Artist Date 57: California, Coming Home

My friend Sherrod was the first artist I knew personally who made money at her craft.  Which meant she covered her expenses and then some.

I remember seeing her painting on Liberty Street, where I lived in San Francisco.  Victorian houses in oil.  She was prolific.  One night, as the sun began to go down, I invited her in for dinner.  It was the first time she met my then-boyfriend/now ex-husband.  Being somewhat filter-less, she named him “Pretty Boy” on the spot.

That year Pretty Boy bought me a copy of one of Sherrod’s pieces for my birthday.

It was a view of Dolores Park, from above it, and downtown San Francisco in the distance.  Done in watercolors.  Light.  Almost cartoonish.  Nothing like her other work which was darker and moody.

Pretty Boy put it in a white-wood frame he found in the alley and hung it over our bed.  It followed us from San Francisco to Oakland, Chicago and Seattle – where I left it – a little piece of our first shared home.

I get emails from Sherrod now and again, telling me about her shows in the Bay Area.  But I hadn’t really thought about her work much until now, standing at the Art Institute of Chicago.  I am at the “Dreams & Echoes: Drawings and Sculpture in the David and Celia Hilliard Collection” exhibit – Artist Date 57.

My friend Jack suggested it.

I like the sketches in the process of becoming – Degas’ “Grand Arabesque,” Matisse’s “Still Life with Apples.”  The ripe, sexy suggestiveness of Rodin’s “Leda and the Swan,” Povis de Chavannes’ “Sleeping Woman.”  The eerie, ethereal quartet in Toorop’s “A Mysterious Hand Leads to Another Path.”  But I don’t quite see how it all hangs together.

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Francis Towne’s “Naples”

Francis Towne’s “Naples: A Group of Buildings Seen from an Adjacent Hillside.”  An accurate, albeit not terribly inspired, title.  It is from 1781, done in pen and black ink, with a brush, and black and gray wash over traces of graphite.  Italy.  But all I see is Dolores Park.

I am wistful and happy at the same time – remembering this place I used to call home, where the sun wasn’t a stranger in January and, rumor had it, Tracy Chapman lived on my street.  This place where I met and married Pretty Boy.

It is the second time I’ve rubbed up against California today.

“Nevada Falls, Yosemite Valley, California,” painted in 1920 by Marguerite Thompson Zorach.  The dreamy, translucent watercolors whisper to me of Sherrod’s Dolores Park.

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Marguerite Thompson Zorach’s “Nevada Falls”

I know the view.  I’ve seen it many time,s driving down from Badger Pass to the Yosemite Valley floor, coming through the tunnel carved into granite.  Surprising and spectacular.  I’ve hiked a part of it, along with Vernal Falls and the John Muir Trail, forming a loop.  I was with Pretty Boy and our friend Tim –my first foray into camping.

We stayed in Curry Village in a canvas tent cabin with a wood platform and a single light bulb.  Tim threw baby carrots to the squirrels, although the signs all around instructed him not to.  Hilarious – until one scurried into our tent.

We bought water and painted wood disks strung on elastic at the adjacent store.  “Camp beads,” I exclaimed, handing a strand to Pretty Boy.  Not unlike the ones he had given me off his own neck on our first date.

I got boot bang on the trail descending and had to rip off my toenail.  And once back at Curry Village, I jumped into the Merced River, and then sat on a rock, drying and shivering in the sun.

After that trip I graduated to a real tent, the lightweight kind I could use to backpack in for a few days.

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Marc Chagall’s “Das Haus”

“Das Haus.”  The Marc Chagall woodcut jumps from the wall.  All four woodcuts, displayed in a row, do.  But it is Chagall who paints my heart.  Lead glasses my heart.  Woodcuts my heart.

A house erupting from a man’s shoulders.  According to the placard, it was produced following Chagall’s exile from Belarus.  “…the work can be seen as an image of the artist metaphorically carrying his home with him.”  Like the movie, Up.  Like the painting in my living room, “You Can Take It With You,” that I bought from my friend Scotty before leaving Chicago in 2011.

I return to the placard at the exhibit’s entryway.  It ends, “Even with its diversity of artists and time periods, the Hilliard collection possesses a remarkable consistency in sensibility: these works are unified by their ability to transport the viewer to other eras, other worlds.”

Chagall’s house.  My stories.  Towne’s Naples.  My California.

No Longer Waiting. And Other Little Miracles

I have a bit of a sugar hangover.  I blame the French meringues.  Stacked in big glass jars.  All shades of gorgeous.  Purple cassis.  Cocoa salted-caramel.  Yellow-cream.

2013-10-06 13.12.36I blame the lemon and apple tarts, covered with glazed domes, glistening, yellow and red.  So shiny and perfect, at first I think they are glass.

I am at my cousin Andrew’s wedding.

I had not planned to eat so much sugar.  I never do.  Just like I never planned to drink so much, for things to go sideways, as they often did.  Especially at weddings.

This is no longer my experience.  At weddings.  Or anywhere else for that matter.  I don’t stick my hand in the cake (already cut up and served, thank goodness) on the way out the door.  I don’t offend the groom’s cousin by dissing where he lives.  The bride doesn’t have to separate me and her 17-year-old boy cousin who I am grinding with on the dance floor.  The one who thinks perhaps this is his lucky day.  Or night.

I am grateful.

And I am triggered.

By this girl – a woman, really – who reminds me of me when I drank.  She stumbles back to the hotel with us, barely putting one foot in front of the other.  Shuffling.  Earlier, sitting at the bar, I watched her eyes roll back in her head.  Her words don’t make any sense to me.  She is speaking gibberish.

I remember making dinner for my girlfriends many years ago in California.  Being drunk before they arrive.  My friend Rainey, sweetly, sadly, telling me she doesn’t understand what I am saying.

Nobody tells this girl she doesn’t make sense.  No one seems to mind.  She smokes a joint thick as a cigarette and waves it about.  I have to leave.

I am triggered by my brother.  Showing up to the wedding with his new girlfriend.  It isn’t her.  Or him, for that matter.  But that he always has a girlfriend.  Always had a girlfriend.  Always.

I am triggered by my aunt’s stories of dating in her 40s, after her divorce.  The seeming line of suitors, one more exciting than the next, waiting for a chance to be with her.  Her year in Italy, living with a Count.

My aunt and I.  She is so beautiful.  I can imagine her line of suitors.
My aunt and I. She is so beautiful. I can imagine her line of suitors.

This is not my experience.  Any of it.  And yet, the shame that rises is all mine.  It is so familiar.  The shame I used to feel in my drunken-ness.  The shame I still sometimes feel in my alone-ness.  Even if I have – mostly – chosen it.

So sugar seems like a good idea.  At the end of the night.  Alone, in my cousin’s hotel suite.  Tired.  Waiting for him and his husband to take me back to their apartment where I am staying.

The meringues are like a siren.  The shiny slices of mango torte know my name.  Even the leftover pastry from the morning is alluring.  All from the patisserie where my cousin works.

I sample each, many times over.  Quickly.  And then…I stop.  I realize I am going to be physically uncomfortable very soon if I continue.  I say this out loud to myself.  I realize I am uncomfortable in my skin right now.  Triggered.  I call my friend Matt and we talk it through.

I do not shame myself for using food.  It is a small miracle.  A victory.  As is the stopping while I am in it.

This morning, it all feels a long time ago.

I am walking to the market to pick up some yogurt and produce for the apartment.  A coffee.  I am dropping into “my life” here in Minneapolis.  My life for two and a half days.

I marvel at how easily I can make a place my own.  Like I did in Dublin, with Steven.  Renting an apartment.  Finding my coffee shop.  My grocery.  My people in meetings in church basements.

I’ve done this in many places.  In Brussels.  In Charleston.  Even my hometown, Detroit.  Here, this morning in my cousin’s city, I remember a time when it wasn’t like this.

I was 17.  My parents sent me to Los Angeles to visit my cousin – their high-school graduation gift to me.  It is my first time traveling alone.  I am terrified.

Andrew goes to work, leaving me with a key and suggestions of where I might go while he is away.  Places I can walk to right out the door.  There are plenty.  Surprising for Los Angeles, but true.

I can’t leave the apartment.  I am stymied.  Paralyzed.  I hang out with the cat.  Listen to Carly Simon.  Smoke his weed.  Drink his booze.  And wait for him to come home.  While Los Angeles waits for me.

It is no different in the years that follow, as I continue to visit him in Los Angeles.  I stay in when he is gone.  Alone.  Afraid.

Perhaps it’s just age.  Or maybe it is travel.  But I cannot imagine sitting inside today, waiting.

Just like I can’t imagine being the drunk girl at the wedding.

I can almost imagine men lining up to date me, like they did for my aunt.  And that in itself is another miracle, that I can even imagine it.  Even if it hasn’t happened.  But I’m not waiting on that either.

The wedding.  The real reason I am here.
The wedding. The real reason I am here.

Instead, I think about now.  About dancing all afternoon at the wedding.  A three-piece band –  keyboard, stand-up bass and drummer – playing jazz and swing.   About Peter swinging me around the floor.  A strong lead, I follow easily.  He dips me at the end of each song and I smile big.  It is not a love connection.  We are just dancing, having a great time.

About Emiko, my cousin’s friend from Los Angeles.  She literally watched me become an adult, in those years that I visited, when I afraid to leave by myself.  We talk as though no time has passed, picking up the thread of easy connection and filling in the blanks.

About Monica, my cousin David’s wife.  The last time we saw one another was at my going-away party – when I was leaving California, with my then husband, for Chicago.  The city I embraced as my own – even though it was his dream that brought me here.

About her words to me.

She tells me she is excited for me.  For this time in my life.   For the adventures I’ve lived, and those I am about to live.  That I look amazing.

She doesn’t see the fear.  The worry.  Just this woman who flew in just this morning to show up for her cousin.  For her family.  For her life.  Not waiting…for anything.  For anyone.

This morning, walking, writing, making Minneapolis mine, if only for a moment…I see the same woman.   No longer waiting.

Looking For Myself At My Mother’s House

me and momI’m at my mother’s home.  I’ve only been here once before – three or so years ago.

When I pull up I am not sure I am at the right house.  It looks different than I remember, so I call her from the rental car to make certain I am in the right driveway.  That 173 is the correct address.  It is.  And she comes through the garage to greet me.

Inside, the house does not look familiar.  I did not grow up here.  It has been too long since I have visited.

I look around the house.  There is a photograph of my brother and his son.  Another of him with both of his children.  There are photographs of my stepfather’s children and grandchildren.  His mother.  My mother and her brother when they are wee.  A sepia-colored family photograph, taken when my Papa Barney, my great-grandfather, was still alive.

There is nothing of me.

The 43-year-old in me says, “It’s not all about you.”  The 7-year-old says, “Why aren’t there any pictures of me?”  The 7-year-old wins.   And I ask, as casually and with as much detachment as I can muster.

My mother responds without missing a beat.  “All the pictures I have of you have your ex-husband in them.  So we have to take new ones.”

My mother is black and white when it comes to her children.  Anyone who messes with her kids is out.  Period.  Even if she liked them very much, which is the case with my ex-husband.  I remember the first time they met. I woke up the next morning and found them eating leftover birthday cake for breakfast, still in their pajamas.  Thick as thieves.

She takes me into her bedroom and shows me a single photograph of myself, flanked by her and my stepfather.  We are eating ribs and pulled pork.  My mother swore I wouldn’t eat it but I surprised her.  I told her my friend Jerry had turned me on to pork ribs at a BBQ a couple of years prior.  How the little Jew now threw down pork with the best of them.

My mother has cut my ex out of the photograph.  I cannot tell that he was ever there.

Later we look at photographs, as we do every time I visit.  It is my desire, not necessarily hers, and she appeases me.  There are, in fact, photographs of my ex-husband.  Of visits.  Of our wedding.  His hair is dark.  I do not remember him that way.  He has been gray now as long as I can remember. 

The photographs are tucked away in a box, along with my wedding invitation, cards and notes, and her wedding photograph – the one from her first marriage to my father.

There are other photographs, lots of them.  Me as an infant, dressed in red and white checks, sobbing.  At 5, with my jeans rolled up, playing in the surf in Malibu.  At 16, in a black dress with a hood.  We are at a family party.  I think I am punk rock.  My mother is next to me, swathed in winter white, smiling.

My 27 years before meeting my ex, stacked, rubber-banded and tucked into a Ziploc baggie marked “Lesley.” 

I stretch out my arms, point my phone at our faces, and take a photograph of the two of us.  I love doing this. I never know how we will capture ourselves in the moment.  The photograph is always a surprise.  Sometimes we are half a face.  A nose.  Only eyes.

I turn the phone around to look at our picture.  We are framed perfectly.  Centered.