Artist Date 115: Distracted

I appreciate a good distraction.

It’s Tuesday and today I find out if I’ve been accepted to the Yale School of Divinity. Of course, “today” is five hours earlier in New Haven, (Spain has not yet turned its clocks forward for spring.) so while it is nearly 7:30 p.m. in Madrid, it is only 2:30 p.m. in Connecticut. And, not surprisingly, I don’t know yet.

I mention this to Gordon, who is sitting next to me, and who expresses surprise when I tell him I have not been checking my phone every few minutes to see if the email has arrived.

I am equally surprised as I have vivid memories from not so long ago, of sitting at my desk hitting refresh on the computer every few minutes, waiting for I-don’t-know-what to happen. Not unlike my wandering into the kitchen to check the refrigerator every few minutes – each time imagining I might find something new added to the shelves since my last look.

Except I will receive something new via email if I wait long enough, whereas the contents of my refrigerator will remain static unless I leave my house and bring in something new. Which is essentially what I am doing now – once again filling my creative coffers. Artist Date 116. A distraction.

My friend Spencer developed the Unamuno Authors Series, bringing poets from around the world to Madrid. Tonight Mark Doty will read his work.

My friend Julie counts him among her favorite writers. A portion of her “fan letter” is included in the paperback version of Doty’s book, Dog Years. Later I will take a selfie with him and send it Julie via Facebook. But for now, I’m just waiting.

For Doty.

Not for Yale.

2016-03-15 20.35.24
Selfie of me and Mark Doty…delightfully distracted.

Because at this point I’ve turned off the sound on my phone. I don’t want to hear it. Or look at it. Or be reminded of it. My phone. Or Yale’s decision. Because I’m not sure if I can stay present in this moment knowing it. So I choose to remain in delicious, hopeful, not knowing.

Doty is a perfect distraction. Engaging. Both serious and playful as he reads his own words about dogs and fish, AIDS and murder. His mouth is tight, his words clipped with a “Locust Valley Lockjaw.” I wonder if anterior neck work (massage) might change the sound of his delivery.

My musings are interrupted by a poem about Doty’s old lover, gone now. He questions why he can no longer conjure up his face without first looking at a photograph. Feel the warmth of his brown skin against his own.

And why can’t I? D is neither dead nor even gone from my life. He is merely far, far away.

We haven’t seen one another in nearly eight months. Since I left Chicago. We do not Skype or FaceTime. This is his choice, not mine, and I do not argue it.

However, as the pages of the calendar turn over onto themselves, I have a harder time recalling his smell, his voice, and yes, even his face, without the aid of photographs and voicemails. I do not want to lose these palpable memories but it seems almost inevitable unless, until, we find ourselves in each other’s presence again.

I recall some years ago, speaking on the telephone with Stu, and then later, Jason – men I had dated when they were little more than boys and I, little more than a girl.

“Oh…that’s what you sound like,” I said upon hearing each of their voices. I had forgotten.

Perhaps this is the brain’s wisdom – making room for new smells, news sounds, new faces. Allowing us to move forward…from a relationship that ends in death, or in distance. From disappointment, words we’d rather than not read or hear.

“The Admissions Committee at Yale Divinity School has completed its review of your application. I am sorry to inform you that unfortunately, we are unable at this time to offer you a place in the Fall 2016 entering class.”

It is nearly midnight when I log on to the Admissions Page. After my Artist Date. After dinner with Spencer and Doty and his partner.

I think that I shake a little reading the email and that my breath catches – stuck in inhalation. That I cry a little too. But already, I don’t remember exactly.

I send Spencer a text, telling him the news, and I go to bed – too tired to do anything else.

And in the morning, I am again waiting. This time for a decision from Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music – my top choice for graduate school. I am assured it should arrive within the next few days.

Until then, I remain in delicious, hopeful, not knowing –  distracting myself with dogs and fish and conjured up memories of old lovers. With art and words and daily life. With moments of presence.

Advertisements

Artist Date 82: Avec moi-même

2014-07-17 17.46.31

Big Kahuna Yard Sale.  The Chicago Mosaic School.  Viva Vintage Clothing.

I am walking down Ravenswood Avenue, following the elevated Metra rail tracks.  A pathway I have taken hundreds of times.  Except that I usually don’t go south of Montrose.  I haven’t had a reason to.  And I usually walk on the east side only.

Except today.

Artist Date 82.

Earlier tonight I ditched my plans to attend an end of Ramadan feast for Muslims and Jews.  I am tired and overwhelmed and this small gesture seems like a big step towards self-care.

It is not easy as I am of the variety who fears missing out on something fantastic.  Of the variety more comfortable going and doing than sitting and being.  Even though I have maintained a meditation practice for more than 12 years.  Even though I make my living, in part, doing massage – the stillest work I can imagine.

I like an Artist Date rich with stimulation – music, prayer, food, potential tumult.  Like an end of Ramadan feast.

But today I choose to fill myself in the quietest, stillest way I know how.  Doing one of the only two things that made any sense to me during my divorce and for months after.  I am walking.  (Writing being the other.)  Walking somewhere familiar.  (Ravenswood between Lawrence and Montrose.) And then somewhere new. (Ravenswood between Montrose and Irving Park.)

It seems like such innocuous newness.  Hardly worth mentioning.  And yet, I see all sorts of things for the first time.

A Latin restaurant.  A pilates studio.  Ballroom dancing lessons.

A beer-tasting room.  Several artist studios.  AVEC painted on a building.  And again on a bridge.

French taggers?

2014-07-17 18.03.52

I take photographs of the tags and send them to a friend along with a text that reads, “Um…how do you pronounce that?!”— referencing the hotel concierge who suggested he and his date have dinner at (emphasis on hard A)vec.

He texts back “Aye-Veck!” and “Aw, Heck” and continues on and on in French.  I get about two-thirds of it, then confess I know just enough French to order pastry and ask for directions without embarrassing myself in Paris.  (I may or may not understand the response, depending on the speed of the speaker.)

We go back and forth like this for a bit and I realize I am very much AVEC.  I am very much WITH my friend.  Which is lovely and fun.  I adore him and we laugh a lot.  But this is not why I am here, wandering Ravenswood Avenue, alone.

I think about the rules I created early on for my Artist Dates: Do not do anything I wouldn’t do on a “real” date.  Answer a telephone call or text.  Listen to music.  Check Facebook on my phone.

Eighty-two dates in, I’ve loosened up on the rules, perhaps even forgetting them – until now.

I stop texting and slip the phone in my pocket.

I am amazed how quickly, how easily I can be pulled from myself, from one moment into another, from what is right in front of me.

Forty-five minutes ago I took my ear buds out and paused Aretha Franklin on Pandora.  The sound of the Queen of Soul distracted me from myself, so I put the music away.  Now the words and this relationship distract me.  I put them away too and return to myself.

AVEC moi-même.  With myself.

My Heart is a Surfboard

kaddish-coverThere are four cars in the synagogue parking lot in Evanston – mine being one of them.

I do not want to be here.  And I especially do not want to be here alone.

I asked Pam to join me.  Clover.  Michael.  Matt.  All were unavailable.  And then I stopped calling. I didn’t want just anyone to join me.  So I am here, alone, on the one-year anniversary (according to the Hebrew calendar) of my birth mother’s death.

The synagogue sent a letter reminding me of the date, 28 Iyyar, along with the words – in both English and Hebrew – to Kaddish, the prayer that accompanies the lighting of a yahrzeit candle, honoring the deceased.

Her name will be read in synagogue, and I feel l should be here to hear it. I think she would like that – even though she wasn’t Jewish.

I sit in the car a few minutes longer, re-reading flirtatious text messages my friend, Mr. Fashion, sent just before I left the house – trying to distract myself from my uncomfortable feelings about being here.  It only half works.

Eventually, I walk in and am greeted by both the rabbi and the cantor.  Each is a touchstone in my life.  And yet seeing them today does not shift my feelings.

Twenty or so congregants are here for the Friday night service, but I sit alone.   It is my choice.  I feel awkward and angst-y.  I keep my eyes cast down.  I barely sing.  I wonder how it is that I once thought I might be a rabbi.  It seems unfathomable to me now, as it is all that I can do just to be here.  And I again wonder why it is that I am here.

Until the last moments of the service, when I am reminded.

I am standing with my congregation saying Kaddish, the memorial prayer for the dead.  The prayer praising God.  The same prayer I read at home a few days ago when I lit a yahrzeit candle.

The rabbi reads the names of those in the congregation who have passed in the past week, and of those who passed this week in years past.

“Pharen Johnson, mother of Lesley Pearl.”  My rabbi’s voice catches a little – I think.

And without warning, my eyes are heavy and wet.  My nose flares – hot.  I feel a thud in my core, and then its energy rolling out in waves to my hands and feet.  I am riding the currents.  My heart is a surfboard.  My belly flip-flops and then, more heat.

The feeling is not unfamiliar.  I occasionally experience it when I meditate.  But I do not expect it here, now.

And suddenly I know why I am here.

I understand why we are called to go to synagogue in the days after death, and on the anniversary of it.  Why it is not enough to light a candle and say a few words in my kitchen – alone.

The synagogue gives me the space to grieve.  The service, to consider it — which I have not done.

I mentioned this to Pam the other day, on the actual anniversary of Pharen’s death.

Me and Pharen.  Our first meeting.
Me and my birthmom. Our first meeting.

I tell her that after I lit the yahrzeit candle and said Kaddish – alone – I noticed my desire to call Mr. 700 Miles, the “man” who slipped out of my life without a word a little over two months ago.

I remember him telling me he moved home to be with his mother when she was dying – 18 or so years ago.  That he thought about her every day.  That he wasn’t done learning the lessons she had to teach him.  That she and I were kindred spirits.

I think I should call him, because he knows what this is like.  Even more so.  But so do many of my other friends.

I do not call him.  Or them, either.

Pam responds with a gentle, loving “duh,” and suggests that perhaps I nudged out my grief with incongruent affections for the Southern Svengali – another man who swept me off my feet.  This time in Charleston, where my birth mother lived.  While she was dying.

I consider this.  That it might be true.

I couldn’t grieve.  I didn’t have the space, the energy or the capacity for it.

I hadn’t even grieved the end of my marriage.  Or the life I knew for 15 years that I had driven away from in a 14-year-old Honda Civic just a few months prior.  And I continued not to grieve it until only recently – slotting in affections with woefully unavailable men instead.

I consider that I didn’t believe I was allowed to grieve.

Finding my biological mother and father, and having relationships with them, was at times painful and disruptive to my family.  Over the years I have tried to minimize that pain by minimizing how much I talk about them.  About those relationships.

And so, I did not much talk about my feelings with my family — or with anyone else — when my birth mom died.  I talked about the Southern Svengali, and later Mr. 700 Miles, instead.

A year later, these distractions have long since lost their efficacy.

I cannot thread my sadness through another man.  I need to be with it.  And perhaps, for the first time ever, I do not want to run from it.

Tonight I  have a space and a ritual to honor this loss.  By myself, and in community, all at once.

And I understand why I am here.

I text Mr. Fashion when I get home, like I promised I would.  He asks if I would like to get together.  I decline.  I have no desire to distract myself from these feelings.

I ask him for a rain check, which he graciously offers – along with the promise that he will hold me to it, and some other things that I will keep just for myself.

I just smile and let myself feel it.  All of it.

Artist Date 47: Holding On To That Bull For 8 Seconds

I drive a 13-year-old Honda Civic Hatch DX.  They don’t make my car anymore.  From time to time I find a note on the windshield, someone offering to buy it.

In the glove box, in the side pockets, and behind the cup holders are stacks of CDs.

I grabbed them, haphazardly, when I left Seattle.  Three Dog Night.  Basia.  Mazzy Star.  Those were my ex’s.  Donna Summer, Stevie Wonder and Torch Song Trilogy are mine.  As is a disco mix my friend DJ Andy T made for me.

basiaI can listen to them over and over again without growing bored.  Singing along.  The familiar words keep me awake while driving long stretches.  Keep me from my thoughts.

And then I hit a wall.  Pulling out disc after disc as I make my way down Lake Shore Drive, looking for something I want to hear.   I come up empty.  No more Bonnie Raitt.  Annie Lenox.  Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.  No more Dire Straits.  No more Gipsy Kings.

My destination for this week’s Artist Date – 47 – was easy.  To Laurie’s Planet of Sound on Lincoln Avenue.

I pass by here almost daily.  There is a white board outside with new arrivals written in dry-erase magic marker.  There are t-shirts in the window.  And inside there are records, books and CDs.  I can tell from peeking in, but I’ve never been inside.  Until Friday.  And then, just for a moment.

There is a hipster man-boy at the register.  Big curly hair, plaid button-up shirt and chunky, nerd glasses.  We nod at one another.  I think John Cusack, High Fidelity.

elvis costello

I am holding The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions CD.  $6.99.  I used to have this on cassette.  I remember singing along with Elvis to “Alison,” “Pump it Up,” and “Every Day I Write the Book.”  I remember my high-school crush giving me grief for buying “best of” albums.

My phone rings.  It is a call I have been expecting from a friend and mentor.  I drop the CD back in the bin and walk outside.  I will return later for it.

But I don’t.  During the course of our call, I find out she is moving away.  The stars have aligned and a “not-to-be-missed” opportunity has been presented to her family.  I am the first person she has told.

I am delighted for her.  And I feel the loss inside of me too.  I am acutely aware that our relationship will change.  I am tired of change, I think.  And yet, when things stay the same, I am restless and bored.

We finish our call and I go to Paciugo for gelato.  I order a piccolo cup – toasted coconut, sea-salt caramel, and cinnamon – and eat it walking home.  The sun is shining and the air is cool.  I am wearing gloves.  I tell myself I will go back to Laurie’s later.

But I don’t.

A friend comes over, and later, when I drive her home, she asks if I am looking forward to my Friday night alone.  Sometimes I do.  Especially this time of year, when night comes early and my radiator-heated apartment feels toasty.

I do not feel this way tonight.  I tell her so, bursting into tears.  By the time I pull over to her apartment I am sobbing uncontrollably in her arms.

I am so lonely.  She holds me.

I have been on the verge of tears all week.  This is not entirely unexpected.

Perhaps it’s because my ex-boyfriend – the one I always sort of held out hope for and thought “maybe one day…”– got engaged.

Perhaps it is because my friend and mentor is moving.  Or because I have begun to look for work in earnest, for the first time in 12 years.

Perhaps it is because I chatted online with my ex-husband today and that always kind of throws me off my square.

Or maybe it is because it is the first week in November.  That it’s just that way right now.  I don’t know.  I’m not sure that it matters.

All I know is going home by myself, to myself, is a really bad idea.  I know I won’t cook or write or take a bath.  I am pretty certain I will do something not helpful, like look up old lovers on Facebook.

I don’t feel like going back to Laurie’s either.  I don’t want to hear the chatter in my head.  And I don’t want to talk about it.  There is nothing more to say.  And knowing that is really something of a miracle.

Dallas_Buyers_Club_posterDallas Buyers Club is playing at the Century Theatres.  If I drive fast I can make the 8:30 show.  I make a beeline and arrive with time to spare.

I buy a ticket and claim a seat on the end.  I lay my coat on the seat next to me, joining the one belonging to the man sitting two to my right.  He is also alone.

I think about Tony, my first close friend diagnosed with AIDS.  I remember him cutting my hair in his kitchen and doing me up like a drag queen, full-well knowing I would never wear my hair like that.  But it makes him happy.  I remember smoking pot with him and eating empanadas in Detroit.  I remember that AZT made his mouth taste like metal and put him in a cranky mood.

But mostly, I get lost in the story unfolding in front of me.

I forget that Matthew McConaughey is Matthew McConaughey and not Ron Woodruff – a red-neck, homophobic, drug-addicted Texan diagnosed with AIDS.  I open my heart to this man who lived seven years instead of 30 days.

This man who befriended a card-shark, drag queen named Rayon.  Who smuggled non-FDA approved treatments into the United States for his Dallas Buyers Club.  Who in helping himself, helped others.

I cry watching him hold on to that bull for eight-seconds.  (See the movie.  You’ll understand.)  I cry when the screen goes black and silent white letters report his death.  Even though it isn’t a surprise.

I have gotten caught up in someone else’s story instead of my own.  It is what I had hoped for.

Driving home, I feel just a little bit better.  But I am still holding on by my fingernails.  Like a newly sober alcoholic counting the minutes before bed – congratulating himself and thanking God for making it through another day without drinking.

Holding on to that bull for eight seconds.  Holding on.