AWAY (alone)

nikki mcclure
Nikki McClure 2017 Calendar

My friend Clover knows I love papercut artist Nikki McClure and has twice bought me calendars of her work. Each has a beautiful image of the season and a single word. BECOME for January. RETREAT for April. LINGER for September. This morning I turned the page to October –AWAY.

Yes, indeed.

AWAY (alone) is the gift I have learned to give myself each birthday (whenever possible), each October 20.

Forty-five began with breakfast in Rome and ended with dinner in Paris. That evening, crossing the Seine from the Right Bank to the Left, I looked out at Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower and thought, “Who goes to Paris for dinner?” and then, “I do.”

What followed shook me to my core. Alone on my birthday in arguably the most romantic city in the world I thought “I don’t wish a man was here.” “I don’t wish a man was here.” And then, “I don’t wish a friend was here or that I ate anything different or wore anything different or that anything was different.” It was a moment of pure contentment and total bliss – fleeting and remarkable.

That trip – specifically my time spent in Rome – catapulted me on to a trajectory that had me living in Madrid six months later.

I had met a woman a few weeks earlier while volunteering in Perugia. Upon my arrival in Rome, she insisted on throwing a dinner/birthday party in my honor. As I rode the tram from the residential Trastevere neighborhood to Pyramid station on a Saturday night, flowers in hand, I thought, “It’s like I live here,” and then, “I can do this.” I knew just what the words meant – although I didn’t yet know where I’d be going … or how soon.

Forty-seven found me back in Paris waking up to a text that read, “Yesterday’s kisses are still on my tongue. Delicious. Happy Birthday, Gorgeous!” I spent that afternoon on a walking tour of Montmarte with a woman I had met just that morning. We shared a chocolate tart before parting company and she sang me Happy Birthday. That evening, I walked back to the bridge where I had found contentment and peace two years earlier – alone, eating a falafel from my favorite stand in Le Marais, and equally blissed out.

The romance lasted a glorious six months. My friendship with the woman from the walking tour remains strong.

I’ve often said I am best on the road, on my own.

My internal travel clock grows loud and restless at about the five-month mark. My spirit calls for its sojourn. AWAY (alone). Some might call it running … but I don’t think so.

AWAY (alone) is a detour. It is a place where unfamiliar roads open my eyes and force me to pay attention to what is in front of me. I believe it is in that paying attention that magic shows its face and I am awake enough to notice and respond to it.

I leave for Montreal in 19 days – my 48th birthday – AWAY (alone) and wonder what gifts await me.

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Artist Date 101: Si, Es Verdad

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” Los Dias al Reves” — “Inside-out Days” by Pep Carrio. Part of “Think With Your Hands” exhibit at Instituto Cervantes.

I’m trying to download the app that goes with the exhibit “Think With Your Hands.”  I have been unsuccessful so far.

No matter, I am taken with the art — even without the 3-D animation I can control through the app.   If I can download it.

Organizer calendars, the kind kept pre-smart phone, the kind I still keep, filled with images — collage, watercolor, pencil –one for each day for a year.  Then for three more.  In the fifth year, a commitment to fine-line marker only.  The sixth, full-color on both pages of the spread.  More than 1,000 images, 1,000 days. ” Los Dias al Reves” — “Inside-out Days” by Pep Carrio.

Frames loaded with seemingly disparate objects, a wooden cut-out of a woman the only constant.  Wearing a dress made of Swiss cheese.  Sleeping in a horse’s belly.  Swimming, torso-less.  All arms, legs and head.  “Los Suenos de Helena” — “Helena’s Dreams” by Isidro Ferrer.

I am marking my own commitment, my own days — Artist dates, 101 of them today.  Swimming toward my own dreams —  across the Atlantic, to live and to work.

No husband.  No boyfriend.  No booty call.

No kids.  No pets.

My parents are healthy.

Not even a plant.

If not now, when?

I have been dreaming of living abroad for as long as I can remember.  Only really pondering it since my divorce almost three years ago.  Seriously considering it since returning from Italy in October.

And now planning it — researching TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) courses, reading blogs, Skype-ing with friends of friends living and teaching overseas and having coffee with those who once did.

Not so long ago, the only dream receiving this sort of effort and attention was love.  I only knew it when it was no longer true — a few months ago, when the Reluctant Shaman came to visit.

The morning he left, we meditated in front of my altar.  Then he ran his fingertips from the center of my forehead out to my cheeks — opening my third eye — wrapped his arms around me, kissed the space between my brows and said goodbye.

When he was gone, I lamented that we were only friends.

“He lives in Michigan, you live in Chicago,” I said out loud, to no one.

“His dream is to build a retreat center, yours is to live in Europe.”  As the words tumbled from my mouth, I could feel the next ones forming, pushing out, birthing themselves.

“I have a dream bigger than a relationship,” I said, excitedly, repeating the phrase as if to make certain it was so.

It was so.  A revelation.  A victory.

One that is now being tested — less than three months after my big aha — at Instituto Cervantes, Artist Date 101.

"Los Suenos de Helena" -- "Helena's Dreams" by Isidro Ferrer.  Part of "Think With Your Hands" exhibit at Instituto Cervantes.
“Los Suenos de Helena” — “Helena’s Dreams” by Isidro Ferrer. Part of “Think With Your Hands” exhibit at Instituto Cervantes.

I’m fiddling with the app when a man approaches me.

“Hello,” he says, slipping behind me so I have to turn around to face him.  “How are you?”

I search my mental Rolodex, trying to locate him.  How do I know this man?  Clearly we’ve met.  Why else would he stand so close?  Act so familiar?

I tell him I am fine and inquire how he is, stalling.  He grins at me.

I got nothing.

Finally I ask, “Do I know you?”

“No,” he replies.  “I just wanted to meet you and thought I’d say hello.”

This never happens to me.

I laugh at the novelty of his gesture, the simple wisdom in making an introduction to an attractive stranger without premise.

We exchange names and handshakes.  He asks what brings me here.  I tell him I am moving to Spain.

“Where?”

“I’m not certain yet.”

We talk about Barcelona — Gaudi.  The beach.  Sagrada Familia.  Madrid — The capital.  Prado.  Picasso’s Guernica.   A partner program whereby I can learn Spanish part-time and receive a student visa, allowing me to work legally.

He shakes his head.  How can I “just go?”  Don’t I have things?  Stuff?  Property?

“Very little,” I offer.  Whittling my life down to two suitcases shouldn’t be too hard — I hope.

He tells me he taught English in France, when he was in his 20s.  I am not in my 20s.  Not even close.

I smile, thank him for introducing himself, and excuse myself — returning to the exhibit.

I attempt to comprehend the Spanish spoken around me.  (I get about one-sixth of it, at best.)  And by the artists during their talk, taking off the headset that pipes in translation.  (I get even less.)  I try to download the app again.  I never do.

None of it matters.  Only that I “passed.”  That I chose a dream bigger than a relationship.  That I chose me.

A higher mark than I ever received in high school Spanish class.

Si’, es verdad.

Postscript: Less than 12 hours after my Artist Date, my path became clear.  Seven days later, I put down a deposit on coursework in Madrid.  I leave July 2015.

Artist Date 72: I Hadn’t Even Realized They’d Been Gone

On Wednesday, Linda emailed me to cancel our date to the Art Institute.  Understandably, as she recently fell and cracked a few ribs.  She is on the mend, but not quite well enough to go out.

And just like that, the universe provided me with my Artist Date – Number 72.

I’ve been struggling with them lately.  Planning.  Going.  Writing.

I thought about messaging R. to see if he wanted to meet me.  We’ve been messaging one another on OKCupid, but haven’t met yet.  We will next week, over coffee.

Yes, I just not-so-subtly slipped that in…that about two weeks ago I somewhat hesitantly joined the world of online dating.  Although I haven’t had a date yet.

Yes, my entire blog centers on life after divorce.  The heart-breaking dalliances, and the more than year-long commitment to dating myself, courting my own creativity.  But I neglected to write about this.  Amazing.

Yes, blog forthcoming.

And yet, something knew better.  A higher self?  Just the universe at work?  For several weeks now, despite my feelings and my best efforts, time and space for my solo sojourns has serendipitously appeared.  And my feet have followed.  Habitual.  Almost like brushing my teeth.  But coupled with a craving –for time.  With me.  Outside of me.

And so I nix the message to R.  Grab a banana and a latte at Starbucks – the divorcee’s dinner – and head to the Art Institute for the lecture, “Return of the Modern Masters.”  I hadn’t even realized they’d been gone.

Crossing the street I see A. reading a newspaper, waiting in line to enter the museum for free after 5 p.m.  I invite him to jump the line with me – pulling out my member card.

We are early for lecture.  We wander into the Nilima Sheikh’s exhibit “Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams.”  I saw it the day Mr. 700 Miles slipped out of my life without a word.  When the heart space between us –which up until then had been just inches –became a chasm I couldn’t seem to reach across, no matter how I tried.  Artist Date 68.

I tell this to A. while we view, Farewell,” a red scroll with two bodies entwined.  A man peeling open his chest, exposing his heart.  It reads “If only somehow you could have been mine.  What would not have been possible in the world?”

I tear up.

“I’ve done that too,” he says quietly.  Somehow, this makes me feel better.

He tells me he couldn’t face hurting her.  That he told himself he was sparing her.  Sober now, he understands he was only sparing himself.

I tell him that 700 Miles is active in his addiction to drugs and alcohol.  He nods.  “That’s what we do.”  This is not the first time I’ve heard this in regards to him and our story.  I nod, but I still do not understand it.

I show A. Marc Chagall’s “America Windows” outside of Rubeloff Gallery, where the lecture is.  He hasn’t seen it before.  I tell him that Ferris kissed Sloan here.  I am not sure he is old enough to remember the movie.  I feel like a docent, showing A. my Art Institute.

The lecture moves quickly – giving context to the positioning of the paintings and sculptures that have been returned to their rightful homes.

I am tempted to take notes.  I have before, knowing I was going to blog.  Sitting with A. I feel somehow self-conscious.  As if he might ask why.

I think about my friend Nithin commenting on kids and not-kids filming concerts on their phones.  Experiencing the music through a screen rather than directly.  Disconnected.  Too busy “showing” everyone where they are – via Facebook, Twitter and the like – rather than “being” where they are.

I imagine my note taking might fall into the same category.  I allow myself to just listen.  I free myself from the need to remember.

A. and I part ways after the lecture.  He is meeting a friend for a concert at the Chicago Theatre. (I wonder if he will watch it through his phone.)

I climb the open-backed stairs – the kind that make my ex-husband nauseated and panicky – to the third floor galleries, to see the “Returned Masters.”

The galleries are crowded.  I wander.  Thinking about the lecture.  About artist life in Europe before and during WW II.  But ultimately seeing the work through my own lens.

I drink in the juicy, ripeness of Max Beckman’s “Reclining Nude.” And I wonder why I am so set on waif-y thinness for myself.

I smile at Chagall’s “White Jesus,” recalling it is a favorite of the current Pope.  I notice my tendency to breathe deeply when facing his work.  As if I might inhale something of him.

I recall “Human Figure with Two Birds” from the Max Ernst show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I greet it and Loplop – the bird which comes to represent Ernst, “the private phantom attached to my person” – like an old friend.

I giggle at the “Exquisite Corpse,” a game played on paper by Man Ray, Andre’ Breton and Yves Tanguy while they waited for WW II to end – each adding to an unseen figure, folded back accordion-style, out of sight.

I long to feel the smoothness of Alberto Giacometti’s “Spoon Woman” and Constantin Brancusi’s “White Negress II.”

The “returned Masters” have helped return me to my own.  Out of my head and my heart.  Into my feeling body.  Like the Masters, I hadn’t even realized it had been gone.

In The Weeds

2013-07-17 17.22.57I like to think I am aware of my surroundings.

I’m not.

Out on a morning walk, I wander into the native planting section of Winnemac Park.  There are wood chips on the ground, soft landing for my feet.  A low wooden fence.

I’ve been here before.  But it’s been a few weeks.  Months.  I’m not sure.  I lose track of time.

Today the planting is as tall as my head. Taller.  Green stalks, some with yellow flowers and brown centers.  Purple flowers and greenish centers.  What we used to call Queen Anne Lace when I was a child.  I have to push my way through it, clearing the way for my next step.  Jungle-like.

I am smiling.

I walk through it again on my way back home, as the morning grows hot and humid.  This time I pull out my ear buds.  Right after Labelle’s Lady Marmalade.

It is so quiet. Right here in the city.  I hear the birds.  The dogs.  The cars passing by on the perimeter merely a hushed vibration.  It immediately feels different.

I don’t know why I’m surprised.

My ex always had music playing.  And while I love it, I often found it overwhelming.  I craved the quiet.

And yet, now living on my own, music is very much a part of my background.  Perhaps the quiet frightens me now, alone with my thoughts.

But now it feels like a respite.  A great, big exhale.  As if I am on an entirely different walk.  As if the walk just moments before had never been.  The change is palpable.

I look to a weeping willow and think, “I need to come here every day.  Even just for 10 minutes.  To walk on the wood chips.  To get lost in this “forest” of native planting.”

Ah.  That still small voice.  I couldn’t hear it over the Donna Summer Pandora Channel (which, by the way, is excellent for walking…except when you are trying to hear that still small voice.)

I greet a big, black lab on the path.  He is off-leash.  I am afraid for a moment.  I peer around the corner looking for his owner.  “Is he friendly?”  I ask.  He is.

His owner had been lost in his own world –his nose tucked into one of the tall purple daisy-like flowers.

2013-07-17 17.23.53I feel a tinge of sadness leaving.   I always want more.

Walking home I admire the beautiful teak wood furniture on the porch of a brownstone.  Its pads noticeably missing.  The greenish brass elephants flanking it.

Wooden flower boxes hang off the window of a multi-unit brick building.  The only ones – obviously installed by the tenant.  His joy.  Her contribution to the neighborhood.

Tiny gardens are planted in the small open spaces outside of single-family homes and brown-stone three-flats.  Shady spaces, lush with green leaves and plantings, moist rocks and black earth.  A burgundy Japanese maple.

I smile, sort of wistfully, at the sad attempt at yarn bombing on the trees outside of the church across the street.

Arriving home, my mind is noticeably still.  I could hear Pandora playing in my bag, I had forgotten to turn it off – The Weather Girls, “It’s Raining Men.”  Miracle.  I hadn’t been thinking of them at all.