Artist Date 79: Aho Matakuye O’yasin

Bent and tied river willows form the structure of the sweat lodge.  Photo: Paul Tootalian
Bent and tied river willows form the structure of the lodge. Photo: Paul Tootalian

 

The waxy brown cotton of my lapa feels soft between my fingers.  Like my body.  Like my heart.

I thought the African skirt would become this way over time, as I danced in it – but it remained rigid and stiff.  Until today, when, in the dark and heat of the sweat lodge – Artist Date 79 – it softened, pinning itself to my body.

I roll the fabric between my fingers like rosary or prayer beads.  I feel the moisture accumulate between my breasts – grateful for their small size.  Grateful for the darkness to peel off my sports bra, unnoticed, and let my t-shirt from the Knoxville Farmers’ Market cover me.  Given my druthers I would wear nothing.  But I respect the modesty requested at this ceremonial gathering of men and women.

I close my eyes, breathe in the sweet sage, and fix my ears on the beating drum and the sound of my friend Paul’s voice.

It has been a journey just getting here.

********************

I arrive despite a blinding thunderstorm, the need for on-the-road car repairs, and a bit of information which shakes my sense of perception and causes me to question if this is right for me, right now.  And with the aid and calm of friends who ferry me to and from.

I walk about a quarter of a mile through wet, freshly mown grass to where the lodge is set up – my orange, peep-toe wedges gathering silky, green slivers.

I remember wearing these shoes through Rwanda two summers ago – collecting the red earth of the land of 10,000 hills between my toes – and recalling Patsy and Edina schlepping their Louis Vuitton bags through sand in the Morocco episode of the BBC’s Absolutely Fabulous.  Dragging my rolling suitcase filled with towels, sweat and apres-sweat clothes, I feel like a bit actor in the Sweat Lodge episode.

********************

Paul is draping blankets over the hut he constructed out of river willows – collected from his sister and brother-in-law’s property a few miles away.  Rocks are heating in a pit outside of the lodge, and he has built an altar from the dirt inside of it.

Paul is the third in a line of spiritual teachers with the same name.  The first being my university religious-studies professor, the second, the one who taught me to meditate – leading me through initiation with an offering of fruit, flowers (star gazers, my favorite) and the bestowing of a mantra.

Our paths have been crisscrossing for most of our lives.  We agree the universe has been conspiring for us to meet.

 

The Altar. Covered Lodge. And our guide, Paul. (I call him “The Reluctant Shaman.”

There are eight of us, the last arriving in a John Deere Gator Utility Vehicle.  She looks like an African Queen, regal in her loose batik dress with dragonflies on it, her grey hair braided at the temples and wrapped around her head like a crown.   Her face is at once both sad and serene.

She reminds Paul they have been in ceremony together – with her former partner.  The break-up is obviously fresh.

Words tumble out of my mouth about divorce, change and the painful nature of endings – no matter how right or how kind.  How people will say all sorts of stupid things.  And that she is, no doubt, on the precipice of some sort of adventure.  She smiles in a way that tells me she has lived a thousand lifetimes and knows that this kind of pain is just part of it.  That she has chosen this and is not fighting it.

I mention that I wasn’t sure I would make it here today.  That I wasn’t sure it was right for me, right now.  “Until now.  You are why I am here.”

********************

Paul smudges each of us with sage and we enter the lodge on our hands and knees, proclaiming “Aho Matakuye O’yasin – Greetings, All My Relations.”

I remember Patsy smudging my ex and I when she officiated our marriage.  And me doing the same for my friend Chase when her divorce was final, smudging the entire house – making it “her own” again.

********************

It is hot and humid inside.  I feel a wave of nausea wash over me as Paul explains what will happen in ceremony.

Rocks.  Herbs.  Water.

Chanting.  Praying.  Smoking.

Complete darkness.

Connectedness to the earth.  To one another.  To ourselves.

I am afraid.  Afraid of the total darkness.  Afraid of what I might feel, what might “come up.”  Afraid I cannot physically or psychologically endure this – even though Paul has assured us that this will be a “gentle sweat.”

But the heat is like a balm – different from the still Midwestern humidity that settled heavy around me just moments before.  The drumming and chanting force all thoughts from my mind.  I only hear my friend’s voice – strong, confident, prayerful – and the African Queen’s.  It is sweet and slippery and hard to hold on to.  But very much there.  Just as I feel her, very much there, next to me.

Everything softens.  My body.  My brain.  My lapa.  I feel the sweat sliding down my body and I am deliriously in love with it.  This body I have fought for so much of my life.  That has brought me here and is sustaining me today.  It is strong and small and very, very feminine.  I feel my hands pressing into the earth beneath me.  My legs.  My feet.  My ass.  The soft dampness of moist earth is flesh, the spiky grass is hair and we are one.

 

Apres sweat — eyes wide open. Photo: Paul Tootalian

 

I pray for my stepfather and my two girlfriends who are battling mightily.  And I ask for prayers for myself.  For compassion and acceptance for myself, for where I am, not where I think I should be.  My voice cracks and I add, “May we all have compassion and acceptance for ourselves and for one another.”

I pray for the man who hurt my heart not so long ago.  I call out his name when I am certain no one can hear me.

********************

I smoke from the Chanupa — the sacred, ceremonial pipe.  Sober nearly seven years, my addict is awakened.

I am back in college, sitting in a circle.  My friend Brian stirs the bowl and lights it while I suck in all that I can, holding it in my lungs.  I converse easily while I do this – like one of the big boys.

But I am not talking.  And this is not weed.  It is tobacco, although it tastes like juniper and pine.  It is ceremony.  It is holy.  It is community.  It is what I longed for, sitting in a circle like this, so many years ago.

********************

I weep in the darkness.  I am certain no one can hear my dying animal letting go. And it is over.

We crawl out on our hands and knees, just as we had entered, saying “Aho Matakuye O’yasin – Greetings, All My Relations,” once again.

Paul greets each of us with an embrace, and we greet one another in the same way.  The African Queen’s eyes are wordlessly different.  Lighter.  As if the color has changed.  She presses me tightly to her.

The group walks towards the house for a celebratory feast, but I stay behind and wait for Paul.

While I am waiting, I do cartwheels around the lodge.  One after the other after the other, until I feel dizzy.  I feel the pull of my pelvis – the source of chronic pain – and I welcome it.  I feel the lightness of my body, of my mind and I welcome it, give thanks for and to it.

I had believed I was here to meet the African Queen.  That was only half of the truth.  In the stillness of the after-lodge, I know its other half, its twin — I was here to meet myself.  “Aho Matakuye O’yasin — Greetings, All My Relations.”

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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.

Artist Date 66: Risk It. Sell It. Consider It.

I recently entered a Weight Watchers-sponsored contest called, “You Only Live Once,” where I described a bucket-list dream, one that is possible only now that I am a healthy weight.

I had two.  One, to dance in Senegal with my instructor Idy Ciss.  The other, to dance Alvin Ailey Workshop classes in New York.

Before Class.  "I am here!"
Before Class. “I am here!”

I didn’t win.  But clearly the universe heard my desire as I am about to walk into a 90-minute Master Class with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – Artist Date 66.

I feel a little bit like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance.  A self-identified outsider taking another step inside the sometimes seemingly-closed world of dance.

I notice the opportunity a few weeks ago while purchasing tickets for the Ailey shows.  The class lists as intermediate, and I hope my six years of West African instruction will qualify me.

Three days before the workshop I get a call from the Auditorium Theatre requesting payment.  I am in.

I am over the moon.

And now, standing at the studio doorway, I feel I should be more nervous than I am.  But as I told my dear friend the night before, “The worst that happens is they say, ‘You suck.  Please sit down.’ ”

I can live with that.

Inside I meet Kristen.  She recognizes me from the Ailey shows earlier in the week – seeing me pin a slip of paper to a board in the lobby reading, “How Does Alvin Ailey inspire you?”

“To Dance.  No matter how badly.”  I scrawl.

Today I will get my opportunity.

There are about a dozen of us here.  I am the oldest by at least 15 years.   Surprisingly, this lends me a sense of calm and confidence, which I do not question.

We are joined by company member, Antonio Douthit-Boyd.  He appears to be wearing slippers on his feet – quilted booties.  I wonder where he is coming from as it is snowing outside.

He moves quickly through the warm up.  Much more quickly than I am used to.  I breathe and do what I can.  So far so good.

He moves across the floor, making adjustments to each dancer’s movements and posture.  “Widen your legs.  Go lower now.  Keep your balance.  See.”  “Jut your hip first.  Muuuch more movement.  Excellent.”

He comes to me.  I do not avert my eyes, hoping he will not notice me, in case I am doing it wrong.  I smile at him.

“Beautiful flat back,” he says, touching the space between my wings.  I lower into the squat – legs wide, and come up on to my toes.  Antonio meets my outstretched arms with his own, our fingertips touching.   My legs are shaking.  I struggle to balance.  “Good,” he says.

Before class begins.
Before class. One of the “significantly more trained” dancers.

The other dancers have had significantly more training than I.  It is clear.  Ballet.  Jazz.  Modern.  They nod knowingly to the terms Antonio throws out.  And more importantly, they can execute them.  I am in over my head.  Kind of.  But I just keep moving.  Smiling.  Trying to mimic the other dancers.

I notice that I am not frustrated.  I am not angry.  I do not stop.

I do not ask Antonio to slow down and bring the class to my level.  I do not burst into tears.

I have done all of these things previously.

I am not jealous or envious.  I notice the beauty of the dancers.  Their bodies.  What they can do.

I am amazed by my response.

I am equally amazed that I occasionally “nail it.”

Moving across the floor – a quick, leg-cross-over-leg, jazz step.  Hips wagging.  I think of Harry Detry, another of my teachers at the Old Town School, calling out over the drums, “Shake your babaloo!”  “Sell it!”

I am “selling it.”  And I know it.  Antonio does too, clapping, “Yes! Yes!  That’s it.”

But the final movement has me stymied.  Leap, cross over, lift the other leg, turn, lift the other leg, jump.  Or something like that.

I am not even close.

No one cares.  No one is watching me.   They are watching themselves.  I am free.

And in that freedom, I see the pattern that will keep my body in constant motion.  Give me my momentum.  Right leg back, left leg back, right leg back, left leg back.

After class.  All smiles, with Antonio Douthit-Boyd.
After class. All smiles, with Antonio Douthit-Boyd.

“Yes, better.”

It is.  But I still don’t have it.

A couple more times across the floor and I might.  But it doesn’t matter.  I risked being “the worst.”  And by all accounts, I was.  But I don’t feel like it.  Not even close.  Just less trained.

Pulling on my jeans, my body feels different.  My pelvis is open.  Open – I could drop a baby out of me with a single squat – open.  I like it.

It is the ballet, I am certain of it.  The one type of dance I never consider.

I do not have a ballet body, I tell myself.  I don’t even know what that is.  It is an excuse.

And I am out of excuses.

I consider it.

Falling Into My Feet

Healthy pelvis.  Not mine.
Healthy pelvis. Not mine.

I’m standing in the dark looking at my x-rays with Stephanie, my new chiropractor.

Tears stream down my face.  I see my body.  All of it.  Even the IUD I had put in just before my trip to Rwanda because I vowed I would not have my period in Africa.

I can no longer turn away from the physical pain I so rarely mention or acknowledge.  The pain that has been with me, moving but constant, for so many years.

Suddenly, I understand.   As a bodyworker and massage therapist, it’s hard not to.  But the dysfunction is so obvious a 4-year-old could point it out – kind of like “one of these things is not like the other.”

My left hip is significantly raised.  Several inches significantly raised.  I laugh and explain that I have a really bad case of what my friend Brian used to call “bus leg” – the stance he would take while waiting for one of four different buses that ran up and down Haight Street in San Francisco, one knee bent, leaning into the opposite hip.  He would light a cigarette in the hope that this would hasten its arrival.

My body is telling my stories.

Stephanie laughs and points out that not only is my left hip raised, but my right hip is rotated forward.  I step into this position – exaggerating the rise of my lift hip and the twist of my right – and I immediately feel the pain.

Stephanie shows me my cervical spine, my neck.  It is devoid of any curve and tilted to the right.  Cocked like a dog considering what his master is saying and whether or not to ignore it.

cervical spine
Healthy cervical spine. Not mine.

I tell her the tilt makes sense.  That this movement, right ear dipped to the right shoulder is the motion I associate with my mugging in 2007.

Just two months sober and back in California, I am held up at gunpoint on a Sunday morning in Oakland.  Blocks from where I attended massage school, where I taught, and where I treat clients each quarter, returning “home” for a busman’s holiday.

I pick up a coffee from Carerras and am talking on the phone with my friend Robyn when I feel a flurry of activity around me – circling, swirling energy, like a cartoon Tasmanian Devil.  And then a gun inches from my nose.

“Give us your shit and we won’t shoot.”

“They are kidding,” I think.  “In about 30 seconds they are going to say ‘We’re just fucking with you, lady,’ and I’m going to tell them this is not funny.”  But they never say that.  I think I am dreaming but I don’t wake up.  And then I slip back through the rabbit hole of reality and scream a scream I didn’t know I had in me.

They just look at me.

I think about everything in my bag.  My passport and how my husband and I are supposed to leave in five days for Mexico.  The flash drive that has all of my files on it and has not been backed up.  My keys.  But I am frozen.  I cannot say a word.  I cannot push out a logical sentence like, “Let me give you the money but I keep the rest, ok?”  Because this is not logical.

Instead, I cock my head to the right, opening up my shoulder and allowing them to take the bag I am wearing across my body.  They pluck my metallic-pink cell phone from my hand and are gone.

I scream and piss myself running back toward the school.  I have attracted attention and people who were not there just a moment ago are asking, “Are you ok?”  I do not realize they are talking to me until one grabs hold of me.  I tell her my story and she calls the police while a man takes my arm and walks me back to the school.

My friend Tim picks me up that afternoon.  I get a new passport and go to Mexico.  And when I return to Chicago, I engage in EMDR work – trauma therapy.  I get relief.  But the story is still in my body.

The story is my body.  They all are.

The car accident on New Year’s Eve day when a Ford F-250 with a horse trailer goes through the back of my Honda Civic Hatchback.  When my husband takes the car to the shop on January 2 and they ask, “Did everyone live?”

The piece of my cervix I have removed when I am 24 – ridding my body of its pre-cancerous cells.  And the doctor in California who, upon examining me for the first time, says, “If anyone asks, this is not what an ordinary cervix looks like.”

My breast reduction when I am 40 and the shame and depression that follows me for years like an ex-boyfriend who won’t let go.  Faint memory now, like the scars that run vertically from breast fold to nipple.

foot
Healthy foot. Not mine. But what I imagine it looks like now.

My body has held on to each of these and made them its own – painting over experience with a broad brush stroke of pain.  Not unlike the stories I repeat so often that they become my pained reality – whether or not they are completely accurate.  My skewed perception becomes truth.

I come home from my treatment, take my boots off and place my naked feet on the hardwood floor.  I feel the ground beneath me.  Supporting me.  As if for the first time.  Whereas before I seem to have been standing on only a part of my feet, tottering.

I have fallen into my feet.  Into my body.  Into truth, and the possibility of a new story.

Artist Date 29: Undressed

undressed
Degas’ “Woman at her Toilette”

I don’t recall ever having erotic musings at a museum.  Until today.

But I also don’t recall seeing a posting at the entry of an exhibit, a warning that explicit content lay ahead, possibly unsuitable for children.

But there it was.  And there I was in front of Felicien Rops’ “For You, General.”  A mild flush on my face –  Artist’s Date 29.

I returned to the Art Institute of Chicago for “Undressed: The Fashion of Privacy,” an adjunct exhibit to the newly opened “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity,” which I saw last week – Artist Date 28.

I liked the name.  It reminded me of my strong belief in really good underwear – or none at all, which my friend Clover reminded me of when she was visiting last week.  She came out of the bathroom smiling.

“Right…really good underwear,” she said, referring to the lacy bits drying over the shower rod and towel bars.  We giggled knowingly.

There is very little underwear in “Undressed” – but a lot of vulnerable nakedness.

Sketches and paintings in all array of medium.  Women bathing.  Dressing.  Masturbating.  Breast feeding.

Mothers.  Prostitutes.  Children.  Defined spines.  Soft lines and folds of skin.

They remind me of something Geneen Roth wrote in her book When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair or 50 Ways to Feel Gorgeous and Happy (When You Feel Anything But).  Suggestion 25: Stare at Normal Women’s Bodies (Normal Does Not Include Models, Actresses, and Elite Athletes).

I’ve done this at women’s spas.  Sitting in the dry sauna, noticing dimpled thighs and buttocks.  Six-pack abs and round bellies – some large and pendulous, obscuring any hint of pubic hair.  Breast implants perched nearly at shoulder height.  Mastectomies.  Single and double, with and without reconstruction.

Pierced nipples.  Pierced navels.   C-section scars.  My own scars.  Two faded purple lines running vertically from my areolas to the folds under my breasts.

Sometimes I forget what real bodies look like.  How they move in the world.  I am reminded.

Degas’ “The Tub.”  A bronze sculpture of a woman submerged in water, her leg outstretched, washing her foot.

Klimt’s “Seated Woman from The Front with Hat, Face Hooded.”  Wispy lines of pastel pencil.  Her legs are spread and her hands are between them.  A large hat lazily tilted over her face.

debauchery-second-floor-1896_jpg!Blog

Lautrec’s ”Woman in Bed – Waking.”  She is turned toward me, one sleepy eye just opening.  Sexy.  Soft.  So different from his prostitute in “Debauchery” –a hazy, colored drawing of a woman being groped from behind.  His hands over her breasts.  Her arm extended, a martini-shaped glass dangling from her hand.

There are men too.

Delacroix’s “Standing Academic Male Nude.”  Chiseled.  Holding a stick, he appears to be rapping it onto his flat hand –a threatening gesture.  As if preparing to punish some innocent, or not so innocent.

As if HE is the general Rops’ alludes to in “For You, General” – an old woman holding a younger one over her knee, her buttocks exposed, an offering.  The girl’s bunched up skirt covers her face.  The old woman is smiling.

boys bathing

Munch’s “Boys Bathing 1896.”  Like tadpoles.  “Boys Bathing 1899.”  Like many letter X’s, like many little frogs.  “Men Bathing.”  Like figures from a Hatch Show Print poster –iconic wood-block images made in Nashville, announcing the Grand Ole Opry and Johnny Cash.

There are children.  Rafaelli’s “Germaine At Her Toilette.”  A young girl in a white dressing gown, her black tights wrinkled and baggy at the knees.  Even religious icons.  Munch’s “Madonna,” like an album cover or t-shirt from a 70’s rock band.  Bands of colors tracing her image.  And who is the small character in the bottom left corner, seemingly questioning all of this?

Edvard_Munch_-_Madonna_-_Google_Art_Project_(495100)I notice the few pieces by women. Just  a few — always.  Suzanne Valadon sketches.  Mary Cassatt paintings.  Her style is bright.  Animated.

I peer deeply into black and white woodcuts.  I love their simplicity, their precision.  And yet, I am not quite sure what I see.

I come close and step away and come close again.  It reminds me of the drawings on the back page of children’s magazines.  The ones that ask “Do you see the old woman or the young woman?”  Where once you see one, it is impossible to see the other.

It is the same with Vuillard’s “The Birth of Annette.”  Finally, after many minutes, I see the baby’s head.

Perhaps that is the point.  The experience of “Undressed,” of being undressed, is so intimate, so private.  I am an invited voyeur.  It is not mine to fully know.