Artist Date 42: Dressed, Safely Shrouded

I think I need a headdress.

2013-10-03 14.50.37Feathered, painted and beaded.  Like the one I’m standing in front of at the Chicago Art Institute – Artist’s Date 42.  According to the description, it is meant to express a sense of beauty, while spiritually protecting the wearer, providing potency in battle, diplomacy and/or courtship.

I could use that – spiritual protection and potency.  Especially in courtship.  I feel like I’m fumbling all over the place in this suddenly, or not so suddenly, single world.

Perhaps a wig would suffice.  Cover up my naked head.  My naked heart.

My cousin Andrew told me I should consider wearing them.  Over dinner a few weeks ago at a trendy, too loud, see-and-be-seen, restaurant, he leaned in and said, very seriously, “I’ve been giving it some thought…I think you should wear wigs.”

I laughed, but he was dead serious, waxing the possibilities of an Uma Thurman Pulp Fiction bob.   I showed him a photograph of me wearing a large Foxy Brown afro wig many years ago in Oakland.  I told him I wished my hair grew like that.  How I longed to wear a wig but worried about offending people – lest those whose hair grows that way think it is a joke, this seriously small white girl sporting a do belonging to someone else.

We made a date to go wig shopping but never quite made it.

I had forgotten about it until now.

afro lesleyAnd really, I probably shouldn’t be thinking about it now.  Or even be here at all.  My friend Julie arrives from Detroit in a few hours.  Her visit comes on the heels of my friend Ernie’s visit from Seattle, which came on the heels of my trip to Dublin, and precedes my trip to Minneapolis – for my cousin Andrew’s wedding – by just days.

And yet, I am here.  Stealing away for an hour or so, by myself, with no intention any more noble than to see with different eyes, hear with different ears, feel with a different heart.  To leave here a little better than I arrived.  To fill my mind with something other than “me, me, me.”  It is a relief.

My plan was to visit the African Art.  But I am stopped in my tracks in the Native American section.  Thinking about wigs.  About my cousin.  About my other cousin – Diane.

I visited her in Albuquerque when I was 17.  The trip, my first time traveling alone – to see Diane in New Mexico and Andrew in Los Angeles – was a high-school graduation gift from my parents.

I bought suede fringed boots, the kind with no hard sole, on that trip.  They snaked up my legs, stopping just beneath my knees and tied with crisscrossing leather cord.  Burnout style.  And also, a wooden box, the top decorated with a sand painting of Father Sky – it says so in pencil, written on the underside, good for storing treasures.

Diane bought me a miniature wedding vase, a smaller version of the kind I would drink from at my own wedding 15 years later.

It seems like forever ago.  As does my trip to see Diane.  Except the memories of my marriage feel sneakier – unexpected – and not as purely sweet as those of my trip to New Mexico.

So I keep on moving, rather than sitting (or like my friend Sheila likes to say “bathing”) in the feelings.  I look at pipes, teepee covers and silver jewelry, eventually moving on to the African Art section – something without connection to the past.  Something entirely my own.  Sort of.

Unless you consider it is my ex who bought me a gift certificate to the Old Town School of Music and Dance, where I study West African dance.  Or that I found myself in Rwanda right in the middle of our divorce.

And yet, Africa is mine.  It always was.  A dream since I was a child.  He just helped get me there.

The collection is small.

2013-10-03 15.09.25A few voluminous robes – the kind I have seen my instructor Idy dance in, constantly moving the sleeves in gorgeous gestures to keep from getting the fabric caught up in his feet.  A couple of headdresses and costumes, one depicting the ideal mature woman in the 17th century – prominent nose, jutting chin, and large breasts.

I think of my own breasts.  Small.  No longer pendulous.  Faded scars run from breast fold to areola – subtle reminders of my reduction surgery.  A different beauty ideal.

I am struck by the words tacked to the wall.

“Dress is among the most personal forms of visual expression, creating a buffer and a bridge between the private and the public self…Special forms of luxury dress…may (also) signal particular standing within a community or a moment of transition from one role to another.”

I think about the Native American headdress.  Of my own dress.  My friend Tori says I dress differently since my divorce.  Sexier.  It was not my intention, but I believe she is right.

Across the room is a timeline of events, highlighting key moments in both African and world history.  I snap photographs so I can remember them.

1884: European nations meet for the Berlin West Africa Conference, initiating the European scramble to colonize Africa.  By 1900 only Ethiopia and Liberia remain independent.

1957: The nation of Ghana gains independence from British colonial rule, launching a continent-side decolonization movement.

1980: Zimbabwe gains independence from Great Britain; it is the last European colony to do so.

1990-94: Civil war in Rwanda leads to genocide.

I remember my friend Geri’s map-of-the-world shower curtain – so old, Rhodesia was still on it.

I think about my own map.  My timeline.  My dress.  My independence.  Messy.  Uncertain.  Liberating.  But unlike Rhodesia, I got to keep my name.

Advertisements

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.

A Year After the Day Before Everything Was About to Change

Wandering in Brussels with my friend, Tim.  I love putting the camera in front of faces and seeing what is captured.
With Tim, in Brussels

A year ago today I was in Brussels.

I didn’t know that everything was about to change.  Or maybe I did know.  The universe did.  Perhaps that’s why I was blessed with an extra day there, even though it didn’t feel like a blessing at the time.

I’d spent the past two days in what I’d come to call “Paris Small.”  One of them, with my old roommate Tim, who flew in from Dublin for just one night – just to be with me.  We rented an IKEA-decorated studio, a few blocks from the train station.  Its red wooden shutters opened onto the square.  It was perfect.

That day, we Skyped with Tim’s boyfriend Martin, who was living in Yorkshire.  We got our heads shaved.  Ate Belgian Waffles covered in powdered sugar, walking and talking until the sky turned navy.

I spent the next night alone.  I called my friend, Michael, my divorce pal in the States, before going to sleep.  Just as I did most nights back at home.  Ever since my ex asked me for a divorce and he and his wife also decided to separate.

The next morning, a year ago today, I arrived at the airport and learned that my plane had been grounded due to a cracked windshield.  I stood in line for more than two hours before reaching the counter to re-book my flight – surrounded by people loudly sighing and complaining.

I made friends with a gay boy from Missouri.  I watched the family in front of me – husband and wife, and almost grown kids.  They seemed nonplussed.  Almost enjoying the time.  As we approached the counter together, I commented on how happy they seemed.

“What else can we do?” the father responded.

Happy, even though they had missed the Chicago portion of their vacation.  Would miss their connection to San Francisco.  And were just hoping to recoup their time in Los Angeles.  Happy.

They wrote a list of suggestions for how I might want to spend my extra time in Brussels.

We wished each other well, and parted ways.  Me, with a voucher for a hotel room across the street, and a boarding pass for a different flight tomorrow.  No longer direct, I would fly to Frankfurt – the first airport I landed in overseas, nearly 20 years ago – before arriving in Chicago.

I took the train back to the City Centre after checking in to the hotel and retraced my steps down the cobblestone streets.  Enjoying another waffle.  Purchasing pale nougat studded with almonds and dried orange pieces to bring home as gifts.

I walked to a park overlooking the city and read in the cool sunshine.  I browsed a museum gift shop, as I arrived too late to see the exhibit.  And then I took the train back to the hotel, stopping in the airport to buy a phone card, hoping to speak with Michael again.

I tried phoning him from my room, and then realized I hadn’t put enough money on the card.  I stuffed it in my wallet and went to the lobby to take advantage of the free WiFi.

I noticed it was my friend J’s birthday while trolling Facebook.  I sent him good wishes, which he was on the other end to receive.  It was still afternoon in New York.

He told me he would be spending his birthday eating crab legs with his girlfriend.  I told him I was on my way home from Rwanda.  That I was grounded in Brussels.  That I was divorcing.  And that I was moving back to Chicago.

I threw up on him.  And then I went to dinner.

When I left Seattle nearly a month earlier, I didn’t know where I would settle.  Now I had a plan.

I arrived in Chicago the next afternoon.  (I was fortunate, for those who were able to re-book on the original flight remained grounded in Brussels for another day.)  I informed my friends I was now going by Liora – my Hebrew name – as that was what I was called in Rwanda, the result of having two Lesleys on the trip.

I had dinner with Michael.  And after, we stood under a street lamp, holding on to one another for what felt like forever.  I didn’t want to let go.  I told him I would see him in a month.

My friend Emily picked me up at the airport that evening.  She remembered what re-entry was like after spending time in Africa.  We had dinner.  She took me grocery shopping.  And then she dropped me off at home.

The cats greeted me at the door.  My then soon-to-be-ex-husband was noticeably absent.  I felt painfully alone as I rolled my hard orange suitcase into the house.

I saw Michael sooner than anticipated.  At my request, he flew to Seattle, helped me pack my car and drive home.  We stayed with friends of mine in Missoula and Bozeman.  I shot a gun for the first and only time somewhere between the two cities.

2012-08-31 10.30.32
Hiking in the Badlands.

We camped along the Missouri River, under a blue moon, at Teddy Roosevelt National Park.  Hiked the Badlands the next day, and stopped somewhere outside of Fargo that night, sharing a room at The Bison Inn.

We stayed with my college roommates on our final stop in Minneapolis.  They stuffed us with homemade treats.  Michael replaced the radiator in my 2000 Honda Civic.  It failed just as we were entering the city.  My job was to hand him the tools he called for.

We arrived home the day before Labor Day, around 11 p.m.  I dropped him off at home in his questionable neighborhood, sobbing on the front lawn.

July 19, 2012.  I didn’t know everything was about to change.  That, in many ways, it would be the last day of my “previous life.”   How could I?  And yet, how could I not?

I believe my brain was protecting me from that which I could not yet conceive of.

My divorce was final a little more than 10 months ago.  I live alone for the first time in my life.  I buried my birth mother in the spring.

I felt new lips over mine for the first time in many, many years.  And I watched my heart crack open.  Then again.  And again.

A couple of weeks ago, I initiated the process of separating our monies.  When that is complete, only our condominium, which we rent out, will bind us – financially.

I applied for a job today.  The first in more than 11 years.  I’m excited.  Fingers crossed.

This morning, two women commented that I sounded really good.  A third asked for my blog address.  Later, my friend Jess asked if I could have imagined how much I would have healed by now.  It struck me as funny, as I didn’t feel particularly healed.  I decided to trust her perspective, and that of the three other women.

I wrote J a birthday greeting.  I wished him what I wish for everyone I love – joy and the causes of joy.  And then I wished him something special – something  just for him:  a nice piece of liver for dinner.

He knew exactly what it meant.  And suggested a watermelon instead.  I laughed out loud.

It is comforting to know not everything has changed since July 19, 2012.  To know that some things have survived.  Friendship.  Love.   Shared memories and private jokes.  And most of all, me.