Artist Date 60: It’s In The Genes

The first thing my birth father told me was that we attended the same university.  The second thing was that he wouldn’t have gone there if timing were different.

It was the late 1960s.  The United States was fighting in Vietnam.  School kept him out of the draft.

Given his druthers he would have gone to New York to be a dancer.

I gasped.  My secret-private-fantasy-if-I-could-do-it-all-over career was to be a choreographer.

“It’s in the genes,” he said.

I am walking down Lincoln Avenue to the Old Town School of Music for First Friday – a monthly event of music, dance and community.  Tonight’s feature is a series of dance performances by students and instructors – tap, modern, Go-Go, Bhangra.  Artist Date 60.

I dance here every Sunday at noon.  Josh, Don and a couple of musicians whose names I can’t recall drum us through Idy Ciss’ nearly 90-minute West African class.  My church.  My masochistic joy.

I have been a consistent presence here for more than five years, and yet, I am nervous tonight.  Sixty solo dates consciously chosen, and, at times, I still feel conspicuously alone.

This is one of those times – coupled with self-conscious questioning if I’ve earned my seat at the table, or, on the waxed wood floor, as it were.  If I really am a dancer.  My musings seem self-absorbed and displaced as I am not performing today, only watching.  And yet, something is stirred in me.

My first dance performance.
My first dance performance.

A boy and a girl, about 9 or so, tap their way across the stage.  They are dressed to match in grey trousers and lavender shirts.  The boy is skinny and awkward and sweet.  One day he will know how to swing a woman around the floor, showing her who’s boss.  Quite possibly the sexiest gesture ever.  But not yet.

A group of tween girls perform a Bollywood dance, waving colored scarves.  The tiniest one slides into the splits.  Like when I was a cheerleader – too small to be on the bottom of the mount, too big to be on the top.  Kind of.  She is completely present and at ease in her body.  Each move seems effortless.  I am certain I neither looked nor felt that way.

I think about my single year of ballet lessons, taken in first grade with Mrs. Gantz, Who Likes To Dance.  That is what she called herself.  I don’t know why I didn’t continue.  Perhaps I didn’t like it.  It wasn’t easy.  Or I wasn’t that good.  Maybe I got bored.  I quit, setting in motion a pattern – with me opting out of piano, gymnastics and cheerleading later.

No one told me that only a few are truly, naturally brilliant.  Geniuses.  That the savant is rare.  That most of us mere mortals toil toward mastery.

The girls remind me of “the popular girls” I knew in junior high – the ones that took jazz and tap with a woman named Miss Barbara.  Strangely, I was talking about them last week.  About the time they invited me to the movies.  Just once.  In seventh grade.

I still remember the film – Young Doctors in Love.  A spoof on soap operas.  It was rated R.  And my mother didn’t allow me to go to R-rated movies.

Except this time she did.

Post-run, swing dancing.  Another cool moment with my mother.
Post-run, swing dancing with my mother.

I am fond of saying my mother’s “coolest moment ever” was when she took me to see Prince, The Time and Vanity 6.  It was pre-Purple Rain, when Prince was still dirty.  And I was in the sixth grade.

But the movie exception was pretty cool too.

I find myself thinking about nurture over nature.

About swing dancing in the kitchen with my mother.  And her jumping rope to the Pointer Sisters Jump!  About me wearing a pill-box hat with a feather and a veil to high school and her asking if I think that I am one of the Pointer Sisters.

I think about her childhood in Saginaw, Michigan, raised essentially by her maid, Mother Flora Hill.  About her Sunday mornings spent at Mount Olive Baptist Church – where she was almost baptized – and her summers at the congregation’s camp.  There is a photograph of her and my uncle – two toe-headed Jewish kids – in a sea of dark-skinned, smiling faces.  My mother loves sweet potato pie and knows all the words to Leaning on Jesus.

With my dance "partner" in Rwanda.
With my dance “partner” in Rwanda.

I think about her taking me to see Saturday Night Fever when I was in fourth grade because she wanted me to see the dancing.  (Her no R-rated movie rule conveniently overlooked.)  And about skating with my parents to Peaches and Herb on Tuesday nights at Bonaventure Roller Rink while most of my friends were tucked in at home.

I think about dancing with a troupe in Rwanda a few summers ago and their recognition that I could dance.  About the beautiful, bald man who gave me the eye that said, “Follow me.”  And I did.

Maybe the dance is in the genes.  Maybe it is inside a 1977 Thunderbird with an FM converter box – my mother’s car for as many years as I can remember.  It doesn’t really matter.  What does is, at the end of First Friday, when the brass band calls the audience up to dance, I go.  I quit quitting.  So I claim my space on the waxed wood floor.

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.

2014-01-30 15.17.11

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 52: Exactly Where I Am Supposed To Be

This time last year I was on my knees.  Literally.

It was my first holiday season divorced and living back in Chicago, alone.  My girlfriend called me out on my obsession with the man I like to call the Southern Svengali — the one I kissed for two nights while in Charleston in late October.  She said she could not hear about it, or him, anymore.

My non-relationship was affecting my relationships.

I felt desperate and scared.  I called a friend who advised me to get on my knees and ask God to remove my obsession him every day.

I did.  But I needed something more.

the artists wayI remembered the comfort I had found in the structured creativity of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and decided to pull it out again —  a hopeful, albeit artsy, roadmap out of myself.

This time, in addition to taking on the weekly reading and writing assignments, I committed to the weekly Artist Date – the weekly hour or so block of time, alone, to fill my creative coffers – and to a weekly blog about it for a year.  Fifty-two Artist Dates.  Fifty-two blogs.

Thursday is Artist Date 52.

I am sitting in a Starbucks on Michigan Avenue killing time before Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.  It is 6 p.m. and I have been downtown since 11.  I am tired.  I am questioning the wisdom in staying here as opposed to driving home at 2 p.m. when I was finished with my work and returning later.

Until I get the text which lets me know I am exactly where I should me.  It is from my friend Matt.  He is at a coffee shop around the corner, also killing time, before his couple’s therapy session where he will ask his wife for a divorce.

I tell him where I am.  Within moments he is standing over me and then we are hugging each other tightly.  Teary.

I remember when he told me that he and his wife were separating, more than a year ago.  I still lived in Seattle, but was visiting Chicago – smack dab in the middle of my own divorce.

Matt is appropriately anxious.  I reflect back to him how thoughtful he has been through this entire process – never rash.  We hold hands and we pray together, in the middle of Starbucks.  It doesn’t seem strange.

He leaves.  And shortly after, I do too, pulling my wool long-underwear back on over my tights.  It is December and the temperatures are already in the teens.

I love Chicago at night.  Especially during the holidays.  Michigan Avenue twinkles with white lights, and skaters glide around in circles on the tiny patch of ice in Millenium Park.

Photo: The Inside Scoop Chicago
Photo: The Inside Scoop Chicago

I walk up “the hill” that is Randolph Street to the Harris Theater.  My body has once again adjusted to the flat Midwest and takes note of the incline.

I pick up my ticket at will-call and make a beeline for the bathroom, peeling off my long underwear.  Winter in Chicago is a lot of work.

My friend Lori is coming out.  We embrace and talk excitedly about her ceramics show.  Lori is a genius potter.  We met her at Lil Street Art Center, where I was stumbling through a beginners’ class.  Lori taught me how to glaze.

She asks if I will come back to Lil Street.  I am not certain as I have committed my creative energies to my writing and my dance – at least for now.

She asks if I remember Kevin from the clay studio and reminds me he is a member of Hubbard Street.  I do remember.  It is one of the reasons I am here.

We part company and I run into a woman I have danced with.  She is enrolled in Level three West African Dance.  I am in Level two.  Later, I see Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The world seems small and I am a citizen of it.  Or, at the very least, a citizen of Chicago.

The woman in the seat next to mine is alone.  As is the woman next to her.  We make easy conversation.  She is a Weight Watchers member.  I am a Weight Watchers leader.  She is looking for a massage therapist.  I am a massage therapist.  She is a widow.  I am a divorcee.

She tells me she lost her husband four years ago, and she tears up.  For the second time today I am clear that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.  Right down to my seat: BB10.

The performance, One Thousand Pieces by Alejandro Cerrudo, is inspired by Marc Chagall’s America Windows – the installation I visit every time I am at the Art Institute, my favorite.  I shared it with Matt a few months ago when we met downtown for a member’s-only café re-opening.  It was summer and we sat in the courtyard noting who was checking the other out.  It seems a long time ago.

One Thousand Pieces, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
One Thousand Pieces, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

It is my first time seeing Hubbard Street Dance.  The dancers’ bodies are strong.  Gorgeous.  Not sinewy, like ballet bodies.  I think my legs approximate the same shape as theirs, albeit less toned and I feel at the same time cocky and ashamed admitting this to myself.

The stage is glossed and looks like water.  I am looking for Kevin.  My eyes occasionally roll back into my head.  This almost always happens to me at performances.  The lights go down and my sleepy kicks in.  Except for last year when I saw Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre  – twice.

My seats were good – dress circle one night, main floor the other.  My experience was dramatically altered by looking straight at the dancers as opposed to peering down at them.  I vowed then I would always buy good seats for dance.  These seats are good – the Harris Theatre is small and there are no “bad seats.”  But not good enough.

And then it is over.

The performance, but not my Artist Dates.  They “work.”  Like being on my knees works.  Not so much in desperation (although I am certain I will find myself there again many times in this life), but in prayer – the antidote to it.  Exactly where I am supposed to be.

Artist Date 46: Why I Am Here

Future Hits Halloween Show at Schubas.
Future Hits Halloween Show at Schubas.

Some Artist Dates are easy alone.  Museums.  Lectures.  Dance performances.  Opera.  Theatre.  Some, like movies, I even prefer that way.

Live music, however, is far more difficult.  Even when the audience is children.  Perhaps even more so.

And yet, this is the set up for Artist Date 46.

I am parked outside of Schubas.  My friend Matt’s band – Future Hits, self-proclaimed Fun (Yet Secretly Educational) Music for Kids, Families and Teachers – is playing this afternoon.  It is a Halloween performance and party for children, hosted in collaboration with Whole Foods, The Kite Collective and Adventure Sandwich.

I stand in awe of how Matt puts himself out there.  Performing.  Recording. Last year, Future Hits cut its first CD, Songs for Learning, funded by KickStarter.  This past summer he spent a month in South America, improving his Spanish.  An ESL teacher for Chicago Public Schools, he requested, and received, a grant that paid for everything.

But right now I am standing in fear.  Rather sitting, in my 13-year-old Honda Civic.  I feel anxious about going inside.  I don’t have children.

I sometimes feel this way walking into synagogue by myself – which I began doing several years ago.

As fresh meat, I was quickly swarmed and warmly greeted.  Peppered with questions.  Top on the list: Do you have children?

“No.”

“Oh…”

Pause.  Uncomfortable silence.  I often feel I have to fill that space.  Say something clever or pithy to put us both at ease.  I am getting better at just letting that dead air “hang.”  Like summer in Charleston.  Heavy.  Still.

I wonder what they are wondering.  If I cannot have children.  If I am childless by choice.  If I am waiting for the perfect sperm to swim into my life.  I am told that this is none of my business.

Mostly, I imagine they wonder what brought me there.  It’s a reasonable enough question.  And the assumption that I have children is equally reasonable.

Many, perhaps most, join a congregation when their children are of school age.  They recognize it as time to do what their parents had done – provide their children with a Jewish education.  Sometimes for no other reason than, “this is what we do.”

Perhaps the second most popular reason for joining is the gift of a complimentary one-year membership, given when the Rabbi or Cantor of that congregation marries a couple.  (I will have to query my Rabbi to see if I am correct in my speculation.)

Gene and Oscar
Gene and Oscar

I walked into synagogue for my own reasons.  Neither recently married nor considering a Jewish education, I am the Jew who converted to Judaism.  It’s a long story.  One that doesn’t fit neatly into conversation over coffee and pastry after services.  But it is mine.  And I am assured that I have a place in the congregation.

Nonetheless, it is often still daunting walking through those sacred doors alone.

It is too at Schubas.  Even after seeing my friend Joe, smoking outside.  He doesn’t have kids either.

I walk in, pay $10, get my hand stamped and say to the bouncer, “Am I the only one here without kids?”  “Nah,” he replies.  Looking in, I’m not so sure.

The lights are dim and a bunch of little people in costumes are making kites and eating granola.  Matt and his band mates are dressed in caveman attire.  Think Flintstones.

Our friend Lily is selling CDs.  Gene is on the floor with his son, Oscar, making a kite. Jenny is helping her son Seth into his costume.

Matt’s mom, Rhonda, is here.  His dad too.  I love Rhonda.  Our conversations meander from fashion to Transcendental Meditation (which we both practice) – seamlessly.  I feel like the universe has conspired for us to meet.  We pick up where we left off last time.

Matt is delighted to see me.  Grateful for the support.  He always is.

I remember the first time I heard him play, at the Beat Kitchen.  I arrived early and was standing on the corner outside.   When he saw me, he dropped to his knees – on the sidewalk – his hands in prayer.  Total gratitude.

This is why I am here – to support my friend.  But I forget, falling into a swirling pit of “me.”  Self-conscious about my childless-ness.  Even though I (mostly) chose not to have any.

And then the music starts and I forget all of that.  I forget myself.   I have seen Matt perform many times, but this my first time hearing Future Hits.  Even though I was a KickStarter supporter, which earned me a button and a CD.

The Kite Parade.
The Kite Parade.

I’m surprised.  The music doesn’t feel like kids music. It is pleasing to my ear.  It’s not sing-song-y like Barney.  Something to be endured.  I am delighted watching Emma go from bass to flute to tambourine.

The kids are invited to dance.  They do, with joyous abandon.  Oblivious to the concept of rhythm.  I would like to shake a tail feather myself…but I’m suddenly self-conscious again.  So I watch instead.  Although I do raise my hand when the band asks if anyone’s birthday is in October.

There is a kite parade for the kids to show off their creations.  More music and a dance contest.  The winner – dressed as a werewolf – leaves with a Halloween-decorated bag of schwag.

And soon after, I leave too.  Holding tightly to the light I see in Oscar’s face.  In Seth’s.  And the lesson they teach me.  Beaming over the simplest things.  Costumes.  Music.  Paper kites.  They do not concern themselves with why they are here.  Just that they are.

Artist Date 44: You Are Really More West African

Mary is coming toward me but I can’t place her. In fact, I don’t yet recall that this is her name.

I scan through my mental Rolodex as quickly as I can trying to match a face, a name, an experience.  I come up blank other than to know that she is familiar, and we are at my synagogue, so I figure I must know her from here.

One of the many children I met in Kigali...introduced by Mary.
One of many children I met in Kigali, introduced by Mary.

She puts her arms around me and asks how I am.  I tell her I am well and she says that I look it.  Her response is genuine.  Like she has taken a few minutes to take me in.  All of me.  Like she’s seen me before.  And she has.  Even though I cannot remember where.

She begins talking about the speakers I am here to hear.  Dr. Naasson Munyandamutsa and his wife Donatilla Mukumana.  That she has been traveling with them.  Out West, where Naasson received the Barbara Chester Award from the Hopi Foundation, for his work with torture victims.  And now here, to Evanston.  To my synagogue.  My more head-y than usual Artist Date – Number 44.

Finally, I humbly admit I cannot remember her name.  It is Mary.  I tell her mine is Lesley.  She hadn’t remembered either.  Just my face.  She has seen my face.

In Rwanda.  Her name shakes something loose.  The pieces fall into place.

Mary is one of the founders of WE-ACTx – an organization supporting women and children with HIV and AIDS in Rwanda.  We met in the summer of 2012 when I traveled there with my Rabbi and members of my synagogue, the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation.

rwanda filling rxOn the ground, we filled prescription packets, painted walls, built a library.  But mostly, we witnessed.  The people.  Their lives.  The help they required.  And the heroic, albeit shoe-string, assistance that was being provided.

It was an antidote, a balm, to the crazy, or at the very least, unsettled, that was my life at that time.

Smack dab in the middle of my divorce.  Neither in nor out.  I was living in Seattle, with my soon-to-be ex-husband, sleeping on the fold-out couch in the office.  I had decided I would decide in Kigali where to go next.  If I would stay in Seattle.  Move back to Chicago.  Or San Francisco.

Or go somewhere else entirely – like Kigali.  Where it was suggested more than once, by residents, by ex-patriots and by several of those on my trip, that perhaps I should consider staying.

All of this comes flooding back to me as Mary is speaking to me.

Patrick.  His greeting to me each time we met: "Liora, you should stay."
Patrick’s greeting each time we met: “Liora, you should stay.”

The bindi I wore every day – the jeweled accoutrement pasted between my eyes that I had taken to wearing.  The mark of a married women in Indian culture.  My own private, not-even-conscious, barrier between me and the world.  A secret “Don’t-even-fucking-think-of-it.”  Even though it was all I was fucking thinking about. Fucking.  Because I wasn’t.

The name I claimed – Liora, my Hebrew name.  It means “my light.”  There were two Lesley—s on the trip and it just seemed easier.  For everyone except my Rabbi, who knew me as Lesley.

The words, “It’s ok.  It was a long time coming,” that flew out of my mouth regularly.  Every time I spoke of my impending divorce, which was a lot.  It was my story, as we each told our stories to one another – 12 of us over 12 or so days in sub-Saharan Africa.

It seems a lifetime ago.

Nights under my mosquito net talking with my roommate – who, just a few months later, would begin walking through her own divorce – talking about the day.  Blogging by the light of my computer after she had gone to bed.

rwanda dance posseDancing with a professional troupe in a “cultural village” (read: Tourist Destination) near the Ugandan border.  Dancing on the hot concrete at the WE-ACTx compound and on the lawn outside of the hotel in the evening – a party thrown just for us, complete with a DJ, BBQ, and a movie – Gorillas in the Mist – shown on a screen outside, just like in Chicago during summertime in the parks.

I am jostled back into today as Mary introduces Naasson and Donatilla.

They are sitting at a table, each with a laptop computer in front of them.  His, a MAC Airbook.  Hers, an HP, like mine.

They talk about their work with rape.  With depression and suicide.  Their voices are sweet, slightly lilting.  Easy on the ear.  Their faces express nothing of the pain of their work.  Of what they, and those around them, have experienced.  It is typical for people from this part of Africa, and they speak to it – the shrouded emotional life of Rwandans.

There are only five psychiatrists in all of Rwanda.

I lean over to my Rabbi.  “It’s a good thing I didn’t stay there, “I whisper, remembering he was one of the ones who encouraged me to consider staying – perhaps his own “road-not-traveled.”

“Yes, you are more West African,” he whispers back.  We laugh.  Even though I don’t quite know what it means.  But I like it.

I like it because I “study” West African dance.  Spending Sunday mornings barefoot, moving in lines across a wood floor, supported and surrounded by a posse of drummers and other dancers.  Leaping.  Learning to shake my hips like a not-locked-up-up-tight American woman.

My heart seemingly bursting through my skin.

I don’t know anything about West Africans – other than what I experience from my dance teacher and some of the drummers.  But I know that I am emotionally “raw.”  And not just now.  That I am “wild” in comparison to Rwandans.  And to many Americans.

I like the idea of a place where people live like this.  A land of “misfit toys,” like in the animated holiday special, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year.  Where everyone’s heart is seemingly bursting through their skin.  Spilling out with love.  With pain.  With life.

A Birthday Story: Celebrating What Is

It is four something in the morning.  I woke up at the same ungodly hour yesterday – my 44th birthday.

I have always loved birthdays.

My birthday didn't begin with laughter...it ended with it.
My birthday didn’t begin with laughter…it ended with it.

I’m a big celebrator in general.  Ask any of my Weight Watchers members.  I love to clap and give out Bravo! Stickers for behavior changes.  Those subtle little miracles.

“Where else do you go that they clap for you?” I ask.

Well, 12-Step meetings.  But I don’t bring that up as it isn’t germane.

Birthdays are like that.  It seems the whole world is clapping, rooting for you, that day.  Mostly.

This year I awoke feeling a little less clap-y.  A little less celebratory.

I’d been aware of a low-grade sadness tugging at me for a few days.  Aware this was my first birthday since my birth mother died.

We found one another in October of my 40th year.

Ours was not always an easy relationship.  Some days I think she would have jumped in my skin if she could have, while I took a more tentative approach to our relationship.  Timing.  Expectations.  Boundaries.  Those were our lessons.  And we were one another’s teachers.

She sent me flowers when I turned 40.  A card the following year.  And then phone calls the next two.  She wasn’t well and it was difficult for her to get out – both physically and emotionally.  This year there would be no flowers, no card, no call.  I felt sad.

Like I did when her name was read at the memorial service on Yom Kippur.  Like I did when I returned from Ireland last month and felt like calling and for the first time realized I couldn’t.  I find myself surprised by the sadness, although I’m not sure why.  It makes perfect sense – at least on a cellular level.

So there was that.

And there was the aloneness of being not-so-suddenly, but-still, single.

My ex was a great gift giver.

Birthday and anniversary mornings I would find a card on the bed, slipped into place when I got up to shower.  A gift would come later.  Usually something I had spied and mentioned in passing months earlier.  Something I had forgotten about until I saw it again.  A hand-carved wooden jewelry box.  Strands of smoky quartz and hand-colored pearls.

2013-10-20 20.19.35
Kristin. Who reminds me of the love in my life when I cannot see it.

He gave me a watch when I turned 42 – my last birthday with him.  I had been wearing the same Seiko tank since I was 14, gift from my Aunt Betty.  She had lost hers.  Found it.  And gave the original to me.

I replaced the band and battery several dozen times over the years.  Until the crystal broke and a jeweler told me it couldn’t be fixed.

I didn’t like the watch he bought me.  I don’t know if I would have liked anything he bought me at that time.  He had recently asked me for a divorce – and then recanted the next day – but it was there.  The truth about our relationship.  It was over.  We just hadn’t cut the cord yet.

He was hurt and offended that I didn’t like his gift, but offered to take me shopping so I could pick out something else, anyway.  I couldn’t do it.  I kept the watch.  I am still wearing it.

When I woke up early yesterday, I noticed the absence of a card.  Of a body in my bed.  Specifically, my ex’s.  I do not crave him being there – but I was used to it.  To him, for so long.

I rolled off my mattress and dropped to my knees in child’s pose – both a stretch and a prayer.   “modeh ani lefanecha.  Thank you G-d for returning my soul to me.”  I asked for several obsessions to be removed.  And then, still on my knees, I opened Facebook on my phone.  The messages had already begun to pour in.  Old neighbors.  Acquaintances from grade school.  Family – by origin and by choice.  From Africa.  And from just down the street.

I wrote. Meditated. Showered and went to work.  Weight Watchers.  It felt life affirming.  As did dance class.  I made lunch and took myself shopping at my favorite resale shop.  I bought a grey wool coat that ties at the waist.  It fits as if it were made for me.

I talked to a few friends on the phone.  Around five a girlfriend picked me up and we went to do what we do to make sure we don’t drink today.

I used to make a big “to do” out of my birthday.  Or at least try to.  Those expectations often left me feeling sad and frustrated.  I was unclear why.  But today was delightfully ordinary.

Indian sweets.
Indian sweets.

It ended with cheap eats at a large, bright Pakistani restaurant on Devon Avenue.  The kind with a menu posted on a TV screen.  Where you wait in line to order food and pick it up on a tray.  Where you eat with plastic utensils.

Where I feel conspicuously white.

There were eight of us.  Among them, my divorce buddy – the man I walked lock step with through the dissolution of our marriages.  And then watched my friendship with him dissolve.  I hadn’t invited him.  But there he was.  I was delighted.

“Of course he’s here,” Kristin said.  “He loves you.”

I decided to believe her.  And to believe in all the love around the table.  JB’s.  Tom’s.  Matt’s.

Rebecca’s.  Brian’s.  Kristin’s.

And to focus on it.  To focus on who was there, instead of who wasn’t.  The calls, texts, cards and Facebook greetings I did receive.  Instead of those I didn’t.  (Well, mostly.)

We took pictures and ate fried bits of goodness – both sweet and savory.  Drank lassis and tea with evaporated milk.

I came home and ate the last of my sweets.  I felt a little overly-sugared.  Overly stimulated.

And I fell into bed.  Alone.  Sated.  Full.

Artist Date 43: It Never Occured To Me I Was Good

I used to hate Harry.  Not him personally.  Just dancing with him.

And not exactly hate.  More like fear.  Dread.

It’s not like that anymore.   It hasn’t been for a while.  But that came later.  Much, much later.

andersonvilleSo it was a pleasant and still somewhat unexpected surprise to find myself pedaling to the Andersonville Arts Weekend, specifically to see his work – Artist Date 43.

Harry is like my friend J, who I have written about before (as have other bloggers – cursing his talent).  An artist savant.  J made Mission-style bedroom furniture his first go at woodworking.  He didn’t even know what Mission-style was.

I imagine it is like that for Harry too – that his fingertips simply release the art locked up in the canvas, the stone or metal.

I am not this kind of artist.

Consider my recent foray into clay, my first in more than 25 years.

I enrolled in a first-time potter class at Lil Street Art Center.  Bought my bucket and toolkit.  Attended all of the five, three-hour sessions.  Came in on the weekends to practice.  And never came close to mastering centering.

Or even getting the hang of it.  Which is problematic as centering – which is exactly what it sounds like, getting the clay centered on the wheel — is pretty much essential for anything of beauty to emerge.

I didn’t have much more success with trimming – cleaning up or “editing” my pots.  Ditto for slab work or glazing.

I left the class with a few sad pieces I have scattered around my house – doing utilitarian duty.  A tray I lean spoons on when cooking.  A tiny bowl with salt in it, sitting on top of the stove.  Another sitting on the window sill of my shower, filled with stones and glass I collected at the beach.

2013-10-17 22.48.20A cylinder glazed white, where my sponge lives.

I realized this work would be work if I wanted to be any good at it.  Or even just better.  Like dance.

While dancing always felt natural to me – at clubs and at parties – moving across the floor in a structured class was something else entirely.  Which is probably why I avoided it for so long.  For fear of not knowing what I am doing.  Looking “stupid.”  Not in control.

The take away from my early years regarding art, music and sports was that talent was innate.  Period.  There was no talk of practice.  Learning a craft.  Or of doing for sheer joy.

I learned those lessons late.  First, from my step-mother, who began painting in her 60s.  I recall her early efforts – shared with me in cards and notes.  Then seeing her work, in her home studio, years later.  Whimsical watercolors of cows on oversized paper.  Framed.  I wanted them for my wall.

I learned them again, a few years later, in dance class.  I have a visceral memory of my instructor Idy going right and me moving left.  Him reaching up, and I, down.

“Like this, Lesley,” he would say.  I swore I was doing the same, but clearly I wasn’t.  Again and again.  Looking at one another in the mirror.  Me giggling.  Them him.  Until I fell on the floor in a heap.

Learning to laugh at myself.  To feel the drums.  My bare feet on the floor.  The joy and wonder of my body leaping.  Contorting.  Flying.

That is, until I met Harry.  He was, and is, what I call a teacher’s teacher.  Reaching for rightness.  What is correct.  He filled in when Idy traveled.  I hated it.

Walking into the studio and seeing him, my heart would sink.  Frustrated by his seemingly constant corrections, I would bite my bottom lip to hold back tears.

One January, when Idy returned to Senegal, Harry led the entire session.  Driven by my frail ego and fear of being found out as a “dance fraud,” I did not enroll in class.  It was the first time I would not dance on a Sunday in more than a year.

I missed it.

I talked to my friend Lisa at length about it.  She suggested I pray.  For the resentment to be removed? To be right sized?  To be teachable?  I don’t recall her exact directions.  I just remember, being desperate.  Praying.  And things changing.

I found I could dance with Harry.  And I could even enjoy it.

Especially when I nailed a step, or a series of steps.  He would stand in front of me clapping his hands shouting, “Yes! Yes!”  I was both thrilled and embarrassed at the same time, grinning ear to ear.  Then losing my footing.  And laughing.  I knew he wasn’t lying.

Or when he had me demonstrate a step, moving across the floor, with the other dancers following.  Because I “had it.”  This happened just once.

Truth told, I developed a little crush on Harry.  The safe kind.  I was pretty sure he was married and had been for a long time.

I found out for certain on Sunday, meeting his wife – who showed me his jewelry.  Rings with enormous oversized stones – too big for my tiny hands.  A copper and silver band that made my fingers look long.  A snaking chain of tiny stones, each marked with a symbol.  I wrapped it around my neck again and again until there wasn’t anymore.  Heavy.

2013-10-13 16.19.58We talked about dance and artistry.  About marriage.  And giving one another space to grow.

I saw Harry a bit later that afternoon, showing his paintings and sculpture at a different location.  He waved to me from inside the store as I was approaching.  And once inside he introduced me to his daughter and told me about his work.  His inspiration.  His process.  I listened.

And then I told him how I used to feel about dancing with him.  And how today I love it.  That I am a better dancer because of him.

His response floored me.

He told me he can’t stand idly by when someone is so close.

It had never occurred to me that I was close.  That he pushed me because I was good.  Not because I was bad.  That if I were hopeless, he wouldn’t have bothered at all.

He saw me, right-sized.  Teachable.

(Video: Dancing with Harry)

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10151412384026731&set=vb.554046730&type=3&theater