“I Am Safe; It’s Only Change”

“I am safe; it’s only change.”

The words tumble out of a book I recently unearthed, one I began reading together with a friend last year in Spain but never finished. Written on a card, I assume acting as a bookmark, decorated with gorgeous greens and oranges, purples, pinks and blues. Flowers and faces.

It is one of a deck, a gift from my friend Michelle — given to me when I left Seattle for Chicago in 2012, following my divorce. A few years later, I tucked them into one of two suitcases that accompanied me on a year-long sojourn to Spain.

I’ve pulled them out from time to time when I needed inspiration. In writing. In life. But this time I didn’t go looking for it. It found me.

Riding the 9 Ashland bus on my way to work, the card slides out. I smile, thinking of Michelle, and of the changes I am twisting against, and turn it over.

“Safe and Change …

“If you have drawn this card, some kind of change is afoot. It is, after all, the only constant thing! With change comes fear and questions and the ground becomes shaky with uncertainty. This card is a reminder that change would not be happening unless somehow the timing was right. Although it may be edgy and challenging, the universe intends to keep you safe. Courage does not exist in the absence of fear. And faith cannot exist without ‘not knowing.’ Remember that the true unsafety lies in not changing.”

I wonder if the artist could have envisioned the state of our nation when she wrote this. That I, and so many other Americans, would feel sucker punched in the gut every day following the inauguration of our 45th president — watching the principles this country was built upon summarily dismantled. Our country run by a handful of wealthy, straight white men who seem bent on growing their interests alone. Fearful of waking up and no longer recognizing the place we’ve called home. The place I deliberately returned to when my student visa was up for renewal.

I’ve never been so emotionally effected by politics in my life. Perhaps this is good. Perhaps this is the change. The shift my friend Rachel says she is trying to lean into. She mentions it following my post of a Mahatmas Gandhi quote on Facebook – poached from another friend’s newsfeed.

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall, always.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

The words are like a balm.

Within hours, nearly 100 people have clicked “like” or “love.”

My heart swells and glows yellow, as it sometimes does. I am reminded of the power of hope and of community, and of the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “ … That where there are shadows, I may bring light.”

That night, I decide to limit my news sources to a chosen few. Since then, I’ve begun to feel a little more peace …

Which leaves room to twist against the other shifts and changes in my life … but only if I choose to.

 

 

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Hope Rises. Hope Falls. And I Adjust My Lapel and Say “OK.”

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I woke up this morning feeling the stillness of my neighborhood and I knew. I knew we had a new president. One I did not vote for. And I felt afraid.

I still do.

As a woman. As a Jew. As an American. As a being of light and love.

I realized that fear prevailed. And now I am the one afraid.

How do I not be?

How do I live in a place of love and light? How do I be a part of the solution and not the problem?

Yesterday, I believed we would elect the first woman president.

I was so proud to cast that vote. So uplifted by the photos and stories on #pantsuitnation. Unable to tear myself away from the words of people who had chosen to say, “I’m with her.”

The Muslim woman covering her head with an American flag scarf. The white, straight, self-proclaimed “Southern redneck” who totes guns and had voted Republican his entire life. Until now.

Recent immigrants who believe in the values this nation was built upon. Men in skirts. Men in heels. Women in pantsuits and Army fatigues.

People voting from hospital beds – their ballots brought to them, notarized and returned. People whose absentee ballots never arrived and flew back to their “home” states to cast their votes.

I sat on the bus. In the doctor’s waiting room. On my couch. Reading these stories of hope, struggle, strength and peace. And the cheers of support around them. Around us.

I want to believe in that America.

Four months ago, I returned to Chicago following a year abroad. People asked why.

Because my visa expired. Because I’m not Spanish. Because Madrid wasn’t home.

I believed I was meant to be here during this time. That it was important for me to be here during this time.

And now I am. Here. In this place that doesn’t much feel like home either.

I don’t believe “the answer” is somewhere else. I think it is inside of me. Inside of all of us.

Greater love.

But it is hard to believe when I am in fear. Hard to believe when hope rises and then falls.

And then I turn to the words and wisdom and stories of others. (The power of social media used for good.) Of a woman I dance with, who remembers having to drink from a “colored only” fountain when she was a kid. “Do not let fear cloud your judgement and reason … this country has gone through shit before; if you’ve never had to go through it, it can be terrifying … but you know what? That kind of shit got ended …”

Of a woman I’ve known since I was 12, whose husband is black and whose children think my baldish head is beautiful. “It is time for women to get barefoot and pregnant with new ideas and give birth to a new movement, mother it and take anyone down that tries to hurt it. We are just getting started.”

Of a mother on #pantsuit nation, a woman I do not know, whose six-year-old daughter put on her suit jacket this morning, the same one she wore to school yesterday, and asked “What do I need to do to become president?” And upon hearing, “work really hard in school, get in to a top college and then a top law school, and understand the law so you can change it,” replied “Okay,” full of confidence, adjusted her lapel in the mirror and went to school.

And hope rises.

Today, I will adjust my lapel, say “okay,” full of confidence, and go out into the world carrying love and light – knowing I am meant to be here, knowing there is work to be done.

Artist Date 4.2: Trumps Fatigue

tom j steppenwolfI have not waited tables in more than 20 years. Until today.

As expected, not a lot has changed. Waiting tables remains a satisfying exercise in short-term relationships, being sassy and being shiny. Except orders go in via computer now as opposed to directly on the rail.

And my body has something to say about it.

After six-plus hours on the floor, I hurt in all the places I expected to. And some I didn’t.

My shins ache. And although I haven’t eaten in hours, I’m not hungry.

In about 18 hours I leave for Tennessee to visit my mother. I haven’t packed.

And yet, I am flying down Lincoln Avenue in a red and white polka-dot skirt, Fly London Wedges and bubble-gum pink lipstick. My bike lights are on. My heart is full. I feel happy.

Art trumps fatigue. Friendship trumps fatigue. Commitment trumps fatigue.

And so I land here, in a seat at the Steppenwolf Theatre. Artist Date 4.2 (or 120, depending on how you count).

It is the student showcase – the culmination of 10 weeks of classes at the School of the Steppenwolf Theatre. My friend Tom, one of the students, mentioned this a week or so ago. I penciled it in my book and assured him I’d be there.

Tom has built me a dining room table. Installed my air-conditioner. And is also a fan, dare I say devotee, of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.

I was never not going to be here.

Even though I thought about it. Even though my shins had other ideas.

One-hundred twenty Artist Dates under my belt and I’m still shocked how every single one shifts me. That the commitment in my calendar means something. My commitment to my blog. To myself. And in this instance, my friend.

That every time I begin, I feel delighted. Joyous. Like my heart might burst. No matter how or what I was feeling 20 minutes earlier.

That it really takes so little to make me happy … other than me treating me. Leaving behind the shoulds and have-tos for a little while.

Like when my aunt whisked me away on a few hours shopping excursion during a lull in the weekend of my brother’s Bar Mitzvah celebration. She thought perhaps a certain 10-year-old with a Dorothy Hamill wedge might enjoy one-on-one attention, and some fancy new duds for middle school – which she had gift-wrapped after we picked them out.

Going on an Artist Date is like that. Like being Aunt Ellie to my 10-year-old self.

Except I’m 46. My shins hurt. And I’ve grown up enough to have space and attention for the person on stage.

I didn’t for my brother. I was only 10.

But I do for Tom.

When the lights go up and the entire ensemble takes a bow, I jump to my feet along with half of the audience. Clapping wildly. Tears streaming down my face.

Pride? Joy? For someone else’s joy? Someone else’s accomplishment? Someone else’s art? Someone else’s heart?

I think Tom sees me – wet-faced and flared nostrils – but really, I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter. Because I can see him. All of him.

Because when I care for myself, I can care for and about others.

And unlike waiting tables … that has changed.

 

Artist Date 2.2: Hello, Old Friend

“Hello, old friend…”

I whisper the words to no one in particular. Smiling as I take a seat in front of Marc Chagall’s “America Windows.” Moments ago, the bench was occupied, but serendipitously it is free… as if waiting for me.

My friend Colleen invited me here – to the Art Institute of Chicago – to catch up over coffee and “peel off for our independent Artist Dates.” Number 2.2 (118) for me.

She knows me. The sacredness of my weekly solo sojourn.

We breeze through admissions and before entering the exhibit –“America After the Fall: Paintings in the 1930s”– (my choice), I kiss her on either cheek, holding fiercely to the traditions of my year in Spain. I wish her joy on her Artist Date and thank her for bringing me here.

Here. This place that used to feel like my home. But that I am acutely aware I am a visitor in.

Colleen’s visitor.

I used to be a member.

I loved sitting in on mid-day member lectures … the youngest in attendance by several times around the sun. Taking advantage of early viewings, free coat check, and complimentary coffee and tea.

But most of all, I loved the freedom to just “pop in” at any time … never worrying about “getting my money’s worth.”

I would always end up here. In front of Chagall’s Windows.

Usually I’d stand up close, looking for new details I might have missed. But today I find myself sitting back. Taking it all in. The whole of it.

It is a metaphor for the day.

The AIC is busy and the exhibit feels congested. I’m somewhat surprised as it has been up for almost two months now. There are a lot of children. And a lot of loud Midwestern accents.

It does not feel like mine anymore.

I snap photographs.

“American Landscape” by Charles Sheeler. Grimy and distinctly Midwestern. Something I kind of romanticized while living abroad. Kind of.

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The frame from Grant Wood’s “Young Corn” which reads, “To the Memory of Miss Linnie Schloeman Whose Interest in Young and Growing Things Made Her A Beloved Teacher In Woodrow Wilson School.”

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The rolling hills that make up the naked, female form in Alexandre Hogue’s “Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare.”

mother earth

The cartoonish characters and cartoonishly thick pain in William H. Johnson’s “Street Life, Harlem.”

street life

I wander out of the exhibit and take a photograph of the words on a door across the hall – “A Lot of Sorrow.”

Yes, there is. And I am.

Moving is hard … even when I choose it. The place that was mine has changed. I knew it would. It did before. There are new inhabitants. There always are.

And yet, if I look I can still find myself here.

In the words leaping from the panels introducing the exhibit. Eerily appropriate today.

“The title of America after the Fall refers in one sense to the (stock market) crash, but is also aptly describes the pervasive concern that the nation had fallen from grace.”

“Regardless of style, many painters hoped their art could help repair a democracy damaged by economic and political chaos. The diversity of approaches made the 1930s one of the most fertile decades of American painting.”

In Archibald Motley’s “Saturday Night,” which I saw for the first time a little more than a year ago. On another Artist Date, at the Chicago Cultural Center. The date before the date – the one with the man who would become my lover for the months leading up to my departure for Spain. I smile and my heart aches just a little.

saturday night motley

On the bench in front of “America Windows,” where today I see nothing new at all. The sameness – both beautiful and comforting.

“Hello, Old friend.”

Artist Date 105: Te Recuerdo!

With Hope Boykin, Alvin Ailey dancer, at a pre-performane workshop at the Auditorium Theater.
With Hope Boykin, Alvin Ailey dancer, at a pre-performane workshop at the Auditorium Theater.

“I remember you.”

I smile and rub my hand over my mostly naked head. “It must be the hair.”

“No,” she insists. “I remember you. You were here last year. You are here a lot.”

Here is the Auditorium Theater to see Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Here is the pre-performance mini-workshop with company dancer Hope Boykin.

Here is Artist Date 105 — marking the beginning of a third year of solo sojourns, as suggested by Julia Cameron in “The Artist’s Way.” I had not planned to take on this commitment for another year, and yet I am here…counting numbers, filling my creative coffers, following my feet. The Artist Date has become what Twyla Tharp calls “the creative habit.”

I was here opening night of the run, a little more than a week ago, with my friend Julie — my brain cueing each next movement of Revelations, my body responding, leaning into the gesture while my mind completes it. I was here last year and the year before that — each time learning bits of Revelations at the mini-workshop before the show.

I was here with Martha counting the ribs of the dancers from row I — the seats, a gift from my friend Amy. I was here with Rebecca, giddy when an usher moved us from balcony to orchestra, spoiling me for all future dance performances.

And I was here alone, on other Artist Dates.

So it shouldn’t surprise me that the woman checking my name off the list might remember seeing me. Or that Kristen from the Auditorium Theater Marketing Department does too.

She is standing in front of a board covered with sticky notes and pins, each naming a patron’s “favorite Alvin Ailey memory.”

I take a Sharpie marker and add mine — dancing with Kristen at a master class led by another Ailey dancer — Antonio Douthit-Boyd. It was there I learned the definition of “intermediate” is fluid at best, and that I can be the least trained, least experienced member of a class, but that I still have a right to be there.

But I am surprised when a woman approaches Kristen and me and blurts out, “You go to my synagogue.” It feels completely out of context. It is. And she is right, I do. Although not much lately.

I think about these moments driving home. How the once daunting, seemingly exclusive world of performance seems cozy and familiar. How Chicago feels like a big, small town. And how I feel a part of both.

Making my way up Lakeshore Dive, I am flanked by twinkling skyscrapers to my left and Lake Michigan to my right. For a moment I wonder if I really want to give this up and move to Madrid.

I do.

I know just because a place feels like “Cheers” (“Where everyone knows your name.”) is not reason enough to stay. I learned that when I left Detroit and built a life in San Francisco. Again when I left that life in San Francisco and made a place for myself in Chicago. And a third time when I left that place for myself in Chicago and, as my friend Joanne likes to say, “broke the Seattle chill.”

In less than six months I will reduce my belongings to a few boxes that I will ship to my mother — mostly paperwork, plus a few keepsakes I’m not yet ready to part with — and two suitcases which will accompany me to Spain for one year, possibly, hopefully longer.

I am looking forward to going. To filling my brain with another language and culture, and my body with jamon and cafe con leche. To expanding my circle and creating one more home for myself.

I am looking forward to seeing Alvin Ailey perform on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. To perhaps dancing with Hope or Antonio again. To hearing, “Te’ recuerdo!” (“I remember you!”) And being a little surprised by it.

I Need A New Before

Possible new BEFORE photo.
Possible new BEFORE photo.

I’ve had the same Weight Watchers “Before” photo for nearly 12 years.

It is of me and my ex-husband, drinking wine at an outdoor cafe in the Fifth Arrondissement in Paris — the day after my 31st birthday.

My friend Nora calls it the perfect before photo, pointing to the visible roll at my belly, the buttons straining at my pre-reduction breasts, gaping fabric, and my somewhat distorted face.

I share this photograph with new Weight Watchers members as a way of creating rapport and earning credibility — as if to say “I’ve been there…I know” and also,  “this is possible” without uttering a word.

Some gasp. Others laugh uncomfortably. A few offer up kind words like, “You were still cute.” Occasionally I am asked, somewhat rhetorically, “This is you?” to which I reply “the other is my ex husband,” and sometimes add, “it is his ‘before’ photograph too.”

Last week I heard something different, something I hadn’t heard before — twice, from two different people.

“Are you still with him?”

I was taken aback. It seemed out of context, but also surprising, as for so many years, so many of the members knew him — or at least of him.

He was the one pushing the basket at Trader Joes. The bike racer turned massage therapist turned doctor who helped guide this girl who failed gym class into a reluctant athlete who dabbles in bike centuries and triathalons. The one who asked if I earned more activity points in the winter, as I surely burned more calories trying to keep warm. The reason I left California and then Chicago — choosing to flank him on his journey from medical school to residency to doctor.

But I rarely, if ever, mention him in Weight Watchers meetings anymore.

Thursday, after my lunchtime meetings closed, I shared the twice-asked, seemingly unusual question — “are you still with him?” — with my colleagues and added, “I think I need a new ‘before’ picture.”

They agreed.

Another possible BEFORE.
Another possible BEFORE.

It feels like more than a gentle nudge from the universe telling me to “move on” — to find another 35-pounds-heavier reminder of who I used to be, because offering up a photograph of the two of us more than half a dozen times each week is no longer serving me.

And so I wonder what else I might be doing that doesn’t contribute to my “moving on.”

There isn’t much of our past surrounding me — I left most of it with him in Seattle. A cooking pot, French coffee press and a three-season sleeping bag. My Italian road bike, a pair of snowshoes and a lithograph by an African artist called “Masks of the Healer #2.” It hangs over my dining room table, a sort of talisman watching me as I write.

I also removed him from my feed on Facebook after being “greeted” by a photograph of him, his girlfriend and his new cats on Christmas Day. It wasn’t the image of him and another woman that bothered me so much (I’d seen photographs of the two of them before.) It was the juxtaposition of him in his new life, wearing his old bathrobe — a plaid flannel, L.L Bean — that got to me.

And yet, I was still typing part of his name and social security number several times each week — using the combination as a secondary password. So yesterday at work, I changed it to something more me-centric.

But finding the right before picture is more challenging. We were together for 15 years, so he is in many of my photographs. (My mother’s too. She cut him out of the one on top of her bureau.) Also, I didn’t keep many photographs of me 35 pounds ago. I had ceased to be that woman.

And I’ve ceased to be that married one as well.

There are other befores. And there will be other afters.

Artist Date 104: When Too Much is Just Enough

From the show that brought me back to a darker time in my body's journey. Photography: Jack Wallace. Graphic Design: Rebecca Willett
From the show that brought me back to a darker time in my body’s journey. Photography: Jack Wallace. Graphic Design: Rebecca Willett

I can’t remember the last time I vomited. I don’t try to. Such a violent act — my insides coming out. My body’s intuitive wisdom, ridding itself of what it identifies as clearly foreign. An organic process.

It is hard to imagine I would ever try to bring this on. But I did.

A long time ago. And thankfully, not for very long — I wasn’t very good at it.

I haven’t thought about this in more years than I can remember. Probably because I haven’t binged in at least that long.

But I am brought back to it here, in the darkened Greenhouse Theater for Danielle Pinnock’s showcase performance of Body Courage — Artist Date 104.

In these 75 or so minutes, Pinnock is the embodiment of her more than 400 interviews, her words verbatim.

She is man and woman. Black and white. Straight and gay. Young and old.

She is a former Miss California USA pageant contestant sporting a red bathing suit, gold high heels, a long blonde wig and Valley Girl twang.

She is an Irish priest with early-onset Parkinson’s Disease. A Muslim woman touching her thighs over and again — the site of her burn scars, scalded by her ex with the contents of a crock pot.

She is Tan Mom, whose 15-minutes of fame I missed somehow, and a Temple University professor who also missed her arrival on to the American pop-culture scene.

She is a gay man with gynecomastia — overdeveloped male breasts —  the one who keeps his shirt on during sex.

She is a 20-something waitress who vomits.

My ears perk up when the waitress mentions “the trick” — puke immediately after eating, before any food has begun its journey towards digestion.

How could I not have known this? It is so obvious. And yet, my flirtation with this brand of disordered eating was pre-Internet, before Google was a verb and I could type “How to vomit” into the search bar.

Unfortunately, I never needed any special instructions regarding bingeing. It was easy. Intuitive.

The black-out tornado roaring through my kitchen — stuffing bite after bite into my mouth, not fully finishing the last before starting the next.  No mere episode of overeating, emotional eating, or eating when I am not hungry — although all of these factors may be at play.

The binge is a high. A distraction. Numbing.

And it is shameful. A secret. Dissociating.

It is me at my friend Carlos’ house, dog sitting — on the kitchen floor eating Girl Scout Thin Mints by the sleeve and peanut M&Ms from a cut-crystal jar.

He returns, unexpected. My mouth is full, my hand loaded for the next bite. We look at one another and say nothing about it — now or ever again.

It is me lying on the bed in my underwear and nothing else, trying to bargain away the hurt — both physical and emotional. Trying to pray away the remorse.

It is me walking down the hill to one market for yogurt-covered raisins, up it to another for Pepperidge Farm cookies, and next door to a third for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s — too ashamed to buy all of this at once.

It is me successfully unloading my body of macaroni and cheese from the cafeteria before my afternoon lecture. I look in the mirror. The blood vessels around my eyes are purple and broken. I fear people will notice, will know what I have done.

It’s been nearly 20 years since my last binge. I don’t remember it. What I ate. If I vomited. Or how I stopped.

I only know that it stopped “working” — no longer providing the desired effect of distraction, and if I was lucky, oblivion.  That the pain of my behavior — both physical and emotional — became too great to continue. And that I no longer do it.

A miracle is defined as “a highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences.” This is surely one.

However, I still overeat — sometimes. I still emotionally eat and eat when I am not hungry — sometimes. And I likely always will — sometimes.

Sliced pork on focaccia, oil seeps through the waxy paper, while I sit on the edge of a fountain in Campo de’ Fiore. My body says “enough” at two-thirds, but I continue — uncertain when I will be here again.

The last few bites of a burrito from my favorite taqueria — not enough to bring home.

Fresh dates in my refrigerator — nature’s crack. I have two, then two more, and then another two.

The dinner plate I push away — done — and then pull back and return to as my friend broaches the topic we have neatly avoided all night.

The difference? My intent. My response. My awareness.

I remember these moments. Some, like the porchetta in Rome, are joyous.  Others, like the reminder of my “still single” status over dinner, more than uncomfortable. But mostly they are neutral, evoking neither shame nor pain, just information — a physical sensation of “too much.”

And the comfort in knowing it, and in knowing that sometimes “too much” is “just enough.”