Artist Date 113: Stella

mark wunderlich
Poster from the Unamuno Author Series, Poet Mark Wunderlich

Stella was always trouble.

A manipulator by nature (What cat isn’t?) she danced inside a cage one Sunday afternoon at Berkeley’s Your Basic Bird as if to say, “Pick me! Pick me! Yoo Hoo! Over here! Pick me.”

And so we did.

She was “my cat.” A scrawny tortoise shell, unaware of her size, who refused to abdicate Alpha Cat status to Ezra – a Norwegian Forest Cat affectionately known by my then husband as “Big Daddy.”

Bent on asserting his position, Ezra would regularly back Stella into a corner or under the butcher-block cart. Trapped, she would flatten her ears, hiss, and come out swinging – literally – inevitably pissing or crapping herself, which the two of them would roll around in, fighting.

We cleaned the floor with enzymes.

We tried separating the two.

We gave Stella Bach Flower essences. Anti-anxiety medication. Consulted with a feline behavioral specialist.

None of it worked.

Eventually, we tearfully gave Ezra to a client of mine who allowed him to take his rightful place as the Big Daddy, while Stella took the position as Alpha Cat in our home. Much to our surprise, Nin, our third, seemed relieved that Ezra was gone and was happy to acquiesce to Stella’s whims.

And so we thought our Stella troubles were over – and they were – until we moved to Chicago.

She lied limp on the floor of our largely sunless apartment. Depressed. Was spooked by thunderstorms. And eventually began peeing on the floors and furniture – rain or no rain.

I haven’t thought about any of this in years – until now, Artist Date 113. The Unamuno Author Series, featuring American writers reading their work here in Madrid.

I arrive late – having come straight from teaching – and Mark Wunderlich is already reading from his book of poems, The Earth Avails. I slip into a chair and listen while a wave of “Oh yes…this is why I go on Artist Dates” sweeps over me. I fantasize about graduate school – about being a part of a community of writers and artists. English-speaking writers and artists. I think about how I feel like a child here in Spain – unable to communicate more than my basic needs in the language of the country where I have chosen to live. How I become shy and small in Spanish, while I am big and often shiny in English.

And then I think about Stella.

Mark reads poems about many things. Prayer. Bridges. A classmate whose name sealed her destiny as a pole dancer.

But it is the poem that is not included in his book that locks me in. About missing the cat who greeted him at the door – eager for her supper. Who shared the bed with him. Who was there when his partner no longer was.

And about the bolus they injected into her paw when it was clear her life was coming to an end.

I remember holding Stella when they injected the first bolus into her.

It is a Saturday afternoon. I have just pulled the still-warm-from-the-dryer covers back on the sofa cushions, having just washed them with enzymes – again – when Stella leaps on to the couch, looks straight at me, squats and releases her bladder.

I look at my then-husband. We know without saying it that we cannot continue to live like this. That she will ruin every piece of furniture. That she will ruin the dark, original walnut floors. And that no one will adopt her.

Before we can change our minds, we whisk her into the cat carrier and into the car and drive to the somewhat ironically named Anti-Cruelty Society.

Inside, people are relinquishing their pets for all sorts of reasons – some seemingly legitimate, others ridiculous. But what do I know? I am putting my cat down. Not even relinquishing her.

I discuss the matter with a staff member and she agrees with our decision.

I slip Stella out of the cat carrier, let my then-husband say goodbye, and carry her into another room where “the procedure” will take place.

I hold her in my arms on the stainless-steel table, covered with a threadbare beach towel. I tell her that she was a good cat. That I love her. And the technician injects a bolus of medication that will end her life into her paw.

“It will take a few minutes,” she explains. “Keep holding her.”

I do. I hold onto her for what seems like a very long time. She is groggy, like she was the time we gave her anti-anxiety medication, but nothing more. After about 10 minutes the technician returns.

“She’s still alive,” I say. “Always a fighter.”

This time the technician injects the needle directly into a vein, as opposed to near it, and once again leaves us alone.

This time, I feel her breathing slow down. And then stop. She is gone.

Eight years later, my heart still hurts. Tears streaming down my cheeks as I am writing this.

I don’t like thinking about this moment. And yet I am grateful to Mark for reminding me of it. For reminding me of Stella – this scrappy little cat who reminded me so much of myself once upon a time. Hair slicked back. Wannabe Alpha looking for a fight. And yet behind the bravado, a girl – seemingly unaware of her small size –crying “Pick me. Pick me.”

Of how much I loved her. And the possibilities for loving that girl.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Artist Date 54: Sew, Here I Am Again

I am afraid of fabric stores.

I am aware that this is a somewhat unusual fear.  Sharks.  Spiders.  Speaking in front of large groups.  Of course.  But fabric stores…

2013-12-28 14.38.53

And yet, I love them.  Floor to ceiling bolts of brightly colored cloth, every pattern imaginable.  Zebra skin.  Tiny elephants.  Frida Kahlo faces.

Shiny scissors of every size and price range.  Silky ribbon and trim.  Envelopes stuffed with patterns – what I imagine to be the Holy Grail of well-fitting clothing.

Trouble is, I can’t sew.  And I am terrified that I wear this deficiency like a scarlet letter.  An indelible ink tattoo on my forehead which reads, “She doesn’t know what she is doing.”

I’ve tried.  In high school, when I had designs on a career in fashion design.  I knew this skill was non-negotiable.  My mother’s friend offered to teach me.  Together, we made a skirt out of a blue-green burlap-y material.  I was pretty delighted, and I wore it a lot.  But I still couldn’t sew a button-hole, make pleats or even thread a bobbin on my own.

About 20 years later I took a sewing class in Berkeley, at the shop next to the cleaner who washed and folded my massage sheets each week.  Up the hidden staircase at the back of the store to the loft above it, I sat with six other women on Tuesday afternoons for four weeks.  And when it was over, I walked out with a very expensive kimono – which I wore for years, until it became greasy from the oil I slathered on my  body every morning and no amount of cleaning could take it out.  And no closer to knowing how to sew.

I visited a fabric store on Queen Anne Avenue in Seattle a couple of years ago.  I was embarking on The Artist’s Way for the first time and took myself there on one of my tentative, first Artist Dates.  I felt intimidated and scared, hoping, praying no one would ask me if I needed any help.  No one said a word to me.

2013-12-30 17.09.55

When I returned to Chicago, I stated my intention to make curtains using ironing tape on Facebook.  My friend James was horrified. He sent me a private message saying “Please,don’t,” and offered to sew for me.  He did.  Mustard-colored with sprigs of white blossom hang in my living and dining rooms, one set tied back with bow ties, the other with scarves.  Cartoonish leaves in grey, orange and green cover my bedroom window.

All of this comes rushing back to me as I walk into The Needle Shop, Artist Date 54 – a crazy mingling of curiosity, desire and fear.

Hanging in the windows are bolts of the happiest, most whimsical fabrics I’ve ever seen.  I promised myself I would go in “one day.”  Ever since it opened up across from the Trader Joes where I shop no less than twice a week.  Today is “one day.”

It is small inside.  There is nowhere to hide.  I take photographs of the bolts.  If anyone asks, I will say I am thinking of making pillows and want to see the fabric in my living environment.

This is not untrue. My friend Julia said she will show me how.  And that she can help me shop for a starter machine so I can really learn – through practice and repetition.

No one asks.  Instead, a sales clerks encourages me to take swatches, pre-cut and pinned to the bolts, along with tags of price per yard.

2013-12-28 14.39.29

Brown cotton with turquoise doves and cream-colored plants.  White with graphic grey and yellow flowers.  Green with turquoise ginkgo.

I wander over to the bin of patterns.  They are “high end.”  Nothing like the McCalls and Simplicity patterns strewn around my ex-mother-in-law’s sewing room.  (Although they have these too.)  Sassy 1950’s style tap pants and bras.  Messenger bags.  Wrap dresses.

The fantasy returns.  I will learn to sew.  I will make my own clothes.  I will have trousers that fit like they were made for me.  Because they were made for me.  I will make couture.  I will make curtains and pillows.  I will surround myself with gorgeous, happy, sumptuous fabrics.

I sit down in a stadium folding chair with a sewing book written by a cool-looking, hipster chick.  I am immediately overwhelmed and quickly put the book back on the shelf.

I pick up a card listing sewing classes.  Easy alterations.  Roman shade.  Ragland sleeve top.  Sewing 101.  “We show you how your machine works.”

Yes.  But first I need a machine.

Not today though.

2013-12-28 14.38.14

Today, this “one day,” I leave with a fistful of fabric scraps and the notion that there may be something here for me – a reason I continue to find myself in fabric stores nearly 30 years after my first visit.

Perhaps I am bound for a fourth or fifth-act career, in fashion.  Perhaps I will just learn to hem my own trousers.  At not-quite 5’3”, petites are still too long.

Or maybe it is nothing more than my Libran birthright, which calls me to surround myself with beauty.  The swatches in my bag, a talisman – guiding me.

Artist Date 48: I Think The Fish Guy Likes Me

There is something decidedly unappealing about gazing into the center of a slab of beef.

Perhaps pork is better.

William "For Sunday's Dinner."
William Michael Harnett. “For Sunday’s Dinner.”

It didn’t bother me to see hocks of pork bolted to a wooden bar, then sliced paper-thin, and served to me, when I was in Spain.  Neither did the whole chickens and rabbits hanging from hooks in the market, which I took photographs of, then framed and hung in my kitchen.

I am at the Art Institute Chicago for the member lecture and preview of “Art & Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine.”  Artist Date 48.  It is dark and warm in the auditorium.  A slide of a still life – fruit and meat – is projected on-screen.  And then another, a fish.

They are not beautiful.  They do, however, evoke a flood of food memories.

Like the time I received a whole, smoked salmon.

It was my 39th birthday and I threw a big potluck soiree.

The man/boy I was crushing on – but could, and would, do nothing about as I was married – was the first to RSVP, saying he would bring Tang.  I laughed.  Knowing him, it might have been true.

Except it wasn’t.

The night of the party, he arrived with a box in his right hand – carrying it like a tray, high above his shoulder.  His name was on the side in black magic marker.  This was something he had ordered.

Inside was an entire smoked salmon.  Head.  Tail.  Everything.  Glistening.  Beautiful.  Although not Jewish himself, he seemed to intuitively know the way to a Jewish girl’s heart was through cured fish.

“He likes me,” I thought, beaming.

The next morning I made scrambled eggs with onions and the leftover smoked salmon.  One of my girlfriends had come to town from Los Angeles to celebrate.  Over coffee, I said the words out loud.

“I think he likes me.”

She disagreed, insisting the fish was about him and how he wanted to be perceived.  That it meant nothing about me.  I didn’t persist.  It didn’t matter.  I was married.

I hadn’t thought about the fish story in a while.  Or the fish guy, which my friends and I affectionately called him from then on.  He moved away while I was still married — to fish.

Memory wrapped in food.  It seems nearly impossible to separate the two.  I am reminded of this all week while leading Weight Watchers meetings and trying to encourage a conversation about what makes Thanksgiving memorable – besides food.

Norman Rockwell.  "Freedom From Want."
Norman Rockwell. “Freedom From Want.”

For the most part, the members are having none of it.  They want to talk about macaroni and cheese.  Stuffing.  Pumpkin pie and cranberries from a can.  One woman mentions waking her daughters late in the evening, dressing them, and taking them shopping at midnight. I would have loved that, I think.  She is creating tradition.

I think about living in California and riding my bike Thanksgiving morning – before the feast at Tim’s house.  I think about the printed menus Tim placed at each seat, like Martha Stewart.  About roasted root vegetables and pumpkin gnocchi.

I think about the year I got married and leaving for my honeymoon on Thanksgiving Day.  Eating breakfast with Tim and his roommate, Steven at the International House of Pancakes near the airport.

I do not mention any of this.  It is their meeting.

The exhibit moves from still life to real life.  There are rationing cookbooks.  Bright Spots For Wartime Meals – a Jello cookbook.  The words, “Armed with a can opener, I become the artist-cook, the master, the creative chef,” from the Can Opener Cookbook, are stenciled on the wall.

They remind me of a story I once heard about the “original foodie,” M.F.K. Fisher.  Suspicious that her celebrity kept those about her in silence, she once made a meal entirely from canned foods.  When her guests swooned, confirming her intuitions, she informed them of the origins of their dinner.

There is a menu for a meal honoring Fisher, created by Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse.  She is the Berkeley, California chef known for purple hats, and for bringing seasonal, local ingredients – cooked simply, cooked well – back into fashion, beginning in the early 1970s.

And there is a menu from Chez Panisse, celebrating Bastille Day in 1976, as well.

chez panisseI ate there just once.  On my birthday.  I do not recall which year.  I saved the menus – prix fixe, with gorgeous drawings of figs on the cover – for a long time, imagining I would frame them and hang them in my kitchen one day, along with my food photographs.  I never did.

Strangely, I do not recall what I ate.  I remember our server.  And the cost of the meal for two – $300.

Driving home in the first snow of the season, I chew on Brazil nuts – 30 grams of them weighed out and tucked in a small plastic container.  Just a snack.  I am full on memory.

Artist Date 41: Finding Mine Where it Seemed There Was Nothing

I’ve always wanted to go into Carlos and Sarah’s Surplus of Options.  Ever since a couple of months ago when I saw a wooden crate sitting out front.  The kind my friend Dina suggested I find and put in my bathroom – on its end – to hold “interesting things to look at.”  And toilet paper.

2013-09-26 16.38.09I saw one of these crates at another thrift store but the owner wanted too much for it (in my opinion) and wasn’t willing to budge.  Not even after I purchased her overpriced turquoise vinyl bench from the 1950s.

But I kept forgetting to go.  Or perhaps I was just busy filling my days with other things.

A couple of days ago I saw a sign that Carlos and Sarah’s was closing.  And I saw it as a sign – my destination for Artist Date 41.

I mention to Carlos that I had been wanting to come in for a long time.  He says many people have told him this.

I want to turn around.  It is so sad inside.  There is so little left.  A couple of tables with “sold” signs on them.  A painted chest.  Some books.  Cards.  Photos.  Boxes of records.

Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66.  Jose Feliciano.  Paul Anka’s 21 Golden Hits.

They remind me of so many trips to Amoeba Records in Berkeley, with my ex.  A huge, warehouse-size store lined with rows of albums.  Actual records.  LPs.  We would spend hours there.  Him, looking for obscure recordings to play at our dinner parties.  Me, giddy ogling at cover art.

I once bought an album by the artist Poon Sow Tang.  A photograph of a beautiful Chinese woman wearing gloves, wedged between borders of orange and pink.  It was from the early 60s.  Awful.  I felt like I should be eating really bad egg foo young at a restaurant with fuzzy red and gold wallpaper.  The art was genius.

But usually, I didn’t buy the record.  I would just carry it around the store for a while, enjoying it.  Like the one of Barry White standing next to a curvy swimming pool in Los Angeles.  He is wearing a white jumpsuit and is “less heavy.”  My ex asked me if I wanted it.  It was a buck, I think.  “Nah,” I replied.  I had my experience with it.

I want to take photos of the albums but I wonder if Carlos will think I am strange.  If he will think I am doing something wrong.  If he will kick we out.  Rather than ask him if he minds if I take a few photos, I wait until he goes into the back room and shoot a couple on my phone.  Among them, “Concert for Lovers” and “For My True Love.”  The art work is hideous, and the titles make me sad – but I can’t help myself.

2013-09-26 16.20.29There are door handles.  Political books.  Photographs of a fierce-looking black woman, likely taken in the 1970s.  I ask Carlos if she was a model.  He has no idea.  He bought them at an estate sale.

I pick up a small purple book titled True Thoughts, Good Thoughts; Thoughts Fir to Treasure Up.  The pages are yellowing.  Some have holes.  All of them are falling out of the binding.  It is a collection of poetry and prose by Robert Browning.  A reading for every day.

2013-09-26 16.36.19April Tenth.  “Infinite passion, and the pain/Of finite hearts that yearn.”

September Ninth.  “No protesting, dearest!/Hardly kisses even!/Don’t we both know how it ends?/How the greenest leaf turns searest?/Bluest outbreak – blankest heaven?/Lovers – friends?”

The cover page for October.  “…Days decrease,/And Autumn grows, Autumn in everything.”

My heart swells.

Inside the cover page is a handwritten name: Ruth Lemson.  Inside the back – “So the year’s done with! (Love me forever.)

It is marked $1, but it is on the half-price shelf.  I hold on to it while fingering through a stack of rectangular cards –each with a double exposure of an old photograph.  I pick two.

“American Scenery: Yosemite Valley, Cal.”  It is a picture of El Capitan.  A tree bending before it.  I have been here many times.  The other reads “Paris au Stereoscope: Photographic C’ a Paris.”  It is Notre Dame.

I bring these to the counter, along with the Browning book, and ask what they are.  Carlos explains the cards are from a Stereograph.  It is a predecessor to my childhood ViewFinder.  I remember putting the plastic “binoculars” to my eyes and inserting a disc of photographs into it for a 3-D show.   Same idea.  He does not have the viewer.  Just the cards.

I take a couple of photographs – right in front of Carlos.  I do not explain myself.  He isn’t the least bit fazed.  I try on a pair of vintage glasses in the case.  They are much too wide from my head.

I ask him about the lamp behind him.  He calls it a memory lamp.  I cock my head like a confused puppy.  He explains that an individual glues his or her “special treasures” to it.  It is tacky and awful and painted gold.

Carlos rings me up for my own special treasures – $2.50.  And I wish him luck in his next endeavor, inquiring what that might be.  He sounds a bit like the Big Lebowski, replying something like, “A little of this.  A little of that.”

As I walk out the door, someone walks in.  Someone else who has been meaning to and just now is.

I think about timing.  About finding something “shiny, something “mine” where it seemed there was nothing.  About staying open, while Carlos and Sarah prepare to close.

Artist Date 33: Done. Saying Goodbye to Nin.

nin

I didn’t want to glaze tonight.  I was done.

Done.

With my day.

I’d already snagged decidedly gorgeous, flimsy, French panties and bras on sale.  Seen a Tina Turner impersonator on Michigan Avenue.  A pretty good one.  And connected in that profound way that strangers sometimes do with Yahkirha, a Red Cross worker fundraising across from Millenium Park.

Done.

With my pottery class.

It ended two weeks ago, but I still had two mugs and a woefully off-center bowl to glaze and finished pieces to pick up.

So I went, anyway.  My ex called while I was walking there.  As soon as I picked up, I knew something was off.  I could hear it in his voice.

“I have to put Nin down.”

nin 3Nin is our 19-year-old cat.   Correction.  She is now HIS 19-year-old cat.  She looks like she is wearing a tuxedo, with her black body, white chest and milk mustache.   Her sexy, sleepy eyes reminded me of Anais Nin – ergo, her name.

We adopted her in 1999.  Our friend, Tim, arrived home that day from a year’s sojourn in Chicago.  He called from Tahoe to say he was on his way, and drove his truck straight to Berkeley to meet us for brunch.

After, the three of us wandered into the pet store next door.  And I walked out carrying cat number two.

According to my ex she’s having trouble using her back legs.  She can no longer pull herself up on the bed to sleep with him.  Today he came home and found she had peed all over herself.  As we were talking, she went to the litter box and simply lied in it.

Uncontrollable tears streamed down my face. “Put her down. Put her down.” I repeated the words over and over like a mantra.

He thanked me.  Said he needed to hear me say those words.  To make it ok.

Another piece of our shared life together fell away.

I thought about changing my course, turning around and going home.  But something wiser in me told me to keep walking, up the ramp and into the Lill Street Clay Studio.

Robert, my teacher, was giving a demonstration to the new class.

I wandered back to the carts holding fired pieces.  Some complete, some bisqued – waiting for glaze and a second fire.  I began the tedious and time-consuming process of locating my work – picking up every stoneware cup, bowl and tray, looking for the etched LMP on the bottom.

Melanie was doing the same.  She traveled to Seattle during our five-week class.  I sent her to Flora for dinner and Molly Moon’s for ice cream – honey lavender.  I was happy to see her.

Sifting through the pieces, I admired other’s work.  A deeply tinted bud vase, kissed with a tear drop of shiny blue.  A sculpted hand.  Melanie’s star-shaped badge, stamped with the word “rock.”  She wasn’t thrilled with how the glaze turned out.  I thought it looked awesome.

Kevin was there too.  A principal dancer with Hubbard Street and a fine beginning potter.  I got to know him a little bit one Saturday evening when we both went in to the studio to practice.  I watched bowl after bowl come off of his wheel while I just tried to master centering.  I never did.

And Lori.  We met a couple of weeks ago.  She was glazing a lidded pot with a brush.  She had etched cherry blossoms on to the side.  It was elegant.  Lovely.  The kind of work I dreamed of making but felt years away from.

That same evening, she showed me some tea cups she made.  Delicate cone shapes with carved out handles that looked like wood. Porcelain – glazed yellow salt.

She’s been throwing for just 10 months.  It looks like 10 years.

2013-08-03 16.47.16Eventually I found my pieces.  The slab tray buckled.  It was too thin.  But the bowl that Lori helped me glaze looked pretty good – my best piece yet.  She said my mug looked really good.  I told her it wasn’t my work, that Robert made it and gave it to me to glaze.  We laughed.

I told her about Nin and not wanting to glaze.

She told me about her best friend unexpectedly dying and how she wanted to cocoon but knew he wouldn’t want that.  That he would want her out in the street calling his name.  So she did.

We talked about pottery and writing and relationships.  She helped me glaze one of the mugs, filling the inside with one of the variety of whites.  And when it was dry we lowered it into a vat of rutile blue, then turned it upside-down and “kissed” the glaze a final time around the rim.

I watched her glaze several more lidded pots, a large tea-cup like the smaller ones she had shown me, and a tall, thin bottle – lowering it into the vat with her finger tucked inside.

I watched the patience and care she devoted to each piece.  I do not have that patience.  I am not so exacting.  At least not in this moment.  Not about pottery.  I realized this is what anything “good” requires – attention, time, care.

The same attention, time and care I take with my writing, my food, my clothing.  The same attention, time and care my ex takes with the cats, Nin and Maude.  The very reason I left them with him.

I put my pieces on the cart to be glazed.  Wrapped my finished bowl and tray in newspaper and put them in my bag.  I thanked Lori for her help and said goodbye to Melanie and Kevin.

Seems I wasn’t quite done.

Turns out, neither is Nin.  I talked to my ex.  He couldn’t get an appointment with a vet until Sunday.  He said she seems comfortable.  Slow, but comfortable.  Purring.  I trust him.  I trust his attention, time and care.  I always did.