Artist Date 73: Navel Gazing

navelNavel gazing.

It is the story of my life.  Or perhaps it is just my fear.  That seemingly subtle line between interested self-awareness and narcissistic self-centeredness.

I begin blogging in 2012.  Dubious.  Wondering what, if anything, I have to say.  And who, besides myself and perhaps a few kind-hearted friends, would care.

The questions become irrelevant as life becomes more Technicolor than I am used to.  I have no choice.  I have to write.

About Rwanda.  My birth-mother’s death. Divorce.  Romance.  Healing.

The unexpected gift of my return to writing following a 15-year absence – what spurs me on in my early, tentative efforts and continues to spur me on today – is the return voices of others.  The sense of connection, and its immediacy, is a balm.

I feel seen.  Heard.  Supported.  And even, dare I say, useful.  It seems the words I give to my name my experiences are words others have struggled to find.

In time, I find the writing itself is healing.  That I am healing myself.

And yet I sometimes still wonder what, if anything, I have to say.

On occasion those closest to me take exception to my writing and I have to consider if what I have written is hurtful or dishonest.  If I have compromised their anonymity.  Their right to privacy.

And, when blog posts garner little response, I question if what I have to say is still relevant.  Interesting.  Of value.

Self-doubt.  It is the devil of all creatives.  Likely all people.  But for those whose very lifeblood is the exercise of expression through words or clay or paint or charcoal.  Violin, ballet or film.  It can kill – the art.  The process.  The artist.  Either metaphorically or literally.

Sunday – Artist Date 73 – is that kind of killer.

you feel so mortalI am invited to Megan’s house for a salon.  (Think 1920s Paris, the apartment of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.)  Her friend, Peggy Shinner will be reading from her recently published book of essays on the body, “You Feel So Mortal.”

Megan thinks I will enjoy the afternoon, both as a writer and a bodyworker.  And, she thinks I should perhaps meet Peggy.

Approaching Megan’s door I hear piano music blending with animated chit-chat.  Inside there is a table covered in finger foods.  Slices of grainy-European bread topped with slices of egg and watercress.  Cheeses, jams and chutneys.  Chocolate-covered fruit.  Elegantly-penned signs in front of each platter, describing its offering.

I make a cup of green tea and easy conversation with the handful of women I know.

Megan introduces Peggy and me, highlighting our shared status as writers and Jewish women.  She asks me about my writing.  I trip over myself, talking about my blog – life after divorce, not dating, Artist Dates, healing.  My proverbial elevator pitch in desperate need of revision, or at the very least practice.

I tell her I believe it might be a book.  She smiles.

Later, Megan summons us upstairs, inviting us to find a seat from a row of chairs.  Peggy comes to the front of the room, opens her book and begins to read.

“I have Jewish feet,” she reads, continuing on about her father’s and how they are the same.  Then digging deeper, she reads about Jewish genetics, especially as applied to feet.  And how it was used against her people, my people, in Nazi Germany.

Her story is bigger than just her feet.  Just her family.

I feel small.  Self-important.  Silly.  Why don’t I include research in my writing?  Facts.  Or history — like she does in another essay about her mother and her relation to Nathan Leopold, who with Richard Loeb, sought to commit the perfect crime.

In a Q and A session following the reading, Peggy specifically mentions her desire to reach beyond her own story.  To have a greater context.

I don’t buy Peggy’s book.  I say goodbye from a distance, a wave, mouthing the words “Thank you.”  I am in some sort of self-imposed shame spiral.

I come home and finish reading, “Seducing the Demon,” by Erica Jong.  I have forgotten how smart, sassy and irreverent she is.  Her casual use of “fuck” and “cunt.”  She is my hero.

The book includes an essay that Jong read on “All Things Considered” in 2006.  “On Being a Car Wreck” – a response to unfavorable reviews of this book.

“So, instead of seeing the review as a personal vendetta or sexist attack, I’m living with the fact that the critic simply thought my book sucked.  So how can I write a better one?

“…Become less self-centered…How do I get over myself?…I’ve always wanted to improve and evolve as a writer…I’ve finally, at age sixty-four, gotten to the point where I realized that there are lives and characters more interesting than mine…”

She was sixty-four.  I am just forty-four.  Plenty of time.

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Artist Date 49: Content In My Role As Second Tenor

I am a second tenor.

rain 2
Lake Street Underpass, by Errol Jacobson

So says Steven, who I met on Thursday at the Palette and Chisel, at the opening before the opening of my friend Errol’s art show, “City” – Artist Date 49.

Steven is a member of the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus – the beneficiary organization of 20 percent of tonight’s sales.  He is introduced to me by the Kent, the Executive Director, who is introduced to me by Stephanie, Errol’s partner.

We are chatting when he gets the nod that it is show time.  He grabs my hand and says, “Come on, let’s go.”

“I don’t sing.”  I protest, remembering my friend Teresa insisting the same when she was asked to audition for Beach Blanket Babylon in San Francisco.  “Can’t you just belt something out?”  So she did – the theme song to the Flintstones.  She didn’t make it past the first verse.

“Of course you do,” Steven says.  “You are a second tenor.”

He does not push further, but instead, joins his colleagues at the piano.

When he finishes, I ask him how he knows I am a second tenor.  “Easy.”  Everyone who claims to not sing is a second tenor.  It is an easy range to sing, he explains.  And there are lots of them – second tenors – so it is easy to be one among many.

2013-11-21 18.47.21I love the idea of me – a straight, Jewish girl who can’t carry a tune – surrounded by gay men singing Christmas carols.  It seems somehow “right,” although certainly not congruent to the notion of “one among many.”  I have weaseled my way into more unlikely settings.  But I am pretty certain he was jesting.

He reminds me of the chorus’ upcoming holiday shows, and invites me to come watch open rehearsals on Sunday afternoons – both potential Artist Dates (Stephanie mentioned my practice to Steven and Kent when she introduced us) – then warmly takes my hand in his and bids me adieu.

Tonight is actually the second Artist Date Stephanie has “invited” me to– the first being her and Errol’s home in Bucktown, which was highlighted in a garden walk this past summer.  I am humbled and touched by her interest.

However, I notice that tonight, unlike most of my previous Artist Dates, stirs up very little in terms of thoughts, emotions and memory.  I am decidedly – without having made a decision – present.

I notice the chicken satay and Vietnamese spring rolls.  The brownies and fruit pastries from Alliance Bakery.  All of which I avoid.

The mild flirtation from the bartender who tells me I look like a character from a show on A&E.  “But much better looking,” he says.  I smile and tell him I do not have a television.

Errol’s paintings.  So much rain.  Like tiny kaleidoscopes sliding down windshields.  It is wet outside tonight.  And cold.  Winter is coming.

back lit
Back Lit, by Errol Jacobson

I am drawn to the saturated colors of “Backlit,” “Shadows” and “Days End.”  Purples and Yellows.  And I tell him so.

My friend Dina asks if I recognize where “Backlit” is painted.  I do not.

It is Paris.

She can tell from the roofline, she explains, using a fancy term I don’t know to describe the classically Parisian use of attics.

Dina lived in Paris 30 or so years ago.  I always imagined I would live there.  Or New York.  Or that I still might.  They feel familiar to me – they always have.  And I’ve never been lost in either one.

Yet, right now in this moment, I feel no desire to be anywhere but Chicago.  In spite of its cold, dark, rainy-ness.

I am driving my friend Leslie home and I mention that the man I asked out for coffee via Facebook has not responded.  It has been more than two days and I am surprised by his lack of contact.  It seems out of character.  Mostly because I think he is a man, and not a boy.  I am a little disappointed, but nothing more.  I’ve made no investment.  The crush diminishes.

“And then there were none,” I tell her.

And for once, I don’t mind.

Up until now, life without some sort of love interest felt sad. Somehow lacking.  The crush, the flirtation, gave me a sense of hope.  Of possibilities.

But I don’t feel sad right now.  Absent is the familiar pain stemming from the fear that I will be alone.

Frankly, I am a little stunned.  I am afraid to give this experience a voice.  That I will jinx it.

All I know is, right now, my life feels full.  With friends.  With art.  With possibilities.  And I am, blessedly, not particularly troubled by what I lack.  And by moments too far ahead.

It is as it was promised to me, that I would find contentment where I am right now.  Content in my role as a second tenor.  One among many.  Easy.

Artist Date 41: Finding Mine Where it Seemed There Was Nothing

I’ve always wanted to go into Carlos and Sarah’s Surplus of Options.  Ever since a couple of months ago when I saw a wooden crate sitting out front.  The kind my friend Dina suggested I find and put in my bathroom – on its end – to hold “interesting things to look at.”  And toilet paper.

2013-09-26 16.38.09I saw one of these crates at another thrift store but the owner wanted too much for it (in my opinion) and wasn’t willing to budge.  Not even after I purchased her overpriced turquoise vinyl bench from the 1950s.

But I kept forgetting to go.  Or perhaps I was just busy filling my days with other things.

A couple of days ago I saw a sign that Carlos and Sarah’s was closing.  And I saw it as a sign – my destination for Artist Date 41.

I mention to Carlos that I had been wanting to come in for a long time.  He says many people have told him this.

I want to turn around.  It is so sad inside.  There is so little left.  A couple of tables with “sold” signs on them.  A painted chest.  Some books.  Cards.  Photos.  Boxes of records.

Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66.  Jose Feliciano.  Paul Anka’s 21 Golden Hits.

They remind me of so many trips to Amoeba Records in Berkeley, with my ex.  A huge, warehouse-size store lined with rows of albums.  Actual records.  LPs.  We would spend hours there.  Him, looking for obscure recordings to play at our dinner parties.  Me, giddy ogling at cover art.

I once bought an album by the artist Poon Sow Tang.  A photograph of a beautiful Chinese woman wearing gloves, wedged between borders of orange and pink.  It was from the early 60s.  Awful.  I felt like I should be eating really bad egg foo young at a restaurant with fuzzy red and gold wallpaper.  The art was genius.

But usually, I didn’t buy the record.  I would just carry it around the store for a while, enjoying it.  Like the one of Barry White standing next to a curvy swimming pool in Los Angeles.  He is wearing a white jumpsuit and is “less heavy.”  My ex asked me if I wanted it.  It was a buck, I think.  “Nah,” I replied.  I had my experience with it.

I want to take photos of the albums but I wonder if Carlos will think I am strange.  If he will think I am doing something wrong.  If he will kick we out.  Rather than ask him if he minds if I take a few photos, I wait until he goes into the back room and shoot a couple on my phone.  Among them, “Concert for Lovers” and “For My True Love.”  The art work is hideous, and the titles make me sad – but I can’t help myself.

2013-09-26 16.20.29There are door handles.  Political books.  Photographs of a fierce-looking black woman, likely taken in the 1970s.  I ask Carlos if she was a model.  He has no idea.  He bought them at an estate sale.

I pick up a small purple book titled True Thoughts, Good Thoughts; Thoughts Fir to Treasure Up.  The pages are yellowing.  Some have holes.  All of them are falling out of the binding.  It is a collection of poetry and prose by Robert Browning.  A reading for every day.

2013-09-26 16.36.19April Tenth.  “Infinite passion, and the pain/Of finite hearts that yearn.”

September Ninth.  “No protesting, dearest!/Hardly kisses even!/Don’t we both know how it ends?/How the greenest leaf turns searest?/Bluest outbreak – blankest heaven?/Lovers – friends?”

The cover page for October.  “…Days decrease,/And Autumn grows, Autumn in everything.”

My heart swells.

Inside the cover page is a handwritten name: Ruth Lemson.  Inside the back – “So the year’s done with! (Love me forever.)

It is marked $1, but it is on the half-price shelf.  I hold on to it while fingering through a stack of rectangular cards –each with a double exposure of an old photograph.  I pick two.

“American Scenery: Yosemite Valley, Cal.”  It is a picture of El Capitan.  A tree bending before it.  I have been here many times.  The other reads “Paris au Stereoscope: Photographic C’ a Paris.”  It is Notre Dame.

I bring these to the counter, along with the Browning book, and ask what they are.  Carlos explains the cards are from a Stereograph.  It is a predecessor to my childhood ViewFinder.  I remember putting the plastic “binoculars” to my eyes and inserting a disc of photographs into it for a 3-D show.   Same idea.  He does not have the viewer.  Just the cards.

I take a couple of photographs – right in front of Carlos.  I do not explain myself.  He isn’t the least bit fazed.  I try on a pair of vintage glasses in the case.  They are much too wide from my head.

I ask him about the lamp behind him.  He calls it a memory lamp.  I cock my head like a confused puppy.  He explains that an individual glues his or her “special treasures” to it.  It is tacky and awful and painted gold.

Carlos rings me up for my own special treasures – $2.50.  And I wish him luck in his next endeavor, inquiring what that might be.  He sounds a bit like the Big Lebowski, replying something like, “A little of this.  A little of that.”

As I walk out the door, someone walks in.  Someone else who has been meaning to and just now is.

I think about timing.  About finding something “shiny, something “mine” where it seemed there was nothing.  About staying open, while Carlos and Sarah prepare to close.

Artist Date 28: Me, Kate Moss and the Joannes

kate mossAbout this time last year, my friend Joanne told me she had two style icons – me and Kate Moss.  I was surprised and tickled.  But mostly tickled.

I remember  what I was wearing that day.  A tight pink and white striped “French sailor” t-shirt from Old Navy, with buttons along the boat neck.  Too loose, Army-green cigarette pants from Target, purchased prior to my ex asking me for a divorce – before the weight slipped off of me, seemingly overnight.  A thin, woven belt, and my yellow peep-toe wedges with ankle straps.

I felt like a page torn from Glamour –“Great Looks for less than $50,” or something like that.  Minus the shoes.  The shoes would put me “over budget.”

The shoes always put me over budget.

“What calls for the most care in a woman’s costume is unquestionably the foot gear and the gloves.”

The words are stenciled on a wall at the Art Institute of Chicago, along with numerous other pithy statements about dress.  I am here for a member lecture and pre-viewing of “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” – Artist Date 28.

Sometimes I feel light, superficial, because I am delighted by statements like Joanne’s.  I feel that it should not matter.

And yet, I am at a show that has toured the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris before landing in Chicago, a show that is focused on fashion.  Earlier this year I saw another, “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” at the Chicago History Museum.

I consider that, perhaps, how I choose to cover my body might not be a simple matter of practicalities and aesthetics.  That fashion – how we dress ourselves, individually and as a culture – is in fact, a statement of sorts.  A reflection of time, mood, politics.  Think hemlines rising as the economy upticks.

Or, as Gloria Groom, the show’s curator says in her lecture, “clothing is not fashion.”

The exhibit is bursting with paintings and sketches.  Advertising, bits of clothing and accessories.   Bustles, corsets, shoes.  Costumes for walking the boulevards of Paris.  For going to the sea.

“As fashion was an integral part of Paris’ character, some places – the boulevard, parks, racetracks and theatres – were constructed with the idea of it’s well-dressed pubic in mind.”

Groom ends her lecture with a joke, a “warning.”  That those experiencing a bad hair day, clothing day, face day, might do well to avoid the exhibit.  That mirrors and reflective surfaces abound.

I am standing in front of a collection of hats.  Fifty or more.  jeweled.  Feathered.  Contained in a single square of plexiglass spanning floor to ceiling.  I see myself admiring the millinery.  Recognizing one that reminds me of the hat I wore at my wedding.  I mention this to the woman standing next to me.  She asks me about it.

It is made of tightly woven straw, pinned up into corners, decorated with ribbon flowers and glass fruit.  I had to have it.

I do not mention I am divorced.  It does not feel germane.   We are talking about hats.  This is progress.

Manet-Lady-with-Fans_480My marital status creeps in later, standing in front of an Edouard Manet painting of Nina de Callais, called “Lady with Fans.”  She is lying on her side, looking straight into the camera.  If there were a camera.  Her eyes are big, dark, open.

She is dressed in black, but she is not mourning.  She is wearing jewelry.  If she were in mourning she would not be, Groom explains.  Groom adds that de Callais is divorced.  That perhaps she is “re-baiting the trap.”

The placard next to the painting notes that de Callais was known for hosting salons of writers and artists.

A woman next to me says, to no one in particular, “She is ugly.”  I do not agree.  “Don’t you think she looks and sounds like fun?” I say.

“Perhaps.  But she is ugly.  At least she is painted that way.”

I say nothing.  Like my friend Julie says, “You can’t argue with crazy.”

I wonder if I am re-baiting the trap.  Maybe.  Not long after I moved back to town, my friend Tori commented that I dressed differently – sexier, more body-conscious.  I wasn’t conscious of it.  But now I am.

There are corsets.  Boudoir paintings showing seductively naked shoulders and upper backs, napes of necks teasingly exposed.

“A woman in a corset is a lie, a falsehood, a fiction.  But for us, fiction is better than reality.” 

I think of a party I attended in San Francisco in the mid- 1990s.  There is a poster of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, circa 1976, hung in the bathroom.  By today’s standards, and even those of almost 20 years ago, the women – once considered the pinnacle  of beauty in America – would be seen as flabby, soft.  Their breasts, saggy.  Their thighs, heavy.

Like the photograph of Marilyn Monroe that was recently popular on Facebook.  She’s in a yellow bikini. Boy short bottoms. Tie halter top (I covet this suit.).  She is reclining.  Folds of skin naturally line up across her belly in horizontal rows.

I have folds across my belly.

I am acutely aware of the phenomenon of Photoshop.  Of airbrushing.  That no celebrity would willingly allow this photograph to surface.  But that it might show up in The Star or The Inquirer, with a headline like “Monroe Hits Maximum Density.”

It is a little after 4.  I have given myself an hour to tour the exhibit.  It is not long enough.  I have somewhere to be.

I want to stay and stare at the woman in the Frederic Bazille family reunion painting.  The one in the polka-dot dress staring out at me.  Her face is sweet.  It is shaped like mine.

I want to take off my shoes and run my feet through the fake grass covering the floor in the Plein Air (open air) room.

Bazille-Renoir_360I want to lean into Bazille’s portrait of Pierre-Auguste Renoir.  Hiked up on a chair, his arms wrapped around his bent knees.   He is bearded.  My type.

I want to scroll through Henri Somm’s sketchbook, digitally brought to life.

I want to see the related exhibits: “Undressed: The Fashion of Privacy” and “Fashion Plates: 19th-Century Fashion Illustrations.”

I return home and there is a message from my friend Joanne.  A different Joanne.  She was at the lecture too.  She saw me.  I saw her.  But we didn’t see each other seeing one another.  She says, “You looked lovely in that dress.”

I wonder what this dress – its halter-style, plunging neckline and flirty skirt, covered in large red and navy flowers – says.  Is it a sign of optimism, worn the day before the Supreme Court overturns the Defense of Marriage Act?  Or is it nothing more than a response to a sticky, summer day in Chicago?