Artist Date 111: The Heart I Am In Love With

 

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Note: The entire time I was writing, I was certain the Katherine Mansfield quote referenced was “The heart I am in love with has to be a little bit wild.” It was only when I placed the photograph (above) into this post that I realized my error. That the quote was, “The mind I love must have wild places.” I am choosing to leave the essay as it was written, assuming it is the truth of my subconscious…that the heart I am in love with has to be a little bit wild…and honoring it. 

“The heart I am in love with has to be a little bit wild.” (incorrectly attributed to Katherine Mansfield.)

The words are written on a wooden bookshelf with black Sharpie marker. I smile as I snap a photo to send to D – as requested – proof that I, this little bit wild heart he once loved, made it here. To Desperate Literature, Artist Date 111.

This mostly used, mostly English-language bookstore is about a seven-minute walk from my house – the other two locations are in Brooklyn and Santorini, Greece – but I’m only just now finding it. That’s how Madrid is. Lots of windy paths, disguised as roads, bumping into one another. Arteries and veins, as I like to call them.

There is an economy of space here, and it’s easy to miss so much as there are no familiar grids to zig up and zag down. One either stumbles onto a place or is told to go there.

In this case, the latter.

First by Naked Madrid – a must-read blog for non-natives looking for a local experience. And again by my friend E after she attended its “The More Eggnog the Better” Christmas party.

It’s noon – still fairly early for a Sunday “morning” in Madrid – when I stumble in and am greeted by a small man wearing small, round John Lennon-style glasses.

“Please excuse me for just a moment,” he says in a proper Londoner’s accent. “My father just texted, insisting I call him.”

I am charmed by his BBC accent. His familiar greeting. His use of the phrase “excuse me” – words I so rarely hear here, either in English or Spanish. It is simply not a part of the culture. Instead, it is common for Madrileños to push against one another on the metro and in the streets. The lack of “perdon” or “con permisso” considered neither rude nor noteworthy.

There are “Books for When You are Bored” here. “Sexy Books.” “Boozy Books.” (Which come with a shot of whiskey.) “Books for When you are Desperate.”

A vintage typewriter with onion-skin paper slipped through the scroll and a hand-made sign taped to it that says, “Write the poem.” Not A poem. THE poem.

2016-02-07 12.30.54A chess board with the words “play me,” written on it – also in black Sharpie marker. A copy of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass on the nearby shelves.

A small, children’s mattress stacked on top of a wooden bench built into the wall – the ultimate reading nook for anyone under the age of 10. Forty-six, I nonetheless settle in with a handful of books and consider the possibilities of words.

Meanwhile, the owner returns offering me a cup of ginger tea and an update on his father – seems he’s getting married for the fourth time –  while characters from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, painted on the wall opposite of me, return my gaze.

I open Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Big Country. Four handwritten messages are scrawled inside the front cover. Among them, “Adios, hijo de puta. Que te rompan el culo en NY. Peter.”

And while I am still a Level A – beginner— in Spanish, I do know the meaning of “hijo de puta.” (My teacher Diego just taught it to me last week.) And I smirk.

I lean into Bryson’s first essay, “Coming Home”– about his return to the United States after a 20-year sojourn in England – and well up. I’ve been here just six months but wonder if I too will struggle to find the words I once knew, like spackle and anchor. Already I grasp for language, ultimately feeling like I speak neither Spanish nor English very well. I am told this is not an uncommon experience.

It feels like a nod from God…that I am supposed to be here.

As does Lefty Frizzell piped through the speakers, singing about Saginaw, Michigan – my mother’s hometown.

As does the copy of The Artist’s Way, propped up behind the front counter. The book that introduced me to the Artist Date. That I was looking for a copy of last week – my dog-eared copy tucked away in an attic in Chicago – to cite in my graduate-school application.

As does the Katherine Mansfield quote on the bookshelf.

Somewhere at my mother’s house there is a photograph of me sitting in Mansfield’s husband’s (Irving) lap in Beverly Hills. I am five-years-old, wearing a brown and white, gingham-checked bikini with cherries on it. My hair is wet and we are smiling big – both of us, in love with my little bit wild heart. The same little bit wild heart that brought me here.

 

irving mansfield

 

 

Not 10-Years-Old

rxHalloween 1979. I am 10-years-old. And too sick to go trick-or-treating.

In my diary, the one I have received earlier in month for my birthday – covered in blue flowers, with a lock, and the smell of old-lady perfume – I write, “I still have the ammonia.”

My mother cannot bear to tell me it is pneumonia, not ammonia that has me walking to the bathroom on tiptoes, holding my head, because full steps hurt too much.

This is not the first time. For three years in a row I have been diagnosed with either pneumonia, bronchitis or both. Always at this time of year – the season of ghosts and goblins, copious amounts of candy, the addition of one hour, and my birthday.

And then one day…nothing.

Seems I have outgrown my respiratory weariness.

Until now.

I am walking up the stairs of the metro station at Puerta Del Toledo. My head is spinning. My eyes are dry. My throat, itchy and sore. I felt this coming on at lunch yesterday but had hoped to ward it off by jumping into bed early that night. I have already been sick twice this season.

But this time is different. I feel it in my lungs.

They are heavy. It is as if I can feel each alveola filling with air. I walk to my student’s home, trying to will the illness away. By 1 p.m. I am canceling my Spanish lesson and sending texts in hopes of finding others to take on my evening responsibilities.

I receive a deluge of responses, all with the same message – “Go to the doctor.”

A friend of mine, a native Madrileno, offers to make an appointment for me.

“Tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. Text me when you arrive.”

“Does the doctor speak English?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”

A little more than 12 hours later, I text her.

“Call me if you need help,” she writes.

Somehow I have gotten it in my head that she is meeting me here, but clearly I am confused. She is at work and I am fuzzy and unclear about pretty much everything.

“Okay,” I write back.

I check in, more or less without incident. And at 9:30, the doctor herself calls me into the exam room.

“Habla Ingles?” I ask, crossing both fingers and toes.

“No.”

I burst into tears.

“Lo siento. Lo siento. (I’m sorry. I’m sorry.),” I squeak.

I am sick. I am overwhelmed. I am scared.

I am 10-years-old, holding my head and walking on my toes, missing Halloween.

And yet clearly I am not. I am 47 and in Madrid, typing back and forth with the doctor using Google Translate – telling her about my symptoms and my medical history.

She takes my temperature. She listens to my lungs. She checks my oxygen levels.

No fever. My lungs are clear. But she wants to run a blood test to find out why I keep getting sick.

I do not understand what she is saying, even with the translator. Probably because this idea is foreign to me.

I remember being in the emergency room in Chicago. Once a heart attack was ruled out, they sent me home.

“So what is it?”

Shrug. “Not a heart attack.”

The doctor calls my friend the Madrileno, who translates.

I get a prescription for ibuprofen and lozenges, as well as for blood work. The doctor schedules an appointment for a follow-up visit – with her English-speaking colleague.

I look at my watch. I have been in her office for an hour. A line of patients sit waiting in red chairs in the hallway.

I go downstairs and have my blood taken, then walk to the train – gingerly, nearly on my toes. On the way, I call one of my girlfriends to tell her “it is not the ammonia.”

“Good,” she says. She tells me that I have done a brave and scary thing — navigating the healthcare system of a foreign country in a language that I don’t quite know.

“Guess you can handle more than you think,” she says.

Guess I am not 10-years-old.

Artist Date 71: An Ice Cream Kind of Day

First Stop.
First Stop.

It is 70-something and breezy. The kind of day all of Chicago has been waiting for. The kind that should have me grinning ear to ear. But it doesn’t.

I am walking and I figure if I am out here long enough, I will end up somewhere I’ve never been before – which is the point of the Artist Date, Number 71. New input.

I point my feet towards Andersonville – an old Swedish neighborhood on the north side that became popular some 15-plus years ago, yet somehow still retains a whisper of its original feeling.

I have the overwhelming urge to call someone to meet me for ice cream. Because, it is an ice cream kind of day.

I consider my date from last Saturday. Or the man I ran into Friday night. The one who told me he had been feeling lonely.

I seem hell-bent on getting away from myself. I’m not sure why. I try to observe this but not over think it.

I walk into Pars – the Persian store I have passed so many times – instead.

There are hookahs and flavored tobacco. Stacks of soap made from laurel. Rows and rows of loose tea in jars.

Packages of frankincense and sumac. Pots for making Turkish coffee. Halavah. Mildly gritty. Somewhat sweet. Made from ground sesame seeds, it is an acquired taste. I’m pretty sure only Jews and Arabs eat it.

The store is sort of sad and sparse. I leave after 20 minutes of so, no more filled than when I arrived.

I land at Roost. Overpriced, salvaged items line the sidewalk out front.  The kind one gets for a song at estate sales in the country, out-of-the way places where those left behind have little to no idea of the value of what they hold.

Inside are candles with man-ish names and smells like “tobacco and oak.” There are mugs with the Lipton Cup-a-Soup logo on them. Cardboard produce boxes that read, “Glass Grown Brand Greenhouse Tomatoes” and “Michigan Zucchini.”

Stop Two.  Typewriter at Roost, the one that connected me back to people, and to myself.
Stop Two. Typewriter at Roost, the one that connected me back to people, and to myself.

A vintage typewriter.

Two older men giggle. “Where is the screen?”

I tell them I learned to write on an IBM Selectric in journalism school. One recalls saving his birthday money to buy his first typewriter – because his handwriting was so terrible. The other received his as a high-school graduation gift.

We press the keys. They are clunky and heavy. I show them my tattoos, “write” and “left,” in typewriter font. The “f” and “i” raised for effect.

I feel a smile curl on my lips and realize I no longer have a desire to call a boy and get ice cream.  At least right now. Even though it is still an ice cream kind of day.

Walking towards home, I cut down Balmoral – a street I never walk down. I am summoned by Greensky.

I hear the shopkeeper mention to customers that most everything is sourced from “Up North” – a term only Michiganders understand – referring to the northwest part of the Lower Peninsula.

I spent my childhood summers Up North. It is a magical place. When I returned to it some 30 years later, I found it was just as I had remembered.

I finger through the Positively Green cards and buy two to send to myself. One is yellow with sunflowers. It reads “Some people are so much sunshine to the square inch. – Walt Whitman.” The other, “As no love is the same, no loss is. – Alla Renee Bozarth.”

Stop Three.  Where I found compassion for myself.
Stop Three. Where I found compassion for myself.

I think about the man who walked out of my life without a word exactly one month ago. My friends pointed out all the red flags, but I still don’t really see them. All I know is he touched my heart deeply. And that I am still sad.

I think about what I will write. What I tell myself. What I will tell the child that resides inside of me, the one who once said out loud, “I thought he loved us.”

I respond to her with compassion I can never muster for myself.

“He did love us. As best as he knew how.”

She is filter-less, honest and wise.  A little bit younger than I those summers Up North.

I will tell her I am sorry she is hurting. That time takes time.  That I love her.  Then I will address it, stamp it, and pop it in the mailbox.

I know I will feel differently one day. I just don’t yet. Like I know that today is still an ice cream kind of day.

Universal truths.

And later I will have some. Brown butter and salted peanut. I will eat it with a boy, my friend. And together we will share our lonely.

Real. With Most of Her Hair Loved Off

I’m sitting in a big upholstered chair at The Book Cellar, a stack of children’s books in my lap. Tears streaming down my cheeks – red from the warmth inside.

There is a discussion panel about the Arab Spring just a few feet away from me.  Every seat is filled – except for mine, tucked away at the end of the stacks.  A couple of people are standing.

friendsI’m supposed to be choosing a gift for my friend Clover’s yet-to-be-born baby.  Her friends are throwing her a shower this weekend.  And she and Andy have asked guests to bring a book for the baby’s library.  I’m pretty sure I’ve chosen hers – Friends, by Eric Carle’s.  The words are simple, the illustrations lush.  I think about our friendship.  That my wish for her child is to have a friendship like ours.

On the inside back cover is a photograph of Carle and his friend.  They are three-years old.  The month it is taken is written in German, by his mother.  Carle never saw his friend again.  “I often wonder what happened to him,” he writes.

Tears.

I think about people leaving and having no say in the matter.  Powerless.  My adoption shit is all stirred up.

I am reading The Velveteen Rabbit.  I sort of know the story – my friend Rachel used to reference it, talking about being real and having all the fur loved off of you.  But I don’t think I ever actually read it.  Or had it read to me.  Until now.

“ ‘What is REAL?’ asked the Rabbit one day…’Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?’ “

I smirk.

“ ‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. (Named for his bald brown coat and missing hairs of his tail.)   ‘It’s a thing that happens to you.  When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

Loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with…I let the words wash over me.

“ ‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.”

Yes, I whisper, to no one in particular.

Illustrations, William Nicholson
Illustrations, William Nicholson

“ ‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful.  ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’ “

Bullshit.

“ ‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’ ”

All at once.  Wound up.  That is my history – mostly.  All in love.  Insanely inside one another’s skin.  Until now.   I’ve been getting to know some new someones, bit by bit.  It is new.

“ ‘It doesn’t happen all at once…You become.  It takes a long time.’ “

Amen.

“ ‘That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.

So we don’t all become real?

Do I break easily?  Because I cry easily.  Because I hurt easily.  I decide that it is not the same thing.  Although pieces have certainly chipped off in transit.  I am soft, at times ridiculously so, free of sharp edges.  And despite my seemingly fragile nature, I do not have to be carefully kept.

“ ‘Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.  But these things don’t matter at all because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.

“…but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again.  It lasts for always.’ ”

Yes.  I think so.

Except for when I am not.  Not Real.  Twisting myself inside out to be who I think you want me to be so that you will love me.  It is more infrequent now.  Subtle.  But it still happens.  Awful.

The way I make myself small, without even knowing it, so you won’t feel overwhelmed by me.  My desires.  My needs.  My emotions.  I found myself doing it today.  Unconscious.   Until I wasn’t.

“How sick to be small and to sit by and wait until you can accept more of me,” I wrote in my notebook.

The Skin Horse tells his story.  Illustrations, William Nicholson.
Skin Horse tells his story. Illustrations, William Nicholson.

“The Rabbit sighed.  He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him.  He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad.  He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.”

Me too.  But so far, these “uncomfortable things” have been the wellspring of change in my life.

I remember once saying to my girlfriend Julie, having again gained back all of the weight I had lost and then some, that if someone could wave a wand and make me a healthy weight, I was certain this time I would maintain it.

I doubt it.

The Rabbit does become Real.  Not just to the child who plays with him, but to everyone.  Real with real hind legs – no longer made from just a single piece of fabric – the kind that allow him to jump without the boy tossing him in the air.

And one day, when Autumn became Winter became Spring, the Rabbit saw the boy again – playing in the woods.

“ ‘Why, he looks just like my old Bunny that was lost when I had scarlet fever!’

But he never knew that it really was his own Bunny, come back to look at the child who had first helped him to be Real.”

Come back to look at the child…yes, sometimes they come back.  High-school friends I never really knew.  Birth parents.  And old boyfriends – 18-plus years later – just to say they are sorry.

Sometimes.

I pick up both books and take them to the register.  I have one gift wrapped for Clover’s baby.  The other I keep for me – the one with most of her hair loved off.