From Mikveh to Madrid, Now … More

rocaberti-table
Dinner at the Rocaberti Castle. Food for the belly. Food for the soul.

Five days, 12 writers, 3 mentors, a genius staff who could both dream and deliver. Chefs who fed our hearts and our bellies. A castle, many missed photo opportunities and so much unbelievable talent.

I knew I was truly immersed in the moment when I received an email from my mother “just checking in” because she hadn’t seen me on Facebook in a while. (Sweet, right?)

It is only now, after leaving the “bubble” of the Rocaberti Writers Retreat, that I am able to begin reflecting on all that I experienced. All that I learned. All that happened. And all that has yet to happen.

In the cocoon of the castle, I was able to practice pitching “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” to mentors — three individuals steeped and successful in the business of movies, television and publishing — as I would for agent representation or a book deal.

I introduced my work as “Eat, Pray, Love” meets Dora the Explorer, and was immediately met with the challenge — “Why a cartoon character?”

Quite simply, because I could not think of a single happy ending for a solo female protagonist over the age of 12. Think”Ramona the Brave,” “Harriet the Spy,” and yes, Dora.

Our resident feature writer and producer, the one who had challenged me, was able to summon just one — Holly Hunter in the 1987 film “Broadcast News.” One.

In that moment I knew I was on to something. And yet, I already knew. Because of all I had experienced. All I had written. The support I had received via Go Fund Me. And the feedback from my retreat mentor — one on one — and from my colleagues in small group sessions.

In addition to learning about my own work, I received a practical education on next steps and the nuts of bolts of publishing. And opened my mind to the possibilities of film and television.

And now? More…

I’ve been asked to let go of my newspaper training and blogging terseness and to let the lushness of my language fill in the blanks. To tell the story of how I went from mikveh (the ritual bath used in a Jewish divorce) to Madrid. The experience of 52 Artist Dates and how they changed me … that when given a chance at the kind of love I had called out for, I ultimately chose myself.

Artist Date 1.2: Life, Animated

 

 

life animated
Copyright. Life, Animated.

My commitment to the Artist Date began as a response to pain. To a man I affectionately referred to as the Southern Svengali and the short, sweet romance after my divorce that I couldn’t let go of. I sometimes forget that.

I forget because the weekly, solo play date as prescribed in the book The Artist’s Way, healed me from obsession I only hesitantly admitted.

I forget because two years of creative commitment, coupled with other work, allowed me to release him. Us. And my ideas about the way we should be in one another’s lives. (Which looks dramatically different than I had imagined. And while our contact can now best be described as sporadic, the connection remains strong … sweet and satisfying to both of us.)

I forget because it gently nudged me into becoming the kind of woman I dreamed of being. A woman engaged in life in interesting ways. Who does interesting things. Who has interesting conversations about more than relationships.

But today, I remember.

I remember as I find a hole in my schedule and watch my mind like a rubber band – snapping back to thoughts of the man I dated before I left for Madrid.

While I know there is no slipping back into one’s life as it once was, I had hoped we might explore dating again when I returned. But it hasn’t turned out that way. And in these quiet, alone moments, I find myself once again struggling with letting go. Of him. Us. And my ideas about the way we should be in one another’s lives.

And so it is grace when I hear the whisper that perhaps now is a good time to re-commit to my creative self again. That an infusion of new stimuli might once again quiet my mind and lead me back to the woman who has interesting conversations about more than relationships.

(While a year in Madrid seemed to have the makings of one grand, extended Artist Date, my days were filled with the stuff of life. All occurring in a language not my own. And Artist Dates became, unfortunately, sporadic.)

I peruse the movie guide — more concerned with time, location and the act of going than what will be projected on the screen – and choose a film.

I cut short a phone call. Say no to a text from a friend asking if I would like company. Both occurring after I’ve made the decision to go. The universe seeming to ask, “Are you sure?’

And I am.

I hop on my vintage 3-speed cruiser and pedal to the Music Box Theatre. Artist Date 1.2. (Officially, number 117 … renamed for congruence with my rededication to the practice and my return to Chicago.)

Grinning ear to ear, I purchase my ticket. Giddy to be with me.

This has always been the magic of the Artist’s Date. A turning inward. A return to myself.

Ironic, as the movie I have chosen – Life, Animated – is a documentary about Owen Suskind, a young man with autism and the tools he and his family use to pull him out from his personal world.

How Walt Disney movies become the lens and the lexicon for connection. The language for articulating what we all want. Friends. Romantic love. Work. A sense of purpose. And what we all feel from time to time, what Owen calls “the glop.” The inevitable pain when the things we want elude us.

We join him in watching scenes from Bambi on his first night alone in his independent living apartment – after his mother and father have left. And later, The Hunchback of Notre Dame when his girlfriend of three years ends their relationship.

Heartbreaking moments punctuated with joy and hope, most evident when Owen connects with his own passion and a sense of purpose. His “Disney Club” – where he and other adults with developmental disabilities view and discuss their favorite films. And experience an unscripted visit from Gilbert Godfrey, the voice of Iago from the movie Aladdin.

I sob witnessing their squeals of laughter, excitement and disbelief … as I am reminded that the universe is full of surprises. That it is always willing to conspire with us. And that our greatest joys often come packaged in a way dramatically different than we might imagine them.

That gorgeous moments of serendipity occur when we turn first turn inward – connecting with our tenderest truths – and then out – vulnerably sharing them. We allow the world to join our party. And sometimes even Gilbert Godfrey shows up.

Artist Date 97: No Longer Desperate for the Drama

A different kind of Pink Flamingos...
A different kind of Pink Flamingos…

My Artist Date blogs tend to write themselves.

I don’t plan it.  It just happens.

A flood of memories rushes in.  An experience with my ex-husband.  A story from my childhood.  Some person or situation from my past popping up in full Technicolor like a carnival whack-a-mole.

The experience of the Artist Date — a planned, solo flight of fancy with the express purpose of filling me, my creative coffers — wakes up some dormant element of my history and connects me to myself, to art, the artist and the world around me.

It is both a self-involved deep-sea diving excursion into my own unique story and the recognition of the universal experiences that knit us together in an infinity scarf of humanity.

Until today, watching Desperate Dolls, a play written by my friend’s husband, at the Strawdog Theatre — Artist Date 97.

No story.  Only feeling.

Enter three girls trying to make it big in Los Angeles, the sleazy but lovable B-movie director who gives them a shot (along with campy “showbiz” names) and a creepy-powerful, sexually frustrated devil-villain called Captain.

There is a late 60s-early 70s motel room with perfect period attention to detail.  And screaming.  Lots of it.

I covet Matchbox’s body — flat belly and perfect ass — snugly held in white panties and a matching bra.  Pretty Sexy’s Go-Go boots and thick, fluttery false eyelashes.  Sunny Jack’s belt buckle and mustache.

The thoughts are random and fleeting, in no way connected to my past.  Only Sunny Jack’s grainy girl films —  wanna-be starlets rubbing suntan oil between their breasts to bossa nova swing; kicking ass, or more literally, kicking balls of some Snideley Whiplash of a pervert chained to a tree — evoke any sense of the familiar.

A tip of the hat to John Water’s early films.  Think Mole McHenry performing a do-it-yourself sex change in Desperate Living, Babs Johnson eating dog poop in the final scene of Pink Flamingos.

It is only later that I think about my friend’s brother turning me on to these films the way my cousins turned me on to pot when I was 12, or my father returning one of them to the video rental store before I had watched it .  A liquor salesman with a strong stomach and a good sense of humor, he was horrified after just 10 minutes.

In the moment I am only conscious of my stomach tightening with the uncomfortable knowing of what comes next and wishing I didn’t.  Sick anticipation and the inability to turn away.

No story.  Only feeling.

My sympathetic nervous system — the “fight or flight” reflex that makes my heart race and the soles of my feet sweat — fully activated.

“I love the idea of exploitation movies.  Movies conceived and relying on our basest human emotions and the things that attract us to most art…” writes Anderson Lawfer, Desperate Dolls‘ Hugen Artistic Director.  “This is a style that doesn’t get done on stage because of the outrageous violence and sexual situations, but why not?  We all love it.”

I used to love it.  I chased that sympathetic nervous system hit, rushing toward roller coasters, scary movies, and without really knowing it, crazy drama.  I lost my taste for it some years ago when it became clear that real life provided more than enough opportunities to exercise my body’s stress response.

But for one night, I can embrace it — grateful for the reprieve from my mind, from my memory, and the self-inflicted, heart-pounding insanity I once craved.

Looking for Ladybugs

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My friend Kerry told me to look for ladybugs while I was in Italy.

He was referring to the part of the movie, Under the Tuscan Sun, when the sexy, older ex-pat from London tells Frances, a recently divorced American reinventing herself in Italy, that looking for love is like looking for ladybugs. That when she was a child, she would spend hours looking for them, eventually tiring and falling asleep in the grass.  And when she awoke she would find herself covered in them.

I wasn’t sure I was looking for love in Italy. Or even a romance – although I assured him and others that my heart was open to the possibility.  However, as the days to my departure date grew more near, I was more than certain I was here to do something.

I saw my first ladybug when I arrived in Umbria, 24 hours after arriving in Rome.

After I nearly took the wrong bus from Arezzo to Cita de Castello – twice – and a young man named Leonardo approached me, offering help in English. After we spoke for nearly 45 minutes – talking about writing and language and being “black sheep” – and friending one another on Facebook.

After Giulia and Elide – my contacts for the AltroCioccolato, the “other” chocolate festival I came to volunteer for – picked me up at the bus station. And after bringing me to Roberto’s house – one of the festival’s founders – where I sat in the sun while he plied me with buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes – shiny with olive oil, and espresso.

It was a few hours later, driving to pick up groceries at a biological food co-op. A large ladybug graced a sign announcing that our destination, The Happy Worm, lay ahead.

The next day, I saw three more. One embellished a pizza parlor sign.  Another, actually a mess of them, covered a car steering wheel.

The final one landed on another of the volunteers – Duncan, the youngest of the group and the only other American. He asked me if I wanted it, knowing nothing of Kerry and our conversation.  I told him I did.  He put his arm next the mine and the ladybug crawled over to me without any prodding.  And refused to leave.

That night, I found myself in the city’s hospital. What had merely been a health nuisance while I was in the states had escalated enough for me to make contact with healthcare professionals back home at .99 a minute.

I was fairly certain I would have difficulty getting a live voice at Northwestern Hospital, so I called my physical therapist to ask her advice. She told me to call my doctor.  That she wasn’t comfortable giving advice on this matter.  When I told her I didn’t have an internet connection, she looked up the number for me.

Several holds, disconnects and phone calls later, I was advised by a medical assistant to seek attention.

I knocked on Giulia’s door and told her I needed to go to the hospital. As she dressed, my roommate Ingrid, from the UK, offered to join us for moral support.  In the piazza at midnight in this sleepy village Giulia – a native of Italy – asked around for a cab.  A stranger offered to drive us, dropping us off at the hospital and wishing us buona fortuna — good luck in Italian.

Ninety minutes later I was warmly assured by a doctor that I was in fact, ok.  I received a bill for 25 euros which I was instructed to pay the next day.  And Elide – whom Giulia had called – drove us home.

Earlier that evening, in the hospital, I broke down in tears. Overwhelmed.  Afraid.  And aware that my ex-husband, a doctor – was no longer “my person.”  That I was “alone.”  Giulia responded, wrapping her arms around me and saying, “We are your family.”

And I realized that ladybugs weren’t just on signs and steering wheels and the arms of volunteers. That ladybugs – that love – followed me everywhere.  All the way to Italy.  To Umbria.  Just south of the Tuscan sun.

 

Artist Date 78: Both, And.

mcbeardo boodI just wrapped up a contract work gig – my first “straight job” in 12 years.

By straight I mean sitting at a desk, in front of a computer, and working 9 to 5.  (Cue Dolly Parton.)

At first I wasn’t certain how I felt about the opportunity.  I wasn’t clear on my role.  My body hurt from sitting.  My creativity suffered.

And then I hit my stride.

I appreciated having a place to come to – a single place, as opposed to the many I traverse to and from as a massage therapist and Weight Watchers leader.  I appreciated earning a consistent paycheck.  I loved working in a team toward a common good – and that I got to spend five days a week with one of my best girlfriends while doing it.

I even enjoyed the sometimes hour-long commute down Lakeshore Drive, listening to NPR.

And before I knew it, it was over.

I was recently telling my friend Gene about this while catching him up on my days.

I mentioned that had I missed several weeks of Artist Dates.  And that when I went on one last Saturday – number 78 – I still hadn’t blogged about it a week later.

“Sounds like you are living life rather than writing about it,” he said.

Ideally, I would do both.

However, his comment reminded me of a conversation I had a few months earlier with my friend Nithin. He had gone to a concert the night before and noticed the number of people watching the performance through camera phones – recording, photographing and uploading to Facebook.  Documenting rather than experiencing.  At least to his eyes.

I wondered if I had been doing the same.  Living with an eye on writing.

——————–

The Saturday before last, two days after my contract job ended, I said no to a sweat lodge in Michigan and to a birthday party across town, and called it self-care.

Instead, I rode my bike, ate ice cream from Jenni’s on Southport (Bangkok Peanut with coconut and dark chocolate) and napped naked under a ceiling fan, wrapped in crisp gray sheets.

And when I woke, I headed across town for a long-overdue Artist Date, the first in weeks – a reading at Quimby’s books, celebrating and promoting the publication on my friend Mike’s book Heavy Metal Movies.

He’d been working on it for years.  And I could not be more delighted for him.

Mike took the stage in a blue, fuzzy hat with horns – think Fred Flintstone and the Royal Order of Water Buffalos – and then shared it with his wife and a host of friends who gave voice to their own stories on what Mike referred to as “heavy metal, hard movies, and the torrid, torpid twain where both doth meet from a pantheon of ferociously funny, horrifically hilarious headbanging crackpots, visionaries, and mirth.”

I’m not a heavy-metal girl.  And at least one of the readings more than verged on the grotesque.  And yet, none of that mattered.

Each had moved beyond ego, to share their words and their work.  Work that came from their own passions, their own living.  Their presence onstage served as a reminder of possibilities — that there is, in fact, room for each of our voices at the table, and on stage — and also an invitation to do my own work, from my own living.  In sweat lodges and in bookstores.  On my bike and in my bed.  Fully awake and sometimes napping.

Writing AND Living.  Both, And.

Artist Date 70: I Am Not Thinking

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Photo: The Grand Budapest Hotel

I have just finished a blog about my friend Clover and the birth of her daughter, Juniper Maya.  She was born nearly 10 days ago, but only now am I at a point where I am able to give words to the experience and my role in it.

I’d been noodling on it for a couple of days and now it is done. I print it out. Set a timer. And read out loud.

Doors open for Story Club in a little more than an hour.  I’ve already penciled it in my book – Artist Date 70.

Story Club meets the first Thursday of the month at the Holiday Club – a bar on the north side of Chicago. Three featured writers read essays on a theme. And three audience members, called at random from a sign-up sheet, read their musings for up to eight minutes.

I’ve been called up just once before, a couple of months ago. My gut tells me I will make it onstage tonight…if I can get there.

My piece is too long. I cross out some sections and set the timer again. Still too long. Then I try again, just reading a portion of it. Up to the words, “The miracle emerges.” This could work.

And I hear it. “Slow the fuck down.” I don’t want to. But I do anyway.

I call Clover to tell her the blog is finished and to ask if she would like to read it before I hit “publish.” She says she would.

I do not usually do this. However, this is not just my story. It is her story too.

I have not given her a clever moniker like the Southern Svengali or Mr. 700 Miles. She is not anonymous. And so I offer my words to her first.

I mention I am on my way to Story Club and ask if she would prefer that I use her initials, as opposed to her real name, as she has not yet read the piece. She says “yes” again.

And it hits me – how much gyrating I am doing to “make this happen.”

To get out the door.   To get on stage. It feels like a push. An awful lot like “my will.” “If this, then that.”

grand budapest hotelI recognize that the words are still fresh to me. That, in some ways, I have just re-lived the birth. That I feel tired and vulnerable, and the idea of sitting in a bar, by myself, in hopes of reading onstage feels neither joyous nor fun. It feels like me trying to make good on my word – as if to make up for all the times when my word meant nothing.

I realize I have nothing to prove, and I give myself a pass.

I put down my papers. I pull on my coat, walk a handful of blocks to the Davis Theatre and purchase a ticket for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

I know nothing about this movie other than my friend Matt invited me to see it with him a few weeks ago. I declined, taking myself to the Art Institute for Artist Date 68 instead.

The theater is about a quarter full. I take comfort in seeing the number of people here alone – even though alone is my preferred way to watch movies.

The previews are dreadful. Even the one with Johnny Depp – who I love.

And especially the one for Transformers. Although it makes me giggle a little as I have a date this weekend with a man 12 years my junior, and he recently posted something about the movie on his Facebook page.

But the featured film is a story for storytellers, told by a storyteller. I am enchanted.

By the glory of the Grand Budapest Hotel in its heyday. And by the quirky outpost for eccentrics that it has become.

By the concierge, at once both straight and gay, tending to the elder, insecure, wealthy – and always blonde – female patrons.

trailer-for-wes-andersons-the-grand-budapest-hotel-4
Photo: The Grand Budapest Hotel

By the refugee hotel boy with a penciled-on moustache. By the love affair between him and the girl who decorates pastry and wears braids – whose birthmark covers half of her face.

It is eye candy. Swaths of bright orange and purple. Handsome stars in less-than-handsome roles. Ralph Fiennes. Adrien Brody. Jeff Goldblum.

I am grinning. I am not thinking about what I will write. Even though I am always thinking about what I will write. The world around me a blog waiting to happen.

I am not thinking that this is a story about family. About status. About love.

About corruption. Courage. Change.

I am not thinking about my own experiences – of family, status, and love. Courage and change.

I am caught up in someone else’s story. I am not thinking. It is a joy.

Artist Date 69: Spicy. Trouble.

It smells warm inside Savory Spice Shop on Lincoln Avenue. Artist Date 69. And while I know intellectually that warm is not a smell, it feels like it. Spicy. BBQ rubs. One is called Pearl Street Plank. I take a photograph of it.

I am afraid I am going to get into trouble.

I am often afraid of getting into trouble. Like the time Julie and I smoked cigarettes inside the multiplex at a midnight showing of The Crying Game.

The movie had been out for a while and we were the only ones in the theatre. Julie lit up. I was aghast. “What? Are you afraid we are going to get into trouble?” she asked. A little bit mocking. Well, yes…I was. Just like when we smoked cigarettes in seventh grade on Shabbat.

Julie was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household. On Saturdays, my mother would drop me there for the day. Sometimes we watched movies on the Betamax (Meatballs was our favorite.) – her father’s concession.

Irv was a wise man who understood that raising his girls in an observant home, but not in an observant neighborhood, was tricky. Their customs were “other” than those of the secular Jews surrounding them. So while Julie could not go to movies and dances on Friday night and Saturday, she was allowed to watch movies, regardless of the prohibition against using electronics on the Sabbath. And also to go for long walks. Walks that often involved McDonalds’ French fries and Virginia Slims Menthol 100s.

Julie was brazen. I was convinced we were going to get caught and get into trouble. We didn’t. But that sense that I might have to explain myself has never entirely left me. Even today at the Savory Spice Shop.

I know some stores prohibit photography. I know I could ask if it is ok. But I don’t. Instead I snap and hope no one will question me. It is this sort of internal gyration that causes me anxiety. The kind I could easily avoid.

2014-03-23 14.14.42An employee says to let her know if I have any questions, and invites me to sample and to brush any excess onto the floor. She adds that my boots are “magnificent,” and we talk for a solid five minutes about the quest to merge fashion and function. I am reminded, part of the joy of a funky aesthetic is people want to talk to you. Want to talk to me.

She makes no comment about my photography.

I finger baking spices and books on pickling. But the spices from far away call me like a siren. Exotic. Other. Like I always wanted to be. I try to conjure up the smells of the market in Kigali, in Argles, in Jerusalem, but I cannot. I only know I was there.

I smell red peppercorns from the Szechuan Province. Green ones from Mysore. Dried Kaffir Lime Leaves. Asafetida from Iran, also known as Devil’s Dung and Stinking Gum. The label says it smells like garlic gone bad. To me, it smells like sulfur. Eggs.

There are Grains of Paradise from West Africa and Pinchito from Southern Spain. Preserved Lemon and Pomegranate Molasses. Marrakech Moroccan Spice and Berbere Ethiopian Seasoning.

2014-03-23 14.19.28I think about cooking and wonder what I would make. My repertoire has become small as a single woman. Often times, it just doesn’t seem worth it. So I stick to egg-white omelets, soups and salads. Black beans, kale and squash. An occasional piece of fish roasted with fennel and oranges and olives.

I think about travel. The recent loud and incessant call to go away – somewhere big. Somewhere sexy. Sometime this year – my 45th come October. Italy or India.

Today I do not have to decide.

Instead, I allow myself the pleasure of revisiting Africa. Spain. And France.

Israel. Germany. Amsterdam.

Ireland and Mexico.

To return to each marketplace I visited – photographing beans drying in the sun. Salted fish. Unskinned rabbit hanging from a hook.

To the suburban movie theatre and the safety of Julie’s home. To her basement where her papa fed us Oreo cookies with a finger pressed to his lips as if to say, “shh…don’t tell.”

I think about the real trouble I caused in my travels.  The kind I should have been worried about but wasn’t. In Berlin.  Avignon.  Puerto Vallarta.  Today I know better.

Today there are no secrets. Nothing to hide. Nothing to get me into trouble.