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

Artist Date 42: Dressed, Safely Shrouded

I think I need a headdress.

2013-10-03 14.50.37Feathered, painted and beaded.  Like the one I’m standing in front of at the Chicago Art Institute – Artist’s Date 42.  According to the description, it is meant to express a sense of beauty, while spiritually protecting the wearer, providing potency in battle, diplomacy and/or courtship.

I could use that – spiritual protection and potency.  Especially in courtship.  I feel like I’m fumbling all over the place in this suddenly, or not so suddenly, single world.

Perhaps a wig would suffice.  Cover up my naked head.  My naked heart.

My cousin Andrew told me I should consider wearing them.  Over dinner a few weeks ago at a trendy, too loud, see-and-be-seen, restaurant, he leaned in and said, very seriously, “I’ve been giving it some thought…I think you should wear wigs.”

I laughed, but he was dead serious, waxing the possibilities of an Uma Thurman Pulp Fiction bob.   I showed him a photograph of me wearing a large Foxy Brown afro wig many years ago in Oakland.  I told him I wished my hair grew like that.  How I longed to wear a wig but worried about offending people – lest those whose hair grows that way think it is a joke, this seriously small white girl sporting a do belonging to someone else.

We made a date to go wig shopping but never quite made it.

I had forgotten about it until now.

afro lesleyAnd really, I probably shouldn’t be thinking about it now.  Or even be here at all.  My friend Julie arrives from Detroit in a few hours.  Her visit comes on the heels of my friend Ernie’s visit from Seattle, which came on the heels of my trip to Dublin, and precedes my trip to Minneapolis – for my cousin Andrew’s wedding – by just days.

And yet, I am here.  Stealing away for an hour or so, by myself, with no intention any more noble than to see with different eyes, hear with different ears, feel with a different heart.  To leave here a little better than I arrived.  To fill my mind with something other than “me, me, me.”  It is a relief.

My plan was to visit the African Art.  But I am stopped in my tracks in the Native American section.  Thinking about wigs.  About my cousin.  About my other cousin – Diane.

I visited her in Albuquerque when I was 17.  The trip, my first time traveling alone – to see Diane in New Mexico and Andrew in Los Angeles – was a high-school graduation gift from my parents.

I bought suede fringed boots, the kind with no hard sole, on that trip.  They snaked up my legs, stopping just beneath my knees and tied with crisscrossing leather cord.  Burnout style.  And also, a wooden box, the top decorated with a sand painting of Father Sky – it says so in pencil, written on the underside, good for storing treasures.

Diane bought me a miniature wedding vase, a smaller version of the kind I would drink from at my own wedding 15 years later.

It seems like forever ago.  As does my trip to see Diane.  Except the memories of my marriage feel sneakier – unexpected – and not as purely sweet as those of my trip to New Mexico.

So I keep on moving, rather than sitting (or like my friend Sheila likes to say “bathing”) in the feelings.  I look at pipes, teepee covers and silver jewelry, eventually moving on to the African Art section – something without connection to the past.  Something entirely my own.  Sort of.

Unless you consider it is my ex who bought me a gift certificate to the Old Town School of Music and Dance, where I study West African dance.  Or that I found myself in Rwanda right in the middle of our divorce.

And yet, Africa is mine.  It always was.  A dream since I was a child.  He just helped get me there.

The collection is small.

2013-10-03 15.09.25A few voluminous robes – the kind I have seen my instructor Idy dance in, constantly moving the sleeves in gorgeous gestures to keep from getting the fabric caught up in his feet.  A couple of headdresses and costumes, one depicting the ideal mature woman in the 17th century – prominent nose, jutting chin, and large breasts.

I think of my own breasts.  Small.  No longer pendulous.  Faded scars run from breast fold to areola – subtle reminders of my reduction surgery.  A different beauty ideal.

I am struck by the words tacked to the wall.

“Dress is among the most personal forms of visual expression, creating a buffer and a bridge between the private and the public self…Special forms of luxury dress…may (also) signal particular standing within a community or a moment of transition from one role to another.”

I think about the Native American headdress.  Of my own dress.  My friend Tori says I dress differently since my divorce.  Sexier.  It was not my intention, but I believe she is right.

Across the room is a timeline of events, highlighting key moments in both African and world history.  I snap photographs so I can remember them.

1884: European nations meet for the Berlin West Africa Conference, initiating the European scramble to colonize Africa.  By 1900 only Ethiopia and Liberia remain independent.

1957: The nation of Ghana gains independence from British colonial rule, launching a continent-side decolonization movement.

1980: Zimbabwe gains independence from Great Britain; it is the last European colony to do so.

1990-94: Civil war in Rwanda leads to genocide.

I remember my friend Geri’s map-of-the-world shower curtain – so old, Rhodesia was still on it.

I think about my own map.  My timeline.  My dress.  My independence.  Messy.  Uncertain.  Liberating.  But unlike Rhodesia, I got to keep my name.

Artist Date 40: Dublin, A Fillling Station

I am not as healed as I thought I was.  I hate that.

It is September 16.  One year to the day since my divorce was finalized in the state of Washington

I arrive in Dublin for Tim and Martin’s wedding.  Everything is new.  Everything is the potential Artist Date.

Full-fat yogurt in glass jars with rhubarb layered on top.  Breakfast at the airport Spar.

A bus ride to Trinity College followed by a taxi to Tim’s house.  The driver’s brogue so thick I make out only about a third of what he says.  Among it, “Is your liver ready for your visit?”

A shower.  Tim shows me how to turn it on.  It is not intuitive to my jet-lagged American mind.  He shows me how the heat booster works.

So much shiny newness.  Other-ness.  And yet…my mind and my mouth reverts to my divorce like a rubber band.  Anger toward my ex-husband I didn’t know was there.  Anger that the dissolution of my marriage is so much a part of my story, my identity – still.  In journalistic terms, it is “what I lead with.”

By design the Artist Date is an individual endeavor, although I’ve played fast and loose with that dictate.  But it is in my alone moments here, in Dublin, where I find my grounding, my feet under me, and I am able to open myself to everything outside of me.  I discover this on my third day here, when I peel off for a few hours on my own – Artist Date 40.

The Thai storefront where I eat noodles out of a cardboard container with chopsticks, sitting on a bench on the sidewalk with locals.

2013-09-20 09.17.50St. Stephen’s Green.  I stumble on to it.  I feel like I have wandered into Central Park from the Upper East Side.  Or am perhaps along the Seine, as here too artists line up their wares.

It is sunny and mild.  Long legs stretched out on the grass.  Suits eating sandwiches on wooden benches.  I snap photographs of the geese wandering outside of the pond before they change their mind and retreat to the water.

Break dancers on Grafton Street.  A large circle forms around a gaggle of boys dressed in yellow.  Each takes a turn in the center.  I want to jump in with them.  Spin on my head.  Be a part of the dance.  Or at the very least, clap.  But I am filming them – a step removed from full presence.

I meet Steven in front of the bank at the corner of Grafton and Nassau Streets, eager to share my finds.  I take him for Pad Thai and to St. Stephen’s Green, stopping first in front of a band set up on the street.  There is a cajon, a xylophone, an accordion. A saxophone that sounds like a snake charmer.  I grab Steven’s hand and we break into spontaneous dance in the street – swing style.

I haven’t danced with Steven since my wedding in 2001.  My shirt is rising up at the waist, exposing my belly.  The cajon player is looking at me.  Is he looking at my belly?  Or my ear-to-ear grin?  Someone is filming us.  Another couple joins in.  I feel deliriously in love with the world.  With myself.  That I am the kind of woman who breaks into spontaneous dance on the streets of Dublin.

2013-09-20 10.03.54Next day we visit Kilmainham Gaol, Ireland’s most “famous” jail, and the National Museum of Ireland – History and Decorative Arts.  We hop on and hop off a red double-decker bus.  We are quintessential tourists – sans fanny pack and white sneakers.

Inside Kilmainham we receive explicit directions not to wander off from our guide and group, lest we get lost.

We peer into cells, stand in others.  We learn about its political prisoners.  Its leaders.  Women in the fight for independence.  And how, during the potato famine, some vied for a spot in this overcrowded, infected, squalid place – five to a cell with one bowl of watery soup a day – because it was better than life on the streets.

We wander into a furniture exhibit at the History and Decorative Arts Museum.  It is cool and retro.  1950s.  I remember Steven’s desire to make furniture.  I tell him about my ex-boyfriend J – how his first foray into woodworking resulted in a Mission-style bed and side table.  He is a creative genius.

I visit the collection of Adolph Mahr – an Irish Jew who immigrated to San Francisco in his teens and became a pillar in the fine arts community.  I witness the unfolding of Eileen Gray’s career – home furnishings artisan come environmental designer.

Eileen Gray, at the beginning of her career.
Eileen Gray.

That evening, I sit next to Helen, Martin’s cousin from Sheffield, at a cocktail crawl – sans cocktail.  I tell her about the gaol.  The Jewish collector and the designer.

It reminds me of a conversation I had a few months ago.  Thick in the newness of my Artist Dates, telling a man I just met about the biography I was reading.  The small theatre production I had just seen.  The couture exhibit at the History Museum.

I felt smart.  Interesting.  Artistic.  That I was the woman I had always hoped to be.  Or am at least becoming.

I feel that way again tonight.

I have something else to discuss, following so many days of talk about relationships.

I am more than my marriage.  My divorce.  My flirtations.

I already know this.  I remember it in the stillness of being alone – where I can bring the outside in.  A filling station.

Love Letter to My Farnow, From the Dancing Queen

Farnow, new and old. Martin, Tim and I.

The side of my face is pressed to yours.  I feel your beard against my cheek.  The bone of your right pelvis against my own.  Your leg gently, but firmly, straddling mine.

You dance tango.  But we are not dancing tango.

No matter, it is the sexiest dance I’ve ever had in my life.  I’m certain of it.

I have not danced like this in more years than I can count.

I am referring not only to the leg between mine.  Or the man, 10 years my junior, to whom it belongs.  But to the friends surrounding me.  My farnow, the Kiwi word roughly translated as “family of choice.”  Farnow I’ve known for 20 years.  Farnow I’ve known for just 20 minutes.

We are dancing to Patti LaBelle.  Donna Summer.  The Cure.  New Order.  All of us.  Like we did in Detroit.  In San Francisco.  When I was 20-something and it didn’t feel like “a thing” to stay up late to go dancing.

I am sweaty.  Low to the ground.  All hips and legs.  I feel vital.  Sexy.  Alive.

“You are in a very good place,” my friend Steven tells me.  He is right.  I am.

But not for the reasons you think.

This isn’t a story about sex.

Steven and I.  Old Farnow.
Steven and I. Old Farnow.

This is a story about recognizing another one of my teachers.  About the universe tapping me on the shoulder, inquiring exactly where I am with the old idea I tossed into Lake Michigan – along with stale bread. the ritual of tashlich – on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, just a few weeks ago.

The day I muttered, “I let go of the idea that I am only good for sex.”  Over and over, like a mantra.  The notion being that I might be attractive to men for more reasons than this.

Prior to my marriage, I used my sexuality like a calling card.  A year outside of its dissolution, I’m not sure what is.  Or if I have one at all.

Earlier in the evening, we did a different sort of dance.  Flirty.  My ass to your ass.  My back to your chest.  Your leg between mine for the first time.

“Is this ok?” you ask.  Yes, I nod.  It is more than ok.  I cannot stop grinning.

And then…you are sitting on a stool, no longer dancing.  I am not quite sure what has happened.  I think it has something to do with the girl sitting next to you, but I am not certain.

I do not want to interfere with anyone’s real life.  I am on holiday.  This flirtation is fun.  But I do not want to hurt anyone.  So I leave it be.  I leave you be.  Mostly.

I dance with Steven and Tim.  Anja and Derek.  Anne-Marie and Tom.  Everyone but you.  I ask G-d to help me to be to be present to the people who are with me and not to worry about those who are not.

Later, when you are alone, I apologize for possibly getting you into trouble with a girl.  You insist I have not.  But that you are certain I am one to get into trouble.  You are teasing me.

I tell you it is incredibly sexy when you reach down between your legs to tap on the cajon – the box drum – which I saw you do the other night, playing music with my friend, Tim.

I notice you don’t drink.  Neither do I.  We talk about living life feeling everything.  “EVERYTHING,” you say slowly, emphatically, with a knowing smile.

We talk about G-d.  That yours is like Star Wars, “The Force.”  That mine is magic, poetry and serendipity.  The kind of stuff I couldn’t think up myself.

You ask me about my work.  My Judaism.  My writing.  We talk about your music, the religion of your upbringing, and our friendship with Tim.

I tell you I enjoyed dancing with you.  You smile and reply that you enjoyed talking with me.  I am flummoxed.  It is as if the universe is asking, “Remember your taslich mantra?  The one about being attractive for other reasons…Are you paying attention?”

Anne-Marie and I.  New Farnow.
Anne-Marie and I. New Farnow.

We dance that slow, sexy dance, and say goodbye.  I kiss either of your cheeks, feeling your beard against me again.  I ask if I will see you again on this trip.  “G-d willing.  Allah willing,” you say, and list a couple of other names for G-d, but I do not hear them.  I am touched by your response.

And you are gone.

I go back to the floor and join my farnow and dance until DJ Gerry can play no more.  I think about you whispering in my ear that I could surely tango.  That I am a good dancer, but I must know this already.

I do not see you again.  I am a little bit sad, but not at all surprised.  It isn’t necessary.  I have received your teaching.

I want to tell you this.  And that my meeting you is a wink from the universe – is G-d.  But I do not.  It seems too intimate.  Too much.

So I blog instead.  My sober artistry.  A kind of “love letter,” sans stamp.  Destination: Dublin, Ireland.  I sign it,

“Until ‘the force’ conspires for us to meet again.  In gratitude, Lesley.”

Artist Date 35: Disgusting, Filthy, Transcendent, Delicious Neruda

nerudaThe other day my friend Gene asked what poetry I was reading.   I wasn’t.  I wasn’t reading anything at all.  Nothing since the juicy Anne Sexton biography, the one that served as an introduction for us.

I asked him to make a suggestion.  He didn’t hesitate.

Pablo Neruda.

“Disgusting, filthy, transcendent, delicious.”  His words not mine.  I was immediately hooked.

A few days later, I am at the Harold Washington Public Library, looking for Neruda – Artist Date 35.

I saw this place for the first time just a few months ago, on the way to a party in the South Loop.   Driving down State Street, I asked my friend Liz what the building was with the great green gargoyles on top.  She told me it was the library.  I made a mental note and kept driving.

The gargoyles are calling me as I approach it.  I feel giddy and excited to be here, in this place I’ve never been before.

Disgusting, filthy, transcendent, delicious.  Seemingly homeless men are sitting on the low wall outside of the library.  I take a photograph of the El train sign and am hit by the stench of sewer.  I suddenly realize this is the Library stop.  The only time I pass it is on my way to Midway airport, when I have to travel the whole of the Loop before heading south.  I feel silly.  Like I should have known.

2013-08-15 15.36.13I walk in a side door and follow the marble hallway to the main entrance.  I have never been in a library this grand.  The one at Michigan State University may have been larger, but it looked like post-Cold War “throw-up architecture.”  Like the kind I saw in Dresden.  Utilitarian.

I don’t recall visiting “the main library” in any city.  I have tended toward community branches in Oakland, Seattle, the suburbs of Detroit, and here in Chicago.  I am shocked and a little horrified.  In fact, I don’t want to admit it here.

I think of George Peppard slipping his book into the stacks at the New York Public Library, Audrey Hepburn at his side.  Genius.

Kids are playing ping-pong in the room to my left – some sort of summer program.  Ping-pong.  It feels almost quaint.

I climb the stairs to the third floor – circulation.  I look up Neruda on the research computer that has replaced the card catalog.  Seventh floor.  On my way up, I read the quotes painted on to the walls.

“My Alma Mater is the Chicago Public Library,” David Mamet.  “Wisdom begins in wonder,” Socrates.

I look at the sculptural art.   Twisted wood.  Women leaning against the wall.  They look so serene.  So comfortable.  I want to lean in like that.  Feel that safe.

I stop at the post highlighting today’s activities.  “Inside the Whale,” a dance performance.  The story of a woman swallowed by a whale, and how she learns to live in her own skin.  Too bad I missed it.  I could use a few tips.

I am looking for PQ8097.N428713.  I wander into the language section.  Books and magazines in Japanese, Russian, Arabic.  I like how the characters look, neatly lined up in rows.

Continuing on, I am face to spine with a slew of books on publishing.  How Fiction Works.  Writing Erotic Romance.  How to Grow a Novel.

2013-08-15 16.08.21I pull So You Want to Write: How to Master the Craft of Writing Fiction and Memoir by Marge Piercy and Ira Wood from the shelf.  It does not seem like a mistake.  I tuck in under my arm and keep walking until I find Neruda … waiting for me.

He is sloppy.  His books are not lined up neatly, orderly.  Some are lying on their sides.  Others are upside down.  I randomly pull a few and find a table.

Odes to Opposites.  “Ode to the present.”

“This/moment/as smooth/as a board,/and fresh,/this hour/this day/as clean/as an untouched glass/ – not a single/spiderweb/from the past:…

“This is our/creation,/it’s growing/this very/instant,/kicking up/sand or eating/out of our hand./Catch it,/don’t let it slip away!/Keep it from vanishing into dreams/or words!/Grab it,/pin it down,/make it/obey!/Make it a road/or a bell,/a machine,/a kiss, a book/ or a caress.”

Yes.  Make it into a kiss.  Or a caress.  Please do.

“…try a ladder!/Yes,/a ladder:/rise/out of the moment…Up and/up/but not too much – just high enough/to/patch the holes/in the roof./Not too far;/ you don’t want to reach heaven…You/are/your own moment,/your own apple:/pluck it/from your apple tree./Hold it up/in your/hand:/it shines/like a star./Stroke it,/sink your teeth into it – now off you go/whistling on your way.”

And I do.  With this.  With Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.  With Marge Piercy and Ira Wood.

Later that evening I receive an email from Gene.  He wants to know if Neruda showed up for our date.  I tell him that he did.  That he was a total gentleman.  But that I kind of wish he wasn’t…being divorced for nearly a year and all.  I laugh at my own joke…and sink my teeth into this present.