Choosing To Be A Lesbian Alcoholist

Patsy and I in Israel, nearly 20 years ago.
Patsy and I in Israel, nearly 20 years ago.

 

The last time I saw Patsy was at my wedding – nearly 13 years ago.  She officiated, combining Jewish, Hindu, Native American and British elements into a ceremony that spoke to both of our hearts and sensibilities.

I spoke to her yesterday for the first time in more years that I can count – not quite 13, but far too long.

We talked about Mickey – her mom – who had just died and what that felt like for her.  About meeting in Israel on a press trip nearly 20 years ago.  And so much of what had happened in the in between.  Things we caught in passing, in pithy Facebook posts and the occasional email.

She had no real sense of what had happened between my ex and me.  Or even that I had (happily) given up the fight with alcohol nearly seven years ago.

And because she had not been with me for every step, every man, every tear and nuance of the journey – she saw the story, my story, far differently than me.  Her reflections were, in a word, a revelation.

She had recently asked me in an email if there was “someone special” in my life.

It was the question I have come to expect. To brace myself for. To both love and despise – as it can feel both hopeful and humiliating, depending on the day, my mood and the current state of my heart.

I told her that I did not. That it hurt my heart to write that.

I told her about the suggestion that I not date for a year after my divorce. How that was pretty easy as no one was really asking. (Which is not exactly true. More to the point would be, no one I was interested in was asking.) And how that year had come and gone.

I told her I had met some extraordinary men, experienced some wonderful emotional intimacy and some wonderful romance.  But none had been truly available for one reason or another.

I told her I am online, like every other schlub, although it is not how I imagine meeting someone. And to keep me and my big, juicy, open heart in her thoughts and manifestations.

It was “my story.” The one I tell myself. The one I tell here.

Yesterday, she helped me tell the next chapter. It had a decidedly different feel.

I told her about the “romantic friendship” with my spiritual-traveling twin. About the man nearly 13 years my junior, who has been dancing around me (and me, him) for some months, and our breakfast date that morning. And about a similar dance I have been doing with a man who looks a lot like Daniel Day Lewis – my ex’s doppelganger.

I told her about the friend who continues to tell me, “I’m still interested.” How my feelings remain platonic. And that I have no desire to try to “make them” otherwise.

And I told her about a new man – the chef – who I actually did meet online. We’ve had just a few dates, and my feelings feel “right sized.” He is easy to talk to and I have fun spending time with him. I find him attractive and I like how he kisses.

“I think you are very genuine,” he blurted across the table a few nights ago. I like that too. Because it is kind and observant, but mostly because it is true.

Patsy replied, “You ARE dating a lot of men right now. You are having fun. You just haven’t settled on one.”

It was true. It IS true. It sounds different from “I am still not in a relationship,” even though the actual details are the same. And it feels different.

She added that in the nearly 20 years she has known me, that I have always had men in my orbit. Always. That I have always been attractive to men. Always.

This was news. I had not seen it that way.

Seems I have spent the past 30-plus years mostly noticing the time in between. The times of breakup and/or longing. And believing that everyone else was constantly in relationship – meaningful relationship – and wondering why I was not.

She reminded me of the other chef. The one I dated before my ex-husband.

And I recalled the hotel bartender in Israel who suggested I show him the pictures in my room. When I replied, “I think you’ve seen all the pictures in all of these rooms,” he asked if I was a lesbian. Earlier he had asked if I was “an alcoholist,” as I turned down a drink.  Close enough.

I chose an evening with my new press-trip friends (among them, Patsy) over an overseas fling, and a good story to be certain. I chose to be the lesbian alcoholist.

And in that recalling, I saw myself as Patsy saw me. (And likely, many others.) Attractive. Discerning. At choice. I have always been at choice…in relationships. And now, in how tell my story.

 

 

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Artist Date 79: Aho Matakuye O’yasin

Bent and tied river willows form the structure of the sweat lodge.  Photo: Paul Tootalian
Bent and tied river willows form the structure of the lodge. Photo: Paul Tootalian

 

The waxy brown cotton of my lapa feels soft between my fingers.  Like my body.  Like my heart.

I thought the African skirt would become this way over time, as I danced in it – but it remained rigid and stiff.  Until today, when, in the dark and heat of the sweat lodge – Artist Date 79 – it softened, pinning itself to my body.

I roll the fabric between my fingers like rosary or prayer beads.  I feel the moisture accumulate between my breasts – grateful for their small size.  Grateful for the darkness to peel off my sports bra, unnoticed, and let my t-shirt from the Knoxville Farmers’ Market cover me.  Given my druthers I would wear nothing.  But I respect the modesty requested at this ceremonial gathering of men and women.

I close my eyes, breathe in the sweet sage, and fix my ears on the beating drum and the sound of my friend Paul’s voice.

It has been a journey just getting here.

********************

I arrive despite a blinding thunderstorm, the need for on-the-road car repairs, and a bit of information which shakes my sense of perception and causes me to question if this is right for me, right now.  And with the aid and calm of friends who ferry me to and from.

I walk about a quarter of a mile through wet, freshly mown grass to where the lodge is set up – my orange, peep-toe wedges gathering silky, green slivers.

I remember wearing these shoes through Rwanda two summers ago – collecting the red earth of the land of 10,000 hills between my toes – and recalling Patsy and Edina schlepping their Louis Vuitton bags through sand in the Morocco episode of the BBC’s Absolutely Fabulous.  Dragging my rolling suitcase filled with towels, sweat and apres-sweat clothes, I feel like a bit actor in the Sweat Lodge episode.

********************

Paul is draping blankets over the hut he constructed out of river willows – collected from his sister and brother-in-law’s property a few miles away.  Rocks are heating in a pit outside of the lodge, and he has built an altar from the dirt inside of it.

Paul is the third in a line of spiritual teachers with the same name.  The first being my university religious-studies professor, the second, the one who taught me to meditate – leading me through initiation with an offering of fruit, flowers (star gazers, my favorite) and the bestowing of a mantra.

Our paths have been crisscrossing for most of our lives.  We agree the universe has been conspiring for us to meet.

 

The Altar. Covered Lodge. And our guide, Paul. (I call him “The Reluctant Shaman.”

There are eight of us, the last arriving in a John Deere Gator Utility Vehicle.  She looks like an African Queen, regal in her loose batik dress with dragonflies on it, her grey hair braided at the temples and wrapped around her head like a crown.   Her face is at once both sad and serene.

She reminds Paul they have been in ceremony together – with her former partner.  The break-up is obviously fresh.

Words tumble out of my mouth about divorce, change and the painful nature of endings – no matter how right or how kind.  How people will say all sorts of stupid things.  And that she is, no doubt, on the precipice of some sort of adventure.  She smiles in a way that tells me she has lived a thousand lifetimes and knows that this kind of pain is just part of it.  That she has chosen this and is not fighting it.

I mention that I wasn’t sure I would make it here today.  That I wasn’t sure it was right for me, right now.  “Until now.  You are why I am here.”

********************

Paul smudges each of us with sage and we enter the lodge on our hands and knees, proclaiming “Aho Matakuye O’yasin – Greetings, All My Relations.”

I remember Patsy smudging my ex and I when she officiated our marriage.  And me doing the same for my friend Chase when her divorce was final, smudging the entire house – making it “her own” again.

********************

It is hot and humid inside.  I feel a wave of nausea wash over me as Paul explains what will happen in ceremony.

Rocks.  Herbs.  Water.

Chanting.  Praying.  Smoking.

Complete darkness.

Connectedness to the earth.  To one another.  To ourselves.

I am afraid.  Afraid of the total darkness.  Afraid of what I might feel, what might “come up.”  Afraid I cannot physically or psychologically endure this – even though Paul has assured us that this will be a “gentle sweat.”

But the heat is like a balm – different from the still Midwestern humidity that settled heavy around me just moments before.  The drumming and chanting force all thoughts from my mind.  I only hear my friend’s voice – strong, confident, prayerful – and the African Queen’s.  It is sweet and slippery and hard to hold on to.  But very much there.  Just as I feel her, very much there, next to me.

Everything softens.  My body.  My brain.  My lapa.  I feel the sweat sliding down my body and I am deliriously in love with it.  This body I have fought for so much of my life.  That has brought me here and is sustaining me today.  It is strong and small and very, very feminine.  I feel my hands pressing into the earth beneath me.  My legs.  My feet.  My ass.  The soft dampness of moist earth is flesh, the spiky grass is hair and we are one.

 

Apres sweat — eyes wide open. Photo: Paul Tootalian

 

I pray for my stepfather and my two girlfriends who are battling mightily.  And I ask for prayers for myself.  For compassion and acceptance for myself, for where I am, not where I think I should be.  My voice cracks and I add, “May we all have compassion and acceptance for ourselves and for one another.”

I pray for the man who hurt my heart not so long ago.  I call out his name when I am certain no one can hear me.

********************

I smoke from the Chanupa — the sacred, ceremonial pipe.  Sober nearly seven years, my addict is awakened.

I am back in college, sitting in a circle.  My friend Brian stirs the bowl and lights it while I suck in all that I can, holding it in my lungs.  I converse easily while I do this – like one of the big boys.

But I am not talking.  And this is not weed.  It is tobacco, although it tastes like juniper and pine.  It is ceremony.  It is holy.  It is community.  It is what I longed for, sitting in a circle like this, so many years ago.

********************

I weep in the darkness.  I am certain no one can hear my dying animal letting go. And it is over.

We crawl out on our hands and knees, just as we had entered, saying “Aho Matakuye O’yasin – Greetings, All My Relations,” once again.

Paul greets each of us with an embrace, and we greet one another in the same way.  The African Queen’s eyes are wordlessly different.  Lighter.  As if the color has changed.  She presses me tightly to her.

The group walks towards the house for a celebratory feast, but I stay behind and wait for Paul.

While I am waiting, I do cartwheels around the lodge.  One after the other after the other, until I feel dizzy.  I feel the pull of my pelvis – the source of chronic pain – and I welcome it.  I feel the lightness of my body, of my mind and I welcome it, give thanks for and to it.

I had believed I was here to meet the African Queen.  That was only half of the truth.  In the stillness of the after-lodge, I know its other half, its twin — I was here to meet myself.  “Aho Matakuye O’yasin — Greetings, All My Relations.”

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.