Artist Date 82: Avec moi-même

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Big Kahuna Yard Sale.  The Chicago Mosaic School.  Viva Vintage Clothing.

I am walking down Ravenswood Avenue, following the elevated Metra rail tracks.  A pathway I have taken hundreds of times.  Except that I usually don’t go south of Montrose.  I haven’t had a reason to.  And I usually walk on the east side only.

Except today.

Artist Date 82.

Earlier tonight I ditched my plans to attend an end of Ramadan feast for Muslims and Jews.  I am tired and overwhelmed and this small gesture seems like a big step towards self-care.

It is not easy as I am of the variety who fears missing out on something fantastic.  Of the variety more comfortable going and doing than sitting and being.  Even though I have maintained a meditation practice for more than 12 years.  Even though I make my living, in part, doing massage – the stillest work I can imagine.

I like an Artist Date rich with stimulation – music, prayer, food, potential tumult.  Like an end of Ramadan feast.

But today I choose to fill myself in the quietest, stillest way I know how.  Doing one of the only two things that made any sense to me during my divorce and for months after.  I am walking.  (Writing being the other.)  Walking somewhere familiar.  (Ravenswood between Lawrence and Montrose.) And then somewhere new. (Ravenswood between Montrose and Irving Park.)

It seems like such innocuous newness.  Hardly worth mentioning.  And yet, I see all sorts of things for the first time.

A Latin restaurant.  A pilates studio.  Ballroom dancing lessons.

A beer-tasting room.  Several artist studios.  AVEC painted on a building.  And again on a bridge.

French taggers?

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I take photographs of the tags and send them to a friend along with a text that reads, “Um…how do you pronounce that?!”— referencing the hotel concierge who suggested he and his date have dinner at (emphasis on hard A)vec.

He texts back “Aye-Veck!” and “Aw, Heck” and continues on and on in French.  I get about two-thirds of it, then confess I know just enough French to order pastry and ask for directions without embarrassing myself in Paris.  (I may or may not understand the response, depending on the speed of the speaker.)

We go back and forth like this for a bit and I realize I am very much AVEC.  I am very much WITH my friend.  Which is lovely and fun.  I adore him and we laugh a lot.  But this is not why I am here, wandering Ravenswood Avenue, alone.

I think about the rules I created early on for my Artist Dates: Do not do anything I wouldn’t do on a “real” date.  Answer a telephone call or text.  Listen to music.  Check Facebook on my phone.

Eighty-two dates in, I’ve loosened up on the rules, perhaps even forgetting them – until now.

I stop texting and slip the phone in my pocket.

I am amazed how quickly, how easily I can be pulled from myself, from one moment into another, from what is right in front of me.

Forty-five minutes ago I took my ear buds out and paused Aretha Franklin on Pandora.  The sound of the Queen of Soul distracted me from myself, so I put the music away.  Now the words and this relationship distract me.  I put them away too and return to myself.

AVEC moi-même.  With myself.

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Seduced By Words

My friend Rachel met Philip Roth when she was a university student.

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The book that started the seduction.

I was wildly envious.  He was my literary idol, inspiring a poem I titled, “Philip Roth Will Save My Life.”

She told me I shouldn’t be.

She said he was coarse, almost mean.  Not at all who she imagined him to be.  She had been seduced by his words.

Me too.  As well as Erica Jong’s, Charles Bukowski’s Anais Nin’s and a long list of other’s.

Most recently, I’ve been seduced by the words of strangers – men looking for love, or something like it, on OKCupid.

Clever words couched in a seemingly shared commonality, ending abruptly when moved from screen to voice.

I should not be entirely surprised.

I’d learned about the chasm between the written word and reality, online and real-time, this past fall when a friend, a man 12 years my junior, told me in no uncertain terms exactly what he would like to do to me.  Exactly.  And while he made good on his promises a few days later, the flirty simpatico we shared on screen was lost in real life.  All hands.  No heart.

I was reminded of this truth once again on Friday – my first, OKCupid coffee date.

We made plans a few weeks out due to Passover and my schedule.  During that time we exchanged several messages, but we never spoke on the phone.

I told him how to make fried matzoh, and made him promise to cover it with real maple syrup.  He told me about a cartoon character his kids like who carries a flask of the stuff.

While I wasn’t convinced this was a romantic connection, he seemed like someone I would want to know.

In person our conversation was clunky, awkward – made worse by bad acoustics and me having to lean in and ask “what?” constantly.

We didn’t talk about his children’s adoption.  Or mine.  Or even about maple syrup, cartoons or writing – which we both do.  We talked about our divorces (Hmm…) and our experiences on OKCupid.  (Mine being rather limited.)

I didn’t go into the date with expectations greater than a cup of Intelligentsia, decaf –as it was after 3.  And yet, I felt sad.

I suppose there is always some level of hope – What if? Perhaps?  Otherwise we would never meet strangers over coffee in the first place.

I miss my ex-husband.

He was solid.  I could trust him.  He showed up.  Period.  Even if it wasn’t always in the way I might hope.

I am also clear about what didn’t work.  Why we divorced.

Two years after separating, I feel like I am finally grieving.

I miss Mr. 700 Miles — my most recent romance — too.  Even though, I couldn’t trust him.  He wasn’t solid.  He couldn’t show up.  I miss the connection that cut straight through the internet, through phone calls, texts and video chats.  The feeling that I could talk to him all night and into tomorrow and we’d never run out of things to say, or ways to delight one another.

I am grieving him too.  Or perhaps the idea of him.  The idea of us.

I get into my car and head north toward Wicker Park, where I will meet my friends in a church basement.  Later we will have dinner at the Birchwood, where I will eat a green salad with warm lentils, squash and bacon and drink hot water with lemon.  I couldn’t be happier.

My mind wanders, thinking about the rest of the weekend.

Dinner with my girlfriends on Saturday night.

A Sunday morning dance class and performance.  And later in the afternoon a salon hosted by my friend Megan – my Artist Date of the week –where her friend Peggy will read from her just-published collection of essays.  In between, I will work on editing my friend Martha’s new novel.

I feel excited about my days.  About my life.  And grateful for it.  Grateful for its juicy-ness, with or without a partner.

I am not certain this is true for all people – looking for love or otherwise.  I feel lucky.

And a little wiser now too.

I know what I read, on the page or on the screen is only part of the story.  I need to listen, to hear it too.

What is being said.  And not said.

The sound of gentleness.  Laughter.  Banter.  Ease.

And my heart – beating just a little more quickly.

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.

Artist Date 35: Disgusting, Filthy, Transcendent, Delicious Neruda

nerudaThe other day my friend Gene asked what poetry I was reading.   I wasn’t.  I wasn’t reading anything at all.  Nothing since the juicy Anne Sexton biography, the one that served as an introduction for us.

I asked him to make a suggestion.  He didn’t hesitate.

Pablo Neruda.

“Disgusting, filthy, transcendent, delicious.”  His words not mine.  I was immediately hooked.

A few days later, I am at the Harold Washington Public Library, looking for Neruda – Artist Date 35.

I saw this place for the first time just a few months ago, on the way to a party in the South Loop.   Driving down State Street, I asked my friend Liz what the building was with the great green gargoyles on top.  She told me it was the library.  I made a mental note and kept driving.

The gargoyles are calling me as I approach it.  I feel giddy and excited to be here, in this place I’ve never been before.

Disgusting, filthy, transcendent, delicious.  Seemingly homeless men are sitting on the low wall outside of the library.  I take a photograph of the El train sign and am hit by the stench of sewer.  I suddenly realize this is the Library stop.  The only time I pass it is on my way to Midway airport, when I have to travel the whole of the Loop before heading south.  I feel silly.  Like I should have known.

2013-08-15 15.36.13I walk in a side door and follow the marble hallway to the main entrance.  I have never been in a library this grand.  The one at Michigan State University may have been larger, but it looked like post-Cold War “throw-up architecture.”  Like the kind I saw in Dresden.  Utilitarian.

I don’t recall visiting “the main library” in any city.  I have tended toward community branches in Oakland, Seattle, the suburbs of Detroit, and here in Chicago.  I am shocked and a little horrified.  In fact, I don’t want to admit it here.

I think of George Peppard slipping his book into the stacks at the New York Public Library, Audrey Hepburn at his side.  Genius.

Kids are playing ping-pong in the room to my left – some sort of summer program.  Ping-pong.  It feels almost quaint.

I climb the stairs to the third floor – circulation.  I look up Neruda on the research computer that has replaced the card catalog.  Seventh floor.  On my way up, I read the quotes painted on to the walls.

“My Alma Mater is the Chicago Public Library,” David Mamet.  “Wisdom begins in wonder,” Socrates.

I look at the sculptural art.   Twisted wood.  Women leaning against the wall.  They look so serene.  So comfortable.  I want to lean in like that.  Feel that safe.

I stop at the post highlighting today’s activities.  “Inside the Whale,” a dance performance.  The story of a woman swallowed by a whale, and how she learns to live in her own skin.  Too bad I missed it.  I could use a few tips.

I am looking for PQ8097.N428713.  I wander into the language section.  Books and magazines in Japanese, Russian, Arabic.  I like how the characters look, neatly lined up in rows.

Continuing on, I am face to spine with a slew of books on publishing.  How Fiction Works.  Writing Erotic Romance.  How to Grow a Novel.

2013-08-15 16.08.21I pull So You Want to Write: How to Master the Craft of Writing Fiction and Memoir by Marge Piercy and Ira Wood from the shelf.  It does not seem like a mistake.  I tuck in under my arm and keep walking until I find Neruda … waiting for me.

He is sloppy.  His books are not lined up neatly, orderly.  Some are lying on their sides.  Others are upside down.  I randomly pull a few and find a table.

Odes to Opposites.  “Ode to the present.”

“This/moment/as smooth/as a board,/and fresh,/this hour/this day/as clean/as an untouched glass/ – not a single/spiderweb/from the past:…

“This is our/creation,/it’s growing/this very/instant,/kicking up/sand or eating/out of our hand./Catch it,/don’t let it slip away!/Keep it from vanishing into dreams/or words!/Grab it,/pin it down,/make it/obey!/Make it a road/or a bell,/a machine,/a kiss, a book/ or a caress.”

Yes.  Make it into a kiss.  Or a caress.  Please do.

“…try a ladder!/Yes,/a ladder:/rise/out of the moment…Up and/up/but not too much – just high enough/to/patch the holes/in the roof./Not too far;/ you don’t want to reach heaven…You/are/your own moment,/your own apple:/pluck it/from your apple tree./Hold it up/in your/hand:/it shines/like a star./Stroke it,/sink your teeth into it – now off you go/whistling on your way.”

And I do.  With this.  With Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.  With Marge Piercy and Ira Wood.

Later that evening I receive an email from Gene.  He wants to know if Neruda showed up for our date.  I tell him that he did.  That he was a total gentleman.  But that I kind of wish he wasn’t…being divorced for nearly a year and all.  I laugh at my own joke…and sink my teeth into this present.

Like Trying To Hold On To Lightning Bugs

My mother must have the photo I am referring to...This is me and my brother, before the training wheels came off.
My mother must have the photo I am referring to. My brother and I, before the training wheels came off.

I’m trying to hold on to a new idea.  A new behavior.

It’s like trying to hold on to lightning bugs.

It’s like riding a bike for the first time without training wheels and turning around to see if mom is still holding on.

I have a photograph of myself on a pink two-wheeler.  I’m wearing a t-shirt that says A-Jerx.  (There was a whole series of these – gum and trading cards too –a play on words of household brands with artwork leaning towards the grotesque.)  My hair is in pig tails.

I remember leaning side to side, riding in an S-shape pattern trying to steely myself.  Shaky.  But most definitely upright.

Until I turn around.  My mother is several feet behind me, standing in the driveway.  She is no longer holding on.  I am delighted.  I am doing this thing.

And then I’m down on the ground.  I don’t yet know how to keep my balance looking anywhere but forward.  (Do I even now?  In all things…not just biking.)

I feel like that now.  Excited by self-awareness and the practice of new behaviors – seemingly without effort.  And yet a little uncertain at the same time.

I spent the day with my friend Pam on Saturday.  It began with gelato, moved into thrifting, dinner and ended with a stealth run to Trader Joes.  All told we were together for probably six or so hours.  And I could have kept going.

We never run out of things to talk about.  And we giggle, constantly.  When I am with her I feel like I am at a perpetual Bar Mitzvah party at Tam O’Shanter Country Club circa 1982.

Except for when we are baring our souls.  Speaking the words we only whisper to ourselves in the dark.  And being met with love and compassion, always.

It’s awesome.

I told her so on Saturday night when she was dropping me off.

We were giggling about the cute boy at Trader Joes.  The one I chatted with for 20 minutes in front of the canned beans.  The one I gave my number to a couple of weeks ago.  Who sweetly explained that he hadn’t called because things were “complicated.”

While he and I were talking, she posted on Facebook that she was watching a “love connection.”  So she was surprised that he didn’t ask me out.  That we spoke for that long.  That he seemed completely unaware that anyone else was in the store besides us.   That the chemistry, to her perspective, was palpable.  And yet, nothing.

She asked what I thought I might do about it.

“Nothing,” I replied.

He has my number.  He knows I’m interested.  And his landlord is a friend of mine.  He knows where to find me.  “It’s like you taught me,” I said.  “I don’t ever again want to be a dog begging for a bone.”

It was, as they say, a moment.  A spiritual awakening.

I also told her I decided to not contact an old flame when I head to Detroit later this month.   He’d been dancing around in my head for weeks.  And yet I hadn’t contacted him.  Suddenly I knew why.

I “played the tape.”   I realized that, best case scenario…even if I did see him,even if it was like it used to be, that I would be trading my serenity for a passport stamp at Crazy.

I had learned I’m not the kind of girl who can casually physically connect, then say, “That was fun.  I’ll see you next time I’m in Detroit.”  That I get attached.  That I want more.  Deserve more.  That my life is here, in Chicago.  Looking forward.

I told her, and here’s the kicker, I only want to date someone who I have as much fun with as I do her.

She smiled.  I knew what she was thinking.  What she has said to me so many times, “You are growing.”

Pam and I.
Pam and I.

I felt chuffed.  That great British slang my ex-mother-in-law used to use, that roughly translates to “pleased with myself.”   I felt like I had “licked this problem.  This old way of being.”

And then this morning I felt differently.

I saw Mr. Detroit on Facebook.  I immediately thought how nice it would be to catch up on nearly 20 years.  Just coffee…riiiight.

GRRR!!  I thought I “had it,” I told my friend, Lynn.

I told her how I felt like it slipped right through my fingers.  Like the lightning bugs – which half the time I cannot even believe are real, they are so magical.

I remembered all the times I thought “I got this,” in Weight Watchers.  And all the times I gained my weight back.  And then some.  I wondered what was different this time.  How it was that I had maintained a 35-pound weight loss for 11-plus years.  Through three cross-country moves, getting sober, finding my birthparents, getting divorced, and burying a birthparent.

The only answer I could come up with is that I just kept practicing the behaviors.  When they were new.  And when they weren’t so new.   Even when I didn’t feel like it.

I kept weighing and measuring.  Writing down my food.  Moving my body.  Making better choices.  Most of the time.  I haven’t been perfect.  Thank goodness that wasn’t demanded of me.

It isn’t demanded of me with Mr. Detroit.  Or Mr. Trader Joes either.  I can, and will, have these thoughts…these suggested detours to Crazy.  But I’m no longer a slave to them.  I can notice them, perhaps name them, and…not react to them.  I can do different.  And keep on doing different until different becomes the new normal.

Until it’s like riding a bike.  Which today I can do AND look over my shoulder.  Even take my hands off the handlebars, and stay upright.  No longer on the ground wondering what the hell happened.