Artist Date 3.2: Enough To Say Fuck Off

Every fiber in my being is telling me to go home. To send resumes. Work on my manuscript.

That I’ve been downtown too long already. Eating lunch. Shopping for sunglasses. Having fun.

That I don’t “deserve” it. That I better get back home and get cracking. Find a job and start making money. And until I do, I have no right “playing” like this.

It’s an old message.

The first time I heard it I was in my late 20s, when my event-fundraising contract was not renewed.

“Enjoy this time,” my therapist said. “Go to matinees. Museums. Walks in Golden Gate Park.

“Soon enough you’ll be working again and you’ll regret not taking advantage of this time … Trust me, I know.”

And she did. It had happened to her.

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But I didn’t much enjoy that time off. Or all the other times I’ve been unemployed or underemployed since.

Not until a couple of years ago, when I took on the challenge of the Artist Date — the weekly, solo flight of fancy as prescribed by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way.

Until then, time not working meant time I scrambled. Wrung my hands. Ran the numbers. Sat in front of the computer. Somehow equating worry with work.

It didn’t work. And it didn’t bring me work. Just suffering. Which I seemed to somehow think I deserved.

When I took on The Artist’s Way as if it were my job, I saw the folly of my constant motion. And I learned, albeit slowly, to enjoy my underemployed status.

Friends marveled at my charmed life. Museum lectures. Book stores. Dance classes. Opera. I did too.

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But deep down, a part of me didn’t believe I deserved it.

Perhaps it still doesn’t.

It is the voice that shames me for returning to Chicago after a year abroad and finding myself, once again, underemployed. And reminds me that unlike the years of 2012-2015, I am no longer receiving alimony. It says, “Be afraid.”

Even though I am doing all the right things. Sending resumes. Writing cover letters. Incorporating edits and feedback.

Registering with temp agencies. Seeing massage clients. Applying for non-career jobs.

Babysitting.

It insists it’s not enough. That I should go home and do more. As if the one hour I have set aside for my Artist Date – number 3.2 (119) – will somehow make a difference in my ability to secure full-time work.

Even though I have enough money for today. And even tomorrow.

I tell this voice to “fuck off!” and walk down Washington and into the Chicago Cultural Center. “Which, by the way,” I tell it, “is free.”

The effect is immediate. What I used to get from that first gulp of booze. What I used to think was magic in a bottle. Relief.

My chest feels flushed, my heart full. The voice is quiet. I am smiling.

I’ve been here dozens of times but today I am particularly struck by the beauty of the former public library. So much so I never make it to the exhibit on the fourth floor.

Glittering tile work. Quotes carved in marble. In English. Hebrew. Arabic. Chinese.

Light shining through the recently cleaned stained-glass cupola.

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A poster that reads, “There are no degrees of human freedom or human dignity. Either a man respects another as a person or he does not.” James Cone.

Equally lovely.

I’d add, “…respects himself, or herself, or does not … enough to say ‘fuck off.’ ”

 

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.”

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

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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 107: As It Was Promised to Me

I have come to crave myself.

I was promised this would happen.

The first time when I left Seattle — my therapist gave me a copy of the poem “Love After Love” by Derek Walcott.

Between Acts by Archibald Motley
Between Acts by Archibald Motley

The time will come

when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror,

and each will smile at the other’s welcome.

 

and say, sit here. Eat

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back you heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

 

all your life, whom you have ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letter from the bookshelf,

 

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on you life.

The second time was a few months later, when my friend Sarah sent me a text, a photograph of a page in a book and a couple of highlighted lines — I do not remember the exact language, something about “holding on to the jewel that is myself” and “no more compromises.”

Both sounded like a bunch of pretty words and glib proclamations — neither which I could relate to.

My heart was broken. I was broken. Being alone was the worst thing I could imagine, as I was sure it was an indicator of what my future looked like.

I wanted to dress my wounds with the skin of another, healing from the outside in — although I didn’t realize it at the time.

And yet, I put the Walcott poem up on my refrigerator, next to a portion of the poem “Dreams of Desire” by Oriah House…

I want to know if you can be alone

with yourself

and if you truly like the company you keep

in the empty moments.

…and next to a tiny square of paper that had fallen from one of my journals. It was old — leftover from my single days in my 20s in Detroit. I do not know the source.

Sunday in the Park by Archibald Motley
Sunday in the Park by Archibald Motley

Most of us approach things exactly the wrong way around. First we want someone else to make us feel secure by lavishing us with affection and approval. But what you find out is that you are the source of love. When you have done the right inner work, you find that those black holes, those persistent needs and demands have been covering up the source of love, the boundless ocean of love within you.

It seems a higher part of me deeply understood the power of words and of seeing the same words day after day, and it believed in the ability of words to burrow into my subconscious and change me.

And so I find myself aching to be alone and responding with what Twyla Tharp calls “the creative habit” — the Artist Date, number 107.

It is unplanned.

I see posters for the show “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” on my way into work and decide to go. I mention this, throwing in the words “Artist Date,” to my colleague Nancy.

“Oh that’s right…you have a date tonight,” she says, not quite hearing or grasping what I have said.

It is true, I do have a date tonight — the first in many, many months. But first I have a date with myself, I explain.

I bound up the stairs of the Chicago Cultural Center as if to meet a lover. Instead, I meet myself along with the paintings that have called me here.

They are vibrant, sensual, humorous — each telling a story that can only be told by one who has lived it.

Gazing in silence, the chatter of my mind clears. I can hear my breath, my heart. I can feel the cool of lush trees and grass and even a man’s suit — painted an Easter green in “Sunday in the Park.” I can feel the heat of pink bodies — all breasts and asses, high heels and cigarettes (Delightful!) in “Between Acts.”

I can feel my own body soften and fill with a sense of contentedness that comes with giving myself what I need most — in this moment it is time, attention, quiet, a sense of normalcy.

Perhaps this is why I take an Artist Date today — before a more traditional one– so that I might fill myself with these things and not mistakenly ask another to, so that I might have a chance to greet myself at my own door and feast.

Artist Date 59: Waiting. On The Journey To Becoming

I am waiting on some news.  Both personal and professional.  Nothing scary or life-threatening…as a loving friend of mine recently asked.  But all in G-d’s time, or at the very least, not mine.

The chime on my phone notifies me of messages received and my response is purely Pavlovian.  Hope rises.  And when I check my phone and discover I still have no news, hope falls.  I feel my heart literally sink just a little bit.  Awful.

Radio silence.  My friend Michael says it is normal.  Winter.  “‘Tis the season.”  His words, literally.

I want to punch him.

He sends me photographs of the shore of Lake Michigan, taken from the Indiana Dunes.  This is what quiet looks like.  It is at once both sad and beautiful.

lonely beach

He is right though.  It is in the silence that I find my center, that I soothe myself…even though it is the silence, the not knowing, that has me so uncomfortable.

I turn off my phone at dinner with friends.  No ringing.  No vibrating.  No notifying.  Silence.

I am completely present with the people about me.  I am not thinking about what I do not know.  I am happy and serene…until I turn it back on and watch hope rise and fall again.  And watch myself respond with a level of emotion that does not feel at all congruent.

Next day, at work, I turn the phone off again.  And when I power it back on later, I ignore the notifications alerting me to the messages waiting.  Instead, I bring my attention to my friend Nora, who is sitting across from me.  I am again happy and serene.

I feel empowered.

It feels a little bit like when I quit smoking, nearly 15 years ago.  That first week, I was high on not smoking.  That feeling of “I can’t believe I’m doing this…”

The weeks that followed, sans cigarettes, were not filled with that same awe and wonder.  But that is a different story.  And a different lesson.  Fifteen years later I am grateful for a different identity – one of a non-smoker.  And the absence of the yellow stain on my second finger that I could not scrub off – my personal breaking point, my bottom.

My bottom here is that I fundamentally understand I am powerless over people, places and things, and yet, I sometimes still find myself allowing the actions of others to determine my sense of happiness, security and well-being.  I watch myself hand over my serenity.  It is painful.

And it is in this painful awareness that I recognize I have a modicum of control over the anxiety I perpetuate.  That I can dial down my discomfort by simply turning off my phone, or ignoring its messages until I am in time and space to better receive them.

That I can receive the same relief by staying busy, and by pointing my attention to what is right in front of me.

Like Nora.  Like the Artist Date penciled in my calendar.  Number 59.  Chicago Cultural Center for the “Wright Before the Lloyd,” exhibit.

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I am here just a short time – about 45 minutes.  Just long enough to feel the fog in my brain clear, making way for new information, and for my whole body to exhale.

The show is small – photographs, sketches and placards covering either side of a long hallway.  It is a journey of becoming.  The transition from Frank L. Wright, to Frank Lloyd Wright.  A seemingly subtle, but significant, metamorphosis.

I read about his mother, determined that her son should become an architect, placing engravings of cathedrals in his bedroom for inspiration.  His uncle with wild long hair, unconventional fashion sense, and a memorable three-part name who served as role model.  His work with Adler and Sullivan and the “mistakes” he made on the way to creating his signature style.

I notice that many of the buildings shown on this trajectory from Wright to Lloyd Wright are no longer standing.  Either burned down or destroyed.  Gone.  Like the yellow stain on my second finger.

I think about my own trajectory, and the people and experiences that influenced my becoming the woman I always wanted to be.

The one who dances on red soil in Rwanda and glossed, wood floors in Chicago.  Who has been invited in to the intimacy of rooms where life begins and life ends.  The one who listens with her hands and her heart.

The one with her own signature style – cropped hair, second-hand clothes and super-fabulous shoes – the kind that strangers inquire about.  Who takes herself to museums, operas and lectures – comfortably alone.  And out for strong coffee and a really good piece of cake.

The one who has learned to soothe herself.  To quiet her own crazy.  To be responsible for her own wellbeing.

Post Script:  I got a call on some of the news I’d been waiting on.  It was positive and it made me smile.  But it didn’t change anything.  Not my thoughts.  My mood.  My beliefs.  It didn’t make me feel “ok.”  It couldn’t.  Because in my heart I already was.

Artist Date 36: The Happy Show

2013-08-22 17.12.37I am chewing on a piece of ginger candy and drawing a daisy – poorly – on a square of yellow paper, giggling to myself.  The enormous blow-up animal in the other room, the one with its ass cocked north, is dancing around in my head.  I am happy.  Not just in a general way.  But in this very-present, animal-ass-in-the-air, right-now moment.

I give it an 8.

2013-08-22 17.06.05I’m on the fourth floor of the Chicago Cultural Center, at The Happy Show – Artist Date 36.  Two people mentioned it to me within two days of one another.  I take it as a sign.

Walking in, I am asked to rate my happiness and to take a gumball from the large, plastic tube with its corresponding number.  I say 7.  Popular number.  This is the least filled cylinder, followed by 10.

2013-08-22 15.57.37Ten.  No greater happiness.  Unless it goes up to 11 in a This Is Spinal Tap sort of logic.  I have been at 10…in moments.  And I think that’s sort of the point – recognizing pure-bliss, happy, 10 moments when they happen.  And thanking your lucky stars.

Noticing the runny yellow and crisp white of a fried egg.  The chills up your spine every time you ride a scooter on a beautiful, windy road.  No helmet.  Listening to music you love, but don’t know well enough to have stories associated with it.  These are Stefan Sagmeister’s – the show’s creator – happy moments.

Mine is on my bike.  A vintage, Raleigh three-speed with a basket and a bell.  Except I wear a helmet.  And I don’t listen to music.  I sing.  Usually Rosemary Clooney’s “Do You Miss New York,” or Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere.”

“There’s a city in my mind, come along and take that ride and it’s all right.  Baby, it’s all right.”

Sagmeister designed album covers for Talking Heads, as well as my hero, Lou Reed.  I wonder if he designed Little Creatures, the album this song is from.

I am photographing every inch of the exhibit – Sagmeister’s 10-year exploration of happiness – literally.  The language is so spot-on.  I don’t want to forget a single word – all of it printed on yellow walls, in fonts that look like handwriting.  Some words are cleverly crossed out.  Perfectly imperfect.

Rules to live by, culled from Sagmeister’s diary, manifested in print, sculpture, video, and dance.

“Uselessness is gorgeous.”

Thousands of cigarette papers are taped to the wall with fans blowing on them.  I step away from them to see the words embedded in the paper.  It is gorgeous.  I think about my friend Pam noting that I wear a $2 shirt from the Salvation Army with $85 underwear.

Not quite –$35 is my max.

2013-08-22 16.18.54“Make the first step.”

I watch a video of a group of Balinese girls performing a dance, unrolling strips of yellow fabric, displaying these words.  Sagmeister recalls his mother approaching people, rather than waiting to be approached.

“I do this,” I think.  Almost always.

“Over time I get used to everything and start taking it for granted.”  Sagmeister writes the words with his finger – in the dirt on a car, in soapy suds on a man’s hairy chest.  With playing cards and with hotdogs.

Yep.  It’s true.  And, Sagmeister explains, even the words “I love you,” said by the same person, become boring.  I think about my ex-husband.  In the year since our divorce, he has often told me that he misses our life together.  And that I look really good.

I want to tell him he should have thought about that before he opted out, but I don’t.  I know there are reasons our marriage stopped working.  Among them, I am certain, that somewhere along the line we took one another, and our life together, for granted.

“Actually Doing the Things I Set Out to Do Increases My Overall Level of Satisfaction.” Agreed.

2013-08-22 16.55.16“Everybody Always Thinks They Are Right.”  ‘Nuff said.

“Drugs Are Fun in the Beginning But Become a Drag Later On.”  Ditto.

On my way out, I am asked to draw my symbol of happiness on a square of yellow paper.  No smiley faces allowed.  It is the second time I am asked to do this – the first time, on the way in, I draw a heart on one side, two stick figures holding hands on the other.  This time I draw a daisy.  I don’t know why.  It just makes me smile.  Like the flowers I buy for myself most every week at Trader Joes.

Hans – my favorite, morning check-out guy – once gave me sunflowers.  Pulling them from my basket, he asked if the blooms were for me.  When I told him that they were, he responded, “They are on me.  And pick up a second bunch on the way out.”  I think it made us both happy.

I walk through the exit, which has been made into art.  The words, “every” precede “exit,” and “is also an entrance” follow it.  As instructed, I push a button and take the card which shoots out.  It reads, “Find a reflection of yourself and tell it what you really think.”

On the way out, I stop in the bathroom.  I look in the mirror and whisper to myself, “You are lovely.”  My lips curl into a big smile.  And I am.

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And you?  What do you say to your own reflection?