Artist Date 95: Temptation and Commitment. The Tapeworm is my Divorce.

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James Ensor. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1887. Regenstein Endowment and the Louise B. and Frank H. Woods Purchase Fund. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels.

My neck just did that thing where it snaps back my head as it is falling forward, as I am falling asleep sitting up.  It happens every time.  Every time I sit in a darkened theater.  It doesn’t matter if it is a movie or opera or lecture.  If it is engaging or tedious.  The darkness lulls me into slumber.  I feel like my father before he was diagnosed with sleep apnea and was fatigued all of the time — except that I don’t snore.

I know better.  I know I need to go to sleep earlier.  But I am back to my old habit of sitting in front of the computer until far too late, usually doing nothing of note — trolling Facebook or shopping for something I don’t end up buying.  And when I finally make it to bed, I’m left with five or six hours to rest before I do it all over again.

The habit started when I moved out of my then husband’s bedroom.  I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning talking to a friend who was also going through a divorce.  The late-night habit continued when I settled myself back into Chicago — although the conversations did not.

I began to consciously work on the habit.  Setting alarms at 10 p.m. — alerting me it is time to step away from the computer.  Getting accountable with my Weight Watchers groups — choosing “Get Seven to Eight Hours of Sleep Each Night” as the healthy habit I would work on each week.  I moved from five or six to six or seven, but never quite made it up to eight.

And then I started backsliding.  Call it a sleep relapse.  A divorce-habit relapse.  It began noticing its effects — finding myself “needing” a mid-morning tea to stay awake.  Struggling to make my way out of bed, trying to negotiate my non-negotiable morning exercise.  And today, dozing off during a lecture at the Art Institute, Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor — Artist Date 95.

My being here can only be described as a lazy Artist Date.  I know nothing about Ensor.  In fact, I’m not all that interested in or excited about the lecture.  But it was highlighted in the Art Institute of Chicago Magazine and it allowed me to fulfill the commitment I had made — first, to a year of Art Dates, and when I had completed that, to 100 of them.

This public accountability prods me on — even though no one is really paying attention, other than me — even as my head dips further forward, catching only bits and pieces of the lecture.

Belgium.  Seaside resort town.  Alcoholic father.

Tapeworm.

Yes, tapeworm.  I am suddenly awake.  Awake to this pain, this presence that ate away at Ensor, that his doctors couldn’t seem to rid his body of.

It dominates his art.  Images of the worm, its feeding mouth, skeletons and death.  I am struck by his commitment to it — even after it has left his body.  It changed him.  His story.  His work.

His worm is my divorce.  His drawings and paintings are my words.  I feel somehow comforted by this.  That it is ok that I am “still talking about this, writing about this.”  That this is what we do — at least some of us.  Rather than turning away from the pain, we work it out — on canvas, on paper, on screen.  We allow it to change us.  For ourselves to be changed.

I visit the exhibit after the lecture, wide awake.  The galleries are designed so I can go in the out and out the in.  There is no beginning or end.  Just middle.  The walls are a surprising choice of aquamarine.  I stand close to The Temptation of Saint Anthony — it’s 51 pieces of pencil-colored paper layered upon each other — and look for the worm, its mouth, its suckers.  I find it along with demons, a pair of red shoes and a vendor hawking frites.

On the way out, I pick up a sheet of four temporary tattoos — among them, the feeding mouth of the tapeworm from The Temptation of St. Anthony.  I slip the sheet into my bag, quite certain I will not put any of the images to my skin.

I don’t need to.  I have my own, permanent ones.  “Write” and “Left” tattooed on the inside of each wrist in typewriter font.  The tapeworm is my divorce.  A reminder of what changed me and how I am changed.  Of my work and how I work it out.  And my commitment to it.

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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.