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.

Artist’s Date 20: When God Fills the Space, a Trip to the Island of Lost Souls

Luana_Danse_Savage-Small__07477_std“You look familiar.  Are you famous?”

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.

Island_of_Lost_Souls_01__08149_stdMarriage 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.

slade painting of meI 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.

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

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

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

Or perhaps because I wasn’t really alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder I didn’t feel alone.

Artist’s Date 19: We’re Only As Sick As Our Secrets

anne sextonI met Catherine Kaikowska my senior year of college, in an 8 a.m. poetry class.

She was all black.  Turtleneck.  Boots.  Leggings.  All hair.  Brown.  Shoulder length.  Wide and kind of frizzy.  She hiked herself up on the desk, crossed her legs in front of her and cracked open a can of Diet Coke.  “Fuck, it’s early,” she mumbled.

I liked her right away.

She liked me too, and invited me to meet her at The Peanut Barrel – an East Lansing institution known for good burgers, cheap pitchers of beer, and peanut shells covering the floor – where we sucked down Labatts Blues, chain smoked and talked about sex until closing.

She was from Ohio, and used to work the door at a club where Chrissie Hynde played before she made it big with The Pretenders.  The place she vowed she’d never return to until that time.

I haven’t thought about Catherine in a long time.  Until last Thursday, when I slipped a biography of Anne Sexton into my robin’s egg blue Samsonite carry-on bag, circa 1972, and boarded a plane bound for Nashville.

I was first introduced to Sexton in Catherine’s class, along with Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich and her mentor at Michigan State University, Diane Wakoski.  Yet my interests lied with the testosterone-rich voice of Charles Bukowski.  The beatnik fantasy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

I pulled the book out – a tomb, really, nearly 500 pages, hardcover and wrapped in acetate that is supposed to protect it – at Midway Airport, after checking my orange hard-case luggage and picking up a mediocre Americano.  Artist’s Date 19, surrounded by fellow travelers with faces tucked into ipad and smartphone screens.

If we are only as sick as our secrets, then Sexton was the picture of health – for she had none.  She was transparent, as I have been described.  Only more so.

Teacher and mentor John Holmes begged Sexton not to publish her darker, highly confessional poems.  Advice she ignored, and turned into, “For John, Who Begs Me Not To Enquire Further.”

And yet, clearly she wasn’t well, as she took her own life at 45, just two years older than my 43.

Sexton threaded the stories of her life through men – how they reflected her.  She was wildly flirtatious.  A presence.  And, at times, profoundly sad.

She tended to sexualize significant relationships.  She had fluid boundaries.

She felt, at times, in competition with her mother.  And was considered alcoholic.

She gave away her heart too easily.

In “More Than All the Rest,” a poem to her long-term psychiatrist Dr. Martin Orne, she writes:

“Oh, I have raped my inner soul/And give it, naked, to you,/Since my warm mouth and arms/might love, and frighten you.”

I saw myself.  I looked around the airplane to see if anyone else saw me too.

I felt sick, like the medical-school student convinced she has contracted each disease she studies.

But I am not Anne.  I didn’t suffer post-partum depression.  I didn’t hand over my children to be raised by my mother-in-law.  I don’t have children.  I’ve never been pregnant.

I haven’t been institutionalized.  I didn’t take my own life.

Sexton’s gift was making something out of her sick.  Creating art.  Allowing others to see inside the most shameful parts of herself and whisper, “me too.”  In the process, she found both “her people” and herself.

Me too.

The plane touched down.  I was 78 pages in.  I slipped an index card into the book to hold my place, on it is a prayer I had written.  My own words.  My own healing.