precedes the tossing of the bread. Jeff is tuning up as well. We met a couple of years ago at a Shabbat morning service I attended just once.
He seemed to sense I was new and somewhat hesitant, and warmly welcomed me in. I have had several encounters with him since them. Perhaps my favorite being when he sidled up to me during last year’s High Holiday services.
He said he read my blog postings from Rwanda and that he liked my writing. I thanked him and told him I used to write professionally. “It shows,” he said. And was gone.
Moments before I had silently cried out to G-d, asking what the plan is, what it is I was meant to do. I recall looking up toward the heavens, smiling and saying, “got it.”
Mary Jo is here. Brant introduced us several years ago when I completed my conversion to Judaism. She joined him and Howard as my witnesses, and was there in that same role when I received my get, my Jewish divorce.
I am now on her permanent invite list for Passover, and the breaking of the fast on Yom Kippur.
I feel a tap on my shoulder. It is Rachel. She is a Weight Watchers member I know.
Monica is here with her family. We met at Shabbat services at the lakefront a couple of years ago. Michael is here too. He blows the shofar every year at High Holiday services. He introduces me to his daughters who are following in the family tradition.
I see Hannah. She used to wear her head shaved like mine but now she has a mass of ringlets. She tells me that she’s bought a condo and that she broke up with her boyfriend. She introduces me to her friend Kelly and we agree we must get together.
A woman I have never met before approaches me. Her name is Sheila. She likes my shoes and takes a photograph of them.
Yes, they are “the shoes.” The shoes that have seemingly come to identify me. My orange Fly London peep-toe wedges.
The first summer I owned them, people literally chased me down Michigan Avenue to find out what they were and where I got them. It was fun, talking with all sorts of people I wouldn’t otherwise meet. And today is no exception.
Walking to the water, a tall woman with a mess of dark curls puts her foot next to mine. “Nice shoes,” she says. She is wearing the same ones in pewter.
She tells me she is tossing out the year of rehabbing her broken wrist. It is healed. I do not tell her what I am tossing. Instead, I tell her I like our shoes so much that I have two pairs. That the second I bought before my divorce was final, when my then-husband kindly said, “Do what you need to before we separate our monies.”
I bought a new lightweight massage table, a Torah commentary, and the peep-toe wedges in mustard. We laugh at my choices.
I wish her a sweet New Year and peel off to throw my bread, my karmic residue. There are so many things I could get rid of. The litany that I repeat every year – self-doubt, unkindness, judgment of myself and others. I recall that last year I tossed away my identity as a wife.
It was a Monday. I knew divorce papers were signed on Mondays in the county where we filed. I had a sinking feeling at that moment that I was officially divorced. A call to my mediator later in the day confirmed it.
Today I am casting away what my friend Lisa likes to call “an old idea.” I am embarrassed to admit that I have continued to hold on to it. Actually, I’m not sure I was consciously aware that I had it, but a series of recent events has cast a glaring light upon it and I can no longer turn away.
I point myself east, tear off a piece of naan and whisper to myself, “I let go of the idea that I am only desirable for sex.”
It is windy and the naan flies back at me. I turn west off of the dock where the waters are still. I repeat the words.
I’ve got a lot of naan so I say it a couple of more times, ripping and tossing. Ripping and tossing.
When I am done, I am approached by a woman. She asks me about the shoes. She is radiant and I tell her so. She tells me about her job search. Her cancer.
I suddenly remember that people used to tell me things about themselves all of the time. Friends and family, and random, almost strangers too. Cab drivers especially. I realize people are talking to me in this way again.
It’s not the shoes. Because I wore the same ones last year…I am different. My heart has healed just enough to let some of my light shine out. I am open and there is room for others. They sense it and come in.
I’m standing on the corner of 4th and Main in Royal Oak, Michigan.
I had breakfast with my old boss, Bill, a couple of hours ago. We met at the restaurant he owns, where I used to work. I was employee number seven. Or maybe it was six? Nine? We’re not exactly sure. We decide seven sounds about right.
I haven’t seen him since my divorce. Since he met DD. We wax nostalgic about the early days. Toast that came out 20 minutes after the eggs. The decision to hire a cleaning service because I didn’t want to scrub the toilets. The handsome photographer upstairs.
I spent years in this city. As a teenager – thrifting and hanging out at Patti Smith – not the musician, the other one. At her clothing store – talking, listening to music, wanting to be a grown up.
After college, I moved here and lived in an upstairs flat with my friend Mona and her two cats. I worked at a weekly newspaper, waited tables on the weekends, and drank my tip money.
I haven’t been here in a number of years. And alone, probably never. It seems the perfect destination for Artist Date 32. That’s what I had in my head when I planned my trip “home” a few weeks ago. Except I didn’t make much time for alone. I never do.
I just left coffee with my 17-year-old niece. I found her waiting for me on a concrete planter outside of Caribou – which wasn’t Caribou when I was 17. I remember “punk rock” kids getting dropped off here and walking down the street to meet their friends – as if their parents had not just dropped them off.
I tell my niece I used to hang out here 26 years ago. She’s floored. As she is when I tell her what 17 was like in my house. That it wasn’t so different. That I too felt grown up in so many ways, but still a kid in others. How I just wanted to go – to New York..but Royal Oak would do. And how sometimes I wanted to stay – in my bedroom with the blue shag carpet…forever.
Mostly, we agree that 17 is hard.
I’m due to meet Danny in a half hour. We met at a Jewish retreat the summer before we entered high school. He was funky and quirky and a good dancer – like me. Perhaps he too felt like a black, drag queen trapped in a small Jewish body.
A half hour isn’t really long enough for an Artist Date, but I decide it’s kind of like exercise – a little bit is better than none. I let go of all the “why didn’t you plan for your Artist Date” chatter and spend the next 30 minutes absorbing this place I used to call mine. The clock is now ticking.
There used to be a bank here, just south of this corner. I made out with Joe A. in my maroon Chevy Corsica, parked right in front of it. He moved to Tucson not long after.
I see a guy sitting on the patio at Tom’s Oyster Bar. He has the shiniest black hair I’ve ever seen. Beautiful, with waves. He looks like Joe’s musical partner – who I also made out with. But later. A couple of years later. Just before I moved to San Francisco. I cannot remember his name. He looks up at me. We smile at one another and he returns to his book. I do not know if it is him.
So much has changed. And yet, a lot is still the same. The independent stores that serve as anchors –Haberman Fabrics. Incognito. Noir Leather. I once bought an erotica book here and popped it in my lover’s bag before he headed out of town, with a dirty letter I penned tucked inside.
Bright Ideas – a modern, cool, functional interiors store. It’s been here as long as I can remember.
I walk in and my head quiets. I am sucked in by what is in front of me rather than what is in me, in my head –Joe A., his partner, my niece.
Detroit drink coasters. Symbols of my childhood. Drink Faygo Orange. Better Made Potato Chips. The iconic scrawl of Sanders – hot fudge and ice cream shops, and Vernors – better and spicier than any ginger ale you can imagine. It used to be used medicinally. Quintessentially Detroit. All of it. I am smiling.
There are tiny bud vases in a variety of colors, thrown on a potter’s wheel. They began as a fundraising activity and blossomed into a business. I think about my own somewhat disappointing foray into throwing. Disappointing because I had expectations. I thought I’d be good. Immediately. Because I worked with clay when I was 17. Because I have no patience.
The vases are made in Seattle. I am wistful.
There are low-slung couches with chrome and clean lines. My nearly 5 foot 3-inch body sits comfortably in these. At home my feet dangle off of the pricey futon. I bought it because I had a notion that I would sleep on it and my bedroom would be my massage studio. That’s not what happened.
I wonder if I can fit one in my hatch.
There are pillows with birds painted neon pink and green and blue. An orange flower is growing out of another. Several are felted, with messages “seemingly” just for me: “Let’s Make Out.” “Happily Ever After.” “Think Big.” “Breathe.”
Yes. Yes. Yes and Yes.
There are yellow, leather “Star Trek” chairs. Body hugging, with matching ottomans. On the wall are grey circles with the letters S,M,L. Like the three bears in Goldilocks. I wonder which one will be just right for me. In chairs. In all things.
I look at my watch. It’s time to meet Danny. I feel surprisingly and strangely refreshed having taken these 20 minutes alone. A little lighter. A little clearer. Time apart.
I find Danny down the street and throw my arms around him. He is wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt and shoots me a big smile – a cross between a 5-year-old’s pure joy and “I am up to no good.”
I tell him I’m hungry and he takes me to Astoria Bakery – formerly Cinderella’s Attic, one of my early thrifting haunts. He orders a walnut roll. I get a cookie laced with honey and a flirtation of anise. His is better.
We catch up on our lives post-divorce. He is a year ahead of me in the process. He tells me about his kids. About dating. I tell him about not dating. About my inability to compartmentalize. My wish that I could.
I do not tell him about my Artist Dates. I am not sure why. I figure he already knows. In the same way that I already know. It’s just like that sometimes. With some people. In some places. Like here, right now, with him.
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.
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.
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.
I 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.
This is an auspicious beginning to any date – even an Artist’s Date, one that I take by myself.
I assure Eric, the salesperson at Blackbird Gallery and Framing, that I am not.
“I love this,” he continues, gesturing to my bindi. “All of this,” he adds, waving his hands in small circles around his face. “You are beautiful.”
I like this man. Of course, he is gay.
In my hand is a cardboard tube. I’ve made a handle out of packing tape so I could carry it from Nashville to Knoxville to Atlanta and home to Chicago. Inside are two posters.
I bought them at Hatch Show Print in Nashville – America’s oldest working print shop – where letterpress posters summoned me through glass. Where nary a square inch of wall isn’t covered with iconic images of Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and the Grand Ole Opry.
A smattering of them are for sale, among them “Luana. Danse Savage” and “Island of Lost Souls with the Panther Woman.” As soon as I spotted them, I knew they were mine.
Eric unrolls them onto a large table and places weighted felt bags at each corner so they lie flat. They are made of heavy cotton paper, printed in single color ink. Luana is deep purple – women dancing in short fringed skirts, with cuffs around their ankles. Island of Lost Souls with the Panther Woman is forest green – a vamped-out, busty broad holding a wild cat on a leash.
Island of Lost Souls. I feel like I took up residency there about a year ago. I often times still feel wayward. Uncertain. Acutely aware that little in my life has stood on terra firma for some time now.
Marriage dissolved. Another move cross-country, this time bringing little with me that feels like home. At the time it felt liberating – packing the 13-year-old Honda Civic and leaving the rest behind. Only later did it register as frighteningly impulsive and potentially foolish.
And yet, my ex doesn’t seem to feel any less lost than I – living in the house where we once lived together, sleeping in the bed we used to sleep in together, surrounded by “our things.” Perhaps I got the better end of the deal. Spiritually, at least.
I like the panther on the poster. And the va-va-voom dress the woman is wearing. A sexy new take on Cat Woman. The possibility of living as a super hero.
Luana reminds me of Sunday afternoon dance class at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Of the serendipity and just plain good luck I had to dance with a troupe in Rwanda this past summer. The dancers’ surprise and delight that the muzungo (white person) could follow.
Luana seems the opposite end of the Island of Lost Souls. Yet I am both of them at once.
The posters are big. Big enough to make a dent on my big, blank canvas of a wall – painted eggshell by my landlord. The colors, the same as those in the fabric hanging on the adjacent wall – a few meters cut and carried from the Rwandan market.
They are not what I had envisioned here.
I had imagined my friend Slade’s sketch of me. Shaved head, bindi, a whitish aura around me – he is not the first to comment on it. I look a little bit African American, a little bit Hare Krishna. Thin, wispy, spiritual. I love it. I love how he captured me. But the piece is small, and it lives in his sketchbook.
I had imagined a map. Or a series of maps, playing off the unintentional travel theme of the room. Snowshoes on one side of the entry way, license plates from California, Washington and Illinois on the other. Stacked suitcases turned on their side make a table. There’s the Rwandan fabric, and a painting I bought from my friend Scotty of a woman leaving her home, leaving her tribe. It’s called, “You Can Take it With You.”
I am amazed at how the space is filled when I let go of my ideas and make room for God.
Eric and I lay frame corners on the edges of the posters. Painted wood. Maple. Birch. No. Not quite. I place a sample of metallic sage on one, metallic plum on the other. A marriage is made.
Eric places a card on top of the posters. It shows the differences between three types of glass. Three price points. I submit to the middle grade. Less reflection. Less distortion. UV protected.
We talk about spacers and decide I can do without.
Eric crunches numbers and square inches. I look at paintings and photographs on the walls. The artists are young, accomplished – as evidenced by their bios. Talented. I feel woefully far behind in my craft. As if I’ve been losing time for some time. On that Island of Lost Souls for far longer than I realized.
He produces a framing estimate that shocks me. Even with my $61 Yelp! coupon credit it is much more than I anticipated. I consider leaving and sticking a tack into Luana and the Island.
I think about all the things I left behind so that I could create something new. Something shiny.
I hand over my credit card and put down a deposit, hoping the second half will show up on next month’s bill.
I tell Eric about the posters. About dancing in Africa in the middle of a divorce, leaving the Island of Lost Souls for a spiritual sojourn. He tells me about his photography work. We talk about my return to writing.
Perched up on a three-legged stool, I realize I am flirting. It doesn’t matter that he is gay. I feel light. Like myself. Or who I used to be. I enjoy our easy rat-a-tat-tat repartee.
I ask him his sign. Sagittarius, he says and I laugh. I should have known. I tell him I love Sagittarians. I do not tell him that the book Love, Sex and Astrology says that Libra and Sagittarius meet at half past 7 and are in bed by 8.
I keep this to myself, along with stories of all the Sagittarians I have loved – my first real boyfriend in college. My one-time drinking partner. My religious studies professor – the object of my unrequited desire for so many years. Unfinished business.
Instead, I tell him I am a Libra. He tells me I seem strong. Resilient. I smile and nod.
“Sometimes,” I say.
After nearly an hour with Eric, I leave with a pink receipt and a card for his next open studio.
As I cross the threshold on the way out, a couple walks in with a large piece of art for framing. So large it requires both sets of hands. Divine timing. God filling the space I am leaving.
I called my friend Sheila from the Lyric Opera tonight. I was seeing Oklahoma! Artist’s Date 21. Standing in the lobby, talking into my corded ear piece, I told her I felt at ease here by myself. That it didn’t seem strange. That I was comfortable.
Perhaps because I had been on 20 solo Artist’s Dates prior.
Or perhaps because I wasn’t really alone.
I got a call this morning. My birth mother, Pharen, died. She was 60.
We just met for the first time three years ago. She had been looking for me for 12 years, but it wasn’t until I began my search for her that we were connected. And then it was ridiculously and remarkably fast. And easy.
We spoke for the first time two days before I turned 40. I was on a plane to Charleston to meet her a few months later.
During that visit she gave me a pair of mother-of-pearl opera glasses — one of the few things she had to give me, she explained, apologizing that she had long ago given her “good jewelry” to her nieces, as she wasn’t sure she would get to meet me.
I patted the lump in my bag that was the glasses, tucked inside a soft purple Crown Royal bag. Exactly how she gave them to me.
Sweet irony. For it is only in getting sober that I finally mustered the courage to look for her rather than talk about looking for her. That I found friends who had done the same and could walk me through it, step by step.
Sweet irony. That I would be going to the opera the day she died.
My friend Lynn told me to be gentle with myself during this time.
This time when my stomach feels full with anxiety and yet I don’t know what I am anxious about. She says it is my body responding to the uncertainty of experiencing something new.
Like losing a “parent” — even if she didn’t raise me. Or going to the opera alone.
My body has grown accustomed to these Artist’s Dates.
Picking up my tickets from will call, I felt kind of cool and confident, like the girl in a Charlie! perfume commercial from the 1980s. “Who’s that in the orange suede boots and short, pink-wool blazer by herself? The one with the bindi and the cropped hair?”
I used to sometimes feel sorry for people I saw alone at events. I don’t anymore — because I don’t feel sorry for me.
I settled into my aisle seat — main floor, row RR — relieved that I didn’t have to make conversation. That I could sit. That I could read from the book in my bag. That I could return emails and texts from my smartphone, clicking “like” by every condolence I received on Facebook. Right until the lights went down and the curtain went up.
I’d never seen Oklahoma! before, movie or stage production. I loved it. Who doesn’t love a surrey with a fringe on top? I pulled out my glasses to see the performers better. I had a hard time getting a really clear view, but no matter. I felt her with me. I wasn’t alone.
I loved the simple story of courting and coupling — a different time, but the foibles and heartbreaks universal, transcending it. I saw a little bit of myself in wildly flirtatious Ado Annie. Always keeping her options open. Easily swayed by pretty words and sexy kisses.
I thought of my Aunt Julie, Pharen’s sister, who I met this fall when I went to Charleston a second time — when I received a call that my birth mother was dying, but didn’t.
I had met a boy while I was there and fell head over heels over head. And when it didn’t turn out exactly as I had planned, she warned me about “pretty words.” And to “stop and pay attention” when I hear what I want to hear, words that make my heart race.
Aunt Julie is practical and wise. Pharen was like me. A dreamy romantic with her heart on her sleeve and her feet often-times not quite touching the ground.
I loved the singing. I loved the dancing. I loved that it was light and I could just smile through it.
I loved that I could, in fact, smile through it.
That I no longer had to be attached to my sadness. That I could experience moments of joy amidst my sorrow.
That I could go to the opera without wearing the look of “rescue me” painted on my face.
That I coudl go to work today, rather than calling in “tragic victim,” and not feel the need to announce to my Weight Watchers members that my birth mom had died earlier that morning. That I could engage in their stories. And when one offered that her niece had recently died, I didn’t have to match her loss with my own.
That I could call my parents, the ones who raised me, and tell them about Pharen’s passing. That I could go to them with compassion and without expectations, knowing that this isn’t easy for them — my having found my birth family. That I could turn to others less affected for comfort and soothing.
That I could call my birth dad and not want a thing from him other than to tell him this news.
That I could experience joy when 45 minutes after receiving the call that my birth mother had died, I received another call letting me know I had won fifth prize ina a writing contest I recently entered — my first ever. Addressing the topic, “How Creativity Changed My Life,” I wrote about these Artist’s Dates and the book from which they come, The Artist’s Way — my companion in divorce, in my (mostly) chosen single-dom. Chosen but not always embraced.
That I could take the Mother’s Day card I bought yesterday — signed, sealed and ready to be delivered — and drop it in the mailbox anyway. Knowing she would “get it.” Just like I knew she was there with me tonight…
Peering through the opera glasses to see which male performers were cutest. Knowing Ado Annie but wondering how she might be more steely, like Laurey. Admonishing me for wearing orange suede booties in the rain, while I waited for the valet to bring my car — the ones that clomped down the hospital corridor so loudly, causing her to yell, “I knew it was you from half-way down the block…”