Artist Date 3.2: Enough To Say Fuck Off

Every fiber in my being is telling me to go home. To send resumes. Work on my manuscript.

That I’ve been downtown too long already. Eating lunch. Shopping for sunglasses. Having fun.

That I don’t “deserve” it. That I better get back home and get cracking. Find a job and start making money. And until I do, I have no right “playing” like this.

It’s an old message.

The first time I heard it I was in my late 20s, when my event-fundraising contract was not renewed.

“Enjoy this time,” my therapist said. “Go to matinees. Museums. Walks in Golden Gate Park.

“Soon enough you’ll be working again and you’ll regret not taking advantage of this time … Trust me, I know.”

And she did. It had happened to her.

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But I didn’t much enjoy that time off. Or all the other times I’ve been unemployed or underemployed since.

Not until a couple of years ago, when I took on the challenge of the Artist Date — the weekly, solo flight of fancy as prescribed by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way.

Until then, time not working meant time I scrambled. Wrung my hands. Ran the numbers. Sat in front of the computer. Somehow equating worry with work.

It didn’t work. And it didn’t bring me work. Just suffering. Which I seemed to somehow think I deserved.

When I took on The Artist’s Way as if it were my job, I saw the folly of my constant motion. And I learned, albeit slowly, to enjoy my underemployed status.

Friends marveled at my charmed life. Museum lectures. Book stores. Dance classes. Opera. I did too.

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But deep down, a part of me didn’t believe I deserved it.

Perhaps it still doesn’t.

It is the voice that shames me for returning to Chicago after a year abroad and finding myself, once again, underemployed. And reminds me that unlike the years of 2012-2015, I am no longer receiving alimony. It says, “Be afraid.”

Even though I am doing all the right things. Sending resumes. Writing cover letters. Incorporating edits and feedback.

Registering with temp agencies. Seeing massage clients. Applying for non-career jobs.

Babysitting.

It insists it’s not enough. That I should go home and do more. As if the one hour I have set aside for my Artist Date – number 3.2 (119) – will somehow make a difference in my ability to secure full-time work.

Even though I have enough money for today. And even tomorrow.

I tell this voice to “fuck off!” and walk down Washington and into the Chicago Cultural Center. “Which, by the way,” I tell it, “is free.”

The effect is immediate. What I used to get from that first gulp of booze. What I used to think was magic in a bottle. Relief.

My chest feels flushed, my heart full. The voice is quiet. I am smiling.

I’ve been here dozens of times but today I am particularly struck by the beauty of the former public library. So much so I never make it to the exhibit on the fourth floor.

Glittering tile work. Quotes carved in marble. In English. Hebrew. Arabic. Chinese.

Light shining through the recently cleaned stained-glass cupola.

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A poster that reads, “There are no degrees of human freedom or human dignity. Either a man respects another as a person or he does not.” James Cone.

Equally lovely.

I’d add, “…respects himself, or herself, or does not … enough to say ‘fuck off.’ ”

 

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Artist Date 116: Brundibar

Brundibar_button

I am surprised by my tears.

I don’t know why. As my ex-boyfriend D once noted with great endearment, “You cry about everything.” But today they surprise me.

Perhaps because it is not quite noon (not that tears are a great respecter of clocks) and it seems early in the day to have such an outpouring of emotion. Or perhaps it is because I have spent the entirety of this Artist Date (number 116) mired in irritation.

I am at Madrid’s Teatro Real for a performance of Brundibar, Hans Krasa’s children’s opera, re-written from memory and performed 55 times at Theresienstadt – the ghetto and concentration camp located about an hour from Prague.

I feel awkward walking to the opera – just a few blocks from my house. It is a children’s performance and I am attending sans child. My discomfort is heightened as I show the usher my ticket.

“You know this is just one ticket? One seat,” she inquires.

Yes, I am aware.

And I am once again reminded of the Spaniards distaste for aloneness. I didn’t buy into this when it was first pointed out to me by a long-time expat during my first days in Madrid. Over the past nine months I’ve become increasingly more aware that at best, Spaniards do not value time spent alone, and at worst, pity it. My Spanish students and friends confirm this.

The child next to me is sniffling and blowing his nose. I privately regard him with disdain as a human petri dish and hope not to catch whatever has taken root in his small body. The pain in my leg and hip that has followed me from California to Chicago to Seattle to Madrid announces itself. A bodyworker by trade, I roll the skin of my thigh between my fingers – burning, painful – hoping to encourage its release. I am, in a word, distracted.

The opera is performed in Spanish – which I don’t expect, even though I know there will be no subtitles. For some reason I expect it to be performed in Czech, and that none of us will know the exact words being sung. Ridiculous.

But as it is in Spanish, I feel obligated to try to understand it. If it were any other language, I wouldn’t even try. Instead I would let the words wash over me, charmed by their different sounds and tickled if by chance I know any of them.

But this is not the case. And now, my Sunday morning Artist Date feels like a work. Like a Spanish lesson.

The performance lasts about 45 minutes. The music and costumes are fanciful and the children’s voices, high and sweet. I know its story because I read up on it last night.

It is a simple tale of fatherless children who need milk for their sick mother, but have no money to purchase it. They decide to sing in the marketplace to earn money but are chased away by the evil organ grinder, Brundibar (who represents Hitler). With the help of a bird, a cat, a dog and other children, they chase away Brundibar and are able to sing in the square.

But it is only as the performers take their bows that I connect to the performance and the story. Only now that the details I learned while reading in bed push up and out of me.

That among the 55 performances of the opera at Theresienstadt was one for the Red Cross, who had come to investigate conditions in the “ghetto,” and one for the Nazi propaganda film Der Fuher schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (The Führer Gives the Jews a City). That many of the Jews living in Theresiendstadt were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz prior to the Red Cross visit to make the ghetto appear less crowded and more comfortable. And that all who participated in the film were sent to Auschwitz upon its completion, and most of them gassed upon arrival.

That, according to Ela Weissberger, a survivor who played the role of the cat at Theresienstadt, the only time the children could remove their identifying yellow Star of David was during performances.

But it is what I have read on radio.cz that has moved me from irritation to tears.

“It is chilling to think that the cast had to be renewed constantly as a growing number of the children were transported to Auschwitz.”

It is this thought that runs through my head as the children take their bows, ironically on the second day of Passover – the celebration of the Jews liberation from slavery. That this cast will be renewed based upon age, not death. And I am no longer surprised by my tears.

Artist Date 46: Why I Am Here

Future Hits Halloween Show at Schubas.
Future Hits Halloween Show at Schubas.

Some Artist Dates are easy alone.  Museums.  Lectures.  Dance performances.  Opera.  Theatre.  Some, like movies, I even prefer that way.

Live music, however, is far more difficult.  Even when the audience is children.  Perhaps even more so.

And yet, this is the set up for Artist Date 46.

I am parked outside of Schubas.  My friend Matt’s band – Future Hits, self-proclaimed Fun (Yet Secretly Educational) Music for Kids, Families and Teachers – is playing this afternoon.  It is a Halloween performance and party for children, hosted in collaboration with Whole Foods, The Kite Collective and Adventure Sandwich.

I stand in awe of how Matt puts himself out there.  Performing.  Recording. Last year, Future Hits cut its first CD, Songs for Learning, funded by KickStarter.  This past summer he spent a month in South America, improving his Spanish.  An ESL teacher for Chicago Public Schools, he requested, and received, a grant that paid for everything.

But right now I am standing in fear.  Rather sitting, in my 13-year-old Honda Civic.  I feel anxious about going inside.  I don’t have children.

I sometimes feel this way walking into synagogue by myself – which I began doing several years ago.

As fresh meat, I was quickly swarmed and warmly greeted.  Peppered with questions.  Top on the list: Do you have children?

“No.”

“Oh…”

Pause.  Uncomfortable silence.  I often feel I have to fill that space.  Say something clever or pithy to put us both at ease.  I am getting better at just letting that dead air “hang.”  Like summer in Charleston.  Heavy.  Still.

I wonder what they are wondering.  If I cannot have children.  If I am childless by choice.  If I am waiting for the perfect sperm to swim into my life.  I am told that this is none of my business.

Mostly, I imagine they wonder what brought me there.  It’s a reasonable enough question.  And the assumption that I have children is equally reasonable.

Many, perhaps most, join a congregation when their children are of school age.  They recognize it as time to do what their parents had done – provide their children with a Jewish education.  Sometimes for no other reason than, “this is what we do.”

Perhaps the second most popular reason for joining is the gift of a complimentary one-year membership, given when the Rabbi or Cantor of that congregation marries a couple.  (I will have to query my Rabbi to see if I am correct in my speculation.)

Gene and Oscar
Gene and Oscar

I walked into synagogue for my own reasons.  Neither recently married nor considering a Jewish education, I am the Jew who converted to Judaism.  It’s a long story.  One that doesn’t fit neatly into conversation over coffee and pastry after services.  But it is mine.  And I am assured that I have a place in the congregation.

Nonetheless, it is often still daunting walking through those sacred doors alone.

It is too at Schubas.  Even after seeing my friend Joe, smoking outside.  He doesn’t have kids either.

I walk in, pay $10, get my hand stamped and say to the bouncer, “Am I the only one here without kids?”  “Nah,” he replies.  Looking in, I’m not so sure.

The lights are dim and a bunch of little people in costumes are making kites and eating granola.  Matt and his band mates are dressed in caveman attire.  Think Flintstones.

Our friend Lily is selling CDs.  Gene is on the floor with his son, Oscar, making a kite. Jenny is helping her son Seth into his costume.

Matt’s mom, Rhonda, is here.  His dad too.  I love Rhonda.  Our conversations meander from fashion to Transcendental Meditation (which we both practice) – seamlessly.  I feel like the universe has conspired for us to meet.  We pick up where we left off last time.

Matt is delighted to see me.  Grateful for the support.  He always is.

I remember the first time I heard him play, at the Beat Kitchen.  I arrived early and was standing on the corner outside.   When he saw me, he dropped to his knees – on the sidewalk – his hands in prayer.  Total gratitude.

This is why I am here – to support my friend.  But I forget, falling into a swirling pit of “me.”  Self-conscious about my childless-ness.  Even though I (mostly) chose not to have any.

And then the music starts and I forget all of that.  I forget myself.   I have seen Matt perform many times, but this my first time hearing Future Hits.  Even though I was a KickStarter supporter, which earned me a button and a CD.

The Kite Parade.
The Kite Parade.

I’m surprised.  The music doesn’t feel like kids music. It is pleasing to my ear.  It’s not sing-song-y like Barney.  Something to be endured.  I am delighted watching Emma go from bass to flute to tambourine.

The kids are invited to dance.  They do, with joyous abandon.  Oblivious to the concept of rhythm.  I would like to shake a tail feather myself…but I’m suddenly self-conscious again.  So I watch instead.  Although I do raise my hand when the band asks if anyone’s birthday is in October.

There is a kite parade for the kids to show off their creations.  More music and a dance contest.  The winner – dressed as a werewolf – leaves with a Halloween-decorated bag of schwag.

And soon after, I leave too.  Holding tightly to the light I see in Oscar’s face.  In Seth’s.  And the lesson they teach me.  Beaming over the simplest things.  Costumes.  Music.  Paper kites.  They do not concern themselves with why they are here.  Just that they are.

Artist’s Date 21: Not Quite Alone at the Opera

opera glassesI called my friend Sheila from the Lyric Opera tonight.  I was seeing Oklahoma!   Artist’s Date 21.  Standing in the lobby, talking into my corded ear piece, I told her I felt at ease here by myself.  That it didn’t seem strange.  That I was comfortable.

Perhaps because I had been on 20 solo Artist’s Dates prior.

Or perhaps because I wasn’t really alone.

I got a call this morning.  My birth mother, Pharen, died.  She was 60.

We just met for the first time three years ago.  She had been looking for me for 12 years, but it wasn’t until I began my search for her that we were connected.  And then it was ridiculously and remarkably fast.  And easy.

We spoke for the first time two days before I turned 40.  I was on a plane to Charleston to meet her a few months later.

During that visit she gave me a pair of mother-of-pearl opera glasses — one of the few things she had to give me, she explained, apologizing that she had long ago given her “good jewelry” to her nieces, as she wasn’t sure she would get to meet me.

I patted the lump in my bag that was the glasses, tucked inside a soft purple Crown Royal bag.  Exactly how she gave them to me.

Sweet irony.  For it is only in getting sober that I finally mustered the courage to look for her rather than talk about looking for her.  That I found friends who had done the same and could walk me through it, step by step.

Sweet irony.  That I would be going to the opera the day she died.

My friend Lynn told me to be gentle with myself during this time.

This time when my stomach feels full with anxiety and yet I don’t know what I am anxious about.  She says it is my body responding to the uncertainty of experiencing something new.

Like losing a “parent” — even if she didn’t raise me.  Or going to the opera alone.

My body has grown accustomed to these Artist’s Dates.

Picking up my tickets from will call, I felt kind of cool and confident, like the girl in a Charlie! perfume commercial from the 1980s.  “Who’s that in the orange suede boots and short, pink-wool blazer by herself?   The one with the bindi and the cropped hair?”

I used to sometimes feel sorry for people I saw alone at events.  I don’t anymore — because I don’t feel sorry for me.

I settled into my aisle seat — main floor, row RR — relieved that I didn’t have to make conversation.  That I could sit.  That I could read from the book in my bag.  That I could return emails and texts from my smartphone, clicking “like” by every condolence I received on Facebook.  Right until the lights went down and the curtain went up.

I’d never seen Oklahoma! before, movie or stage production.  I loved it.  Who doesn’t love a surrey with a fringe on top?  I pulled out  my glasses to see the performers better.  I had a hard time getting a really clear view, but no matter.  I felt her with me.  I wasn’t alone.

I loved the simple story of courting and coupling — a different time, but the foibles and heartbreaks universal, transcending it.  I saw a little bit of myself in wildly flirtatious Ado Annie.  Always keeping her options open.  Easily swayed by pretty words and sexy kisses.

I thought of my Aunt Julie, Pharen’s sister, who I met this fall when I went to Charleston a second time — when I received a call that my birth mother was dying, but didn’t.

I had met a boy while I was there and fell head over heels over head.  And when it didn’t turn out exactly as I had planned, she warned me about “pretty words.”  And to “stop and pay attention” when I hear what I want to hear, words that make my heart race.

Aunt Julie is practical and wise.  Pharen was like me.  A dreamy romantic with her heart on her sleeve and her feet often-times not quite touching the ground.

I loved the singing.  I loved the dancing.  I loved that it was light and I could just smile through it.

I loved that I could, in fact, smile through it.

That I no longer had to be attached to my sadness.  That I could experience moments of joy amidst my sorrow.

That I could go to the opera without wearing the look of “rescue me” painted on my face.

That I coudl go to work today, rather than calling in “tragic victim,” and not feel the need to announce to my Weight Watchers members that my birth mom had died earlier that morning.  That I could engage in their stories.  And when one offered that her niece had recently died, I didn’t have to match her loss with my own.

That I could call my parents, the ones who raised me, and tell them about Pharen’s passing.  That I could go to them with compassion and without expectations, knowing that this isn’t easy for them — my having found my birth family.  That I could turn to others less affected for comfort and soothing.

That I could call my birth dad and not want a thing from him other than to tell him this news.

That I could experience joy when 45 minutes after receiving the call that my birth mother had died, I received another call letting me know I had won fifth prize ina  a writing contest I recently entered — my first ever.  Addressing the topic, “How Creativity Changed My Life,” I wrote about these Artist’s Dates and the book from which they come, The Artist’s Way — my companion in divorce, in my (mostly) chosen single-dom.  Chosen but not always embraced.

That I could take the Mother’s Day card I bought yesterday — signed, sealed and ready to be delivered — and drop it in the mailbox anyway.  Knowing she would “get it.”  Just like I knew she was there with me tonight…

Peering through the opera glasses to see which male performers were cutest.  Knowing Ado Annie but wondering how she might be more steely, like Laurey.  Admonishing me for wearing orange suede booties in the rain, while I waited for the valet to bring my car — the ones that clomped down the hospital corridor so loudly, causing her to yell, “I knew it was you from half-way down the block…”

No wonder I didn’t feel alone.