Artist Date 103: Oh The Places You’ll Go

Backstage at the Museum of Contemporary Art
Backstage at the Museum of Contemporary Art

I don’t want to go.  I never want to go.

Artist Date “Dirty Little Secret” — I almost never want to go.  The same way I never want to get on a plane to somewhere I’ve never been before.

I do when I book the flight or when I make the reservation for a performance or workshop.  But when the actual time comes, I feel anxious and sick inside.

Like the first time I went to Europe.  The German Consulate in San Francisco sent me.  Lufthansa Business Class.  Four and five-star hotels in Bonn, Berlin and Dresden.  (Or as luxury as was available in Dresden in 1995.)  Access to end of World War II commemoration events where I spied Helmut Kohl, Al Gore and Francois Mitterand.

But I am at the airport in San Francisco, talking with my friend Peg from a payphone — in tears.

Ten years later I am on my way to France, by myself.  This time it is my husband and a cell phone.

And to Italy this past fall.  From Chicago O’Hare.  I call my girlfriends in quick succession.  Ann, Julie, Lynn, Chase.  No tears this time.  Just an overwhelming sense of dread.

Each time, I am anxious with uncertainty.  Anxious, that I don’t speak the language — German, French, Italian — that I won’t understand.  That I will feel foolish.  That I will fail.

My fears are not baseless.  Each time I depart the plane, I don’t speak the language — not fluently.  Just a little French.  A little Italian, leaning heavily on my high-school Spanish.  And German, none at all.

I often don’t understand.  And I sometimes feel foolish.  But I never fail.  Mostly because it is impossible to fail at traveling.  Unless one fails to get on the plane.

It is the same walking into the Museum of Contemporary Art for a flamenco workshop — Artist Date 103.

I am anxious as I don’t know the genre.  I do not know what to shoes to wear (if any), what clothing.  Afraid that I will feel foolish.  That I will fail.

I think back to the master class I joined with a principal dancer from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.  The workshop was described as intermediate.  I had been dancing for six years — once a week at the Old Town School of Music.  But the others had been dancing all of their lives.  It was my Flashdance moment — sans rolling on desks in front of an admissions board — I was out of my league.

I did feel foolish.  At best, I got one-third of it.  But I didn’t fail…because I got on the plane, as it were.

And I lived a fantasy I never imagined I really would or could — to dance with Alvin Ailey company members.

I remember this and call the MCA to inquire about attire.  I do not receive a phone call back.  I pack a pair of hard shoes with wooden heels, a sports bra, yoga pants and too-big jeans and go.

When I arrive the program manager takes me into the theater, through the side doors and into Dressing Room B.  “You can change in here,” she says.

I ask her what she thinks would be best — yoga pants or jeans.  Either will work, she replies.

It doesn’t matter.  I don’t care anymore.

I could leave now and be “good.”

I am in the dressing room at the MCA.  The same dressing room Mikhail Baryshnikov *might* have used when he performed here last year.  (There *is* a Dressing Room A.  And there may be more — C, D.)

I am giddy.

I feel like an imposter.  I take a photograph of myself, change into my yoga pants and go out to the stage.  (The same stage where Baryshnikov performed.  The same stage where Sonia Sanchez will perform tonight.)

I can't believe where I'm at...
I can’t believe where I’m at…

I could have worn jeans as it is not a workout, per se.

We do unwinding exercises and learn the foot pattern that matches the Flamenco rhythm.  (One. Two. Three-two, three, four.  Four-two, three, four.  Five.)  We create improvisational pieces with partners that we perform.

Some of the women have been dancing flamenco for years.  They wear Gypsy-style skirts and black, heeled dance shoes.  Others have never danced a day in their lives.  They are dressed for a winter’s day in Chicago.

And Sonia, she doesn’t speak English so much.  And I really don’t speak Spanish.  But I understand… enough.

Enough to be reminded that I really can’t fail if I show up.  And that when I do, I get access to places I could never go on my own — into dressing rooms, onto stages, into my fear.

Artist Date 86: On a Scooter, With a Boy in Front and Chocolate in my Pocket

Final moments in St. Victor la Coste, France.  I hiked up to this crumbling castle every day.
Final moments in St. Victor la Coste, France. I hiked up to this crumbling castle every day.

I leave for Italy in 39 days.

I only recently bought my plane ticket, and just last week decided exactly where I will spend the days following my volunteer work in Umbria. I have not booked a single night at a hotel, pensione, hostel or airbnb.

This is highly unusual for me.

By now I would have secured a room for all of my nights, and outlined a rough itinerary of my days – making certain I knew when each museum closed.  I learned this from my friend Tim, who saved the Louvre for his last day in Paris, not realizing it closed on Tuesdays.  He has lovely pictures of the outside.

I would have purchased my train tickets and made copies of my passport.  My travel books would be dog-eared and yellowed with highlighter.

I have done none of this.  I’m not sure why.

And so I find myself tucked into a big chair in the back of the Book Cellar, pouring over travel guides – more out of necessity than anything.  Fodors.  Rough Guide.  Lonely Planet.  Thick books on the whole of Italy.  Thinner versions on Rome, Florence and Tuscany.  Artist Date 86.

I recall my first travels overseas – press trips to Germany and Israel.  I was in my 20s and had dreamed of traveling abroad.  Everything was handled for me.  Flights.  Hotel.  Itinerary.  And yet, I sat at San Francisco International Airport before each trip – terrified.

Flying out of SFO in 1999 to Spain – my first overseas trip with my then boyfriend, now ex-husband — felt wholly different.  I wasn’t alone.

One Saturday morning we somewhat impulsively bid on Priceline tickets to Madrid.  By afternoon, we were sprawled out on the floor of Borders Books – leaving a few hours later with copies of Frommers – Europe on $100 a day and Madrid, Barcelona and Seville.

We traveled overseas together several times over the next few years – me carefully crafting an itinerary each time.   Yet, a part of me longed to travel alone, as so many of my friends had done after college.

And at 37, I do it.

At the time, I feel too old to throw a rucksack on my back, sleep in hostels and shower in train stations.  I find a trip volunteering in the south of France, building walls as part of an architectural restoration project.

I spend a few days in Paris by myself when I arrive.  It does not feel glamorous and exciting as I had imagined.  It feels scary and lonely.  I wander the streets alone, slightly drunk and call my then husband — crying.  A few days later I join my team in Avignon.  Surrounded by volunteers from around the word, ranging in age from 21 to 73, I feel joyous and free.  I have found my place, my role.  I am the friendly American who drinks too much and gives massages.

Building walls in the South of France. 2006.
Building walls in the South of France. 2006.

Eight years later, (I will turn 45 in Italy) I do not drink anymore.  I do not have a husband anymore.  These things that I leaned into ceased to serve me long ago.  This time, this trip, I must lean into myself.  My hesitation in planning suddenly makes sense.  I am afraid.

And yet, I have a plan, a purpose – I am again joining volunteers from around the globe.  This time, at the Altrocioccolato Festival – known as the “other chocolate festival” – outside of Perugia.  This time, my alone time is on the back-end of the trip – and I will have a better sense of place.  This time I have people, “waiting” for me in church basements.  People who also used to drink too much but don’t anymore – people like me.

My friend Pam says I will go to Italy and meet a boy on a scooter and never come home.  She tells me that I am brave.  That she doesn’t know anyone else our age doing what I am doing – traveling, alone.  I do not feel brave.

And I remember what I’ve been told, that bravery isn’t the absence of fear, it is walking through it anyway.

Or perhaps flying through it – direct from Chicago to Rome on Alitalia.  Or riding a scooter through it – an Italian boy in front, and chocolate in my pocket.

Artist Date 65: A Revelation

I just “shhh…d” the women next to me.

I feel like somebody’s cranky grandmother, but I can’t help myself.

From Revelations.  Photo: Paul Kolnik
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. From Revelations. Photo: Paul Kolnik

This is my religion.  The dancers and choreographers, my gods.  And it requires my complete attention.

It feels like blasphemy as I type the words, but it is true.  The stirring between my legs.  It rises up my spine like Kundalini energy uncoiling, to my heart – which leaps, and spreads as a flush across my chest and face.  What is usually reserved for sexual liaison – either alone or with a partner – comes to me in dance.  Really good dance.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is really good dance.

This is my seventh time seeing the company, which may sound like a lot –until compared to Sheila, who I met during the pre-performance cocktail reception.  She and her husband have seen Ailey every year since the company’s inception in 1958.  It is, perhaps, their religion too.

The first time I saw Ailey I was 24.  I watched, rapt.  My former lover — the sexiest man I had ever known – at my side.  We spent a month together.  Twenty-nine days more than I expected.  This was our only “real date.”

The second time I saw Ailey I was in the middle of an alcoholic relapse, although I didn’t know it at the time.  Following yet another month-long stint without drinking, an effort to prove myself “not alcoholic,” I conveniently forgot all the reasons I had put down the drink and picked it up again that night.

I saw the company three more times.  Each of them sober.  In Chicago.  Once, with my then-husband, the other two with girlfriends.

This is my first time seeing Ailey alone – Artist Date 65.

It feels significant.

Significant because I have treated myself to good seats.  Dress Circle.  Row AA.

I have learned I cannot watch dance from the cheap seats – looking down on it from up above.  I have to see it straight on.  As I do most things.

I’ve admittedly been spoiled.  Much like the first time I flew overseas, when the German Consulate paid for my Business Class ticket on Lufthansa.  It is hard to go back.

It is the same with men.

With my dance instructor, Idy.
With my dance instructor, Idy.

Significant because there is a cocktail reception before the show and I don’t drink, have a wing man, or a purpose for mingling other than “just because.”

Ever fiber in my body says arrive late, skip the schmooze and head straight for my seat.  But I resist.  I have been taught courage is not a lack of fear.  It is feeling it and moving forward anyway.  I am strangely curious to see what will happen.

I meet a gaggle of girls in their 30s.  They have never seen Ailey.

We talk about their work.  City politics.  Chicago neighborhoods.

We talk about my Artist Date.  My blog.   Boys.

I meet the “since-1958 Ailey fans,” and their daughter – a dancer.

I navigate the plush stairs and the too-small type on my ticket on my way to my seat.  My dance instructor calls out my name.  We embrace and all at once, Chicago feels like a town.  My sense of connectedness expands.

The theatre darkens.  The dancers emerge.

“Night Creature.”  From 1974.  I have seen it before.  Like “Revelations,” Ailey’s signature piece that closes every show.   I remember the polka-dot light patterns on the floor.

It is both familiar and fresh.  I feel the leap in my heart.  And a knot in my stomach.

The women to my left are whispering – non-stop.

I pray for patience.  For tolerance.  I pray they will stop.  Useless.  I turn and put my finger to my lips.  “Shhh.”  It is quiet.

At intermission, I feel a hand on my shoulder.  It is one of the women I “shhh-d.”  She offers apologies, which I quickly and easily accept.

Two Dancers -- Khara and I.
Two Dancers — Khara and I.

“Do you dance?” she asks.

I tell her I do.  She says that she used to, and everything melts between us.  We are connected.  We are the same.

Until she tells me about her dance history.

Although not a dance major, she danced seven days a week as an undergraduate student at Washington University, filling her free hours with courses in ballet, modern, and jazz.  I reflect on my four years at Michigan State University – smoking pot and drinking with the big boys.

I do not feel like a dancer.

My five-plus years in West African dance classes – beginning at the age of 39 – feel small in comparison.  Amateurish.  Perhaps they are.

I ask her to take a picture with me for my blog.  “Two dancers,” she announces, as if reading my mind.

I choose to believe her.  To allow my status to be independent of her experience.  Of Sheila’s.

It is a “Revelation.”

Artist’s Date 25: Following Breadcrumbs and Cleaning Up My Insides

Andrew-Gilliatt-April-2013-60-300x300
Bowl by Andrew Gilliat

I believe in “following the breadcrumbs.”  Like Hansel and Gretl, noting the obvious signs and trusting that I will always be led – if I listen.

I was on the fence about my destination for this week’s Artist Date – Number 25.  My friend Kiki mentioned she might drop by a reception at Lillstreet Art Center – one of my considerations.  Her noncommittal musing was just enough to point my compass.

I’ve been to Lillstreet just once before, for a fundraiser.  I imagined I would return here often, but I have not.  I pass it all the time and I think about going in.  I pour over the website trying to decide which class to sign up for.  I am intimidated and ultimately do nothing.

This is ironic as I am greeted by a most friendly staffer at the door.  She tells me the photography show opening today, Midwest Contemporary, is on two floors.  That beer is on the main floor, wine is on the second – in case that helps guide my decision in terms of where to begin.  It doesn’t.

But the pottery does.  Porcelain slab platters etched with lines that look like a teenage girl’s cutting.  Bowls and plates covered with repeating whimsical patterns.  Forks and knives, swings, balloons and birds in matte glaze. 

I’ve considered the First-Time Potter class here but have been leaning toward Drawing-into-Painting.  Pottery is messy and I don’t really have “pottery clothes.”  I can draw anywhere.  Yet I keep picking up the fired clay.  Running my fingers over it.  Cupping it in my hand.

I remember ceramics class in high school.  Mr. B and I argued about everything – even about how often I peed.  He said I was a sloppy student.  That I didn’t clean my edges, my insides.  It sounds true – of my work.  Of my blurry boundaries and the messy parts inside of me.

I did craft beautiful pieces in his class though.  A platter with a teal drip glaze.  A coil vase with a long neck – large and genie-like, big enough for Barbara Eden to pop out of.  My mother displays both of them in her home.  

I look up toward the photography on the wall – my chosen medium in college until I switched my major from fine art to journalism.  There is a large, creepy photograph of a doll’s head – battered and old.  I don’t like it.  I read the artist’s statement.  She photographs vintage dolls.  The cracks in their exteriors representing the broken parts in us all – some that might never be “fixed” in this lifetime.  I still don’t like the picture, or the doll’s eyes.  But I like the idea of it.

There is work from an artist who earned his MFA from Michigan State University – my alma mater.  It wasn’t known for its art department when I was a student.  I wonder how it has changed.

There is another of a trailer park along the Russian River in California with a big Paul Bunyan figure looming over the camp.  It is part of a series chronicling the photographer’s vacation destinations as a child.  I’m pretty sure I’ve been here.

I wander up to the second floor.  There is a second photograph of trailers, this one from Williston, North Dakota.  Hydraulic fracking boom town.   Michael and I drove through here on our way back to Chicago from Seattle.  It reeked of testosterone and crystal meth.  Unsettling.

There is a photograph of a young African-American man looking straight into the lens.  Into me.  The photographer is from Saginaw, Michigan – where my mother grew up. 

midwest contemporary show
“Elliot,” by Sarah-Marie Land

I feel alone.  I go downstairs , returning to the pottery, and strike up a conversation with another woman, also alone.   She likes the bowls and goblets adorned with animals.  Anything with animals, she says.  I do not, but say nothing.   As the room fills up I am acutely aware of my single-ness.  I think about staying and listening to the live music, but I’m not sure where to perch myself.

I decide to leave instead. 

This is the first time my Artist Date feels lonely, that I don’t feel filled up by it.  On the way out I stop and talk briefly with the friendly staffer who greeted me.  I remember Kiki mentioning her friend’s reception is private, on the roof – that I would have to ask to get up there.  So I do.

I am directed to the back of the building, through the music and pottery and photography, through double doors. I ask a tall man/boy with a red beard and glasses if this is the way to the roof. He says yes and we climb the stairs together. Two of mine for every one of his.

It is sunny and clear.  People are drinking wine.  I do not see my friend.  I turn to go back down.  The bearded man/boy says, “Yep.  A lot of roof.”   We walk down together.  I am not sure why he has come here.  I ask him if he has a studio here.  He does not.  He peels off to a classroom on the third floor and I go down to two.  There are open artist studios.  I missed them my first time up. 

I walk into one.  There are slabs of clay with what looks like hieroglyphics on them.  The artist is talking with a couple about her work and they rope me into conversation.  I ask about the tall, smooth pieces with wild insides.  They are wide.  Almost as big around as I, and climbing higher than my waist. 

Each represents a character from Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.”  The blue queen is smooth outside, but inside “she is mourning.”   I see it.  I see the glazed clay crying inside, rounded discs turned down upon themselves like leaves.  I wonder if this is what I look like inside.

A second character is smooth and orange-y outside, fiery and sharp inside.  She is angered by how the king has treated the mourning queen.  A third is green.  A girl child left in the woods, raised by a shepherd.  She is smooth inside as well as out.  Peaceful.

I return to a jewelry studio I couldn’t make my way into before.  Too small.  Too many people.  Edith Robertson is talking with a friend.  She has a blonde-ish/white-ish bob and turquoise eye liner.  She immediately greets me, inviting me to try on whatever I like.  She puts her hand on my arm.  Warm.

I pick up a choker made of gathered strands of thin wire with a long crystal hanging from it.  It looks like a stalactite. Or is it a stalagmite?  A piece of lapis lazuli adorns the back side – a hidden surprise.

I think of my friend Julie and the days I spent with her after her mother died, offering massage and bodywork to her family.  Of her friend Karen whisking me off to her house, plopping me into an overstuffed chair and placing a crystal in each hand. 

The effect was immediate.  Electric.  Like a volt of energy seizing my body.  I imagined smoke coming off of me, as if I had fried a chip.  I was out.  When I awoke about 20 minutes later, I felt like I had been put back together.  I wonder if this crystal would do the same for me.

Edith and I quickly realize our paths have been crossing one another for the better part of 30 years.  In Detroit.  In San Francisco.  And now in Chicago.  That the universe has been conspiring for us to meet.

She tells me that making jewelry is her second act.  I tell her about mine.  About my Artist Dates and my return to writing.  We talk about Germany – her birthplace.  The first place I traveled overseas.   She has the same last name as my ex-husband.

We talk until a couple walks in and I hand her over to them.   I sign her guest book, leaving her with my email address and her necklace.  Perhaps another time. 

I walk down the stairs and out the door, thinking about connections.  About clay classes and cleaning up my edges, my insides.  About breadcrumbs.