Artist Date 62: Standing On…? Wondering Where I Am.

"Love is Pain." Artist, Judith Hladik-Voss.
“Love is Pain.” Artist, Judith Hladik-Voss.

Love is pain.

That is what the quilt says.  Right in the center on a big red heart.  All around it are stages, stops – like on a game board.  Candy Land or Risk.  Yeah, Risk.

Love.  Joy.  Desire.

Trust.  Faith.  Intimacy.

Jealousy.  Anger.  Betrayal.

Heartbreak.  Wound.

Anxiety.  Disillusion.  Despair.

Loss.  Grief.

It is Valentine’s Day.  I am at the Greenleaf Art Center for the exhibit – Be Mine.  I am meeting my girlfriends here, but they are stuck in traffic.  So I am alone.  Impromptu Artist Date 62.  My second this week.

I step back and look at the quilt that greets me as I walk in the door, wondering where I am on it.

Joy.  Desire.

I met a man.  Or perhaps I should say, re-met.  We knew each other once upon a time.  Kind of.   We are getting to know one another – not quite again – but now, for the very first time.

He is smart and funny, creative, sensitive and sexy.  I’m pretty sure he feels the same way about me.  We can talk for hours about anything and everything.  We laugh a lot.  And I find myself smiling a lot.  Friends have noticed this.

There are about a thousand reasons why this will likely not work out and I will land on the square marked Heartbreak.  I occasionally visit Anxiety already.  I hate uncertainty.  But I can’t not see this through.  I want to find out about us.

Trust.  Faith.  I am trying to practice both in my life.  Not so much with him, but with the universe, my higher power.  Intimacy.  Yes.  We are building that — slowly.  He lives several states away, so we are forced to go at this pace.  Although the recent addition of Skype dates – we have one tonight – have added a heat to the flame.

I have not told him every single thing about me – emotionally vomiting, as if to say, “So can you handle that?”  And, obviously, I have not slept with him.  I haven’t led with my sexuality – my one-time calling card – either.  Refraining from saying things like, “I think about you bending me over the butcher block and hiking up my dress around my waist.”  I think them instead.

"Ungentlemanly Behavior."  Artist, Cathi Schwalbe.
“Ungentlemanly Behavior.” Artist, Cathi Schwalbe.

Loss.  Grief.  I still find myself here sometimes too.  Not as deeply entrenched as I once was.  I am no longer up to my knees in it.  I am standing in the sun, my feet wet, in a puddle left from the storm.

Post-divorce, grieving the loss of the fantasy, that that one person will be there no matter what.  Always.  That this love will quiet that part of me that silently screams “Don’t leave me.”  It is a lie.

Day one of my life on the planet.  Separated from my mother.  I do not recall a second of it.  Yet I know a part of my work here is to heal it.

I watch it get kicked up and manifest in unconscious, desperate attempts for control and certainty.  As if that will heal me.  But it doesn’t.  Neither did a husband.  Nor meeting my biological parents.  The work is mine alone.

I move on to a series of men’s shirt collars embroidered with real messages from the artist’s experiences with online dating.  “What kind of underwear girl are u?”  “Every young man want to get laid by a gray hair lady.” “You want a naughty pic?”  It reminds me I have not finished my Match.com profile.  And that I probably won’t.

There are maps covered with pins and handwritten notes.  Heart-shaped boxes filled with broken glass and newspaper clippings. A video of a woman covered in striped fabric dancing with a bee.

I return for a third time to a piece titled, “Love Letter.”  It is long and tall, like a body.  With hair at the top, words winding down the center, like buttons, and rocks circling the bottom.  The artist, Sherry Antonini writes, “Love Letter is a meditation on listening inward and noticing outward; on persistence and on beginning again with what is left over.”

I read the poem running down her torso again.  It is still too much to take in.  So I photograph it – in pieces.

“Keep time.  But throw away most other things, including reasons to worry…Watch for signs, however small.  Push through with ideas, envisioning them as even bigger than you think they deserve to be.  Do this until you can once again see yourself shine…

"Love Letter."  Artist, Sherry Antonini.
“Love Letter.” Artist, Sherry Antonini.

“Make a list of the things you hold at core.  Those essences nearly forgotten, cast aside for too long…Months or years it is that you have been bound tight and stilled, silenced in some darkness.  But the beauty of light is insistent…

“First, you fill up a room, then you empty it, one piece at a time and all in its right time.  No one can tell you not to.  Or that you can’t.  That you never will.  Or won’t ever again.

“When you rotate the stones point them in line with your heart’s desire, you put your hands once again on your own gleam of power and touch possibility.”

I head toward the front door as my friends are entering.  Unplanned.  Serendipity.  I meet them, filled, spilling over.  Love.  Joy.  And later, this man who makes me smile big, on Skype.  He notices my grin and tells me he likes it.  I read him the poem, still trying to sort my way through it.  Intimacy.  Faith.  Desire.

Advertisements

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 50: When the Messenger is Hot

My friend Betsy gave me a book of hers a few days after I turned 40 – one that she wrote, as opposed to one that once upon a time made a difference in her life but is now collecting dust on the shelf.  Just after I told her about my crush on a mutual friend of ours.

when the messenger is hotI told her that I was committed to the commitment of my marriage.  That I loved my husband.  That we had grown in wildly different directions, and were continuing to do so.

That I would see this other guy, our mutual friend, every Saturday morning in a church basement, where we would sit across the table from one another.  That he was funny and smart, a writer.  That he spoke my brand of crazy, which meant that when I talked, he would nod in that knowing way.  The same way I nodded when he spoke.

That I was pretty sure he liked me after he brought me an entire smoked salmon for my 39th birthday.  And that I liked him.  (Blog: I Think the Fish Guy Likes Me)

Or perhaps I just liked the way he made me feel.  Seen.  Heard.  Understood.

Betsy made a happy-sad face and told me the story of When the Messenger is Hot.

I’m standing in The Brown Elephant thrift store in Andersonville – Artist Date 50.  Her book of short stories by the same name stares back at me from the shelves of fiction.

I smile a big toothy grin.  It’s some sort of message, I think.  Which is really the crux of the When the Messenger is Hot.

That people, objects, and experiences come into our lives for a reason.

Sometimes their appearance, or disappearance, is painful.  Sometimes it looks nothing like what we imagined.

And sometimes, according to Betsy, God provides a pretty attractive delivery vehicle to make certain we pay attention.  In her case, a bad boy with the heart of a poet and a tattoo on the inside of each of his wrists, Chinese symbols for “child of God.”

She thought he might be the love of her life.  Or at least great sex.  Instead, she came to see him, and their single date – which she rated among her top 5 – but never led to another, as a template of what a date should look like – “…love songs and flowers and candles and lollipops.”  A reason to have faith.  A harbinger of things to come.

I’m still not sure what message the Fish Guy came to deliver me.  That there are attractive men all around who will bring me clever and intimate gifts that say, “I know you?”  (Because really, I don’t know any women other than myself who would swoon over a piece of fish.)  That my then-husband wasn’t the only one?  My own harbinger of things to come?

That my brand of crazy really isn’t so crazy?  That that “too much” that I fear being, really isn’t too much?

The Fish Guy moved away from Chicago – to Florida, so he could fish.  Seriously.  But the message of When the Messenger is Hot stuck with me.

The words became my shorthand for meeting someone seemingly special and not getting what I thought I wanted.  And an opportunity to look for lessons where I thought there might be love.

The teacher who taught me about spiritual intimacy through shared prayer and meditation, and long conversations about God.

When I was the muse.
When I was the muse.

The Southern Svengali who taught me about creative companionship.  What it was to be inspired by another, to have a muse.  And to be a muse.

The divorce buddy who taught me about unconditional love and friendship.  Who packed my car and drove me home from the West Coast to Chicago, even when things were awkward and clunky between us.

I think about buying Betsy’s book, just because it is here.  Even though I already have a copy.  Even though I have sent copies to several of my friends.  But I leave it.

I pick up a collection of short stories titled Tongue Party, and a hardback copy of Like Water for Chocolate, both for $1.37, instead – curious what messages they will deliver.

Doing It Again. Confessions of a Reluctant Doula.

I vowed I would never do this again.

And yet, the words tumbled out of my mouth.  At the same time both jumbled and awkward, certain and clear.  Clover reflected them back to me.

With Clover, on one of our many gelato/sorbet dates this summer.
With Clover, on one of our many gelato/sorbet dates.

“Are you saying you want to be my doula?”

“Um…yes.  I guess.”

Pause.  Smile.  Squint.  Think.  Nod.  Nod again, excitedly.

“Yes.  Yes, I do.  If you will have me.”

She stood up from her chair — her pregnant belly announcing itself to all those around us – and threw her arms around me.   Both our eyes wet with tears.

Just a few months earlier, she had told me she was pregnant.

Sitting on the marble wall outside of the Sulzer Library.  It was summer and we had just polished off our cups from Paciugo – sorbet for her, gelato for me.  I was talking about boys.  None of it new or terribly important.

And when I stopped, she was talking about babies.  Specifically, her baby.

Later that night, we danced in the street to a band from West Africa.  And when she was tired I walked her home, suddenly terribly protective.  I called her Lil Mama – what a boy from South Carolina used to affectionately call me – and told her I would support her in any way I could.

So it shouldn’t have surprised either of us when I offered to be her doula.

Except that I am not certified as a doula.  Greek for “a woman who serves.”

I am a pre-natal massage therapist and instructor.  A friend.  Terribly interested in the miracles our bodies engender.

And I’ve done this once before.  A little more than six years ago, for my oldest and dearest friend Julie.

My then-husband and I were preparing to move from California for his medical residency.  In the two months leading up to our departure, we would travel to Chicago to look for a home, and to Oklahoma for my ex-boyfriend’s wedding.

Julie asked that I consider a third trip – to Detroit, for the birth of her son.  She wanted me to be her doula.

I was in an underground parking lot when I received her call.

Every fiber in my being wanted to say no.  It wasn’t practical.  It was expensive.  I felt overwhelmed.

The words that flew out of my mouth were, “Of course.”

Before the birth, with Julie.
Before the birth, with Julie.

I arrived a few weeks later – three days before her due date, and departing four days after.  It was spring.  No one thought my schedule and the baby’s would sync.  We gave it to the universe.

We spent our days on long walks.  Visiting her mother.  Talking – about everything and nothing.  Like we always do.

I massaged her legs while she sat on the exam table in a flowered gown, waiting for the obstetrician.  And pressed acupressure points on her hands and feet – “downward elevators” in Chinese medicine.

We ate a late breakfast following a trip to the gym – her last before becoming a mother.  Julie wanted to use the elliptical machine.  (She swears this is what started her labor.)  She ate little of her French toast.   Her stomach pushed so far up into her ribs, it left little room for food.

Around 11 p.m. that night I got the call.  It was time.

I met Julie at the hospital door.  Steve parked the car.

We walked the hospital floors for an hour, until she was dilated enough to be admitted.

Once in her room, we talked and laughed and napped over the next many hours.  Somewhere there are photographs of me wrapped up in blankets, looking like a woman from the old country.

Her husband fed me crackers and peanut butter.  I watched Julie instinctively comfort herself.  She labored many hours, insisting on a vaginal birth – even though the doctor on call wanted to perform a C-section.

Thankfully, the labor nurses supported her choice.

At their urging, I held up one her legs and counted her contractions out loud until hoarse.  Jaron’s head emerged.  Then his shoulder.  And then the rest of him – slipping out quickly like a fish.

I saw him first and looked at Julie with wet eyes, nodding.  I didn’t have any words.

Jaron was placed under a heat lamp, like a Big Mac, while the doctor tended to Julie, and the nurse made notes.   He looked wise, terribly nonplussed by this abrupt move from his inner world out.

“You’ve done this before,” I said.

Right after the birth.  My first time as a doula.
Right after the birth. With Jaron.

They say babies don’t smile right away, but I am certain he did, as he reached into the air.  “Playing with the angels,” Julie said, referring to the idea in mystic Judaism that babies are born so pure they can see angels.  A lovely idea.

I returned to the hospital the next day.  Julie was eating a cold grilled cheese and French fries – seemingly already accustomed to the realities of motherhood.

She told me I should do this work professionally.  “Never,” I replied.

A few years later her niece asked me to come to New York to be her doula.  I was flattered, but politely declined.

I didn’t want to be on call.  Couldn’t imagine putting a price to the work.  Wasn’t willing to sleep on a fold-out chair for just anyone.  Just her.

I was grateful for the experience.  To be invited so intimately into my friend’s life.  But I had no desire to repeat it.

Until I did.

Clover had just gone public with her pregnancy on Facebook.

As we ate perhaps our last gelato and sorbet of the season, I intuitively knew that I would be there.  Sleeping on a fold-out chair, eating crackers and peanut butter, a blanket wrapped around my head like a babushka.  Serving the miracle.

Avoiding the Deliberate Manufacturing of Misery

2013-08-15 09.57.14Part of the “uniform” of my 20s was a black, suede backpack.  I was living in San Francisco, but bought it at St. Mark’s Place in New York.  Its contents varied depending on where I was going, but two things were a constant– condoms and a portable toothbrush.

These two items collectively served as a reminder that I was ready for anything.  And that the world was full of possibilities.  A sort of slutty message of hope.

I’m not in my 20s anymore.

And yet, I’ve been carrying around a handful of condoms in my bag – tucked into a zippered case, attached on a string – ever since my ex asked me for a divorce last May.

My friend Mary Kate noticed them last week when I was leaving her house, as I was pulling my keys out of the zippered case.  I saw her glance.  Not in a nosy way… just following my hands.

Busted.

I told her about the black backpack.  San Francisco.  The condoms and the toothbrush.  How I felt like anything was possible.

I also told her I felt like a 14-year-old boy who carries around a condom for so long that his wallet is now imprinted with a circle.  But that carrying them somehow reminded me that I’m ready.  Like a Boy Scout.  “Because you never know where you are going to meet someone…”

She laughed.  She always laughs – it is one of her more charming qualities – and teasingly said, “Right.  You’ll just meet some guy, bring him home and sleep with him?”

Hmmm…

She already knew the answer.  So did I.

Once upon a time, “Yes.”  But not anymore.

Not because I’ve had an ideological shift.  It’s not a question of morals.  Never has been.  Just the painful awareness – which I’ve written about at length – that I am not capable of casual.   And the guidance I’ve been given to avoid the manufacture of my own misery.

I learned that with Mr. Thursday Night last spring.  And with the Southern Svengali in the fall.

It’s not about the sex.  (Because we didn’t have sex.)  It’s not about ridiculously-devilishly-handsome good looks.  (Although both of them possessed those.)

It’s the connection.  The energy.  The emotional intimacy.  That’s the turn on…and what ultimately brings me to a physical connection.  I thought it was always my body moving too fast.  But really it’s my mouth.  My ears.  My heart.

I mentioned this conversation to a friend the next day.  She asked if it had occurred to me that every time I open that zippered case – which is several times a day, as I keep my keys in there also – I remind myself of the sex I am not having.  Or, more to the point, of the intimacy – both physical and emotional – that I do not have in my life right now.

It had not.

The deliberate manufacturing of my own misery.

She continued speaking but I heard little of what she said as I was stuck on this new idea.  I unzipped the pouch, pulled out the sleeve of condoms, walked into my bedroom and put them in the drawer next to my bed.  All the while, she kept talking.

“I just took them out of my bag,” I interrupted.

I added that should I find myself in the position where I “just have to have sex, right here, right now,” I can go to a Walgreens – most of them are open 24/7.

“Perhaps that would serve as a pause,” she replied.

Genius.

It’s been a little over a week since I took the condoms out of my bag.  And the world still feels full of possibilities.

Epilogue: In taking photographs for this blog, I noticed that the condoms had expired.  I promptly tossed them in the trash.

New Ring. Old Questions. Remembering Mr. Thursday.

IMAG0652

I spent last Memorial Day weekend with my friend Ernie at his beach house in Westport, Washington.  It was cool and grey, not unlike the weather here today in Chicago.  Except that it was expected, as it is usually that way.

We cooked and talked and listened to the soundtrack from Saturday Night Fever over and over.  We napped and read and took long walks on the beach where we created a healing ritual: The Sacred Spiral.

It was a response to the shame both of us had known in relationships, coupled with Ernie’s own experiences dragging a large stick in wet sand in a circular pattern, ever-widening, until it touched the shore on one side, the tide on the other.

We did this in silence, often crossing over one another’s markings.  At the end, we each wrote a message in the sand.  Mine was, “God is Good.”   A reference to a conversation I had just a few days before.

I haven’t thought about that weekend in a while, until this past Thursday.  I was buying an enviro-sac, an overpriced bag that rolls up small and lives in one’s purse, ready for the impromptu shopping trip.  As I was paying for it, I spied a ring in the display case –long and wide with a big, blue stone set in the center.  The typewritten tag next to it read: 1970s cocktail ring. $16.

I slid it on.  My small hand appeared longer, elegant.

I had the immediate thought that with this on my left hand, I could now sell my wedding and engagement rings.  Different finger, but no matter.  It closed the space.

I bought it.

IMAG0246Walking home, I thought about where I was at this time last year, and suddenly remembered exactly where I was at this time last year, the Thursday before Memorial Day.

I was kissing a man who wasn’t my husband.

Not long after asking for a divorce, my husband casually remarked that we were “free agents.”  I was floored, but I chose not to fight it, or fight him.  The ending had already been written.  We were just uncomfortably in the middle, clumsily navigating our way there.

The kiss was clean.

We had known one another for a couple of months.  We’d been flirtatious.  He too was going through a divorce.  It felt obvious.  That evening, electric.

His lips over mine.  My face in his hands.  New.  Unfamiliar.  Searching.

He showed me the scar where his gall bladder was taken out.  He asked me about the scars on my breasts.

We took a walk in the woods, our arms linked, talking and kissing and talking and kissing.  His dog leading the way, turning back from time to time to make sure we were still following.

He told me his story and when he was done said, “Now you.”   He wanted to tell me who he was.  He wanted to know me.

I sat on his lap in the kitchen before leaving that night.  Words rumbling in my mouth, behind my face.  I wanted to say them but I was afraid they sounded silly.  I told him anyway.  I said, “God is good.”

He laughed, looked straight through me with his crinkly eyes and said, “God IS good.”  And he kissed me.

I took to referring to him as Mr. Thursday, because I wanted to respect his privacy.  At least, that’s what I told myself.  I think somewhere deep in me I knew that was all he would be –Mr. Thursday.  Mr.-Thursday-right-before-Memorial-Day-2012 to be exact, as we never connected in that way again.

I talked to Ernie about him that weekend.  How I somehow already knew this wasn’t going to go my way, even though I didn’t want to know it.

Thursday and I had agreed that neither of us were remotely interested in a relationship.  Looking back, I probably would have jumped at one, given the chance.  Anything to get out of my discomfort.  But I bravely told him I was on my way to Africa, and then back to Chicago.  That perhaps we could just enjoy one another’s company.  He agreed.

The next day I woke up with that sick sense of dread.  That what was true yesterday was no longer true today.

It was painful.  All those relationship questions that first bubbled up when I was 12 and Alan Wittenberg didn’t like me back were waiting for me – still unanswered.

“Why doesn’t he like me?” “Why did he change his mind?” “What if I were prettier, thinner, less emotional?”

And then, a more adult concern, “Why do I attach so quickly?”

I didn’t think I would have to address these questions again at this point in my life.  I felt like I had learned nothing.  Like I didn’t know the rules.  My divorce buddy in Chicago, my friend who was three weeks behind in my footsteps, assured me that none of us do.

I haven’t thought about Mr. Thursday in a long time.  My fixation with him was replaced by a fixation on another man, which was replaced by a fixation on another man.  And then that fixation was replaced by truth.  What is versus what I would have liked it to be.

I find myself in a place I’ve never been – I am not with a partner, pursuing a partner or lamenting the loss of a one.  It’s strange new territory.  There is no one I’m interested in.  My attention falls simply “on me.”

I called Ernie this weekend and reminded him of where we were a year ago.  About Westport.  About Mr. Thursday.  About seeing his ex on the beach with their dog, Cordelia, and his new partner.  About turning on our heels before they saw us.

Ernie said he and his ex can sit down and talk now – civilized – with no need to turn away.

God IS good.  So is my $16 ring.