Artist Date 2.2: Hello, Old Friend

“Hello, old friend…”

I whisper the words to no one in particular. Smiling as I take a seat in front of Marc Chagall’s “America Windows.” Moments ago, the bench was occupied, but serendipitously it is free… as if waiting for me.

My friend Colleen invited me here – to the Art Institute of Chicago – to catch up over coffee and “peel off for our independent Artist Dates.” Number 2.2 (118) for me.

She knows me. The sacredness of my weekly solo sojourn.

We breeze through admissions and before entering the exhibit –“America After the Fall: Paintings in the 1930s”– (my choice), I kiss her on either cheek, holding fiercely to the traditions of my year in Spain. I wish her joy on her Artist Date and thank her for bringing me here.

Here. This place that used to feel like my home. But that I am acutely aware I am a visitor in.

Colleen’s visitor.

I used to be a member.

I loved sitting in on mid-day member lectures … the youngest in attendance by several times around the sun. Taking advantage of early viewings, free coat check, and complimentary coffee and tea.

But most of all, I loved the freedom to just “pop in” at any time … never worrying about “getting my money’s worth.”

I would always end up here. In front of Chagall’s Windows.

Usually I’d stand up close, looking for new details I might have missed. But today I find myself sitting back. Taking it all in. The whole of it.

It is a metaphor for the day.

The AIC is busy and the exhibit feels congested. I’m somewhat surprised as it has been up for almost two months now. There are a lot of children. And a lot of loud Midwestern accents.

It does not feel like mine anymore.

I snap photographs.

“American Landscape” by Charles Sheeler. Grimy and distinctly Midwestern. Something I kind of romanticized while living abroad. Kind of.

american_landscape

The frame from Grant Wood’s “Young Corn” which reads, “To the Memory of Miss Linnie Schloeman Whose Interest in Young and Growing Things Made Her A Beloved Teacher In Woodrow Wilson School.”

IMAG4560.jpg

The rolling hills that make up the naked, female form in Alexandre Hogue’s “Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare.”

mother earth

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

street life

I wander out of the exhibit and take a photograph of the words on a door across the hall – “A Lot of Sorrow.”

Yes, there is. And I am.

Moving is hard … even when I choose it. The place that was mine has changed. I knew it would. It did before. There are new inhabitants. There always are.

And yet, if I look I can still find myself here.

In the words leaping from the panels introducing the exhibit. Eerily appropriate today.

“The title of America after the Fall refers in one sense to the (stock market) crash, but is also aptly describes the pervasive concern that the nation had fallen from grace.”

“Regardless of style, many painters hoped their art could help repair a democracy damaged by economic and political chaos. The diversity of approaches made the 1930s one of the most fertile decades of American painting.”

In Archibald Motley’s “Saturday Night,” which I saw for the first time a little more than a year ago. On another Artist Date, at the Chicago Cultural Center. The date before the date – the one with the man who would become my lover for the months leading up to my departure for Spain. I smile and my heart aches just a little.

saturday night motley

On the bench in front of “America Windows,” where today I see nothing new at all. The sameness – both beautiful and comforting.

“Hello, Old friend.”

Artist Date 109 (Madrid Artist Date 1): Too Caught Up To Notice

2015-09-08 19.39.42“The Artist Date is a once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore
something that interests you. The Artist Date need not be overtly
“artistic” — think mischief more than mastery. Artist Dates fire up the
imagination. They spark whimsy. They encourage play. Since art is about the
play of ideas, they feed our creative work by replenishing our inner well
of images and inspiration. When choosing an Artist Date, it is good to ask
yourself, “what sounds fun?” — and then allow yourself to try it.”

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

I tell myself that every day in Madrid is an Artist Date.

I am a liar.

I have been here a little more than 40 days. And it is true that most every day is a solo expedition – at least in part — and that most every day I am exploring something that interests me — my new home.

That there are moments of whimsy and of play, when everything looks like eye candy. Sun-washed orange and yellow apartment buildings, lined with rows of black iron balconies, that look like cardboard cut-outs against the navy-painted sky. Others the color of cotton candy, hugging a traffic circle that my friend Dirk refers to as “the big circus intersection.”

BUILDING_AT_EAST_END_OF_YOUR_STREETA man with two teeth playing accordion on the street. Another, with a full-white grin, feeding peacocks from his hand in Retiro Park.

Everything is new.

And yet my hours are filled with classes. With looking for an apartment and looking for work. (Blessedly, both have come to me quickly and easily.)

With scheduling appointments to complete my visa paperwork and to obtain a monthly Metro card. (No, I cannot just purchase one at the station.)

With navigating a new city and a new language.

Despite the creative inspiration surrounding me, my inner well has run dry.

I have felt this before, when my ex-husband and I moved cross-country – first to Chicago, and later to Seattle – when the work of the adventure of living some place new took so much out of us that we had little, if anything, left to give the other.

Our relationship needed tending to, but we couldn’t see it.

And now this relationship, mine to myself, does too.

I respond, purchasing myself a ticket to the Victor Ullate Ballet’s performance Samsara – Artist Date 109, my first in Madrid.

The ballet announces itself to me every morning on the Metro, a siren-like blur through the windows as the train passes from Opera to Diego de Leon.

At home, I watch a video clip online and feel that heart-leaping-out-of-my-skin-I-know-this-is-God-sensation I have gotten every time I see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

This, coupled with a Tuesday ticket discount and a single seat available at the end of the second row, proves an irresistible combination, and a few hours later I am walking up Calle San Bernardo to Teatros del Canal.

I’m giddy in that “I’ve got a secret” kind of way, which is not unusual for an Artist Date…except that something my friend Robert told me the day after I arrived has been banging around in my head ever since.

“Spaniards don’t do anything alone,” he said. “A server will bring a glass of wine to a woman eating alone because he pities her.”

This has been confirmed by others.

This does not bode well for a woman who travels alone, goes to movies and lectures and operas alone, who not only enjoys being alone but craves her own company.

And yet, no one seems to notice me standing at the bar eating a piece of chocolate cake – alone – before the performance.

And no one seems to notice me sitting at the end of the second row – alone — during the performance. Least of all, me.

I am too caught up in the music. In the movement. The costumes. The stories.

I am too caught up in counting the dancers’ ribs and watching beads of sweat literally slip sideways off of them.

I am too caught up trying to translate the Buddhist quotes projected on the stage before they fade away.

I am too caught up trying to keep my heart from leaping out of my skin because I know this is God. Because this is decidedly Alivin Ailey-esque — specifically Revelations, Part 1: “I’ve Been Buked” –  and my body knows the motions, my lips know the words.

I am at once in my seat and in the dance, but most certainly not in the head of any Spaniard who might want to buy me a glass of wine because he pities my being alone.

It is a Revelation. It is Samsara, “journeying” – birth, death, rebirth.

Artist Date 107: As It Was Promised to Me

I have come to crave myself.

I was promised this would happen.

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

Between Acts by Archibald Motley
Between Acts by Archibald Motley

The time will come

when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror,

and each will smile at the other’s welcome.

 

and say, sit here. Eat

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back you heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

 

all your life, whom you have ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letter from the bookshelf,

 

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on you life.

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

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

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

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

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

I want to know if you can be alone

with yourself

and if you truly like the company you keep

in the empty moments.

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

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

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

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

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

It is unplanned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artist Date 102: Driving Me in Reverse Down a One-Way Street

From "Drunken Geometry" by Allison Wade and Leslie Baum
From “Drunken Geometry” by Allison Wade and Leslie Baum

I thought I would be used to this by now. Going it alone.

More than 100 Artist Dates, more than 100 solitary sojourns in an effort to fill my creative coffers, as suggested by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way.

Lectures, live lit events, ballets, book readings. Fabric stores. Operas. Walking tours. A handful taking place in other countries. And yet my stomach does flip-flops driving to an art opening a few miles from my apartment.

If I’ve learned anything in this grand experiment it is to put one foot in front of the other, regardless of how I feel — this time, up concrete stairs to the third floor of a warehouse in Garfield Park, to my friend’s exhibit, Artist Date 102.

Allison is an inspiration.

Once upon a time she wrote marketing materials for the financial services sector. Until the day when she turned right where she would have gone left and applied to art school. Several years, several moves and an MFA later, she is a working artist and an adjunct professor in the Art Department at Northwestern University.

I hear voices and laughter before I make it to the top of the stairs. I poke my head into the first gallery. I circle the room. Large painted swaths of fabric on the wall. Furniture taken apart, mismatched and reassembled — table legs sticking straight up out of a chair, pointing at the ceiling. Deconstructed still life. Or, as Alison and her partner Leslie call it “Drunken Geometry.”  But no Allison.

I poke my head into the second gallery and see my friend. She walks me through the exhibit, explaining its meaning, its genesis. Her process, her partnership. I am all in my head…thinking about my friend Rainey, the first artist I knew who created installations, introducing concepts rather than canvases.

Thinking about my own desire to go to art school.

For fashion. For photography. For the sake of being and calling myself an artist. I recall pictures I drew of myself in elementary school — wearing a beret and holding a palette — and a Saturday morning sketching class I briefly attended.

I did not go to art school.

Instead, I spent one year as a fine arts major at a Big Ten university before transferring to the journalism program at my parents’ prompting.

I tell myself I was more committed to the idea of being “an artist” than to making art. This may or may not be true. But being a visual artist was never “easy” for me.

I was fast-moving, my work somewhat sloppy. Stitches ran crooked on the waistband of a skirt. Film stuck onto itself, improperly loaded on the development reel. The inside of a ceramic slab box left rough, unfinished — the internal belying the external.

Writing came easy to me.

I placed out of freshman college English, enrolling in a senior writing seminar instead. Somewhat grudgingly wrote for the daily college newspaper. And then later, for weeklies in Detroit and San Francisco.

I did not think writing was art. Writing was…writing.

It didn’t feel sexy or tragic or dark. I didn’t wrestle with it, so I didn’t want it. But it followed me anyway…loyal puppy of a boyfriend.

I resented it. Ignored it. Didn’t take care of it. Until I needed it.

In Africa, in the middle of my divorce. When I couldn’t not write. The way junkies can’t not shoot-up. When writing felt like breathing. Like the only thing that gave me relief — the antithesis of how I feel now in this moment. Anxious.Uncomfortable. Squirrel-y.

No one is drunk. No one is ridiculously hip. On the contrary. There is a bowl of Chex Mix on the table near the drinks, and a handful of children stopping short of running around.

I see faces I know — including my own. Myself as struggling, wannabe visual artist. Perhaps this is what makes me uncomfortable.  Seeing my former in-love-with-the-idea-of-being-an-artist self.

I would have turned myself inside out for if my parents would have let me. Just as I have done with the idea of so many lovers and would-be lovers in my past. The title — artist, girlfriend — who I think I want to be, driving me in reverse down a one-way street..

Talking for two in romantic pursuits, attempting to create a connection or intimacy that isn’t organically there. Chasing what’s hard — dark, sexy, tragic — rather than embracing what is light, easy, what would one day feel like breathing.

I pick up a large piece of heavy paper with words printed in pink and blue — a conversation between the artists about their process in creating.

“In all honesty for me, and I think for you, this work is agenda-less. It’s about formal play and making connections.” Allison writes.

Leslie adds, “The beginning and the end. A looping. A circle that wobbles a bit, like a drunk. Our logic and our vocabulary are of this wandering yet insistent geometry.”

Yes, for me too. Except I’m no longer drunk. Just insistent and Wandering (Jewess).

Artist Date 99: Like a Motherfucker

tiny beautiful thingsForgive me, it has been 16 days since my last Artist Date and 19 days since I’ve blogged.

I feel like a Jewish Catholic at confession.  Except the only one I’m asking for absolution is myself.

I miss my alone time.  Artistic input into my body.  My head feels foggy.  Squeezed.  Heavy and thick.  As if there is no room…no room for anything more.  No room for anything at all.

I am daydreaming about when and where I can get my fix — my dose of solitude and creative sustenance.

I didn’t expect this, didn’t expect to be “hooked” when I entered into this commitment a little more than two years ago.  I didn’t know what to expect.  Only that I needed help.

I was newly divorced.  My biological mother — who I had only met just four years earlier — was dying.  And the relationship I wasn’t having  — the one with a handsome southerner who lived some 900 miles away, who I kissed for two nights like a horny but innocent teenager —  was effecting my relationships.

My friend S. told me in no uncertain terms she could not, would not, hear his name again.

I was on my knees, desperate.  The humbled position where all change grows from.

On Christmas night 2012, a voice I’ve grown to know — my wise-self voice — suggested I work through The Artist’s Way again.  Adding that this time I go on weekly Artist Dates — a once every seven-days solo sojourn to fill my creative coffers — as is suggested in the book.

I went to lectures, museums, opera.  To pottery classes, dance performances, walking tours.  Movies, thrift shops and book stores.  All of it, alone.

On occasion, I miss a week — choosing to spend a final day with a friend before she becomes a mother or sharing my artsy outing with another — but it is rare.  And I’ve never gone this long without…until now, at the Davis Theatre — Artist Date 99.

My therapist in Seattle was the first to suggest Cheryl Strayed.  “I read her before Oprah,” she insisted, imploring me to pick up Wild, as well as Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar — the best of Strayed’s advice column from The Rumpus.

Queen Anne Books placed a special order for both books.  They arrived the day after I left for Chicago.

I mostly forgot about them until this past summer — two years later — when my friend Lori insists I buy both books.  She tells me “writers read,” and drags me into the Book Cellar where she puts a copy of each into my hands and guides me to the cash register.

Both are dog-eared now, and tear-stained.  Sentences underlined, entire pages bracketed.  Words resonate.  Lessons I do not want to forget.  Whispers from the universe reminding me where I came from, where I am today.

“Unique as every letter is, the point each writer reaches is the same: I want love and I’m afraid I’ll never get it.” (Tiny Beautiful Things)

“…for once it was finally enough for me to simply lie there in a restrained and chaste rapture beside a sweet, strong, sexy, smart good man who was probably never meant to be anything but my friend.  For once I didn’t ache for a companion.  For once the phrase a woman with a hole in her heart didn’t thunder into my head.” (Wild)

Sitting in the darkened theater, Strayed words — now images — alive before me, I say, yes.  And yes.

I still fear the possibility of not finding romantic love again, but it doesn’t drive me anymore.  It doesn’t dictate my every action.  My every reaction.

I can be in “chaste rapture beside a sweet, strong, sexy, smart good man who was probably never meant to be anything but my friend.”  Lying next to one another on my couch following morning meditation, the Reluctant Shaman’s lips pressed to my forehead — my third eye.

I no longer ache for a companion.  The words, “I do not wish a man were here,” crossing my lips as I cross the Seine last October, alone on my 45th birthday..

Strayed took to the Pacific Crest Trail  — alone — to learn these truths.  To feel them in her bones.  Mine was a different path, made of clay and dance and music.  Of film and paint and spoken word.  Of pasta and gelato and nearly three weeks in Italy.  All of it, alone.  But the truths, the same.

“So write…,” Strayed writes in Tiny Beautiful Things.  “Not like a girl.  Not like a boy.  Write like a motherfucker.”

Yes.

Artist Date 87: This Is Not

This is not us wearing bowler hats.
This is not us wearing bowler hats.

This is not an Artist Date.

I have written these words here before.  More than once.  Every time I act contrary to Julia Cameron’s prescription of the Artist Date in The Artist’s Way.

“An artist date is a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist.  In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers.  You do not take anyone on this artist date but you and your inner artist, a.k.a. you creative child.  That means no lovers, friends, spouses, children – no taggers-on of any stripe.”

I have written these words when choosing to spend a precious few hours with Clover before she gives birth to baby Juniper.  When going to Story Club, with hopes of getting to read my work on stage, with Debbie.  When reading an Anne Sexton biography on the airplane.  When staying in and cooked.

And today, when I invite Julie to the Rene Magritte exhibit and lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago – Artist Date 87.

The words are both literal and playful.  Like the way we don bowler hats in the gift shop, take a selfie and post it to Facebook with the words, “This is not us in bowler hats.”  Paying homage to the iconographic The Treachery of Images – a painting of a pipe, (but clearly not a pipe) with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”  This is not a pipe.

This is not a pipe.
This is not a pipe.

Since beginning my commitment to the weekly Artist Date, I can count on one hand the number of times I have asked someone to join me at the Art Institute.  There have been two.  Both of them impromptu.

Rescuing Alex from the long line for admission on free Thursday nights.  I whisk him through the member entrance and into a seat for a lecture on “The Return of the Modern Masters.”

Eating free appetizers in the courtyard with Matt before heading off on a shopping pilgrimage to Costco.  I show him Marc Chagall’s America Windows.  I visit the blue glass where Ferris kissed Sloane in the John Hughes classic every time I am here.  But Matt has never seen it.

My date with Julie is by design.  We planned it weeks ago, when we ran into one another at a party.  That night, we talked about our writing.  Our work.  Choosing to be alone rather than settling.  About my Artist Dates…and I invited her to join me on one.

Flanked by her, I walk through the exhibit differently.  I am not taking photographs.  (None are allowed anyway.)  I am not taking notes.  I am not blogging in my head.  I am much more present.  In the moment.  In thought.  Not about my words but about the work.  In relation.

The Eternally Obvious.  Five pieces of a woman – face, breasts, cunt, knees, feet – each individually framed and strung together vertically.

For years, this is how I offered myself.  Pieces of myself.  Body parts.  I say this to myself.  And to Julie.  She nods, understanding completely.

Attempting the Impossible.  A woman “becoming,” as a man paints her into existence.  Does she exist only as he creates her, or is he painting what is already there – like the painter in La Clairvoyance, who stares at an egg while his brush forms a bird?

Le Viol (Rape).  Eyes replaced by breasts, mouth by vulva.  Julie calls it violent.  Is this how we are really seen?

Conversations I might not have alone.  Intimate.  Heady.  Vulnerable.  Hats I might not otherwise try on.

Artist Date.  “A block of time…especially set aside and committed to nurturing…creative consciousness…an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers…”

Il s’agit d’une date de l’artiste.   This is an Artist Date.

Artist Date 78: Both, And.

mcbeardo boodI just wrapped up a contract work gig – my first “straight job” in 12 years.

By straight I mean sitting at a desk, in front of a computer, and working 9 to 5.  (Cue Dolly Parton.)

At first I wasn’t certain how I felt about the opportunity.  I wasn’t clear on my role.  My body hurt from sitting.  My creativity suffered.

And then I hit my stride.

I appreciated having a place to come to – a single place, as opposed to the many I traverse to and from as a massage therapist and Weight Watchers leader.  I appreciated earning a consistent paycheck.  I loved working in a team toward a common good – and that I got to spend five days a week with one of my best girlfriends while doing it.

I even enjoyed the sometimes hour-long commute down Lakeshore Drive, listening to NPR.

And before I knew it, it was over.

I was recently telling my friend Gene about this while catching him up on my days.

I mentioned that had I missed several weeks of Artist Dates.  And that when I went on one last Saturday – number 78 – I still hadn’t blogged about it a week later.

“Sounds like you are living life rather than writing about it,” he said.

Ideally, I would do both.

However, his comment reminded me of a conversation I had a few months earlier with my friend Nithin. He had gone to a concert the night before and noticed the number of people watching the performance through camera phones – recording, photographing and uploading to Facebook.  Documenting rather than experiencing.  At least to his eyes.

I wondered if I had been doing the same.  Living with an eye on writing.

——————–

The Saturday before last, two days after my contract job ended, I said no to a sweat lodge in Michigan and to a birthday party across town, and called it self-care.

Instead, I rode my bike, ate ice cream from Jenni’s on Southport (Bangkok Peanut with coconut and dark chocolate) and napped naked under a ceiling fan, wrapped in crisp gray sheets.

And when I woke, I headed across town for a long-overdue Artist Date, the first in weeks – a reading at Quimby’s books, celebrating and promoting the publication on my friend Mike’s book Heavy Metal Movies.

He’d been working on it for years.  And I could not be more delighted for him.

Mike took the stage in a blue, fuzzy hat with horns – think Fred Flintstone and the Royal Order of Water Buffalos – and then shared it with his wife and a host of friends who gave voice to their own stories on what Mike referred to as “heavy metal, hard movies, and the torrid, torpid twain where both doth meet from a pantheon of ferociously funny, horrifically hilarious headbanging crackpots, visionaries, and mirth.”

I’m not a heavy-metal girl.  And at least one of the readings more than verged on the grotesque.  And yet, none of that mattered.

Each had moved beyond ego, to share their words and their work.  Work that came from their own passions, their own living.  Their presence onstage served as a reminder of possibilities — that there is, in fact, room for each of our voices at the table, and on stage — and also an invitation to do my own work, from my own living.  In sweat lodges and in bookstores.  On my bike and in my bed.  Fully awake and sometimes napping.

Writing AND Living.  Both, And.