I’ll Never Vote Absentee Again

An Italian friend of mine once remarked, “I can always spot the Americans.”

I was expecting to hear something about white sneakers, loud voices and fanny packs. Instead, she said, “They smile for no reason. Are super friendly and talk to everyone … they also have nice teeth.”

I remembered her words when I was living abroad … the many, many times I was surrounded by people but felt utterly disconnected. Partly a language barrier, with the onus on me to improve my Spanish. But also a cultural difference. In my experience, most Europeans don’t engage in idle chit chat with strangers the way Americans do.

It is one of the things I missed most about the United States when I was living in Spain — the chance for serendipitous connection.

I received that gift in spades this morning … waiting in line to cast my vote, one day before elections.

Nikki and I arrived in Welles Park a little before 9 a.m. The line had just begun to form. Or so it seemed. The sun was shining on an unseasonably warm November day. And we watched through a window as the voting stations filled before us, oblivious that it would be two hours before we would arrive in that place ourselves.

During those two hours we met the granddaughter of a Turkish immigrant and her beautiful six-month-old daughter, swaddled in pink and strapped to her mother in a Baby Bjorn. She joked about being Muslim. Her husband being Mexican. And that if things went the wrong way, it would be hard to know who would be deported first.

During those two hours I met a neighbor of mine. He seemed familiar to me but I wasn’t sure if I had been looking at him for so long that that was the reason. Turns out we live on the same street. And that he lived in Madrid for a semester abroad in 1988. We talked about architecture, food, travel and the fall out of Franco. How the north feels more French. And how physically safe we felt living there.

During those two hours I learned that our wait was comparatively short compared to the people who voted yesterday. That most voters had been patient and nice. And that Nikki’s shoes will always be a source of conversation – today’s choice, a pair of red, white and black Fleuvogs.

I watched the kindness of strangers as the baby in pink started to fuss and one man volunteered, “Go ahead of us. No one will mind.” And everyone agreed. Instead, she fell asleep pressed to her mother, waking just as it was “their” turn to vote. I took a photograph so mom could tell her about this one day.

When it was finally my turn, I was directed to a voting booth just next to my neighbor. I smiled and whispered to him, “Do it right.” He winked back.

And then I stood in silence. Heart beating wildly. Fingers trembling. Nodding and teary-eyed as I pressed the button casting my vote for the first female president of the United States. A vote I wasn’t sure I’d ever have the opportunity to make in my lifetime. I then completed the ballot and reviewed it once, twice, three times to make certain I had marked the correct box.

I received a paper bracelet with the words, “I Voted. Did You?” on the way out. I quickly peeled off the sticky label, wrapped it around my wrist and waited for Nikki. A few minutes later she emerged, along with the man who had told the baby’s mother to “Go ahead.”

The three of us put our wrists together, took a photograph, and exchanged names – which I promptly forgot. But it didn’t really matter. We had shared a moment together where we had hoped to make history – three smiling-for-no-reason, friendly, talk-to-everyone Americans with nice teeth.

I’ll never vote absentee again.

 

 

 

 

 

Artist Date 1.2: Life, Animated

 

 

life animated
Copyright. Life, Animated.

My commitment to the Artist Date began as a response to pain. To a man I affectionately referred to as the Southern Svengali and the short, sweet romance after my divorce that I couldn’t let go of. I sometimes forget that.

I forget because the weekly, solo play date as prescribed in the book The Artist’s Way, healed me from obsession I only hesitantly admitted.

I forget because two years of creative commitment, coupled with other work, allowed me to release him. Us. And my ideas about the way we should be in one another’s lives. (Which looks dramatically different than I had imagined. And while our contact can now best be described as sporadic, the connection remains strong … sweet and satisfying to both of us.)

I forget because it gently nudged me into becoming the kind of woman I dreamed of being. A woman engaged in life in interesting ways. Who does interesting things. Who has interesting conversations about more than relationships.

But today, I remember.

I remember as I find a hole in my schedule and watch my mind like a rubber band – snapping back to thoughts of the man I dated before I left for Madrid.

While I know there is no slipping back into one’s life as it once was, I had hoped we might explore dating again when I returned. But it hasn’t turned out that way. And in these quiet, alone moments, I find myself once again struggling with letting go. Of him. Us. And my ideas about the way we should be in one another’s lives.

And so it is grace when I hear the whisper that perhaps now is a good time to re-commit to my creative self again. That an infusion of new stimuli might once again quiet my mind and lead me back to the woman who has interesting conversations about more than relationships.

(While a year in Madrid seemed to have the makings of one grand, extended Artist Date, my days were filled with the stuff of life. All occurring in a language not my own. And Artist Dates became, unfortunately, sporadic.)

I peruse the movie guide — more concerned with time, location and the act of going than what will be projected on the screen – and choose a film.

I cut short a phone call. Say no to a text from a friend asking if I would like company. Both occurring after I’ve made the decision to go. The universe seeming to ask, “Are you sure?’

And I am.

I hop on my vintage 3-speed cruiser and pedal to the Music Box Theatre. Artist Date 1.2. (Officially, number 117 … renamed for congruence with my rededication to the practice and my return to Chicago.)

Grinning ear to ear, I purchase my ticket. Giddy to be with me.

This has always been the magic of the Artist’s Date. A turning inward. A return to myself.

Ironic, as the movie I have chosen – Life, Animated – is a documentary about Owen Suskind, a young man with autism and the tools he and his family use to pull him out from his personal world.

How Walt Disney movies become the lens and the lexicon for connection. The language for articulating what we all want. Friends. Romantic love. Work. A sense of purpose. And what we all feel from time to time, what Owen calls “the glop.” The inevitable pain when the things we want elude us.

We join him in watching scenes from Bambi on his first night alone in his independent living apartment – after his mother and father have left. And later, The Hunchback of Notre Dame when his girlfriend of three years ends their relationship.

Heartbreaking moments punctuated with joy and hope, most evident when Owen connects with his own passion and a sense of purpose. His “Disney Club” – where he and other adults with developmental disabilities view and discuss their favorite films. And experience an unscripted visit from Gilbert Godfrey, the voice of Iago from the movie Aladdin.

I sob witnessing their squeals of laughter, excitement and disbelief … as I am reminded that the universe is full of surprises. That it is always willing to conspire with us. And that our greatest joys often come packaged in a way dramatically different than we might imagine them.

That gorgeous moments of serendipity occur when we turn first turn inward – connecting with our tenderest truths – and then out – vulnerably sharing them. We allow the world to join our party. And sometimes even Gilbert Godfrey shows up.

Seduced By Words

My friend Rachel met Philip Roth when she was a university student.

220px-Portnoy_s_Complaint
The book that started the seduction.

I was wildly envious.  He was my literary idol, inspiring a poem I titled, “Philip Roth Will Save My Life.”

She told me I shouldn’t be.

She said he was coarse, almost mean.  Not at all who she imagined him to be.  She had been seduced by his words.

Me too.  As well as Erica Jong’s, Charles Bukowski’s Anais Nin’s and a long list of other’s.

Most recently, I’ve been seduced by the words of strangers – men looking for love, or something like it, on OKCupid.

Clever words couched in a seemingly shared commonality, ending abruptly when moved from screen to voice.

I should not be entirely surprised.

I’d learned about the chasm between the written word and reality, online and real-time, this past fall when a friend, a man 12 years my junior, told me in no uncertain terms exactly what he would like to do to me.  Exactly.  And while he made good on his promises a few days later, the flirty simpatico we shared on screen was lost in real life.  All hands.  No heart.

I was reminded of this truth once again on Friday – my first, OKCupid coffee date.

We made plans a few weeks out due to Passover and my schedule.  During that time we exchanged several messages, but we never spoke on the phone.

I told him how to make fried matzoh, and made him promise to cover it with real maple syrup.  He told me about a cartoon character his kids like who carries a flask of the stuff.

While I wasn’t convinced this was a romantic connection, he seemed like someone I would want to know.

In person our conversation was clunky, awkward – made worse by bad acoustics and me having to lean in and ask “what?” constantly.

We didn’t talk about his children’s adoption.  Or mine.  Or even about maple syrup, cartoons or writing – which we both do.  We talked about our divorces (Hmm…) and our experiences on OKCupid.  (Mine being rather limited.)

I didn’t go into the date with expectations greater than a cup of Intelligentsia, decaf –as it was after 3.  And yet, I felt sad.

I suppose there is always some level of hope – What if? Perhaps?  Otherwise we would never meet strangers over coffee in the first place.

I miss my ex-husband.

He was solid.  I could trust him.  He showed up.  Period.  Even if it wasn’t always in the way I might hope.

I am also clear about what didn’t work.  Why we divorced.

Two years after separating, I feel like I am finally grieving.

I miss Mr. 700 Miles — my most recent romance — too.  Even though, I couldn’t trust him.  He wasn’t solid.  He couldn’t show up.  I miss the connection that cut straight through the internet, through phone calls, texts and video chats.  The feeling that I could talk to him all night and into tomorrow and we’d never run out of things to say, or ways to delight one another.

I am grieving him too.  Or perhaps the idea of him.  The idea of us.

I get into my car and head north toward Wicker Park, where I will meet my friends in a church basement.  Later we will have dinner at the Birchwood, where I will eat a green salad with warm lentils, squash and bacon and drink hot water with lemon.  I couldn’t be happier.

My mind wanders, thinking about the rest of the weekend.

Dinner with my girlfriends on Saturday night.

A Sunday morning dance class and performance.  And later in the afternoon a salon hosted by my friend Megan – my Artist Date of the week –where her friend Peggy will read from her just-published collection of essays.  In between, I will work on editing my friend Martha’s new novel.

I feel excited about my days.  About my life.  And grateful for it.  Grateful for its juicy-ness, with or without a partner.

I am not certain this is true for all people – looking for love or otherwise.  I feel lucky.

And a little wiser now too.

I know what I read, on the page or on the screen is only part of the story.  I need to listen, to hear it too.

What is being said.  And not said.

The sound of gentleness.  Laughter.  Banter.  Ease.

And my heart – beating just a little more quickly.

Artist Date 65: A Revelation

I just “shhh…d” the women next to me.

I feel like somebody’s cranky grandmother, but I can’t help myself.

From Revelations.  Photo: Paul Kolnik
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. From Revelations. Photo: Paul Kolnik

This is my religion.  The dancers and choreographers, my gods.  And it requires my complete attention.

It feels like blasphemy as I type the words, but it is true.  The stirring between my legs.  It rises up my spine like Kundalini energy uncoiling, to my heart – which leaps, and spreads as a flush across my chest and face.  What is usually reserved for sexual liaison – either alone or with a partner – comes to me in dance.  Really good dance.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is really good dance.

This is my seventh time seeing the company, which may sound like a lot –until compared to Sheila, who I met during the pre-performance cocktail reception.  She and her husband have seen Ailey every year since the company’s inception in 1958.  It is, perhaps, their religion too.

The first time I saw Ailey I was 24.  I watched, rapt.  My former lover — the sexiest man I had ever known – at my side.  We spent a month together.  Twenty-nine days more than I expected.  This was our only “real date.”

The second time I saw Ailey I was in the middle of an alcoholic relapse, although I didn’t know it at the time.  Following yet another month-long stint without drinking, an effort to prove myself “not alcoholic,” I conveniently forgot all the reasons I had put down the drink and picked it up again that night.

I saw the company three more times.  Each of them sober.  In Chicago.  Once, with my then-husband, the other two with girlfriends.

This is my first time seeing Ailey alone – Artist Date 65.

It feels significant.

Significant because I have treated myself to good seats.  Dress Circle.  Row AA.

I have learned I cannot watch dance from the cheap seats – looking down on it from up above.  I have to see it straight on.  As I do most things.

I’ve admittedly been spoiled.  Much like the first time I flew overseas, when the German Consulate paid for my Business Class ticket on Lufthansa.  It is hard to go back.

It is the same with men.

With my dance instructor, Idy.
With my dance instructor, Idy.

Significant because there is a cocktail reception before the show and I don’t drink, have a wing man, or a purpose for mingling other than “just because.”

Ever fiber in my body says arrive late, skip the schmooze and head straight for my seat.  But I resist.  I have been taught courage is not a lack of fear.  It is feeling it and moving forward anyway.  I am strangely curious to see what will happen.

I meet a gaggle of girls in their 30s.  They have never seen Ailey.

We talk about their work.  City politics.  Chicago neighborhoods.

We talk about my Artist Date.  My blog.   Boys.

I meet the “since-1958 Ailey fans,” and their daughter – a dancer.

I navigate the plush stairs and the too-small type on my ticket on my way to my seat.  My dance instructor calls out my name.  We embrace and all at once, Chicago feels like a town.  My sense of connectedness expands.

The theatre darkens.  The dancers emerge.

“Night Creature.”  From 1974.  I have seen it before.  Like “Revelations,” Ailey’s signature piece that closes every show.   I remember the polka-dot light patterns on the floor.

It is both familiar and fresh.  I feel the leap in my heart.  And a knot in my stomach.

The women to my left are whispering – non-stop.

I pray for patience.  For tolerance.  I pray they will stop.  Useless.  I turn and put my finger to my lips.  “Shhh.”  It is quiet.

At intermission, I feel a hand on my shoulder.  It is one of the women I “shhh-d.”  She offers apologies, which I quickly and easily accept.

Two Dancers -- Khara and I.
Two Dancers — Khara and I.

“Do you dance?” she asks.

I tell her I do.  She says that she used to, and everything melts between us.  We are connected.  We are the same.

Until she tells me about her dance history.

Although not a dance major, she danced seven days a week as an undergraduate student at Washington University, filling her free hours with courses in ballet, modern, and jazz.  I reflect on my four years at Michigan State University – smoking pot and drinking with the big boys.

I do not feel like a dancer.

My five-plus years in West African dance classes – beginning at the age of 39 – feel small in comparison.  Amateurish.  Perhaps they are.

I ask her to take a picture with me for my blog.  “Two dancers,” she announces, as if reading my mind.

I choose to believe her.  To allow my status to be independent of her experience.  Of Sheila’s.

It is a “Revelation.”

Artist Date 45: The (Sometimes) Kindness of Strangers

This woman is wearing a knit hat, striped in colors of the Rastafarian flag.  It was a gift from a woman in Australia, while she was in Australia.  A woman who fed this woman lunch and beers but accepted no payment.  Her listening to the stories she was regaled with was payment enough.

kindness of strangersPlus, she would need it while camping in the outback.

She flew to Australia following the demise of a relationship.  Seems it is what she does.  Camping in the Outback.  Hiking in Wales.  Meditating on a mountain outside of Tokyo.

She is standing on a small stage in Rogers Park talking about it.  Coming clean, as it were.

Artist Date 45.

My friend Clover will also be reading and performing a piece .  It is about her mother.  About art school and being a performer.  About helping a man across the street who has fallen and everyone around him just keeps moving as if this hasn’t happened and the universe calls upon her to play the part of his angel.

There is a third.  Eric.  Who will talk about his need to go to a place where his father had been.  The father he didn’t know.  And then he did.  But who he never really knew.  And is now dead.

But right now I’m watching Jennifer.  I know her name because I looked it up in the program, which is black and white.  Folded but not stapled.  And reads, “The Kindness of Strangers: A Festival of Storytelling.”

And then, “A 3-week rotating mix of more than 30 storytellers weaving tales of connecting, or not, with strangers.”  The words encircled by drawings, like a globe – buildings, a boat and a lighthouse, water.

I want to be this woman with a knit hat and a beer-stained hiking map, marked up by pub patrons who laugh each time she says the word “garbage.”  This woman who takes off on serious adventures – by herself – when love goes south.  When the re-bound from the break up proves not to be the antidote to her pain.  Who is standing on this tiny stage telling her story.

I want to be that brave.  To travel alone.  Even though I’ve done it – albeit briefly — and my experience is that solo travel is most satisfying when it is connected to purpose.  And people.  Like my volunteer trips to Rwanda and the South of France.

I want a rebound.  Even though it has been suggested I don’t date.  Even though I have probably been divorced too long for anything to be called a rebound.  And my short-lived dalliances, both emotional and physical, have been painful to the extreme.

Even though my experience of being alone this past year has brought me closer to myself.  My craft.  My writing.  The very thing that might put me on stage.

Clover.  Very likely telling a story.  Just not on stage.
Clover. Very likely telling a story. Just not on stage.

I am comparing my insides to someones outsides once again.  Devaluing my own experience when confronted with someone seemingly doing what I think I’d like to do.  What I think I should do.

I well up listening to her.  While the details are different, I recognize the story as my own.

I see pieces of my story in Eric’s too.  Reconnecting with a parent who was physically absent for so many years.  His through desertion.  Mine through adoption.  Losing them again.  And what is left.  For him, a ring.  For me, a pair of opera glasses and a too-big mink coat, her name embroidered on the inside, hanging in my closet.

But I do not see myself in Clover’s story.

I’m not even looking, let alone comparing.  It is not that I am not interested.  I am.  I am teary, ass-glued-to-the-seat, riveted.

Maybe it is because I know her story.  Her stories.  She has trusted me with them over the years.

Her mother selling her art work, without her consent, as payment to her therapist.  Lying down in the street in downtown Chicago when the light is turned red.  A classroom performance piece.  The ants that crossed in front of her mattress, on the floor, in the basement of her mother’s friend’s house, in the toniest part of upstate New York.

And I have trusted her with mine.  They are less the same.  But our feelings, and our responses, match perfectly.  This is where we found our “me too’s.”

Like I am just now doing with Jennifer.  With Eric.  Connecting with strangers – who may or may not become more than that.  (Turns out, I have danced with Eric’s girlfriend on and off for years.  I’m pretty sure I’ll see both of them again.)  The place of beginning.