Artist Date 73: Navel Gazing

navelNavel gazing.

It is the story of my life.  Or perhaps it is just my fear.  That seemingly subtle line between interested self-awareness and narcissistic self-centeredness.

I begin blogging in 2012.  Dubious.  Wondering what, if anything, I have to say.  And who, besides myself and perhaps a few kind-hearted friends, would care.

The questions become irrelevant as life becomes more Technicolor than I am used to.  I have no choice.  I have to write.

About Rwanda.  My birth-mother’s death. Divorce.  Romance.  Healing.

The unexpected gift of my return to writing following a 15-year absence – what spurs me on in my early, tentative efforts and continues to spur me on today – is the return voices of others.  The sense of connection, and its immediacy, is a balm.

I feel seen.  Heard.  Supported.  And even, dare I say, useful.  It seems the words I give to my name my experiences are words others have struggled to find.

In time, I find the writing itself is healing.  That I am healing myself.

And yet I sometimes still wonder what, if anything, I have to say.

On occasion those closest to me take exception to my writing and I have to consider if what I have written is hurtful or dishonest.  If I have compromised their anonymity.  Their right to privacy.

And, when blog posts garner little response, I question if what I have to say is still relevant.  Interesting.  Of value.

Self-doubt.  It is the devil of all creatives.  Likely all people.  But for those whose very lifeblood is the exercise of expression through words or clay or paint or charcoal.  Violin, ballet or film.  It can kill – the art.  The process.  The artist.  Either metaphorically or literally.

Sunday – Artist Date 73 – is that kind of killer.

you feel so mortalI am invited to Megan’s house for a salon.  (Think 1920s Paris, the apartment of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.)  Her friend, Peggy Shinner will be reading from her recently published book of essays on the body, “You Feel So Mortal.”

Megan thinks I will enjoy the afternoon, both as a writer and a bodyworker.  And, she thinks I should perhaps meet Peggy.

Approaching Megan’s door I hear piano music blending with animated chit-chat.  Inside there is a table covered in finger foods.  Slices of grainy-European bread topped with slices of egg and watercress.  Cheeses, jams and chutneys.  Chocolate-covered fruit.  Elegantly-penned signs in front of each platter, describing its offering.

I make a cup of green tea and easy conversation with the handful of women I know.

Megan introduces Peggy and me, highlighting our shared status as writers and Jewish women.  She asks me about my writing.  I trip over myself, talking about my blog – life after divorce, not dating, Artist Dates, healing.  My proverbial elevator pitch in desperate need of revision, or at the very least practice.

I tell her I believe it might be a book.  She smiles.

Later, Megan summons us upstairs, inviting us to find a seat from a row of chairs.  Peggy comes to the front of the room, opens her book and begins to read.

“I have Jewish feet,” she reads, continuing on about her father’s and how they are the same.  Then digging deeper, she reads about Jewish genetics, especially as applied to feet.  And how it was used against her people, my people, in Nazi Germany.

Her story is bigger than just her feet.  Just her family.

I feel small.  Self-important.  Silly.  Why don’t I include research in my writing?  Facts.  Or history — like she does in another essay about her mother and her relation to Nathan Leopold, who with Richard Loeb, sought to commit the perfect crime.

In a Q and A session following the reading, Peggy specifically mentions her desire to reach beyond her own story.  To have a greater context.

I don’t buy Peggy’s book.  I say goodbye from a distance, a wave, mouthing the words “Thank you.”  I am in some sort of self-imposed shame spiral.

I come home and finish reading, “Seducing the Demon,” by Erica Jong.  I have forgotten how smart, sassy and irreverent she is.  Her casual use of “fuck” and “cunt.”  She is my hero.

The book includes an essay that Jong read on “All Things Considered” in 2006.  “On Being a Car Wreck” – a response to unfavorable reviews of this book.

“So, instead of seeing the review as a personal vendetta or sexist attack, I’m living with the fact that the critic simply thought my book sucked.  So how can I write a better one?

“…Become less self-centered…How do I get over myself?…I’ve always wanted to improve and evolve as a writer…I’ve finally, at age sixty-four, gotten to the point where I realized that there are lives and characters more interesting than mine…”

She was sixty-four.  I am just forty-four.  Plenty of time.

Artist Date 60: It’s In The Genes

The first thing my birth father told me was that we attended the same university.  The second thing was that he wouldn’t have gone there if timing were different.

It was the late 1960s.  The United States was fighting in Vietnam.  School kept him out of the draft.

Given his druthers he would have gone to New York to be a dancer.

I gasped.  My secret-private-fantasy-if-I-could-do-it-all-over career was to be a choreographer.

“It’s in the genes,” he said.

I am walking down Lincoln Avenue to the Old Town School of Music for First Friday – a monthly event of music, dance and community.  Tonight’s feature is a series of dance performances by students and instructors – tap, modern, Go-Go, Bhangra.  Artist Date 60.

I dance here every Sunday at noon.  Josh, Don and a couple of musicians whose names I can’t recall drum us through Idy Ciss’ nearly 90-minute West African class.  My church.  My masochistic joy.

I have been a consistent presence here for more than five years, and yet, I am nervous tonight.  Sixty solo dates consciously chosen, and, at times, I still feel conspicuously alone.

This is one of those times – coupled with self-conscious questioning if I’ve earned my seat at the table, or, on the waxed wood floor, as it were.  If I really am a dancer.  My musings seem self-absorbed and displaced as I am not performing today, only watching.  And yet, something is stirred in me.

My first dance performance.
My first dance performance.

A boy and a girl, about 9 or so, tap their way across the stage.  They are dressed to match in grey trousers and lavender shirts.  The boy is skinny and awkward and sweet.  One day he will know how to swing a woman around the floor, showing her who’s boss.  Quite possibly the sexiest gesture ever.  But not yet.

A group of tween girls perform a Bollywood dance, waving colored scarves.  The tiniest one slides into the splits.  Like when I was a cheerleader – too small to be on the bottom of the mount, too big to be on the top.  Kind of.  She is completely present and at ease in her body.  Each move seems effortless.  I am certain I neither looked nor felt that way.

I think about my single year of ballet lessons, taken in first grade with Mrs. Gantz, Who Likes To Dance.  That is what she called herself.  I don’t know why I didn’t continue.  Perhaps I didn’t like it.  It wasn’t easy.  Or I wasn’t that good.  Maybe I got bored.  I quit, setting in motion a pattern – with me opting out of piano, gymnastics and cheerleading later.

No one told me that only a few are truly, naturally brilliant.  Geniuses.  That the savant is rare.  That most of us mere mortals toil toward mastery.

The girls remind me of “the popular girls” I knew in junior high – the ones that took jazz and tap with a woman named Miss Barbara.  Strangely, I was talking about them last week.  About the time they invited me to the movies.  Just once.  In seventh grade.

I still remember the film – Young Doctors in Love.  A spoof on soap operas.  It was rated R.  And my mother didn’t allow me to go to R-rated movies.

Except this time she did.

Post-run, swing dancing.  Another cool moment with my mother.
Post-run, swing dancing with my mother.

I am fond of saying my mother’s “coolest moment ever” was when she took me to see Prince, The Time and Vanity 6.  It was pre-Purple Rain, when Prince was still dirty.  And I was in the sixth grade.

But the movie exception was pretty cool too.

I find myself thinking about nurture over nature.

About swing dancing in the kitchen with my mother.  And her jumping rope to the Pointer Sisters Jump!  About me wearing a pill-box hat with a feather and a veil to high school and her asking if I think that I am one of the Pointer Sisters.

I think about her childhood in Saginaw, Michigan, raised essentially by her maid, Mother Flora Hill.  About her Sunday mornings spent at Mount Olive Baptist Church – where she was almost baptized – and her summers at the congregation’s camp.  There is a photograph of her and my uncle – two toe-headed Jewish kids – in a sea of dark-skinned, smiling faces.  My mother loves sweet potato pie and knows all the words to Leaning on Jesus.

With my dance "partner" in Rwanda.
With my dance “partner” in Rwanda.

I think about her taking me to see Saturday Night Fever when I was in fourth grade because she wanted me to see the dancing.  (Her no R-rated movie rule conveniently overlooked.)  And about skating with my parents to Peaches and Herb on Tuesday nights at Bonaventure Roller Rink while most of my friends were tucked in at home.

I think about dancing with a troupe in Rwanda a few summers ago and their recognition that I could dance.  About the beautiful, bald man who gave me the eye that said, “Follow me.”  And I did.

Maybe the dance is in the genes.  Maybe it is inside a 1977 Thunderbird with an FM converter box – my mother’s car for as many years as I can remember.  It doesn’t really matter.  What does is, at the end of First Friday, when the brass band calls the audience up to dance, I go.  I quit quitting.  So I claim my space on the waxed wood floor.