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.

Artist Date 59: Waiting. On The Journey To Becoming

I am waiting on some news.  Both personal and professional.  Nothing scary or life-threatening…as a loving friend of mine recently asked.  But all in G-d’s time, or at the very least, not mine.

The chime on my phone notifies me of messages received and my response is purely Pavlovian.  Hope rises.  And when I check my phone and discover I still have no news, hope falls.  I feel my heart literally sink just a little bit.  Awful.

Radio silence.  My friend Michael says it is normal.  Winter.  “‘Tis the season.”  His words, literally.

I want to punch him.

He sends me photographs of the shore of Lake Michigan, taken from the Indiana Dunes.  This is what quiet looks like.  It is at once both sad and beautiful.

lonely beach

He is right though.  It is in the silence that I find my center, that I soothe myself…even though it is the silence, the not knowing, that has me so uncomfortable.

I turn off my phone at dinner with friends.  No ringing.  No vibrating.  No notifying.  Silence.

I am completely present with the people about me.  I am not thinking about what I do not know.  I am happy and serene…until I turn it back on and watch hope rise and fall again.  And watch myself respond with a level of emotion that does not feel at all congruent.

Next day, at work, I turn the phone off again.  And when I power it back on later, I ignore the notifications alerting me to the messages waiting.  Instead, I bring my attention to my friend Nora, who is sitting across from me.  I am again happy and serene.

I feel empowered.

It feels a little bit like when I quit smoking, nearly 15 years ago.  That first week, I was high on not smoking.  That feeling of “I can’t believe I’m doing this…”

The weeks that followed, sans cigarettes, were not filled with that same awe and wonder.  But that is a different story.  And a different lesson.  Fifteen years later I am grateful for a different identity – one of a non-smoker.  And the absence of the yellow stain on my second finger that I could not scrub off – my personal breaking point, my bottom.

My bottom here is that I fundamentally understand I am powerless over people, places and things, and yet, I sometimes still find myself allowing the actions of others to determine my sense of happiness, security and well-being.  I watch myself hand over my serenity.  It is painful.

And it is in this painful awareness that I recognize I have a modicum of control over the anxiety I perpetuate.  That I can dial down my discomfort by simply turning off my phone, or ignoring its messages until I am in time and space to better receive them.

That I can receive the same relief by staying busy, and by pointing my attention to what is right in front of me.

Like Nora.  Like the Artist Date penciled in my calendar.  Number 59.  Chicago Cultural Center for the “Wright Before the Lloyd,” exhibit.

2014-01-30 15.17.11

I am here just a short time – about 45 minutes.  Just long enough to feel the fog in my brain clear, making way for new information, and for my whole body to exhale.

The show is small – photographs, sketches and placards covering either side of a long hallway.  It is a journey of becoming.  The transition from Frank L. Wright, to Frank Lloyd Wright.  A seemingly subtle, but significant, metamorphosis.

I read about his mother, determined that her son should become an architect, placing engravings of cathedrals in his bedroom for inspiration.  His uncle with wild long hair, unconventional fashion sense, and a memorable three-part name who served as role model.  His work with Adler and Sullivan and the “mistakes” he made on the way to creating his signature style.

I notice that many of the buildings shown on this trajectory from Wright to Lloyd Wright are no longer standing.  Either burned down or destroyed.  Gone.  Like the yellow stain on my second finger.

I think about my own trajectory, and the people and experiences that influenced my becoming the woman I always wanted to be.

The one who dances on red soil in Rwanda and glossed, wood floors in Chicago.  Who has been invited in to the intimacy of rooms where life begins and life ends.  The one who listens with her hands and her heart.

The one with her own signature style – cropped hair, second-hand clothes and super-fabulous shoes – the kind that strangers inquire about.  Who takes herself to museums, operas and lectures – comfortably alone.  And out for strong coffee and a really good piece of cake.

The one who has learned to soothe herself.  To quiet her own crazy.  To be responsible for her own wellbeing.

Post Script:  I got a call on some of the news I’d been waiting on.  It was positive and it made me smile.  But it didn’t change anything.  Not my thoughts.  My mood.  My beliefs.  It didn’t make me feel “ok.”  It couldn’t.  Because in my heart I already was.

Artist Date 56: Kind Of Like I Know You

2013-06-04 17.12.55
I coulda, shoulda
worn this hat this night.

It’s raining. Pissing raining. And dark. The snow from the storm which renamed this place Chi-beria is melting and I’m certain the city will flood.

And what look like parking spots in Rogers Park are a siren’s calling mix of ice, snow and deep water. My wheels are sliding under me. And then my feet, unsteady in the rain boots I never wear. The ones I bought a few years ago. That I thought could pass for winter boots as the shaft is made of grey flannel. I was mistaken.

I walk gingerly into the tiny theatre and choose my seat from the 25 or so, covered in red velvet. I lay my gloves, scarf and hat on the chair next to me to dry.

I smell like wet dog.

Eric Warner sent me an invitation to his performance –“A Life in Tending,” Artist Date 56 – on Facebook, just after his last performance, where he shared the stage with my friend Clover. Artist Date 45.  The same night I realized I have danced with his fiancé years.

So I kind of feel like I know him, even though I don’t really. But he greets me at the door like I do. Even though Clover isn’t here. And neither is his fiancé.

He takes me into The Purple Hotel on Lincoln Avenue with him and his friends – long after it has closed. When the ground is grown over with weeds and the swimming pool is filled with black algae. When they snuck in, several years ago. Or more to the point, when they committed a felony in the name of urban excavation. Of bearing witness.

Which takes him into his grandmother’s home.

And he takes me there too, introducing me to the fierce, loving, tough-as-nails matriarch whose only rule was “Do whatever you want but don’t burn the house down.” Who, when informed her grandson’s classmates call him “fat” and “stupid,” asks, “Do you think you are those things?” Adding that people will tell him he is all sorts of things, what matters is that he knows who he is.

It is no longer that place since his grandmother died several years ago – even though his grandfather remains. He has taken to sitting in her chair, instead of staring at the empty space, where she used to be, from his own.

Pimp or Orthodox Jew?
Pimp or
Orthodox Jew?

Her walker, commode and oxygen tank sit, as though waiting for her to return. Tsotchkes line the kitchen table, sold for a song to feed his Keno habit. And perhaps also as a way of emptying the house, so his family won’t have to when he dies.

I think of my birthmother’s home, a place I visited just three times. Once to meet her. Once to say goodbye. And once to bury her.

On the first visit, I noticed the oxygen tanks in the kitchen – she was just 56. When I returned a few years later, a walker, shower bench and commode had been added.

On the third visit, we got rid of all of it. Me, my “aunt, uncles and cousins,” all of whom I’d never met until now. Except for my aunt. And her, just once, on my second visit.

I tossed reams of paper into large, black garbage bags – notes on an unsolved murder mystery she was following, years old credit-card statements, meeting minutes from the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

I remember standing back as my cousins fingered through her jewelry. My uncle telling me to “get in there.” I didn’t want anything, but I took a brooch anyway.

A few weeks later my aunt sent me my birth mom’s fur hat and coat –her name embroidered on the inside lining. It had belonged to their mother, my “grandmother.” I have never worn fur in my life. I cannot decide if I look like a pimp or an Orthodox Jew in it. It hangs in my coat closet still, even on the chilliest of Chicago days.

This morning, my birth mom’s son, my “half brother” friended me on Facebook. We have never met, or even spoken. A few months ago his daughter wrote to me. We exchanged a couple of emails where I filled in the blanks, explaining exactly who I was.

The timing is not lost on me.

I want to tell Eric all of this. To share my story, because he has shared his.  Because I feel like I know him.  To say “me too.” But I don’t. I do not see him on the way out and I am anxious to get home.

When I arrive I look at the calendar hanging in the kitchen – a gift from my “real” mom, the one who raised me. I’ve written just two things for January. The anniversary of my spiritual teacher’s passing, and my birth mom’s birthday. They are the same day, January 12 – this Sunday.

Artist Date 37: Before I Was a We: San Francisco Days, San Francisco Nights

I love a Woody Allen movie.  How it is always unmistakably his, from its first moment.  Jazz crackling through a phonograph.  Names in vintage font scrolling across the screen, inviting me in.  Makes me think of Buster Keaton or some other silent-movie great.  Another time.  Dreamy and romantic.

blue jasmineLike San Francisco, where Blue Jasmine takes place – Artist Date 37.

Sitting in the Davis  Theatre, I am home – to this place I lived for 14 years.  To familiar street names like Van Ness and Post.  And the windmill at Ocean Beach.  The sky is a pale, whitish-grey.  Fog.  Wind.  Like it usually is, as opposed to some Hollywood idea of the California coast.

The shots of Marina Green are spot on.  South Park too…although it would have been a long walk there from 305 South Van Ness, where Jasmine is coming from, into the final scene.  A solid half hour or more.  But this is something only a San Franciscan would know.

Like knowing Noe Street is pronounced “No E” and not “No,” as it was incorrectly called on Party of Five, the 90s Fox hit show.

Like knowing the Dirty Harry movies filmed prior to the Loma Prieta earthquake – when the Central Freeway still ran along the Embarcadero.

When I moved to Chicago in 2007, every sentence out of my mouth began with, “In San Francisco…”  It took a long time for me to even consider letting go of my identity as an adopted Californian.  (I grew up outside of Detroit.)

It is one of the things that kept my ex and I together, and that ultimately tore us apart.

We came here united in our assertion that the Bay Area was the only place worth living.  Hubris, in a New York center-of-the-universe sort of way.  We identified as “other,” “different.”  And we were certain that this was a mere sojourn.

But I got schooled.  My eyes opened.  I quit expecting Chicago to be San Francisco (or Oakland, where also lived).  I was able to see all that was right with this place Frank Sinatra called “my kinda town.”  And I fell in love.

We never said it, but with this simple opening up, I broke our unspoken rule.  I “betrayed” us.

I’m not thinking about that today, sitting in the darkened theatre.  Instead, I am thrust back to a time before that, before us.  My single San Francisco.  The place where I became a grown up.  Sort of.

Chinatown.  Teresa would send me here on days when I was blue, with explicit instructions to treat myself to something inexpensive and wonderful.  A silk change purse or lipstick case with a mirror inside.  Embroidered slippers.  Each just a few dollars.

chinatownMarina Green.  Rachel lived nearby on Chestnut Street.  Every Saturday I would walk from my apartment in Haight-Ashbury to her tony neighborhood for brunch and the hope of spotting the former conductor I used to date.

South Park.  The DJ took me to this then-off-the-beaten-path hip, cool patch of green for lunch.  I wanted it to be a date, but it wasn’t.  I knew what he was available for when I invited him to come by my apartment following his shift at the after-hours club.  I thought I could change his mind.  I couldn’t.

He was kind, and we developed one of those painful friendships – the kind where I waited for the day he would look at me and realize I had been there all along… loyal.  And then pick me.  Strangely, we did pick one another from time to time over the years…but never for the long haul.

He spun records at my wedding.  That was his gift to me.  I saw him in San Francisco the last time I was there.  Over noodles, he recalled our unorthodox wedding.  That I was the only bride he knew that danced to the Sex Pistols.  His words fell onto the table with a thud.  Neither my then-husband nor I said a word.

On the drive home, my now-ex asked me for a divorce.

Perhaps I let go of my strong San Francisco attachment because it was “ours.”  Blue Jasmine reminded me of what was mine – alone.

Wednesday night disco at Stud Bar.  Day-long walks through Golden Gate Park.  Burritos the size of my head at Taqueria Cancun.

A reclaiming.

golden gate