Artist Date 106: Altered But Recognizable

From the 2015 Chicago Macy's Flower Show "Art in Bloom."
An ode to Henri Matisse. From the 2015 Chicago Macy’s Flower Show “Art in Bloom.”

My friend Matt recently asked if I was still “doing the Artist Date thing.”

I am somewhat taken aback. It reminds me of being asked if I am still dating Insert-Man-Here — an inquiry often made when I have ceased to talk about a man du jour. It is the cousin question to, “Have you heard from Insert-Man-Here?”

The answer to both is usually, no. If I were, if I had, I would have mentioned it.

But Matt isn’t asking about a man. He is asking about my commitment to myself and to my craft. I wonder if I have ceased to talk about it, to be engaged with it, or if he has just not read about it lately.

The whole exchange scratches at the part of me that knows I haven’t been as committed to the practice as it is prescribed by Julia Cameron in “The Artist’s Way” as I once was. The part that bristles at my skipping weeks, writing about them much later and occasionally allowing others to join on my intended solo sojourns — my imperfection.

I do not mention any of this. Instead, I sy, “Yes,” and add that I have just completed two years of Artist Dates.

A week later, I have not been on another.

I tell myself I’ve been busy with the seemingly incongruent actions of preparing to leave the country for a year and trying to secure additional work while I am here. Drafting resumes, taking software tests and going on interviews; ordering background checks and searching for best prices on airline tickets.

On the eighth day following Matt’s original inquiry, the universe sends a second messenger — this one, a bit more direct. Dorothy attends one of the Thursday Weight Watchers meetings I lead. She is in her 70s and is the kind of woman I hope to become — active, engaged in the world, growing, learning, giving back.

She asks if I have been to the Annual Flower Show at Macy’s.

I have not.

Dorothy sees this as an invitation to make an invitation. She tells me about the show, its theme — Art in Bloom — and how she, a master gardener, and others have breathed life into it.

When she is done, I commit to it, to her, to myself and to my process. I arrive on the 9th floor of the Macy’s flagship store on State Street a few hours later, Artist Date 106.

I smell the exhibit before I can see it. It is moist, warm, green — like the Lincoln Park conservatory where I have spent many Chicago winter days warming myself. I do not expect it.

Flowers are planted into shapes like Matisse cut-outs. Whimsical. Vibrant. I think of the cracked frame holding a Matisse print in the living room of my Mission-neighborhood apartment. Of my then boyfriend sitting on a Pilates ball, losing balance, and rolling into the wall —  knocking the print off of it.

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Ode to Piet Mondrian. From the 2015 Chicago Macy’s Flower Show, “Art in Bloom.”

Grid flower boxes in primary colors with thick black lines are an ode to Piet Mondrian. I recall the Mondrian show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York many, many years ago — entering the fashioned artist’s studio and swing dancing inside of it with my friend Jason.

I remember my friend Teresa’s mother taking me to the Macy’s Flower Show in San Francisco — on our way to her daughter’s theater performance. She went every year. It was her tradition. Returning to it in Chicago nearly 20 years later, the show becomes a chapter in mine.

I peer through a doorway on my way out — classic paintings are being projected onto a wall of white flowers. Michelangelo’s Mona Lisa. Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Raphael’s Sistine Madonnas.

I wonder what my own life might look like projected onto a wall of white flowers.

Fragrant. Lush. Harsh edges softened. Altered but recognizable, I think.

A lot like it already is.

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Raphael’s Sistine Madonnas. From the 2015 Chicago Macy’s Flower Show, “Art in Bloom.”
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Falling Into My Feet

Healthy pelvis.  Not mine.
Healthy pelvis. Not mine.

I’m standing in the dark looking at my x-rays with Stephanie, my new chiropractor.

Tears stream down my face.  I see my body.  All of it.  Even the IUD I had put in just before my trip to Rwanda because I vowed I would not have my period in Africa.

I can no longer turn away from the physical pain I so rarely mention or acknowledge.  The pain that has been with me, moving but constant, for so many years.

Suddenly, I understand.   As a bodyworker and massage therapist, it’s hard not to.  But the dysfunction is so obvious a 4-year-old could point it out – kind of like “one of these things is not like the other.”

My left hip is significantly raised.  Several inches significantly raised.  I laugh and explain that I have a really bad case of what my friend Brian used to call “bus leg” – the stance he would take while waiting for one of four different buses that ran up and down Haight Street in San Francisco, one knee bent, leaning into the opposite hip.  He would light a cigarette in the hope that this would hasten its arrival.

My body is telling my stories.

Stephanie laughs and points out that not only is my left hip raised, but my right hip is rotated forward.  I step into this position – exaggerating the rise of my lift hip and the twist of my right – and I immediately feel the pain.

Stephanie shows me my cervical spine, my neck.  It is devoid of any curve and tilted to the right.  Cocked like a dog considering what his master is saying and whether or not to ignore it.

cervical spine
Healthy cervical spine. Not mine.

I tell her the tilt makes sense.  That this movement, right ear dipped to the right shoulder is the motion I associate with my mugging in 2007.

Just two months sober and back in California, I am held up at gunpoint on a Sunday morning in Oakland.  Blocks from where I attended massage school, where I taught, and where I treat clients each quarter, returning “home” for a busman’s holiday.

I pick up a coffee from Carerras and am talking on the phone with my friend Robyn when I feel a flurry of activity around me – circling, swirling energy, like a cartoon Tasmanian Devil.  And then a gun inches from my nose.

“Give us your shit and we won’t shoot.”

“They are kidding,” I think.  “In about 30 seconds they are going to say ‘We’re just fucking with you, lady,’ and I’m going to tell them this is not funny.”  But they never say that.  I think I am dreaming but I don’t wake up.  And then I slip back through the rabbit hole of reality and scream a scream I didn’t know I had in me.

They just look at me.

I think about everything in my bag.  My passport and how my husband and I are supposed to leave in five days for Mexico.  The flash drive that has all of my files on it and has not been backed up.  My keys.  But I am frozen.  I cannot say a word.  I cannot push out a logical sentence like, “Let me give you the money but I keep the rest, ok?”  Because this is not logical.

Instead, I cock my head to the right, opening up my shoulder and allowing them to take the bag I am wearing across my body.  They pluck my metallic-pink cell phone from my hand and are gone.

I scream and piss myself running back toward the school.  I have attracted attention and people who were not there just a moment ago are asking, “Are you ok?”  I do not realize they are talking to me until one grabs hold of me.  I tell her my story and she calls the police while a man takes my arm and walks me back to the school.

My friend Tim picks me up that afternoon.  I get a new passport and go to Mexico.  And when I return to Chicago, I engage in EMDR work – trauma therapy.  I get relief.  But the story is still in my body.

The story is my body.  They all are.

The car accident on New Year’s Eve day when a Ford F-250 with a horse trailer goes through the back of my Honda Civic Hatchback.  When my husband takes the car to the shop on January 2 and they ask, “Did everyone live?”

The piece of my cervix I have removed when I am 24 – ridding my body of its pre-cancerous cells.  And the doctor in California who, upon examining me for the first time, says, “If anyone asks, this is not what an ordinary cervix looks like.”

My breast reduction when I am 40 and the shame and depression that follows me for years like an ex-boyfriend who won’t let go.  Faint memory now, like the scars that run vertically from breast fold to nipple.

foot
Healthy foot. Not mine. But what I imagine it looks like now.

My body has held on to each of these and made them its own – painting over experience with a broad brush stroke of pain.  Not unlike the stories I repeat so often that they become my pained reality – whether or not they are completely accurate.  My skewed perception becomes truth.

I come home from my treatment, take my boots off and place my naked feet on the hardwood floor.  I feel the ground beneath me.  Supporting me.  As if for the first time.  Whereas before I seem to have been standing on only a part of my feet, tottering.

I have fallen into my feet.  Into my body.  Into truth, and the possibility of a new story.

Artist Date 48: I Think The Fish Guy Likes Me

There is something decidedly unappealing about gazing into the center of a slab of beef.

Perhaps pork is better.

William "For Sunday's Dinner."
William Michael Harnett. “For Sunday’s Dinner.”

It didn’t bother me to see hocks of pork bolted to a wooden bar, then sliced paper-thin, and served to me, when I was in Spain.  Neither did the whole chickens and rabbits hanging from hooks in the market, which I took photographs of, then framed and hung in my kitchen.

I am at the Art Institute Chicago for the member lecture and preview of “Art & Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine.”  Artist Date 48.  It is dark and warm in the auditorium.  A slide of a still life – fruit and meat – is projected on-screen.  And then another, a fish.

They are not beautiful.  They do, however, evoke a flood of food memories.

Like the time I received a whole, smoked salmon.

It was my 39th birthday and I threw a big potluck soiree.

The man/boy I was crushing on – but could, and would, do nothing about as I was married – was the first to RSVP, saying he would bring Tang.  I laughed.  Knowing him, it might have been true.

Except it wasn’t.

The night of the party, he arrived with a box in his right hand – carrying it like a tray, high above his shoulder.  His name was on the side in black magic marker.  This was something he had ordered.

Inside was an entire smoked salmon.  Head.  Tail.  Everything.  Glistening.  Beautiful.  Although not Jewish himself, he seemed to intuitively know the way to a Jewish girl’s heart was through cured fish.

“He likes me,” I thought, beaming.

The next morning I made scrambled eggs with onions and the leftover smoked salmon.  One of my girlfriends had come to town from Los Angeles to celebrate.  Over coffee, I said the words out loud.

“I think he likes me.”

She disagreed, insisting the fish was about him and how he wanted to be perceived.  That it meant nothing about me.  I didn’t persist.  It didn’t matter.  I was married.

I hadn’t thought about the fish story in a while.  Or the fish guy, which my friends and I affectionately called him from then on.  He moved away while I was still married — to fish.

Memory wrapped in food.  It seems nearly impossible to separate the two.  I am reminded of this all week while leading Weight Watchers meetings and trying to encourage a conversation about what makes Thanksgiving memorable – besides food.

Norman Rockwell.  "Freedom From Want."
Norman Rockwell. “Freedom From Want.”

For the most part, the members are having none of it.  They want to talk about macaroni and cheese.  Stuffing.  Pumpkin pie and cranberries from a can.  One woman mentions waking her daughters late in the evening, dressing them, and taking them shopping at midnight. I would have loved that, I think.  She is creating tradition.

I think about living in California and riding my bike Thanksgiving morning – before the feast at Tim’s house.  I think about the printed menus Tim placed at each seat, like Martha Stewart.  About roasted root vegetables and pumpkin gnocchi.

I think about the year I got married and leaving for my honeymoon on Thanksgiving Day.  Eating breakfast with Tim and his roommate, Steven at the International House of Pancakes near the airport.

I do not mention any of this.  It is their meeting.

The exhibit moves from still life to real life.  There are rationing cookbooks.  Bright Spots For Wartime Meals – a Jello cookbook.  The words, “Armed with a can opener, I become the artist-cook, the master, the creative chef,” from the Can Opener Cookbook, are stenciled on the wall.

They remind me of a story I once heard about the “original foodie,” M.F.K. Fisher.  Suspicious that her celebrity kept those about her in silence, she once made a meal entirely from canned foods.  When her guests swooned, confirming her intuitions, she informed them of the origins of their dinner.

There is a menu for a meal honoring Fisher, created by Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse.  She is the Berkeley, California chef known for purple hats, and for bringing seasonal, local ingredients – cooked simply, cooked well – back into fashion, beginning in the early 1970s.

And there is a menu from Chez Panisse, celebrating Bastille Day in 1976, as well.

chez panisseI ate there just once.  On my birthday.  I do not recall which year.  I saved the menus – prix fixe, with gorgeous drawings of figs on the cover – for a long time, imagining I would frame them and hang them in my kitchen one day, along with my food photographs.  I never did.

Strangely, I do not recall what I ate.  I remember our server.  And the cost of the meal for two – $300.

Driving home in the first snow of the season, I chew on Brazil nuts – 30 grams of them weighed out and tucked in a small plastic container.  Just a snack.  I am full on memory.