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.

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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.”