Why Yes, I Am A Tourist

First gelato in Rome...
First gelato in Rome…

I used to have this thing about being a tourist.

I never wanted to ask for directions. Carry a map.  I didn’t even want to do anything “touristy” – including going to the top of the Eiffel Tower.  (Thank goodness it was rainy and cold and there was no line, so I submitted.  And, of course, it was fabulous!)

Instead I got lost in the neighborhoods of Puerta Vallarta – where a kind stranger took pity on my ex and me, intuitively knowing we couldn’t possibly be in the right place and asked us where we were trying to go.

Somehow I associated it all with white Reeboks. A fanny pack and speaking very loudly.

The last time I traveled alone – and by alone I mean not meeting a friend or traveling together as a group, which means Dublin and Rwanda don’t count – I went to France.

I was participating in a volunteer project, but I started off with a few days on my own in Paris. Intent on playing the part of the Parisian.

That night I wandered the streets of the City of Lights, slightly drunk – alone. I was scolded for smoking in the non-smoking section of an outdoor café. (Who knew there was one?  In Paris!)  And I called my then-husband sobbing.  I had wanted to travel alone.  And suddenly I felt very alone.  I didn’t like it.

The days that followed weren’t much better. That is, until the day I left for Avignon to join my volunteer team, when I was able to remember a single word of French and use it, thus communicating with an old woman at the train station.  “Plutar.”  She lit up.  “Plutar!  Plutar!”  Yes, yes, I was going to Avignon too – later.

So I was a little bit nervous about coming to Italy alone. Even though I chose it.

I know traveling alone can be lonely. And scary.  There is no one to get lost with.  And it has been my experience that getting lost together is far less scary than getting lost alone.  And yet, at the end of my first day in Rome, I haven’t gotten lost.  And I don’t feel lonely.  Or alone.

Perhaps because I’ve asked a lot of questions. Of the teenage boys on the train from the airport.  “Why did so many kids get on all at once at this stop?  Is there school on Sunday?”  (Nope.  Game and comic festival.)  Of the man behind the counter at the newsstand.  “Can I buy a ticket for Tram 8 here?”  (Yes.)

And of a woman on the platform in the middle of the street. “Is this the right stop for Tram 8 going towards the city center?”  (Yes.  And she even reminded me when we got to the third stop, my stop.   I had mentioned it to her.)

I asked my host where I might eat and he suggested the very same place as a friend of mine in the United States had. And then I asked him to show me on a map how to get there.

I ambled. I rambled.  I looked for street names on buildings and found them on about one-third.  I held out my map and “stood in it” like Joey did in London on Friends.

I got lost. I got found.  Or maybe I just got turned around.  But I didn’t panic.  And along the way I heard music in Piazza Santa Maria Trastevere and enjoyed my first gelato of the trip – yogurt, pistachio-hazelnut-chocolate and single-sourced cocoa.  And just before handing me the cup, the server lopped on an extra spatula full…just because.

I took things slowly. I found my way to the river, crossed over and made my way to Piazza Campo De Fiore.  Yes, given the time I can read a map.  I also found the famed Grom gelato – there’s an outpost shop in Manhattan – but decided to save it for another day.  However that didn’t keep me from checking out the flavors at another shop and tasting the ginseng and one with candied fruit when invited to.

I finished with dinner at Ai Spaghettari – where my host and my friend had suggested and I had the carbonara, also suggested, along with melon and prosciutto and a macchiato.

All around me were Italians glued to the soccer match on television, and a fair number of Americans plotting their next move.   And I was one of them.

Artist Date 27: SHAME Throwing

What I was doing when I thought I'd be "throwing..."
What I was doing when I thought I’d be “throwing…”

I just got home from a gelato date.  Three flavors is a piccolo (small).  I filled my cone with pistachio-almond, yogurt-granola and rose and sat in the square watching children run back and forth and forth and back over a star pattern on the ground – my friend Ernie took a picture of me in this space when he was visiting in the fall.  He thought it was a Star of David and wanted me in the center.  It isn’t.

The sky is pale blue, silky – like underwear.  Clouds like cotton.  The weather has been unsettled for the past two days, and I too, along with it.

I feel acutely alone in this moment, which is strange as I spent the better part of the day with people I love.

During the winter I often spent Saturday nights alone – by choice.  I looked forward to cozying in, midnight blue outside my window – cooking, writing, sprawled out on the shiny, moss-green futon.  Summer feels different, like all the world is out – together.

I remember when my friend Teresa found herself “suddenly single” after a many-years long relationship.  Understanding why, on Monday, I was making plans for Saturday.  “If you don’t, you end up alone,” she surmised.

And yet, I chose this “alone” – for Artist’s Date 27.  But I never quite made it.

I thought I’d throw pottery at Lill Street Art Center.  I attended my first, First-Time Potter class on Wednesday.  Studio time – every day from 10 to 10—is included in the fee and students are encouraged to go practice.

But I didn’t go.  I talked on the phone with Chase, then Monica.  I went for gelato.  I told myself, and Chase, that I was tired.  That I needed to take it easy.  Maybe.  But mostly I think I was afraid.

What if I don’t remember how to start the wheel?  What if I can’t get the tray that sits around the wheel collecting water to snap into place?  (I had trouble on Wednesday.)  What if the wheel is running in the wrong direction – clockwise, like how they throw in Japan, instead of counter?  I vaguely remember Robert, the instructor, telling us the wheel turns in both directions, to make certain it is running counter-clockwise.  He did not tell us what to do if it is not.

My friend Mark recently told me an acronym for SHAME.  Should Have Already Mastered Everything.  Genius.

I get caught up in my pride and it stops me from moving forward.

And yet, I am moving forward.  I signed up for the class.  I went.  I kind of sucked – I certainly had not Mastered Everything.  And I loved it.

I was afraid that night too.

Afraid I wouldn’t be able to tolerate the painful callous that developed on the side of my hand the last time I tried to learn to throw.  Afraid I wouldn’t like it.  Afraid I would be an utter failure.

I didn’t develop a callous.  The wheel wasn’t painful against my skin.  Different clay, I was told.

I wasn’t an utter failure.  Two of four pieces will be fired and glazed.

I did like it.  All of it.

Will the final week of class look like this?
Will the final week of class look like this?

Buying my supply kit and writing my initials on each piece with a Sharpie marker, my full name on my blue water pail.  Picking up a 25-pound bag of clay and splitting it with a partner – separating the four vertical logs from one another, each of us taking two.

My clay “partner” is here with two of her friends.  They just graduated from high school and live in the suburbs.  One of their mothers dropped them off here.

They seem so young, so brave.

I run a wire twice through my logs and place four disks of clay in front of me.  Robert teaches us to wedge the clay, to take the air out of it and prepare it for use.

I roll one wedged disc into a ball, stick a thumb in the center, and form a pinch pot.  As we get acquainted with the clay, we introduce ourselves, sharing a bit about what brought us to this moment, this studio, this canvas table.

There is a couple taking the class together.  A woman who just moved from Minneapolis and thought this would be a good way to meet friends.  A woodworker.

I mention that I always wanted to go to art school.  That at 43 I can send myself.  The words tumble out of my mouth.  They feel profound, true.

I remember my friend Robyn saying our parents tie our shoes until we can tie them ourselves.  Throw us birthday parties until we can throw our own.

Robert moves to a wheel and we gather around him, watching him craft a simple bowl.  He shows us how to throw the clay on the wheel – “throwing” pottery.  How to center.  How to bring it up, bring it out.  He tells us to keep our clay wet.  Shiny.

We nod our heads.  Fill our buckets with water and go to our wheels.  My mind is blank.  I put my foot on the pedal.  Nothing.  The woodworker is sitting next to me.  He smiles and points to the “on” switch.  I smile back.

I throw the clay and press it down, pour water on the wheel.  I am having difficulty bringing it up.  Robert shows me how.  The bottom is too thick.  He shows me how to thin it out.

It is rising.  It looks good.  I don’t stop.   It collapses onto itself.  I throw it onto a board and put my initials in the clay with a tool.  I will let it dry out and re-wedge it to use again.

My second bowl goes better.  It is small.  Imperfect.  A reasonable effort.

Robert calls us to him again and demonstrates another bowl.  It makes more sense now that I have been on the wheel.  We return to our stations.  I remember things he has said.  To angle my finger at 5 o’clock to widen the bowl.  It feels like arriving home for the first time in a new city, without getting lost.  Without using a GPS

My third bowl collapses onto itself.  The fourth joins my second on a piece of wood, hydroplaned on.  I cover it with dry-cleaning plastic wrap and put it on my shelf – the one assigned to me for the next four weeks.

Cleaning up, I watch the potters in the advanced classes.  Their work is beautiful.  Elegant.  Effortless.  Perhaps I will be like them one day.  I am over my SHAME.  I know there is no reason to believe I Should Have Already Mastered this.  Or anything else.  Not even my Artist Dates.

Artist’s Date 25: Following Breadcrumbs and Cleaning Up My Insides

Andrew-Gilliatt-April-2013-60-300x300
Bowl by Andrew Gilliat

I believe in “following the breadcrumbs.”  Like Hansel and Gretl, noting the obvious signs and trusting that I will always be led – if I listen.

I was on the fence about my destination for this week’s Artist Date – Number 25.  My friend Kiki mentioned she might drop by a reception at Lillstreet Art Center – one of my considerations.  Her noncommittal musing was just enough to point my compass.

I’ve been to Lillstreet just once before, for a fundraiser.  I imagined I would return here often, but I have not.  I pass it all the time and I think about going in.  I pour over the website trying to decide which class to sign up for.  I am intimidated and ultimately do nothing.

This is ironic as I am greeted by a most friendly staffer at the door.  She tells me the photography show opening today, Midwest Contemporary, is on two floors.  That beer is on the main floor, wine is on the second – in case that helps guide my decision in terms of where to begin.  It doesn’t.

But the pottery does.  Porcelain slab platters etched with lines that look like a teenage girl’s cutting.  Bowls and plates covered with repeating whimsical patterns.  Forks and knives, swings, balloons and birds in matte glaze. 

I’ve considered the First-Time Potter class here but have been leaning toward Drawing-into-Painting.  Pottery is messy and I don’t really have “pottery clothes.”  I can draw anywhere.  Yet I keep picking up the fired clay.  Running my fingers over it.  Cupping it in my hand.

I remember ceramics class in high school.  Mr. B and I argued about everything – even about how often I peed.  He said I was a sloppy student.  That I didn’t clean my edges, my insides.  It sounds true – of my work.  Of my blurry boundaries and the messy parts inside of me.

I did craft beautiful pieces in his class though.  A platter with a teal drip glaze.  A coil vase with a long neck – large and genie-like, big enough for Barbara Eden to pop out of.  My mother displays both of them in her home.  

I look up toward the photography on the wall – my chosen medium in college until I switched my major from fine art to journalism.  There is a large, creepy photograph of a doll’s head – battered and old.  I don’t like it.  I read the artist’s statement.  She photographs vintage dolls.  The cracks in their exteriors representing the broken parts in us all – some that might never be “fixed” in this lifetime.  I still don’t like the picture, or the doll’s eyes.  But I like the idea of it.

There is work from an artist who earned his MFA from Michigan State University – my alma mater.  It wasn’t known for its art department when I was a student.  I wonder how it has changed.

There is another of a trailer park along the Russian River in California with a big Paul Bunyan figure looming over the camp.  It is part of a series chronicling the photographer’s vacation destinations as a child.  I’m pretty sure I’ve been here.

I wander up to the second floor.  There is a second photograph of trailers, this one from Williston, North Dakota.  Hydraulic fracking boom town.   Michael and I drove through here on our way back to Chicago from Seattle.  It reeked of testosterone and crystal meth.  Unsettling.

There is a photograph of a young African-American man looking straight into the lens.  Into me.  The photographer is from Saginaw, Michigan – where my mother grew up. 

midwest contemporary show
“Elliot,” by Sarah-Marie Land

I feel alone.  I go downstairs , returning to the pottery, and strike up a conversation with another woman, also alone.   She likes the bowls and goblets adorned with animals.  Anything with animals, she says.  I do not, but say nothing.   As the room fills up I am acutely aware of my single-ness.  I think about staying and listening to the live music, but I’m not sure where to perch myself.

I decide to leave instead. 

This is the first time my Artist Date feels lonely, that I don’t feel filled up by it.  On the way out I stop and talk briefly with the friendly staffer who greeted me.  I remember Kiki mentioning her friend’s reception is private, on the roof – that I would have to ask to get up there.  So I do.

I am directed to the back of the building, through the music and pottery and photography, through double doors. I ask a tall man/boy with a red beard and glasses if this is the way to the roof. He says yes and we climb the stairs together. Two of mine for every one of his.

It is sunny and clear.  People are drinking wine.  I do not see my friend.  I turn to go back down.  The bearded man/boy says, “Yep.  A lot of roof.”   We walk down together.  I am not sure why he has come here.  I ask him if he has a studio here.  He does not.  He peels off to a classroom on the third floor and I go down to two.  There are open artist studios.  I missed them my first time up. 

I walk into one.  There are slabs of clay with what looks like hieroglyphics on them.  The artist is talking with a couple about her work and they rope me into conversation.  I ask about the tall, smooth pieces with wild insides.  They are wide.  Almost as big around as I, and climbing higher than my waist. 

Each represents a character from Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.”  The blue queen is smooth outside, but inside “she is mourning.”   I see it.  I see the glazed clay crying inside, rounded discs turned down upon themselves like leaves.  I wonder if this is what I look like inside.

A second character is smooth and orange-y outside, fiery and sharp inside.  She is angered by how the king has treated the mourning queen.  A third is green.  A girl child left in the woods, raised by a shepherd.  She is smooth inside as well as out.  Peaceful.

I return to a jewelry studio I couldn’t make my way into before.  Too small.  Too many people.  Edith Robertson is talking with a friend.  She has a blonde-ish/white-ish bob and turquoise eye liner.  She immediately greets me, inviting me to try on whatever I like.  She puts her hand on my arm.  Warm.

I pick up a choker made of gathered strands of thin wire with a long crystal hanging from it.  It looks like a stalactite. Or is it a stalagmite?  A piece of lapis lazuli adorns the back side – a hidden surprise.

I think of my friend Julie and the days I spent with her after her mother died, offering massage and bodywork to her family.  Of her friend Karen whisking me off to her house, plopping me into an overstuffed chair and placing a crystal in each hand. 

The effect was immediate.  Electric.  Like a volt of energy seizing my body.  I imagined smoke coming off of me, as if I had fried a chip.  I was out.  When I awoke about 20 minutes later, I felt like I had been put back together.  I wonder if this crystal would do the same for me.

Edith and I quickly realize our paths have been crossing one another for the better part of 30 years.  In Detroit.  In San Francisco.  And now in Chicago.  That the universe has been conspiring for us to meet.

She tells me that making jewelry is her second act.  I tell her about mine.  About my Artist Dates and my return to writing.  We talk about Germany – her birthplace.  The first place I traveled overseas.   She has the same last name as my ex-husband.

We talk until a couple walks in and I hand her over to them.   I sign her guest book, leaving her with my email address and her necklace.  Perhaps another time. 

I walk down the stairs and out the door, thinking about connections.  About clay classes and cleaning up my edges, my insides.  About breadcrumbs.