Artist Date 99: Like a Motherfucker

tiny beautiful thingsForgive me, it has been 16 days since my last Artist Date and 19 days since I’ve blogged.

I feel like a Jewish Catholic at confession.  Except the only one I’m asking for absolution is myself.

I miss my alone time.  Artistic input into my body.  My head feels foggy.  Squeezed.  Heavy and thick.  As if there is no room…no room for anything more.  No room for anything at all.

I am daydreaming about when and where I can get my fix — my dose of solitude and creative sustenance.

I didn’t expect this, didn’t expect to be “hooked” when I entered into this commitment a little more than two years ago.  I didn’t know what to expect.  Only that I needed help.

I was newly divorced.  My biological mother — who I had only met just four years earlier — was dying.  And the relationship I wasn’t having  — the one with a handsome southerner who lived some 900 miles away, who I kissed for two nights like a horny but innocent teenager —  was effecting my relationships.

My friend S. told me in no uncertain terms she could not, would not, hear his name again.

I was on my knees, desperate.  The humbled position where all change grows from.

On Christmas night 2012, a voice I’ve grown to know — my wise-self voice — suggested I work through The Artist’s Way again.  Adding that this time I go on weekly Artist Dates — a once every seven-days solo sojourn to fill my creative coffers — as is suggested in the book.

I went to lectures, museums, opera.  To pottery classes, dance performances, walking tours.  Movies, thrift shops and book stores.  All of it, alone.

On occasion, I miss a week — choosing to spend a final day with a friend before she becomes a mother or sharing my artsy outing with another — but it is rare.  And I’ve never gone this long without…until now, at the Davis Theatre — Artist Date 99.

My therapist in Seattle was the first to suggest Cheryl Strayed.  “I read her before Oprah,” she insisted, imploring me to pick up Wild, as well as Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar — the best of Strayed’s advice column from The Rumpus.

Queen Anne Books placed a special order for both books.  They arrived the day after I left for Chicago.

I mostly forgot about them until this past summer — two years later — when my friend Lori insists I buy both books.  She tells me “writers read,” and drags me into the Book Cellar where she puts a copy of each into my hands and guides me to the cash register.

Both are dog-eared now, and tear-stained.  Sentences underlined, entire pages bracketed.  Words resonate.  Lessons I do not want to forget.  Whispers from the universe reminding me where I came from, where I am today.

“Unique as every letter is, the point each writer reaches is the same: I want love and I’m afraid I’ll never get it.” (Tiny Beautiful Things)

“…for once it was finally enough for me to simply lie there in a restrained and chaste rapture beside a sweet, strong, sexy, smart good man who was probably never meant to be anything but my friend.  For once I didn’t ache for a companion.  For once the phrase a woman with a hole in her heart didn’t thunder into my head.” (Wild)

Sitting in the darkened theater, Strayed words — now images — alive before me, I say, yes.  And yes.

I still fear the possibility of not finding romantic love again, but it doesn’t drive me anymore.  It doesn’t dictate my every action.  My every reaction.

I can be in “chaste rapture beside a sweet, strong, sexy, smart good man who was probably never meant to be anything but my friend.”  Lying next to one another on my couch following morning meditation, the Reluctant Shaman’s lips pressed to my forehead — my third eye.

I no longer ache for a companion.  The words, “I do not wish a man were here,” crossing my lips as I cross the Seine last October, alone on my 45th birthday..

Strayed took to the Pacific Crest Trail  — alone — to learn these truths.  To feel them in her bones.  Mine was a different path, made of clay and dance and music.  Of film and paint and spoken word.  Of pasta and gelato and nearly three weeks in Italy.  All of it, alone.  But the truths, the same.

“So write…,” Strayed writes in Tiny Beautiful Things.  “Not like a girl.  Not like a boy.  Write like a motherfucker.”

Yes.

Artist Date 76: The Lines Un-Blurred

In 7th grade I kept an oversized scrapbook on the top shelf of my closet, the same place I kept a bag with all of my “important papers” – report cards from every grade, drawings I had made for my mother, my adoption paperwork.

Baryshnikov -- Then. Photo: Galeria de Bailarines.
Baryshnikov — Then. Photo: Galeria de Bailarines.

The scrapbook was a gift my brother received for his Bar Mitzvah that I co-opted.  The pages a mismatched collection of images and daydreams affixed with Scotch tape.  The musings and considerations of a not-quite woman beginning to define herself.

Pictures of Miss Piggy.  An interest I borrowed from my cousin Wendy Schechter and her obsession with all things pig.  A review of the book, I, Me, Mine by George Harrison – clipped from the Detroit Free Press.  An homage to my best friend Nicole, who had recently introduced me to John, Paul, George and Ringo.  An attempt to blur the lines between us, like we did with our matching Tretorn sneakers and Bermuda Bags.

But some of it was purely mine.  A coin that my mad crush Kenny picked up off of the floor and handed to me, marked “Lucky penny from Kenny.”  A newspaper photograph of Mikhail Baryshnikov.  All muscle and tights.  Breathtaking.

Neither a pig nor a Preppy Handbook has crossed my threshold in more than 30 years.  I do still see Kenny on occasion.  And while he has been married to the same man for more than 25 years, I still have a crush on him – a source of joy and amusement for us both.

And last Sunday I saw Baryshnikov for the first time – Artist Date 76.

I receive a text from my friend Stephanie on Friday, asking if I have $50 and want to see Baryshnikov.  Oddly, I hesitate.  It will mean missing dance class.  Irony.  I mention this to my friend Pam, who responds, “Are you crazy?”  She has a point.  This is an icon.  A legend.  Sarah Jessica Parker’s boyfriend on Sex and the City.

I text back with a definitive “Yes.”

Intellectually I understand this is once again NOT an Artist Date as I am not venturing alone.  (I am, however, getting better at breaking the rules.)

But it does fill the criteria of filling my creative coffers.  And, perhaps more significant, it reminds me of the juicy, sexy, charmed life I lead.  The one I am beginning to reclaim – and by that I mean once again notice – now that there is little distraction in the boy department.

But this evening I am distracted.  I Google Baryshnikov.  He is 66.  And stands 5’6.”

Does he still dance, I wonder, recalling the email I received earlier in the week from Hubbard Street Dance.   The subject line “Guess Who Dropped In?” with a photograph of him smiling, observing rehearsals.

I have no idea.

In fact, I don’t actually know where I am going or exactly what I am seeing – I didn’t ask – just that I am going and that I will see him.

Baryshnikov -- now.  Photo: T. Charles Erickson.
Baryshnikov — now. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

And I do.  And he does…dance, that is.  Just not as I imagined.

His slippers traded for jazz shoes, his tights for pleated trousers.  His dance, a part of the story but not the story.  The story.  Two actually.  Adapted from the writings of Anton Chekhov and performed as Man in a Case at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

He glides across the floor softly, alone – his arms holding the lover in his mind, in his heart.  Jazz on the radio, his guests dozing after dinner.  It feels spontaneous – but of course isn’t – like my mother and I swing dancing on the kitchen linoleum.

My heart leaps.

So convincing in his roles, I have forgotten who he is.

But now I remember, and his every movement is a dance.  The gesture of his hand.  The roll of his hips.  His torso leaning forward and back, flirting but never touching.  Sexy.

When it is over, I join the throngs from my fifth row seat, rising in applause.  My eyes wet.  Looking to him as if I might catch his glance when the lights go up.

I do not.

I do not tell Stephanie about it — my folly, my fantasy — either.  Or about my scrapbook.  Baryshnikov, the pigs or the penny.

I hold them to myself instead – the lines un-blurred.  Mine alone, still.

Further From The Flame Than I Knew

I sometimes have a one-plate rule.  Actually, it’s not even a rule, it’s just how I eat.  Except for when I don’t.  Today is one of those days.

The table at Martha's, post meal.  The pies have been put away, but my copy of "Love, Sex and Astrology" has not.
The table at Martha’s, post meal. The pies have been put away, but my copy of “Love, Sex and Astrology” has not.

It is Christmas and I am at Martha’s house with her son Louie, his girlfriend Katie, Jack and Jonnie.  There is enough food in the kitchen for triple the size of our party.  I have reloaded my plate, even though I have not finished what is on it, adding a second piece of ham and a small spoonful of macaroni and cheese, which I did not try the first time around.  I pile it on top of my salad – greens with roasted root vegetables, gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and pear.

The macaroni is delicious.  Made with sour cream, cream cheese, and cheddar and parmesan cheeses.  I say it is perhaps too rich, and laugh, thinking about those people who say that foods are too rich or too sweet.  No such thing.

Except for when they are.  This is one of those times.

I put my fork down.  My brain wants more but my belly says no.  Or perhaps it is not my belly but some higher-self that is constructed of painful memories.  The higher self that says don’t put your hand on the hot stove.

Trouble is, I’m the type that likes to bring my hand really close to the burner, to see how close I can get, to feel the heat without getting burned.

It is this second plate.  It is the boy I spent the night with several months ago. And, knowing he could not possibly give me what I want, and that once I am physically involved my perception gets blurry, spent a second night with him anyway.

It is my years of vain efforts to try to drink like other people.

The higher self speaks to me.  Passover.  1990-something.  I still live in Detroit and my parents are still married, but they do not live in my childhood home.  Neither do I, which means I am somewhere between 21 and 24 years old.

I am thin for the first time in my life.  Really thin.  I am rigid about my eating and exercise.  The kind of rigid that makes me not all that much fun to eat with.  I feel like I have cracked the code.  That I will never be heavy again.  That I am fixed.  I am mistaken.

My mother has made some sort of gelatinous kosher-for-Passover dessert.  It is an experiment, as is every kosher-for-Passover dessert, where chemistry and good taste are at odds in the never-ending quest to make tasty sweets without flour.

I have one.  Then another.  And another.  They are not even good but I cannot seem to stop myself.  My mother clears the table and brings them into the kitchen and I follow, secretively, wolfing down a few more.  As if anyone is paying attention.

Next I know I am in the upstairs bathroom, on the floor, trying to make myself throw up. But I cannot.  My mother asks if I need to go to the hospital.  I say no because I cannot imagine what they will do to help me.  I lie on the cool tile with my pants unzipped and wait for this feeling to pass.

I tell Martha and Jonnie this story, and that eating too much feels scary.  Which is not to say that I don’t overeat, because I do.  And today is likely to be one of those days.  But I do not eat to sickness and have not in many, many years.  The desire has been taken from me.  It is a miracle.

As is my reaching out to that dear, sweet boy only one more time.  And when the response was tepid, not returning to him, trying to convince him, or myself, that it, that we, could be otherwise.

As is my not trying to drink like other people for more than six years.  Instead, putting down the drink entirely.

I finish my plate.  Slowly.  A bit later I have a sliver of pumpkin cheesecake and one of chocolate pecan pie.  I tell Martha to cut them as wide as her finger and she does.  I am breaking one of my holiday rules.  Kind of.  I do not eat anything not homemade.

The pies come from First Slice – a not-for-profit which sells “subscriptions” for homemade meals and uses the money from those subscriptions to feed the same meals to hungry families in Chicago.  Martha assures me the pies are more homemade than if she made them herself.

I have a second round of slivers.  Am I playing with fire?

Walking home, the streets are freakishly quiet.  I am carrying a bag of leftovers – salad, ham, roasted roots, sweet potatoes – leaving the pies, and the Lindt truffles at my place setting, on Martha’s table.

I feel the snow on my face.  I feel my gut.  Satiated, but not stuffed.  I have “broken” several of my “rules,” and, miraculously, feel further from the flame than ever.

Artist Date 52: Exactly Where I Am Supposed To Be

This time last year I was on my knees.  Literally.

It was my first holiday season divorced and living back in Chicago, alone.  My girlfriend called me out on my obsession with the man I like to call the Southern Svengali — the one I kissed for two nights while in Charleston in late October.  She said she could not hear about it, or him, anymore.

My non-relationship was affecting my relationships.

I felt desperate and scared.  I called a friend who advised me to get on my knees and ask God to remove my obsession him every day.

I did.  But I needed something more.

the artists wayI remembered the comfort I had found in the structured creativity of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and decided to pull it out again —  a hopeful, albeit artsy, roadmap out of myself.

This time, in addition to taking on the weekly reading and writing assignments, I committed to the weekly Artist Date – the weekly hour or so block of time, alone, to fill my creative coffers – and to a weekly blog about it for a year.  Fifty-two Artist Dates.  Fifty-two blogs.

Thursday is Artist Date 52.

I am sitting in a Starbucks on Michigan Avenue killing time before Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.  It is 6 p.m. and I have been downtown since 11.  I am tired.  I am questioning the wisdom in staying here as opposed to driving home at 2 p.m. when I was finished with my work and returning later.

Until I get the text which lets me know I am exactly where I should me.  It is from my friend Matt.  He is at a coffee shop around the corner, also killing time, before his couple’s therapy session where he will ask his wife for a divorce.

I tell him where I am.  Within moments he is standing over me and then we are hugging each other tightly.  Teary.

I remember when he told me that he and his wife were separating, more than a year ago.  I still lived in Seattle, but was visiting Chicago – smack dab in the middle of my own divorce.

Matt is appropriately anxious.  I reflect back to him how thoughtful he has been through this entire process – never rash.  We hold hands and we pray together, in the middle of Starbucks.  It doesn’t seem strange.

He leaves.  And shortly after, I do too, pulling my wool long-underwear back on over my tights.  It is December and the temperatures are already in the teens.

I love Chicago at night.  Especially during the holidays.  Michigan Avenue twinkles with white lights, and skaters glide around in circles on the tiny patch of ice in Millenium Park.

Photo: The Inside Scoop Chicago
Photo: The Inside Scoop Chicago

I walk up “the hill” that is Randolph Street to the Harris Theater.  My body has once again adjusted to the flat Midwest and takes note of the incline.

I pick up my ticket at will-call and make a beeline for the bathroom, peeling off my long underwear.  Winter in Chicago is a lot of work.

My friend Lori is coming out.  We embrace and talk excitedly about her ceramics show.  Lori is a genius potter.  We met her at Lil Street Art Center, where I was stumbling through a beginners’ class.  Lori taught me how to glaze.

She asks if I will come back to Lil Street.  I am not certain as I have committed my creative energies to my writing and my dance – at least for now.

She asks if I remember Kevin from the clay studio and reminds me he is a member of Hubbard Street.  I do remember.  It is one of the reasons I am here.

We part company and I run into a woman I have danced with.  She is enrolled in Level three West African Dance.  I am in Level two.  Later, I see Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The world seems small and I am a citizen of it.  Or, at the very least, a citizen of Chicago.

The woman in the seat next to mine is alone.  As is the woman next to her.  We make easy conversation.  She is a Weight Watchers member.  I am a Weight Watchers leader.  She is looking for a massage therapist.  I am a massage therapist.  She is a widow.  I am a divorcee.

She tells me she lost her husband four years ago, and she tears up.  For the second time today I am clear that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.  Right down to my seat: BB10.

The performance, One Thousand Pieces by Alejandro Cerrudo, is inspired by Marc Chagall’s America Windows – the installation I visit every time I am at the Art Institute, my favorite.  I shared it with Matt a few months ago when we met downtown for a member’s-only café re-opening.  It was summer and we sat in the courtyard noting who was checking the other out.  It seems a long time ago.

One Thousand Pieces, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
One Thousand Pieces, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

It is my first time seeing Hubbard Street Dance.  The dancers’ bodies are strong.  Gorgeous.  Not sinewy, like ballet bodies.  I think my legs approximate the same shape as theirs, albeit less toned and I feel at the same time cocky and ashamed admitting this to myself.

The stage is glossed and looks like water.  I am looking for Kevin.  My eyes occasionally roll back into my head.  This almost always happens to me at performances.  The lights go down and my sleepy kicks in.  Except for last year when I saw Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre  – twice.

My seats were good – dress circle one night, main floor the other.  My experience was dramatically altered by looking straight at the dancers as opposed to peering down at them.  I vowed then I would always buy good seats for dance.  These seats are good – the Harris Theatre is small and there are no “bad seats.”  But not good enough.

And then it is over.

The performance, but not my Artist Dates.  They “work.”  Like being on my knees works.  Not so much in desperation (although I am certain I will find myself there again many times in this life), but in prayer – the antidote to it.  Exactly where I am supposed to be.

Your Honest, Open, Dirty, Loving Ways

My ex-boyfriend J is getting married.

I’ve often said nothing good comes from a sentence that begins, “So I was on Facebook…”

I actually spoke to J twice this summer.  Once from home, the second time from the road -- from the guest room at my aunt and uncle's house.
I actually spoke to J twice this summer. Once from home, the second time from the road — from the guest room at my aunt and uncle’s house. With them here.

That’s how I found out.  His engagement was at the top of my news feed.

My stomach sank to my feet.  Hope dashed.  Fantasy abruptly ended.

I felt sad.  Silly.  Stupid.  Ashamed.

I love J.  I always have.  I knew him the second I saw him.  I’m pretty sure it was the same for him.

We dated in our 20s.  Ours was a sweet, sexy romance – albeit brief.  Our breakup caught me off guard.  Perhaps because he more than one time said, “I know I’m going to marry you.  And we’ll have daughters.  I know we will have daughters.”

I’ve written about this – about him, about us – before.

The last time we saw one another was in California – about 17 or 18 years ago – on Venice Beach.  I was returning my roller skates.  Until I found him on Facebook.  His profile picture was a photograph from childhood.  I wasn’t entirely certain it was him, so I wrote, “Is that you?”

“It is indeed me,” he replied.  “And it is indeed you.”

In the years that followed, we wished one another happy birthdays, occasionally commented on each other’s status, and traded inside jokes – mostly about Philip Roth and liver.  We occasionally had lengthier exchanges.  Like on his birthday in 2012.  I was delayed in Brussels.  He was on his way out for a crab dinner.  I told him I was getting divorced.

This past summer we spoke for the first time since Venice.  After hearing his voice, I remarked, “Oh…that’s what you sound like.”  I had forgotten.

That night he told me why he ended our relationship.  I had asked many times over the years but he had never responded to that particular piece of the conversation.  This time he did.

He said I woke something up in him.  A piece of him that desperately needed healing – healing I couldn’t give him.  That he had to do for himself.

He had been attracted to me.  To our sexual energy.   And that something about my  “honest, open, dirty, loving way” got under his skin.  “In a good way.”  And he ran.

He affirmed that I had been important in his life.  Just not in the way I had hoped to be.

I knew J was in a relationship and had been for many years.  That he always exercised terrific boundaries.

And yet, there was always a little piece of me that held out hope … that maybe one day J and I would find our way back to one another – in that way.  I didn’t live my life maneuvering around it.  Obsessing about it.  But it was there.

And now it isn’t anymore.  It can’t be.

A couple of weeks ago J showed up in my clairvoyant reading and healing.  He had in the previous one too.

The first time he showed up, the clairvoyant saw us holding hands, smiling, and taking a big leap together.  She said we may never connect again romantically, but that we are inextricably bound for life.

I didn’t like that so much – the first part.

The second time he showed up, she simply said, “You just let go of him.”  And that 10 percent of my energy returned to me immediately.

I had no idea.  I hadn’t even tried.  And I didn’t like that so much either.

But perhaps she was right, because this afternoon I did something that surprised me.  I was drafting a personal note to send, but chose to post a comment to his wall instead – just like hundreds of his other friends had done.  Just another Bozo on the bus.  Not claiming any special status.

“Mazel Tov! Wishing you much joy.”

Not even an “XO” – our usual sign off.

It is not untrue.  This is what I wish for him.  In the most honest, open, dirty, loving way.

Pulling Myself Out Of The Pity Pot, “Just Like Starting Over”

double fantasyI’ve been sitting in the pity pot for a couple of days now.  Actually, I‘ve been stewing in it – my attention laser focused on what I don’t have, what isn’t working, and most of all, the ways in which I have not changed or grown.

It’s terrifying.  Mostly because I lived my life this way all the time, once upon a time.  It was only in “so-sad-rescue-me-from-myself-because-I-don’t-know-how-to” mode that I dared to believe I might get what I thought I needed.

Things changed.  I changed.  I’m not sure how – if it was learning to meditate, cognitive behavioral therapy, or a spiritual-business class.  Making gratitude lists, losing weight, or getting sober.  Just getting older.  Or perhaps a little bit of all of it – but I did.  And today, as a rule, people tend to see me (and I see myself) as pretty sunny, light.  A light – full of gratitude, a big believer in G-d, the universe, and possibilities.

So it’s scary returning to that once familiar place of darkness, hopelessness, and self-pity.  A not-so-fun house of circular thinking.  Even if it’s brief.  I know it’s not reasonable to think I will never take a sojourn here.  And yet, it surprises me every time.

I forget that the way out is gratitude.  Not just once, but continuous and sustained.  Ever growing.

My nightly gratitude list, the one I exchange with a friend, the one I’ve been writing for double-digit years, isn’t enough right now.  I had to pull out the big guns.

Last night I wrote on Facebook, “The universe is conspiring with me.  At least in work.  I need to say this out loud because it is true, as opposed to the lies my brain likes to tell me.”

I immediately felt better.  Very quickly, I heard the Pavlovian “ping” of my cell phone, alerting me of Facebook activity.  Thumbs up, sunny responses, connection – like attracting like.

This morning I woke to a message from a friend that didn’t sit right with me.  Intellectually, I knew what he was asking of me was perfectly reasonable.  That it had nothing to do with me.  Nonetheless, I found myself wondering if I had done something wrong, along with the dreaded thought  – “Are we ok?”

It was quickly displaced with, “Think about all of the love in your life.”

It was reflexive.

I thought about my friend Jonathan calling me “brilliant,” reposting my Facebook status, because “it is so appropriate.”  About Amanda doing the same, writing, “(it is) My new mantra.”

I thought about the 30 people at the table jumping up and down to be with me, instead of the one who didn’t show – a lesson my friend Lisa tried to drill into my head for years.

It appeared I was no longer in the pity pot, ladling my fears over me – the old “I’m-not-loveable-I’m-doing-it-wrong-I’m-broken-God-is-fucking-with-me” refrain.  I am certain this is a direct result of my speaking my gratitude – again, again and again.  In larger and larger circles.  How else could I have broken the cycle?  I certainly wasn’t going to think my way out of it.

I thought about my drive home to Chicago, from Detroit, a few summers ago – right after my best girlfriend’s father died.  On the way in, I noticed my car sounded really loud.  Her husband took it to the shop for me.  The muffler had a hole in it, but his mechanic couldn’t fix it right then.  So I drove home “as is.”

Julie and I in happier times.
Julie and I in happier times.

My 4-cylinder Honda Civic is great on gas.  Great for parking.  But a powerhouse on the road, it is not.  And with the muffler shot, I had less power than usual.

Around Kalamazoo I found myself wedged into a single-lane gauntlet, construction barriers on either side.  As a rule, I do not like narrow spaces, but here I was – with an aggressive Michigan driver on my ass, with nowhere to go but forward.

I was terrified.  And then I wasn’t.  Something kicked in.  I began reciting a gratitude list out loud.  Quickly.  Without breath or punctuation.  Everything and anything that came to mind.

“I am grateful for this car.  For Julie.  For my flexible schedule that allows me to take trips like this.  I am grateful for the sun.  That I live close enough to drive to Detroit there easily.  For the CD in the car.  For John Lennon.  I am grateful for John Lennon singing to me, “It’s been too long since we took the time, no-one’s to blame, I know time flies so quickly.”  That shaky, kind of rockabilly quality to his voice.

And then the lanes opened up.  I glided over to the right and watched the aggressor behind me whisk by.  I was safe.  It was over.

It was been said that fear and faith cannot exist at the same time.  I don’t know.  I don’t know if I had faith in that moment that I was ok.  But I could name what was ok.  Just like I did last night.  And again this morning.  I stepped out of the pity pot and wrapped a plush, oversized Ralph Lauren towel of gratitude – of ok-ness, of ok-enough-ness – around me.  And I was ok.  Perhaps, even more than. It was “Just Like Starting Over.”