Artist Date 96: Kind of a Big Shot

The Three Graces. Ethel Stein. 1995
The Three Graces. Ethel Stein. 1995

I used to use the Birchwood Kitchen as my office away from my office.

It was at the center of where I often found myself when I was neither at home nor at work.  For the cost of an iced tea (and sometimes not even that, as I was a “regular” and often received drinks and desserts “on the house”) I had a place where I could check my emails, do some writing, take meetings or just stop and sit in between where I was and where I was going.

Sometimes the Art Institute feels like that too.  Like today — Artist Date 96.

I’m sitting in the member lounge drinking puerh ginger tea and checking Facebook on my phone.  Behind me, a couple is telling the bartender their story.  It appears they met online — he is from London — and they are meeting now for the first time.  Perhaps not now exactly — but this day, this week, this visit.  It sounds crazy and exciting.  I wonder how it will all turn out.  I wonder if the bartender wonders, or if she is even listening.

My ex-husband used to love to come here because it made him feel just a little bit like a big shot.  Flashing his card and drinking free coffee.  And hey, who doesn’t like to feel just a little bit like a big shot every once in a while.

I suppose in some small way, that is what membership is about.  A reward for faithfulness and patronage.  Be it a free beverage, a bag with a logo, discounts or a place to stop in between here and there.  And when done well, evokes a sense of identity and belonging.  “One of us.”

It whispers to my unrealized teenage dream of attending art school, which at the time, I thought was the only way to be an artist.  (I was wrong.)

I am reminded of this as I make my way downstairs to the Edith Stein: Master Weaver exhibit.

The exhibit is small, and there is just one other person in the gallery viewing the work.  (There are two Art Institute employees here also — one of them, in my opinion, talking too loudly.)

It doesn’t move me in quite the way I had hoped.  I imagined my internal seven-year-old, the one who made potholders on a plastic loom with loopers, awakened, inspired to create.  Instead, I am completely enchanted by this 90-something-year-old woman.

Trained in sculpture, she turned her attention to textiles when she was in her 60s.  A video loops over and again, showing her working in the studio — clad in heavy sneakers, mixing dye in a pot on top of the stove and immersing wool yarn into it as if it was pasta.

I sit on the bench in the center of the room, watching the short film several times.  It is both soothing and inspiring.  I want to be like her.  Still working, still passionate, respected, at the top of her game.

I want to be like her when I am in my 90s.  I want to be like her now.

Working.  Passionate.  Respected.

At the top of my game.

A little bit of a big shot.

It begins with working.

Advertisements

Artist Date 94: Do Something(s)

strongherA month has passed since I returned home from my solo sojourn to Italy.  It feels like forever ago.

Life comes on — quickly, strong, demanding — and I struggle to hold on to the peace and freedom I felt abroad.  The joy in getting lost, not knowing the answer — or sometimes even the question, in being alone.  My face looks pinched — the wrinkle between my eyebrows, smoothed by Umbria, has returned.

The decisions I made, the desires of my heart — to live overseas, to publish a book (or more to the point, to be published) — begin to slip into the category of “all talk.”

I recently read that most people would prefer to fail by not trying than fail by trying.  I get it.  I understand.  I wish I didn’t.

And so I find myself at Pizzeria Sera on a Tuesday night listening to six women tell stories about how and where and when they found confidence — hoping to be inspired, or at the very least, to borrow some — Artist Date 94.  The monthly event, called About Women, is the brainchild of my friend Nikki Nigl.  A force of confidence, not to mention nature, in her own right.

The mere decision to be here bolstered mine some, helping move me forward in the hours before arriving.

Sitting at the computer, doing nothing but waiting for something to happen, I mutter, “Do something.  Anything.”

I write an email and send it off.  (Two somethings.  Write — one.  Send — two.)  A few lines to the sister of a friend of a friend who just returned from Spain, where she taught English for several years.  I ask if she might meet me for coffee and share her experiences — how she got there, what it was like.

I tell myself it is something.  It is enough and move on with my day — meeting with my rabbi a final time before he leaves our congregation.  We talk about his departure, my desires, and deciphering the will and whim of the universe.  Especially when it seems to only speak in whispers.

It feels like a game of telephone and I constantly wonder if I’m hearing it right.

Until I get to the parking lot, into my car and check Facebook.

“Anyone want a job in Portugal NOW?”

The post describes an academic coach position at a school outside of Lisbon.  Scrolling down, I am tagged.  “Lesley Pearl, could it be you?”

My heart swells, leaps.  Not because I believe I will get the job and move to Portugal (although I might), but because the universe seems to be speaking loudly, clearly — the message undeniable,”Yes, Lesley, it is possible.”

Settled at home, I write a response.  It begins, “Yes.”  (Three somethings.)  Shortly thereafter, I am Skype-ing with a teacher at the school in Portugal, the one who extended the possibility, dangled the carrot — gathering more information.  (Four.)

Turns out I’m right on course, so say an advertising executive, a scientist, a minister, a mud wrestler, a mother and a writer — this month’s About Women storytellers.  While the details differ, at the core of each woman’s parable is fear — and the decision to do “it” anyway.  Ask for a raise.  Leave a job.  Leave a husband.  Take an improv class.  Ride a roller-coaster.  Pet a dog.  Live as an outsider.

Each took action when the pain of inaction became too great. Was no longer an option.  Or when “the worst that could happen” seemed less scary than living with “what if” and “I coulda.”  And their confidence blossomed.

“Stop focusing on the heart-pounding, vomit-inducing, brick-shitting aspect of everything and start focusing on the payoff,” Kira Elliot — a personal trainer, mud wrestler and Mary Kay Sales Director — says from the stage.  “Pretend until the point of no return…then reap the rewards.”

Amen.

Post Script.  Three days after the event, I send a resume and cover letter to the school in Lisbon.  I am amazed to see the resistance in myself.  Fear masquerading as logic and practicality.  It feels “heart-pounding, vomit-inducing and brick-shitting.”  I fazê-lo de qualquer maneira.  (That’s Portuguese for “I do it anyway.”)

Hacked

hey“Hey.”

I’ve been waiting nearly six months for this.  Not this exactly.  But something like it.

Not waiting exactly.  I stopped doing that, having expectations, a long time ago.  But those close to me assured me I would hear something – some sort of word or gesture or acknowledgment – someday.

Tuesday is someday.

I am leaving dinner with my girlfriends at the Birchwood Kitchen.  Lindsey and I are considering going to Martyrs to hear an Afro-Caribbean band.  Our friend Toast has put us on the guest list.

I look down at my phone.  There’s a Facebook message.  It is from Mr. 700 Miles.

My heart stops.

Mr. 700 Miles.  The first man who ever walked out of my life without a word.  (Strangely, I have had this experience twice now.  I’m certain there is some sort of lesson in here I haven’t yet mastered.)

A man I grew up with but didn’t really know.  He lives about 700 miles from Chicago – ergo the name.

He was going through a divorce when we reconnected on Facebook.  I was on the other side of mine.  Our stories were remarkably similar.  Very quickly, an intimacy blossomed between us – first in status updates.  Then in private messages, telephone calls and Skype dates.

I was smitten.  I felt like I’d always known him.   And at the same time, like I’d been waiting my whole life to meet him.

And then one day he was gone.  No call.  No text.  No Facebook message.

I reached out to him a single time – about five days after missing our Skype date – and left him a message telling him it was clear he couldn’t “do this.”  That I had no desire to convince him otherwise.  And that I was sad.  Sad we weren’t “doing this.”  But more than that, sad he couldn’t tell me.

I reminded him we were friends.  That we had always been friends.  I told him I wasn’t angry, and implored him to contact me.  To tell me what was going on for him.

Two hours later, when I hadn’t heard from him, I knew that I wouldn’t.

And then, Tuesday…”Hey.”

I looked up from my phone, leaned into Lindsey and said, “Let’s go hear music and dance.”  My reaction surprised me.

Once upon a time I would have freaked out.  I would have burst into tears.  Or worse, burst into drama.

Once upon a time I would have dashed home (no mind that I had other plans) and called or messaged him and waited for his reply.  Or if I did go out, I would check my phone all night.  Or at the very least, I would talk about it, about him, and nothing else – all night.

That’s not what happened.

Instead, I sent a text to a mentor and friend who knows every intimate detail of the story of Mr. 700 Miles.  I let her know I had received his message.  That I was going to hear music with Lindsey.  And planned to do nothing until morning.

And Lindsey and I did talk about it, about him – some.  And we talked about other things too.

She marveled at my calm.  I felt empowered.

“I’ve been ‘waiting’ six months.  He can wait a night.  Let him squirm.”

These are not my words.  But there they were.

And then we danced.  At times, we were the only ones on the floor.  I felt confident and sexy.  I wondered if the bass player was single.  I did not check my phone a single time.

Around 10:30, we left.

When I arrived home, I went to his Facebook page.  Some wise, intuitive part of me guided me there.  His status read, “I was hacked please don’t open messages.”  (No punctuation.)

My heart sank a little.  Not because I wanted him “back.”  Not because I still wanted to “do this.”  Because I thought I might get an answer.  A courtesy.  Because I thought my friends might be right.

Because I thought he might prove to be closer to the man I thought he was, instead of the frightened boy he turned out to be.  Because I missed my friend.

But in that sinking, I recognized a victory.  A miracle, really.  My response, or lack thereof.  And it was all mine, regardless of who reached out to me, Mr. 700 Miles or his Hacker.  I acted different.  I was different.  I didn’t try to be.  I just was.

I didn’t just feel empowered, I was empowered.  I didn’t just feel confident and sexy, I was confident and sexy.

And I did not check my phone a single time.

Choosing To Be A Lesbian Alcoholist

Patsy and I in Israel, nearly 20 years ago.
Patsy and I in Israel, nearly 20 years ago.

 

The last time I saw Patsy was at my wedding – nearly 13 years ago.  She officiated, combining Jewish, Hindu, Native American and British elements into a ceremony that spoke to both of our hearts and sensibilities.

I spoke to her yesterday for the first time in more years that I can count – not quite 13, but far too long.

We talked about Mickey – her mom – who had just died and what that felt like for her.  About meeting in Israel on a press trip nearly 20 years ago.  And so much of what had happened in the in between.  Things we caught in passing, in pithy Facebook posts and the occasional email.

She had no real sense of what had happened between my ex and me.  Or even that I had (happily) given up the fight with alcohol nearly seven years ago.

And because she had not been with me for every step, every man, every tear and nuance of the journey – she saw the story, my story, far differently than me.  Her reflections were, in a word, a revelation.

She had recently asked me in an email if there was “someone special” in my life.

It was the question I have come to expect. To brace myself for. To both love and despise – as it can feel both hopeful and humiliating, depending on the day, my mood and the current state of my heart.

I told her that I did not. That it hurt my heart to write that.

I told her about the suggestion that I not date for a year after my divorce. How that was pretty easy as no one was really asking. (Which is not exactly true. More to the point would be, no one I was interested in was asking.) And how that year had come and gone.

I told her I had met some extraordinary men, experienced some wonderful emotional intimacy and some wonderful romance.  But none had been truly available for one reason or another.

I told her I am online, like every other schlub, although it is not how I imagine meeting someone. And to keep me and my big, juicy, open heart in her thoughts and manifestations.

It was “my story.” The one I tell myself. The one I tell here.

Yesterday, she helped me tell the next chapter. It had a decidedly different feel.

I told her about the “romantic friendship” with my spiritual-traveling twin. About the man nearly 13 years my junior, who has been dancing around me (and me, him) for some months, and our breakfast date that morning. And about a similar dance I have been doing with a man who looks a lot like Daniel Day Lewis – my ex’s doppelganger.

I told her about the friend who continues to tell me, “I’m still interested.” How my feelings remain platonic. And that I have no desire to try to “make them” otherwise.

And I told her about a new man – the chef – who I actually did meet online. We’ve had just a few dates, and my feelings feel “right sized.” He is easy to talk to and I have fun spending time with him. I find him attractive and I like how he kisses.

“I think you are very genuine,” he blurted across the table a few nights ago. I like that too. Because it is kind and observant, but mostly because it is true.

Patsy replied, “You ARE dating a lot of men right now. You are having fun. You just haven’t settled on one.”

It was true. It IS true. It sounds different from “I am still not in a relationship,” even though the actual details are the same. And it feels different.

She added that in the nearly 20 years she has known me, that I have always had men in my orbit. Always. That I have always been attractive to men. Always.

This was news. I had not seen it that way.

Seems I have spent the past 30-plus years mostly noticing the time in between. The times of breakup and/or longing. And believing that everyone else was constantly in relationship – meaningful relationship – and wondering why I was not.

She reminded me of the other chef. The one I dated before my ex-husband.

And I recalled the hotel bartender in Israel who suggested I show him the pictures in my room. When I replied, “I think you’ve seen all the pictures in all of these rooms,” he asked if I was a lesbian. Earlier he had asked if I was “an alcoholist,” as I turned down a drink.  Close enough.

I chose an evening with my new press-trip friends (among them, Patsy) over an overseas fling, and a good story to be certain. I chose to be the lesbian alcoholist.

And in that recalling, I saw myself as Patsy saw me. (And likely, many others.) Attractive. Discerning. At choice. I have always been at choice…in relationships. And now, in how tell my story.

 

 

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.

Artist Date 81: I Could Swim In Your Voice. And Drown In My Own.

With storytellers Carmen and James.  Carmen with trophy from the Dollar Store for Best Story of the Night.
With storytellers Carmen and James. Carmen holding Dollar Store trophy for Best Story of the Night.

I am nearly seven years sober and I am sitting in a bar by myself.  On its face, this does not sound like a good thing.  Except that it is a very good thing.

I’m at Story Club – a monthly “live literature” event where three featured performers tell true-life stories, and three audience members, invited up at random – their names pulled from a monkey carved out of a coconut, the words “Have Fun” scrawled onto the base – do the same.   Artist Date 81.

My feet are slick with massage oil and slosh around in my orange peep-toe wedges.  My head throbs, a reminder of the two cysts I had removed from my scalp just this morning.

I take a seat at a table up front, and immediately wonder if I should sit on a stool at the bar instead – where “singles” sit.  Even though I have trouble seeing and hearing and engaging when I am that far from the stage.

I wonder if I should see if I can join another party of one at one of the banquettes against the wall.

I wonder if it is ok to take up this much space – me alone.  It is a question that has haunted me my entire life.

I stay at the table, order a club soda with lime juice, pull out my reading glasses and dive into my book.

I am sitting at a bar alone with a club soda and a book.

At the table to my right, a gaggle of girls talk about San Francisco.  About writing.  And about a secret Facebook group of women writers – 26,000 strong.

I want to tell them I used to live in San Francisco.  That I too have been wooed into the fold of these female wordsmiths.  That they both excite and frighten me.  And that I’m not even sure how I came to know them.  But I say nothing.

My name is pulled from the coconut monkey – the first of the evening.  I climb to the stage, take a breath and begin reading…”The waxy brown cotton of my lapa feels soft between my fingers.  Like my body.  Like my heart.”

My voice is sing-song-y and gentle.  A heightened version of what I call my massage voice.  It is sweet and loving, lilting and melodic.  It tells you the things you wish your mother had told you.  That you are human.  That you are lovely.  That you are good.

I hear my poetry professor Catherine Kaikowska reading her work – perched on top of a desk.  Her legs crossed, Diet Coke in hand.  Hair wild.  “Deja-rendevous. Deja rende, rendezvous.”  Hypnotic.  I could swim in her voice.

But I would like to drown my own.  I have fallen out of love with it.  My voice.  My story.  Just this moment.  I am bored with it.  All of it.

I have not written about love and pain and loss.  I have not written about sex.  I have written about my connection to my body, to my spirit.  It feels esoteric.  Less familiar.  Less sexy.

I have left out the juicy bits.  The part about tearing off my lapa – my West African dance skirt – and jumping into a pond naked with my crush after the sweat lodge.  The part about him plucking me out of the water – naked – when my strength failed me and I could not pull myself onto the high dock.

I have not written about any of it.  I have not given him a clever moniker and chronicled the story of my heart.  I have held it instead.  Held my heart.  Held my words.  It feels unfamiliar.  Untrue.  It is the story I am used to telling.

But tonight, James and Carmen tell it instead.

James (AKA GPA – Greatest Poet Alive) who has committed to memory the story of Maria breaking his 5th-grade heart when she circled “no” in response to the query in his note – “Will you be my girlfriend?  Yes?  No?”  Not even a maybe.  Not even a spritz of Geoffrey Beene’s Grey Flannel to the paper could sway her.

Carmen who invites us into her bedroom and her psyche at the moment when her friend with benefits asked her to talk dirty to him in Spanish.  Her words are funny and irreverent, honest and sad.  She rolls her Rs and says things like, “Aye, Poppi.”  She feels like a caricature.

They are storytellers.

I fear that I am not.  That I am only a writer.  At least right now.

Carmen – one of the gaggle of girls talking about San Francisco and the secret group of women writers – tells me otherwise.  As does James, when we gather together after the final performance.

My story is lush, he says.  That he closed his eyes while I read.  Listened to my words.  Let my voice paint the pictures for him.

He let my lilting, sing-song-y massage voice – the voice that tells you that you are human, that you are lovely, that you are good – my storyteller’s voice, tell him a new story.

Artist Date 74: Letting Go of The Ghosts

cicada

 

It is Saturday.  My friend Amy has invited me to see the world premiere of Cicada at the GreenHouse Theatre – Artist Date 74.  It has been a labor of love – hers and others – for three years.  She has asked all of her friends to bring their friends.  To spread the word.

I say “yes” to the first part, “no” to the second – honoring my commitment to my weekly solo date.  To myself.  And write it in my calendar in pen.

But now I want to change my mind.  I want to see a boy.

He is young.  Younger.  He visited my OKCupid profile.  I visited his.

He reminds me of Mr. 700 Miles – my last love, my last heartbreak.  Right down to the part where he moved home to be with his mother when she was ill.  That’s the part that really knocked me out about 700 – his seeming unselfishness and big, shiny heart, which he proudly wore on his sleeve.

It is flawed from the start and I know it.  Making contact because he reminds me of someone I used to love.  Someone I am trying to let go of and clearly have not entirely because I am still writing about him.  Because I am attracted to someone who reminds me of him.

We exchange a few messages.  And then we talk.  He isn’t 700.  But I like his voice and there is something sweet and spiritual inside of him.  We talk about gratitude.  I tell him I’m sober – something I have consciously not mentioned in my most recent dating forays up until now, for no other reason than it is not yet germane.

We make a date for the following week, based on my schedule.  But I want to meet sooner.  I think of inviting him to the play with me, reasoning that I sometime go to events with others and still count it as my weekly Artist Date.  Even though it isn’t.

But I know this isn’t the answer.

I meet him in the afternoon instead.  Prior to the play, when a client cancels.  We go for a walk at the lake.  I tell him I had thought of inviting him to the play but didn’t – explaining the ritual and commitment of my weekly Artist Date.  He says he wouldn’t have gone, he wouldn’t want to get in between me and me.  My words, not his.

I had the same experience with 700 in January when I let it slip I would skip my Artist Date to talk with him on the phone for the first time.  He said he would feel horrible if I missed the movie I was planning to see and suggested I call him later – which I do.

It is astonishing how quickly I will abandon myself.

——————–

It is a story about holding on.  And letting go.  About memory.  Identity.  The stories we repeat.

Conversations with ghosts that allow us to live on with those no longer present.  Some haunting and angry.  Some decidedly sweet and tender.

I think about my own ghosts.  About serendipity – the times 700 has recently “showed up.”

An invitation he sent months ago to download Facebook Messenger pops up on my phone without cause or reason – his name and profile picture announcing the old request.

The license plate frame on the car in front of me, from a car dealership in the town where he lives – a village of only 5,000.

I whisper, “Are you there?”  Sometimes I swear I can feel him.  I wonder if he is thinking of me in those moments.  I like to think so.

It hurts watching Amy, as Lily, struggle to let go of the one she loves best.

It is not a single action, letting go.  More a process.  A dropping off, bit by bit, until there is nothing left but the shell of what once was, and you don’t even notice until someone asks you about it.

Like when I went to the Facebook page of the Southern Svengali for the first time in months, and saw he was living in Boston.  How could I not know?  And how is it, I could not care?  I was happy for him.  For the work he was doing.  But I was not affected by it.

——————–

Two days later I cancel my second date with 700 Stand In.

I am overwhelmed.  I am working three jobs.  Plus writing, dancing, and ostensibly looking for work.

I have not exercised since Sunday.  I am again sleeping less than six hours a night.  My apartment is a sty.

Something has got to give.  The choice is obvious.  I choose me.

I let the few other men I have been communicating with know I am on hiatus until June 12 – when my contract work is completed.  I give them my email address and I disable my OKCupid account.

I feel sad.  Like I have given away a puppy.  I forget doing what is right does not always feel good.

I know if I can let go of the attention, and the possibility of romance at least for now – the rest will drop off too.  Like it always does.  Until I don’t even think of it, think of him, until his name is mentioned.  And by then 700 miles is just a measurement of distance between here and there.