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.”

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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 100: No More Fear of Flying

View from the "Jong Section" of Ravenswood Used Books.
View from the “Jong Section” of Ravenswood Used Books.

Second Jewish confession regarding Artist Dates.

I have never read Fear of Flying.

Some might fret about skipping the classics — Crime and PunishmentSons and LoversA Tale of Two Cities.  But this is my own personal blasphemy.  Isadora Wing.  The Zipless Fuck.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.  Ever since my friend Paul asked me which living writer I admired most.  I didn’t hesitate.  Erica Jong.

“Good,” he said.  “I want you to write Ms. Fear of Flying.  I want you to introduce her to your work.”

Gulp.

I remember being introduced to her work, more than 25 years ago.  I was a freshman in college.  That year, Ms. magazine published a conversation between Jong and radical feminist, Andrea Dworkin.

The spread included several photographs of them sitting on stools, talking.  Dworkin wearing a pair of large overalls, her hair — signature frizzy; Jong in a smart, form-fitting suit and heels.  She is laughing.  They both are.  Dichotomies collide.

I do not remember a single word of the interview.  Only these images, and that this was my first introduction to Jong, to her brand of sexual empowerment and liberal use of fuck and cunt — which, at the time, seemed shockingly like my own.

So today, when Jessica at Ravenswood Used Books asks if she can help me find anything, I do not hesitate.

Fear of Flying.  Artist Date 100.

It is bright inside, which I don’t quite expect.

Jessica leads me past shelves slightly groaning under the weight and familiar musty smell of aging paper.  Past the required bookshop pet, a greyhound in a zip-up vest turned animal parka, lying on a large, plaid dog bed.

All the way to the “Jong section” at the back of the store.

She climbs a ladder and pulls down a stack from the very top shelf — Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones.  Parachutes and KissesHalf-Lives — an early book of poetry.  Hard and soft copies of Fear of Flying.

I gather them into my arms and settle into a chair.

I remember reading How To Save Your Own Life, the follow-up to Fear of Flying, in my 20s while living in San Francisco.  Picking it up at Manzanita Used Books in the Mission, where I loaded up on yellowed copies of Philip Roth novels after my once-upon-a-time boyfriend Jason turned me on to Portnoy’s Complaint.

I remember reading Seducing the Demon: Writing For My Life — which I had picked up at another used bookstore, Powell’s in Portland — more than 20 years later.  Cracking its spine I felt eager to tuck into bed each night, alone, to savor a few juicy pages before passing out.

I had let go of this ritual more than 15 years ago, when my boyfriend, now ex-husband, moved into my apartment.  But unlike writing — which, following a similar hiatus, returned to me a few months after our decision to part ways — reading had eluded me.  Until Jong.

Her words pulled me into the bedroom in the wee hours when I otherwise did not want to be there, did not want to be poignantly reminded of the empty space on my mattress.  Her words allowed me to sleep again.

I decide on Half-Lives, as it is about the point I am at — 45, middle-aged, half-a-life — along with a hard copy of Fear of Flying.  I smirk.

On my way to the register, I pick up Women Who Run With the Wolves, a suggestion from my friend Pam.  She said it changed her life.

I want to change my life.

I am changing it.  I have been for nearly three years.

Returning to Chicago — neatly packing my messy life into cardboard boxes, living alone for the first time ever.  Returning to writing.  To reading.  To traveling alone — to Rwanda. To Ireland, Italy, Belgium and France.

I pull Italian Days by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison and Almost French by Sarah Turnbull down from the stacks and add them to my pile — talismen.  Protectors of my very recent decision to not renew my lease, but instead move overseas to teach English.

Anecdotal instructions by those who went before me of how to change my own life.  Reminders, like Jong’s second novel, of how to save it.

Artist Date 99: Like a Motherfucker

tiny beautiful thingsForgive me, it has been 16 days since my last Artist Date and 19 days since I’ve blogged.

I feel like a Jewish Catholic at confession.  Except the only one I’m asking for absolution is myself.

I miss my alone time.  Artistic input into my body.  My head feels foggy.  Squeezed.  Heavy and thick.  As if there is no room…no room for anything more.  No room for anything at all.

I am daydreaming about when and where I can get my fix — my dose of solitude and creative sustenance.

I didn’t expect this, didn’t expect to be “hooked” when I entered into this commitment a little more than two years ago.  I didn’t know what to expect.  Only that I needed help.

I was newly divorced.  My biological mother — who I had only met just four years earlier — was dying.  And the relationship I wasn’t having  — the one with a handsome southerner who lived some 900 miles away, who I kissed for two nights like a horny but innocent teenager —  was effecting my relationships.

My friend S. told me in no uncertain terms she could not, would not, hear his name again.

I was on my knees, desperate.  The humbled position where all change grows from.

On Christmas night 2012, a voice I’ve grown to know — my wise-self voice — suggested I work through The Artist’s Way again.  Adding that this time I go on weekly Artist Dates — a once every seven-days solo sojourn to fill my creative coffers — as is suggested in the book.

I went to lectures, museums, opera.  To pottery classes, dance performances, walking tours.  Movies, thrift shops and book stores.  All of it, alone.

On occasion, I miss a week — choosing to spend a final day with a friend before she becomes a mother or sharing my artsy outing with another — but it is rare.  And I’ve never gone this long without…until now, at the Davis Theatre — Artist Date 99.

My therapist in Seattle was the first to suggest Cheryl Strayed.  “I read her before Oprah,” she insisted, imploring me to pick up Wild, as well as Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar — the best of Strayed’s advice column from The Rumpus.

Queen Anne Books placed a special order for both books.  They arrived the day after I left for Chicago.

I mostly forgot about them until this past summer — two years later — when my friend Lori insists I buy both books.  She tells me “writers read,” and drags me into the Book Cellar where she puts a copy of each into my hands and guides me to the cash register.

Both are dog-eared now, and tear-stained.  Sentences underlined, entire pages bracketed.  Words resonate.  Lessons I do not want to forget.  Whispers from the universe reminding me where I came from, where I am today.

“Unique as every letter is, the point each writer reaches is the same: I want love and I’m afraid I’ll never get it.” (Tiny Beautiful Things)

“…for once it was finally enough for me to simply lie there in a restrained and chaste rapture beside a sweet, strong, sexy, smart good man who was probably never meant to be anything but my friend.  For once I didn’t ache for a companion.  For once the phrase a woman with a hole in her heart didn’t thunder into my head.” (Wild)

Sitting in the darkened theater, Strayed words — now images — alive before me, I say, yes.  And yes.

I still fear the possibility of not finding romantic love again, but it doesn’t drive me anymore.  It doesn’t dictate my every action.  My every reaction.

I can be in “chaste rapture beside a sweet, strong, sexy, smart good man who was probably never meant to be anything but my friend.”  Lying next to one another on my couch following morning meditation, the Reluctant Shaman’s lips pressed to my forehead — my third eye.

I no longer ache for a companion.  The words, “I do not wish a man were here,” crossing my lips as I cross the Seine last October, alone on my 45th birthday..

Strayed took to the Pacific Crest Trail  — alone — to learn these truths.  To feel them in her bones.  Mine was a different path, made of clay and dance and music.  Of film and paint and spoken word.  Of pasta and gelato and nearly three weeks in Italy.  All of it, alone.  But the truths, the same.

“So write…,” Strayed writes in Tiny Beautiful Things.  “Not like a girl.  Not like a boy.  Write like a motherfucker.”

Yes.

Artist Date 95: Temptation and Commitment. The Tapeworm is my Divorce.

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James Ensor. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1887. Regenstein Endowment and the Louise B. and Frank H. Woods Purchase Fund. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels.

My neck just did that thing where it snaps back my head as it is falling forward, as I am falling asleep sitting up.  It happens every time.  Every time I sit in a darkened theater.  It doesn’t matter if it is a movie or opera or lecture.  If it is engaging or tedious.  The darkness lulls me into slumber.  I feel like my father before he was diagnosed with sleep apnea and was fatigued all of the time — except that I don’t snore.

I know better.  I know I need to go to sleep earlier.  But I am back to my old habit of sitting in front of the computer until far too late, usually doing nothing of note — trolling Facebook or shopping for something I don’t end up buying.  And when I finally make it to bed, I’m left with five or six hours to rest before I do it all over again.

The habit started when I moved out of my then husband’s bedroom.  I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning talking to a friend who was also going through a divorce.  The late-night habit continued when I settled myself back into Chicago — although the conversations did not.

I began to consciously work on the habit.  Setting alarms at 10 p.m. — alerting me it is time to step away from the computer.  Getting accountable with my Weight Watchers groups — choosing “Get Seven to Eight Hours of Sleep Each Night” as the healthy habit I would work on each week.  I moved from five or six to six or seven, but never quite made it up to eight.

And then I started backsliding.  Call it a sleep relapse.  A divorce-habit relapse.  It began noticing its effects — finding myself “needing” a mid-morning tea to stay awake.  Struggling to make my way out of bed, trying to negotiate my non-negotiable morning exercise.  And today, dozing off during a lecture at the Art Institute, Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor — Artist Date 95.

My being here can only be described as a lazy Artist Date.  I know nothing about Ensor.  In fact, I’m not all that interested in or excited about the lecture.  But it was highlighted in the Art Institute of Chicago Magazine and it allowed me to fulfill the commitment I had made — first, to a year of Art Dates, and when I had completed that, to 100 of them.

This public accountability prods me on — even though no one is really paying attention, other than me — even as my head dips further forward, catching only bits and pieces of the lecture.

Belgium.  Seaside resort town.  Alcoholic father.

Tapeworm.

Yes, tapeworm.  I am suddenly awake.  Awake to this pain, this presence that ate away at Ensor, that his doctors couldn’t seem to rid his body of.

It dominates his art.  Images of the worm, its feeding mouth, skeletons and death.  I am struck by his commitment to it — even after it has left his body.  It changed him.  His story.  His work.

His worm is my divorce.  His drawings and paintings are my words.  I feel somehow comforted by this.  That it is ok that I am “still talking about this, writing about this.”  That this is what we do — at least some of us.  Rather than turning away from the pain, we work it out — on canvas, on paper, on screen.  We allow it to change us.  For ourselves to be changed.

I visit the exhibit after the lecture, wide awake.  The galleries are designed so I can go in the out and out the in.  There is no beginning or end.  Just middle.  The walls are a surprising choice of aquamarine.  I stand close to The Temptation of Saint Anthony — it’s 51 pieces of pencil-colored paper layered upon each other — and look for the worm, its mouth, its suckers.  I find it along with demons, a pair of red shoes and a vendor hawking frites.

On the way out, I pick up a sheet of four temporary tattoos — among them, the feeding mouth of the tapeworm from The Temptation of St. Anthony.  I slip the sheet into my bag, quite certain I will not put any of the images to my skin.

I don’t need to.  I have my own, permanent ones.  “Write” and “Left” tattooed on the inside of each wrist in typewriter font.  The tapeworm is my divorce.  A reminder of what changed me and how I am changed.  Of my work and how I work it out.  And my commitment to it.

write

Artist Date 93: The IS in HIStory

album-David-Bowie-Heroes

I’ve been listening to David Bowie a lot lately.

It’s a bit like returning from travels abroad and insisting on eating as I did while away.  Toasted bread rubbed with fresh garlic and tomato following a trip to Spain.  Cucumber-tomato salad for breakfast after a press trip to Israel.  And most recently, coffee made in a stove-top moka upon returning from Italy.  Each time, holding on to that place, that experience, for as long as I am able.

Except Bowie takes me back to a place and experience I mostly do not care to hold on to — high school.  It begins at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the David Bowie IS show — Artist Date 93.  I am transported.

I am 14 and wearing a baseball jersey from the Serious Moonlight tour.  My cousin from Los Angeles has turned me on to Bowie.  The same way he turned me on to weed, the Culture Club and all things French.  He is cool with bleached-blonde hair and skinny ties that match his skinny body.  He lights my cigarettes, walks on curb side of the sidewalk and stands up when I leave the table.  He is my ideal man.  He has been all of my life, and although I don’t yet know it, he will continue to be — long after I stop smoking weed, and Boy George gets sober too.

I am rifling through bins of used albums at Sam’s Jams in Ferndale, Michigan and find ChangesOneBowie.  Soon I will commit the words of each song to memory.  I will know them like I know my own name.  My hair is a pinky-red, spiky and sticky with Aqua-Net Extra Hold.  I am wearing iridescent blue lipstick, a plaid pleated skirt from the Salvation Army that doesn’t quite zip all the way up and a Cranbrook Lacrosse sweatshirt  — hooded with a torn front pocket — that I “borrowed” from a boy named Simon, who I met just once and never saw again.

I am in Ann Arbor visiting my friend Stacey.  We have taken the bus from her house to the University of Michigan campus.  There are no buses in suburban Detroit, where I live, save for a yellow school bus.  I feel urban and cool.  We are watching The Man Who Fell to Earth on a big screen.  It is terrible but we love it anyway.  Stacey has also seen The Hunger and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.  I have not.  She is clearly the bigger fan.

I am sitting on multi-hued blue shag carpeting in my bedroom holding the cover of Heroes in my hands — singing every word printed on the sleeve.  “And you, you can be mean.  And I, I’ll drink all the time.”  Little do I know how true these words will turn out to be.  A few years later it is TonightBlue Jean and a cover of Brian Wilson’s God Only Knows passing my lips.

I am on the cold sidewalk outside of Record Outlet with my best friend A.  We are here overnight, in line for tickets to the Glass Spider tour which go on sale tomorrow.  I cannot believe my mother has agreed to this.

I cannot believe how long it has been since I have talked to A.  Nearly five years.  That the last thing she said to me was, “Keep them.  They look better on you anyway,” referring to the sunglasses I borrowed and that were still tucked in my bag as I drove away from her apartment.  I no longer have them.

I cannot believe I left Heroes and Tonight in Seattle with my ex-husband, along with The Specials, Thriller and the original soundtrack from Hair.

I cannot believe I remember Simon’s name, how long I held on to that sweatshirt, or that I am waxing nostalgic about high school.

But it is.  And I did.  I do and I am.

In 1990, David Bowie played his greatest hits on tour “a final time.”  “…it gave me an immense sense of freedom, to feel that I couldn’t rely on any of those things. It’s like I’m approaching it all from the ground up now.”  In 1996 he resurrected Heroes onstage.

There is an IS in hIStory — as well as a story.

Alone Again…Naturally

A few weeks ago, over dinner, a woman I know asked me who traveled with me to Italy.

“No one,” I answered. “Myself.”

Silence.

Like the silence I heard when I was a we, and responded to the question “Do you have children?” with a simple “No.” The quiet, uncomfortable space while they waited for some sort of explanation.  Something to make them feel more comfortable with the answer that made them uncomfortable.

The same silence that often greets me when responding to the question, “Are you seeing anyone?” with “No.” The same quiet waiting, for “But I was…” or “Well there is this guy I just met.”  Or my friend Patsy’s genius answer, “I am seeing a lot of different men.”

For a while I acquiesced…talking about my not-quite-relationships. My Divorce Buddy.  The Southern Svengali.  The friendships, flirtations and occasional dalliances that made me feel like I had something going on.  The relationships that ended seemingly before they even started.  I think it made us both feel better.

This time was different. I felt no need to explain my solo voyage.  In fact, I was downright chuffed (to turn a British phrase), pleased with myself and the situation I consciously and happily put myself in – alone for 17 days in Italy.

A few days later, I was asked the same question about travel mates.  And I watched as the woman’s smile wrinkled into a pained frown.  “You were alone…on your birthday?”  The same question my mother asked me before I left.  The same question I had asked myself.

Happy on my birthday, in Paris.
Happy on my birthday, in Paris.

“Yes! It was awesome!”

I told her about my 15-hour layover in Paris. About walking along the Seine, seeing Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, laughing out loud, asking no one in particular, “Who goes to Paris for dinner on their birthday?” and replying, “I do.”

I told her about being present to the moment. About the real birthday present – of not wanting anything to be other than it was.  Not wishing for a man or a friend.  Not wishing I had worn something different, eaten something different, stayed in a different apartment.

She looked confused.

I’ve been thinking about why this trip was different. Why I was different.

I have traveled by myself before – on press trips and volunteer projects and meeting up with friends on the other end. But only truly “alone” once before – in the few days before and after participating in a volunteer project in the south of France.

I had longed to travel alone.  It represented who I wanted to be.  Adventurous.  Glamorous.  Strong.  A world traveler.  And yet, when I arrived in Paris alone in 2006 I only felt sad, scared and alone.

My answer, or at least part of it, came in an email from my friend Melinda.  In it, she mentioned going to a play reading – by herself – completely spur of the moment.

“It kind of reminded me of your Artist Dates.”

Artist Date. Balm to my soul.  Savior of my heart and mind.  The simple suggestion by Julia Cameron in the book The Artist’s Way of a once a week “walkabout” to fill one’s creative coffers.

I took on the challenge nearly two years ago. Newly divorced and painfully licking the wounds of my first forays “back out there.”   I had heard others talk about feeling free, having great sex, or at the very least, a lot of it, following the dissolution of their marriages.  My efforts and experiences only left me feeling scared, desperate and crazy.

In a moment of grace, I turned away from convention, from the promises of partnership, and toward myself through weekly Artist Dates. To the opera.  To the Art Institute.  To ethnic grocery stores and new neighborhoods.  To theatre and concerts.  Alone.

Reading Melinda’s email, it occurred to me that perhaps all of this “structured aloneness” had prepared me for this – a seeming marathon of solitude.

Arriving in Rome alone last month, I felt the same anxious fear that had accompanied me to Paris. But this time I didn’t try to act cool.  I didn’t try to pretend I was a local or that I even knew where I was.

I held a map in my hand, asked a lot of questions and opened myself to the possibility of getting lost, or worse, of looking stupid.

I challenged myself to not take cabs. To depend on trains, buses and trams.

On my feet. On myself.  And the time-tested kindness of strangers.

Strangers who reminded me I was never really alone. Leonardo, the 19-year-old man/boy, who saved me from boarding the wrong bus – twice – in Arezzo.

With Leonardo, who saved me from going to God-Knows-Where. Twice!
With Leonardo, who saved me from going to God-Knows-Where. Twice!

Delilah, another volunteer at Altrocioccolato – the fair trade chocolate festival in Umbria where I began my journey – who sent me to her brother, his wife and cousin in Florence for Aperitivo – the Italian version of happy hour, but with a much better buffet, and a drive through the city.

Who organized a dinner party – which became my birthday party, complete with candles, singing and gifts – among her English-speaking friends when I arrived in Rome a few days later.

Roman Birthday Party. Delilah, the hostess, is in black.
Roman Birthday Party. Delilah, the hostess, is in black.

Seems my Artist Dates, my time alone, prepared me to be alone. For long walks, shopping at flea markets and eating fatty pork sandwiches while sitting on the edge of a fountain in Campo De Fiore.

It also prepared me to be with people – with ideas and experiences to share.

But mostly it prepared me for my life, the one I dreamed of not so many years ago in Paris— Adventurous. Glamorous.  Strong.  A world traveler.