Surrender In A Box

My friend Cynthia has a God Can.  “Because God can,” she says.

I’m not quite that optimistic.

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My God Box.

I keep a God Box, instead – wooden and carved.  From Poland, I think.  My friend Patsy gave it to my ex and I as a wedding gift, stuffed with cards on which our guests might write their wishes for us.

I’ve used it as my God Box for a while now.  Long before my ex and I called it quits.

We moved the wishes into the bottom of a cherry-wood box holding black and white photographs of our big day.  Another gift from another friend.  I think I tossed the wishes in the recycle bin when I left Seattle a year and a half ago, but I’m not entirely certain.

Over the years I’ve stuffed the God Box with dreams, wishes and, perhaps most importantly, people and situations over which I have no control.  Which is pretty much everything and everyone…but in this case, those that caused me pain, anxiety, obsession.

Slips of paper and folded-over sticky notes with names.  Occasionally a few details.

My birth mother – she would have jumped into my skin if I would have let her.  In the early days of our reunion, she would call so often I didn’t have a chance to call back.

My mad crush in marriage – the one who bought me a whole smoked-salmon on my 39th birthday and nodded knowingly to seemingly every word I said.  My guru – the man who held space for everything that poured out of me.  Who saw me, was charmed by me, and knew how to hold a boundary.

I desperately wanted to keep each of them.  For each to fall into his or her proper place in my life.  That was my prayer.  To hold them near.  Available.  But without the pain of longing and attachment.

All that has come to pass...
All that has come to pass…

The Southern Svengali.  The man/boy who swept me off of my feet when my birth mom was dying in Charleston.  My divorce buddy – the one who spent long, intimate hours on the phone with me every night but insisted he did not have romantic feelings for me.

Orders to the universe.  For my condo, my apartment, my office.  Notes for a workshop I have yet to conduct.  Questions.  Who would drive back with me from Seattle to Chicago?  A dollar bill.   A prayer for prosperity.

I opened up the god box the other day and put a new slip of paper in it.

The name of a man 700 miles away.  Last week I told him I could no longer ponder the possibilities of a romantic relationship with him.   That he wasn’t available enough to me.  And I was no longer available for the knot in my stomach I called uncertainty.

That pain moved from my stomach to my heart.  I miss him.   I miss my heart leaping each time he calls or messages or just comments on my Facebook status – as if to say, “I see you.  I am here.”

What remains...God's work.
What remains…God’s work.

I wonder, will we be friends like we promised?  (I hope so.  We adore one another.)  But how?  How will he fall into his proper place in my life?While the box was open, I took out the mess of slips inside and read them.  I saw that most of these things had come to pass.  Had worked themselves out without my doing much of anything, other than writing words on slips of paper and stuffing them into a box.  And occasionally twisting, which I’ve learned is not essential to the process.

Most.  But some remained.  Unresolved.  Insistent questions about how I will support myself.  When, where and with whom I will have my next relationship, romantic encounter, date, sex, kiss.  Words cut out from a magazine, “dreams do come true…”  I left them in the box, along with the newest addition.

I’m not sure what to do with those that have come to pass.  Do I keep them as a reminder that things change — with or without me?  That new loves, losses and worries displace the old ones.  That more often than not, I receive some sort of version of what I want? Or do I burn them — as a prayer and an offering?

Meanwhile, there is a little more space in my God Box — room for my work, money and romantic possibilities to grow.  Room for God to work on them.  Room for me to act as if I believe that God is working on them — which is me doing my work.  Writing rather than worrying.  Right now.

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Artist Date 62: Standing On…? Wondering Where I Am.

"Love is Pain." Artist, Judith Hladik-Voss.
“Love is Pain.” Artist, Judith Hladik-Voss.

Love is pain.

That is what the quilt says.  Right in the center on a big red heart.  All around it are stages, stops – like on a game board.  Candy Land or Risk.  Yeah, Risk.

Love.  Joy.  Desire.

Trust.  Faith.  Intimacy.

Jealousy.  Anger.  Betrayal.

Heartbreak.  Wound.

Anxiety.  Disillusion.  Despair.

Loss.  Grief.

It is Valentine’s Day.  I am at the Greenleaf Art Center for the exhibit – Be Mine.  I am meeting my girlfriends here, but they are stuck in traffic.  So I am alone.  Impromptu Artist Date 62.  My second this week.

I step back and look at the quilt that greets me as I walk in the door, wondering where I am on it.

Joy.  Desire.

I met a man.  Or perhaps I should say, re-met.  We knew each other once upon a time.  Kind of.   We are getting to know one another – not quite again – but now, for the very first time.

He is smart and funny, creative, sensitive and sexy.  I’m pretty sure he feels the same way about me.  We can talk for hours about anything and everything.  We laugh a lot.  And I find myself smiling a lot.  Friends have noticed this.

There are about a thousand reasons why this will likely not work out and I will land on the square marked Heartbreak.  I occasionally visit Anxiety already.  I hate uncertainty.  But I can’t not see this through.  I want to find out about us.

Trust.  Faith.  I am trying to practice both in my life.  Not so much with him, but with the universe, my higher power.  Intimacy.  Yes.  We are building that — slowly.  He lives several states away, so we are forced to go at this pace.  Although the recent addition of Skype dates – we have one tonight – have added a heat to the flame.

I have not told him every single thing about me – emotionally vomiting, as if to say, “So can you handle that?”  And, obviously, I have not slept with him.  I haven’t led with my sexuality – my one-time calling card – either.  Refraining from saying things like, “I think about you bending me over the butcher block and hiking up my dress around my waist.”  I think them instead.

"Ungentlemanly Behavior."  Artist, Cathi Schwalbe.
“Ungentlemanly Behavior.” Artist, Cathi Schwalbe.

Loss.  Grief.  I still find myself here sometimes too.  Not as deeply entrenched as I once was.  I am no longer up to my knees in it.  I am standing in the sun, my feet wet, in a puddle left from the storm.

Post-divorce, grieving the loss of the fantasy, that that one person will be there no matter what.  Always.  That this love will quiet that part of me that silently screams “Don’t leave me.”  It is a lie.

Day one of my life on the planet.  Separated from my mother.  I do not recall a second of it.  Yet I know a part of my work here is to heal it.

I watch it get kicked up and manifest in unconscious, desperate attempts for control and certainty.  As if that will heal me.  But it doesn’t.  Neither did a husband.  Nor meeting my biological parents.  The work is mine alone.

I move on to a series of men’s shirt collars embroidered with real messages from the artist’s experiences with online dating.  “What kind of underwear girl are u?”  “Every young man want to get laid by a gray hair lady.” “You want a naughty pic?”  It reminds me I have not finished my Match.com profile.  And that I probably won’t.

There are maps covered with pins and handwritten notes.  Heart-shaped boxes filled with broken glass and newspaper clippings. A video of a woman covered in striped fabric dancing with a bee.

I return for a third time to a piece titled, “Love Letter.”  It is long and tall, like a body.  With hair at the top, words winding down the center, like buttons, and rocks circling the bottom.  The artist, Sherry Antonini writes, “Love Letter is a meditation on listening inward and noticing outward; on persistence and on beginning again with what is left over.”

I read the poem running down her torso again.  It is still too much to take in.  So I photograph it – in pieces.

“Keep time.  But throw away most other things, including reasons to worry…Watch for signs, however small.  Push through with ideas, envisioning them as even bigger than you think they deserve to be.  Do this until you can once again see yourself shine…

"Love Letter."  Artist, Sherry Antonini.
“Love Letter.” Artist, Sherry Antonini.

“Make a list of the things you hold at core.  Those essences nearly forgotten, cast aside for too long…Months or years it is that you have been bound tight and stilled, silenced in some darkness.  But the beauty of light is insistent…

“First, you fill up a room, then you empty it, one piece at a time and all in its right time.  No one can tell you not to.  Or that you can’t.  That you never will.  Or won’t ever again.

“When you rotate the stones point them in line with your heart’s desire, you put your hands once again on your own gleam of power and touch possibility.”

I head toward the front door as my friends are entering.  Unplanned.  Serendipity.  I meet them, filled, spilling over.  Love.  Joy.  And later, this man who makes me smile big, on Skype.  He notices my grin and tells me he likes it.  I read him the poem, still trying to sort my way through it.  Intimacy.  Faith.  Desire.

Artist Date 50: When the Messenger is Hot

My friend Betsy gave me a book of hers a few days after I turned 40 – one that she wrote, as opposed to one that once upon a time made a difference in her life but is now collecting dust on the shelf.  Just after I told her about my crush on a mutual friend of ours.

when the messenger is hotI told her that I was committed to the commitment of my marriage.  That I loved my husband.  That we had grown in wildly different directions, and were continuing to do so.

That I would see this other guy, our mutual friend, every Saturday morning in a church basement, where we would sit across the table from one another.  That he was funny and smart, a writer.  That he spoke my brand of crazy, which meant that when I talked, he would nod in that knowing way.  The same way I nodded when he spoke.

That I was pretty sure he liked me after he brought me an entire smoked salmon for my 39th birthday.  And that I liked him.  (Blog: I Think the Fish Guy Likes Me)

Or perhaps I just liked the way he made me feel.  Seen.  Heard.  Understood.

Betsy made a happy-sad face and told me the story of When the Messenger is Hot.

I’m standing in The Brown Elephant thrift store in Andersonville – Artist Date 50.  Her book of short stories by the same name stares back at me from the shelves of fiction.

I smile a big toothy grin.  It’s some sort of message, I think.  Which is really the crux of the When the Messenger is Hot.

That people, objects, and experiences come into our lives for a reason.

Sometimes their appearance, or disappearance, is painful.  Sometimes it looks nothing like what we imagined.

And sometimes, according to Betsy, God provides a pretty attractive delivery vehicle to make certain we pay attention.  In her case, a bad boy with the heart of a poet and a tattoo on the inside of each of his wrists, Chinese symbols for “child of God.”

She thought he might be the love of her life.  Or at least great sex.  Instead, she came to see him, and their single date – which she rated among her top 5 – but never led to another, as a template of what a date should look like – “…love songs and flowers and candles and lollipops.”  A reason to have faith.  A harbinger of things to come.

I’m still not sure what message the Fish Guy came to deliver me.  That there are attractive men all around who will bring me clever and intimate gifts that say, “I know you?”  (Because really, I don’t know any women other than myself who would swoon over a piece of fish.)  That my then-husband wasn’t the only one?  My own harbinger of things to come?

That my brand of crazy really isn’t so crazy?  That that “too much” that I fear being, really isn’t too much?

The Fish Guy moved away from Chicago – to Florida, so he could fish.  Seriously.  But the message of When the Messenger is Hot stuck with me.

The words became my shorthand for meeting someone seemingly special and not getting what I thought I wanted.  And an opportunity to look for lessons where I thought there might be love.

The teacher who taught me about spiritual intimacy through shared prayer and meditation, and long conversations about God.

When I was the muse.
When I was the muse.

The Southern Svengali who taught me about creative companionship.  What it was to be inspired by another, to have a muse.  And to be a muse.

The divorce buddy who taught me about unconditional love and friendship.  Who packed my car and drove me home from the West Coast to Chicago, even when things were awkward and clunky between us.

I think about buying Betsy’s book, just because it is here.  Even though I already have a copy.  Even though I have sent copies to several of my friends.  But I leave it.

I pick up a collection of short stories titled Tongue Party, and a hardback copy of Like Water for Chocolate, both for $1.37, instead – curious what messages they will deliver.

Artist’s Date 24: Finding “Epic” Acceptance

epic flyingWhen I was about eight, my parents took me to see The Black Stallion at the Keego Theatre, a movie house where they played second-run shows for a buck.

Onscreen, a storm is raging.  Passengers of a luxury liner jump into life rafts.  A young boy cuts free an agitated, tied-up horse, and it leaps from the boat.  The horse’s angry owners hold the boy at knife point before he is flung into the dark, choppy waters.

I am hysterical.  Sobbing.  Unable to catch my own breath.  I do not know the horse will rescue the boy.  That the story is just beginning.

My mother pinches me under the arm.  “Do we have to go out to the car?” she asks.

My feelings are too big for my family.  This is what I believe, true or not.

It is why I often watched television upstairs in the guest room, alone – my emotions leaking out with Folgers commercials and documentaries on PBS.  It was a source of teasing – mostly good-natured – in my family.  But I was too sensitive to realize it.

Sitting in the Davis Theatre watching Epic – Artist’s Date 24 – I remember all of this.  The fear.  The anxiety.  The shame that is tied to these feelings.  I am experiencing it now.

I’m old enough to know that good will prevail.  This is a PG movie.  I know that the Leafmen will “win,” that the pod will bloom in the full moon, that the forest will be saved.

And yet.

There’s this loud, foreboding music.   Crescendo rising.  Bats flying.  Forest dying.

The Images are dark.  Mandrake, nemesis of the forest, of life itself, wears a rat skin like a hooded cape.

I feel my heart quicken, a desire to turn my eyes away.  I am afraid.  I do not trust it will end well.

I am the only adult in the theatre without a child in tow and I feel a little bit self-conscious.  I retreat to my head.  Do the parents think I am suspect?  A child molester?  Why aren’t the children afraid like I am?

A dad ducks and scurries out, gripping two little hands, one in each of his.  Are they frightened?  Or do they have to pee?

epic flowersI saw the trailer for Epic a few weeks ago, on another Artist’s Date.  I was enchanted by its beautiful images – flower-people, with heads like cotton pom-poms, dandelions turned to seed.  Faces on sunflowers and gerbera daisies.  I was called by its questions about belief.

This is what brought me here, on a day I find myself emptied out, running on fumes – the promise of loveliness.  Of faith.  Of possibilities.  This is what I receive:

Professor Bomba’s unshakeable belief in something he can’t see, but only knows.  Like God.  Like Horton Hears a Who.  His willingness to be perceived as crazy.  His willingness to lose seemingly everything for his belief.

The Leafmen’s simple code, “Many Leaves.  One Tree. You are Never Alone.”

I learn that love can bloom riding gently on a deer.  And a pod that blooms in full-moon light is the source of all creation.  That hummingbirds make great horses, but common brown sparrows can do the job too.

I am reminded that relationships between fathers and daughters are sometimes hard.  And that it’s ok to hold on to someone you hardly know – if they offer you a hand or a torso and you need one.

That each of us has a purpose – even slugs and snails.  We might not know it.  Don’t always ask for it.  But we can embrace it.  And continue to put one foot in front of the other.

That life is about finding out what we are capable of.  How high we can jump to get ourselves out of a hole.  And that each of us can learn to fly.

That we all experience loss.  Of a parent.  Of a friend.

And that sometimes, love comes back – oftentimes in the most unorthodox and unexpected of ways.

Queen Tara’s energy, twinkling light like Tinkerbell, speaking to Ronin and to MK after she has left this-worldly plane.

MK’s reunion with Nod, straddling “normal” and Lilliputian-sized worlds for the promise of connection, of love.

I think of my own recent reunitings, seeing someones I never thought I’d see again … and then did.

The tears stream down my face.  Gratitude.  Beauty.  Joy.  I feel their salty release.   I notice them, like I notice the fear, and do nothing.  I let them roll off of me in the darkness.  I can sit with them.  They are not too much for me.

Artist’s Date 23: Seeing The Angels Who Have Stayed

The woman sitting next to me reeks.

Her two friends wave and come down the aisle to greet her.  One comments on how wonderful she smells.  She asks if it’s (insert name of fancy perfume here as I can’t remember it).  It is, she says, adding that she can only buy it in Paris now.  It’s no longer available in the United States.

“High class problems,” as my friend Dina likes to say.

She is coughing uncontrollably into a hanky.  Hacking,really.  She says she has been sick for weeks.  This is her first outing in as long as she can remember and she’s not even sure she can make it through the whole performance.

I am seething.  I say nothing.  I pray to myself, “Bless her.  Change me.”  My friend Dina taught me this too.  I say it like a mantra until the lights go down.

It is cold in here.  I pull on my wool hat.  It is May.

This is good.  I am not thinking about what I am going to write.  Not thinking that I have committed to 52 Artist Dates and that this is number 23.  I am simply “in it,” observing its smells, sounds, and temperature.

I am at Steppenwolf Theatre Company to see Head of Passes.  I’ve never been here before, but I know that it is a Chicago must – both a jewel and an institution.  The play has received good reviews.  Tickets were $20 plus a $7 handling fee on Goldstar.  When my friend Mimi called to cancel our plans, I took it as a sign and hit “purchase.”

head of passesOn the way here I have one of those “my life is really cool” gratitude moments.  I am driving to the theatre on a Thursday night, by myself, as casually as I might be driving to Trader Joes – as if “this is what I do.”  And it hits me, this IS what I do.  I fill my creative coffers every week.

They say it takes 30 days to create a habit.  I am only on day 23.

I pull into the garage as I realize I can’t feed the meters for the length of the performance.  $10.  A date would pay, right?  Why not me?  This has become my guiding principle – would someone who liked me do this for me?  If the answer is yes, I do too.  Another new habit.

The boy at will call is cute.  He hands me my ticket – second row, off-center to the right.  Awesome seats – illness and odor directly to my left notwithstanding.

The writing is good, rich with wonderful lines that make me laugh uncomfortably like, “Black people don’t like the rain.”  Another about the folly of loving something, someone, who is going to leave you.

Then I am full of folly.  My heart is big and shiny and open.  And someone is always leaving.  Through death, divorce, moving, changing.  I don’t take it as personally these days.  Not like when I was 18 and thought I was the only one experiencing the pain of loss.

I am sitting at my grandmother’s house with my mother and father.  They have come to visit me at university, and together we visit her, my father’s mother, who lives just a few miles away.  She and I are not close.

This visit is more painful than usual because the man I have lost my virginity to has left East Lansing for a spring internship in Illinois.  I am heartbroken.  He is gone.  He was never really there in the first place.  He is engaged, or engaged to be engaged, to a girl in his hometown.  I am not his only indiscretion.

My mother tells me these visits are hard for her too.  That she misses her own mother, my Nana.

“Everyone leaves me,” I sob, making it suddenly all about me.  Nana.  Bill, my red-headed Mr. Wrong.  My friends see him in the cafeteria and shake their heads.  They don’t see what I see.  He wanted me.  It was enough.

Selah laughs sweetly at the doctor – at his folly, for allowing himself to care for her, to be saddened by her imminent death.

But she doesn’t die.  Her children do – tragic, senseless deaths.  Two boys, now grown, delivered by the doctor. And a girl, also grown, brought to Selah as an infant by her husband, the father.

He reminds me of my red-headed Mr. Wrong.  He didn’t bring me a child, just a sexually transmitted disease.  I loved him anyway.  And Selah loved this girl, raising her as her own.

But first, the house collapses onto itself.  Onto Selah.

She emerges, covered in a white choir robe.  Her hair is closely cropped, like mine.  Her matronly dress and braided wig lost.  She is conducting church services – for herself, by herself.  She is the choir, the audience and the minister, all at once.  Her faith, if not her mind, intact.

In the final scene Selah slips back through the rabbit hole of sanity and out of the condemned house, assisted by a construction worker in a hard hat, a dead ringer for the angel who has visited her throughout the two acts.

I think of my own angels – the ones who have taken me by the elbow, guiding me out of my own mess, too many to name.   No longer focused on who has left – not even the woman to my left – I can clearly see who has stayed.