It is November. The weather gods have smiled upon us with sunshine and seventy degrees.
(Many would say the baseball gods have also smiled upon us as the Cubs are in the World Series.)
It is a good time to be in Chicago.
I pull on a pair of brown corduroy trousers from the Salvation Army. Ralph Lauren. Six dollars. Boot-cut and too long in the legs for my not quite 5-foot, 3-inch body.
I slide my hand into the left, front pocket and pull out two small, slippery stubs. Used metro tickets from Paris.
I smile. Wistful.
I’ve been back just eight days but already Paris seems so far away.
The baguette I never eat here but cannot not eat there. Both doughy and solid. Formidable and yielding. I’ve never found anything quite like it at home.
The coffee. Short. Dark. Thick. Served in little cups and drank leisurely in a café, or standing up at a bar, but never taken to go.
The woman who says over coffee, “It’s like there was an empty chair waiting for you, and you slipped right in it … as if you were always there.” And the faces around the table nodding in agreement.
I try to conjure this up in my body. The bread. The coffee. These people who in a matter of days became my people. And I became theirs.
The pastry. The poetry.
The feeling I have every time I find myself in Paris … that my heart might burst if I’m not careful. The feeling I have always been here and will always be here.
But muscle memory fails me … for I can see it, but not fully feel it. Not in my bones. At least not in this moment.
Perhaps it is because I am so here.
In Chicago on this 70-something November day on a bike that doesn’t quite fit me. A loaner from the mechanic until mine is fixed. Wheels out of true. Seat too low. I am more wrestling with it than riding. And yet, I feel the sides of my mouth curling into a smile when I do. My now 47-year-old body embracing the challenge.
Editing my book. Cooking soup. Applying for work.
Watching a Cubs game at a dive bar for no other reason than I have been invited and it sounds like fun.
I am too present here to fully feel there for more than a few moments. And I realize the gift in feeling the ground beneath me. The swish-swish of fallen leaves under my feet.
I have spent years wishing I was somewhere other than where I was — even in Paris — missing the moment.
My friend Paul recently asked why I “even bothered” to come back in the United States. “Your writing is pure poetry there. That is your place,” he says. Perhaps. But for now I am here.
I slip the tickets back in my pocket — so that I might find them again one day and be reminded. Of baguettes and coffee. Poetry and pastry. Of the people who held a chair for me … waiting.
That mid-October was a good time to be in Paris. And right now is a good time to be here.
It’s Tuesday and today I find out if I’ve been accepted to the Yale School of Divinity. Of course, “today” is five hours earlier in New Haven, (Spain has not yet turned its clocks forward for spring.) so while it is nearly 7:30 p.m. in Madrid, it is only 2:30 p.m. in Connecticut. And, not surprisingly, I don’t know yet.
I mention this to Gordon, who is sitting next to me, and who expresses surprise when I tell him I have not been checking my phone every few minutes to see if the email has arrived.
I am equally surprised as I have vivid memories from not so long ago, of sitting at my desk hitting refresh on the computer every few minutes, waiting for I-don’t-know-what to happen. Not unlike my wandering into the kitchen to check the refrigerator every few minutes – each time imagining I might find something new added to the shelves since my last look.
Except I will receive something new via email if I wait long enough, whereas the contents of my refrigerator will remain static unless I leave my house and bring in something new. Which is essentially what I am doing now – once again filling my creative coffers. Artist Date 116. A distraction.
My friend Spencer developed the Unamuno Authors Series, bringing poets from around the world to Madrid. Tonight Mark Doty will read his work.
My friend Julie counts him among her favorite writers. A portion of her “fan letter” is included in the paperback version of Doty’s book, Dog Years. Later I will take a selfie with him and send it Julie via Facebook. But for now, I’m just waiting.
Not for Yale.
Because at this point I’ve turned off the sound on my phone. I don’t want to hear it. Or look at it. Or be reminded of it. My phone. Or Yale’s decision. Because I’m not sure if I can stay present in this moment knowing it. So I choose to remain in delicious, hopeful, not knowing.
Doty is a perfect distraction. Engaging. Both serious and playful as he reads his own words about dogs and fish, AIDS and murder. His mouth is tight, his words clipped with a “Locust Valley Lockjaw.” I wonder if anterior neck work (massage) might change the sound of his delivery.
My musings are interrupted by a poem about Doty’s old lover, gone now. He questions why he can no longer conjure up his face without first looking at a photograph. Feel the warmth of his brown skin against his own.
And why can’t I? D is neither dead nor even gone from my life. He is merely far, far away.
We haven’t seen one another in nearly eight months. Since I left Chicago. We do not Skype or FaceTime. This is his choice, not mine, and I do not argue it.
However, as the pages of the calendar turn over onto themselves, I have a harder time recalling his smell, his voice, and yes, even his face, without the aid of photographs and voicemails. I do not want to lose these palpable memories but it seems almost inevitable unless, until, we find ourselves in each other’s presence again.
I recall some years ago, speaking on the telephone with Stu, and then later, Jason – men I had dated when they were little more than boys and I, little more than a girl.
“Oh…that’s what you sound like,” I said upon hearing each of their voices. I had forgotten.
Perhaps this is the brain’s wisdom – making room for new smells, news sounds, new faces. Allowing us to move forward…from a relationship that ends in death, or in distance. From disappointment, words we’d rather than not read or hear.
“The Admissions Committee at Yale Divinity School has completed its review of your application. I am sorry to inform you that unfortunately, we are unable at this time to offer you a place in the Fall 2016 entering class.”
It is nearly midnight when I log on to the Admissions Page. After my Artist Date. After dinner with Spencer and Doty and his partner.
I think that I shake a little reading the email and that my breath catches – stuck in inhalation. That I cry a little too. But already, I don’t remember exactly.
I send Spencer a text, telling him the news, and I go to bed – too tired to do anything else.
And in the morning, I am again waiting. This time for a decision from Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music – my top choice for graduate school. I am assured it should arrive within the next few days.
Until then, I remain in delicious, hopeful, not knowing – distracting myself with dogs and fish and conjured up memories of old lovers. With art and words and daily life. With moments of presence.
A manipulator by nature (What cat isn’t?) she danced inside a cage one Sunday afternoon at Berkeley’s Your Basic Bird as if to say, “Pick me! Pick me! Yoo Hoo! Over here! Pick me.”
And so we did.
She was “my cat.” A scrawny tortoise shell, unaware of her size, who refused to abdicate Alpha Cat status to Ezra – a Norwegian Forest Cat affectionately known by my then husband as “Big Daddy.”
Bent on asserting his position, Ezra would regularly back Stella into a corner or under the butcher-block cart. Trapped, she would flatten her ears, hiss, and come out swinging – literally – inevitably pissing or crapping herself, which the two of them would roll around in, fighting.
We cleaned the floor with enzymes.
We tried separating the two.
We gave Stella Bach Flower essences. Anti-anxiety medication. Consulted with a feline behavioral specialist.
None of it worked.
Eventually, we tearfully gave Ezra to a client of mine who allowed him to take his rightful place as the Big Daddy, while Stella took the position as Alpha Cat in our home. Much to our surprise, Nin, our third, seemed relieved that Ezra was gone and was happy to acquiesce to Stella’s whims.
And so we thought our Stella troubles were over – and they were – until we moved to Chicago.
She lied limp on the floor of our largely sunless apartment. Depressed. Was spooked by thunderstorms. And eventually began peeing on the floors and furniture – rain or no rain.
I haven’t thought about any of this in years – until now, Artist Date 113. The Unamuno Author Series, featuring American writers reading their work here in Madrid.
I arrive late – having come straight from teaching – and Mark Wunderlich is already reading from his book of poems, The Earth Avails. I slip into a chair and listen while a wave of “Oh yes…this is why I go on Artist Dates” sweeps over me. I fantasize about graduate school – about being a part of a community of writers and artists. English-speaking writers and artists. I think about how I feel like a child here in Spain – unable to communicate more than my basic needs in the language of the country where I have chosen to live. How I become shy and small in Spanish, while I am big and often shiny in English.
And then I think about Stella.
Mark reads poems about many things. Prayer. Bridges. A classmate whose name sealed her destiny as a pole dancer.
But it is the poem that is not included in his book that locks me in. About missing the cat who greeted him at the door – eager for her supper. Who shared the bed with him. Who was there when his partner no longer was.
And about the bolus they injected into her paw when it was clear her life was coming to an end.
I remember holding Stella when they injected the first bolus into her.
It is a Saturday afternoon. I have just pulled the still-warm-from-the-dryer covers back on the sofa cushions, having just washed them with enzymes – again – when Stella leaps on to the couch, looks straight at me, squats and releases her bladder.
I look at my then-husband. We know without saying it that we cannot continue to live like this. That she will ruin every piece of furniture. That she will ruin the dark, original walnut floors. And that no one will adopt her.
Before we can change our minds, we whisk her into the cat carrier and into the car and drive to the somewhat ironically named Anti-Cruelty Society.
Inside, people are relinquishing their pets for all sorts of reasons – some seemingly legitimate, others ridiculous. But what do I know? I am putting my cat down. Not even relinquishing her.
I discuss the matter with a staff member and she agrees with our decision.
I slip Stella out of the cat carrier, let my then-husband say goodbye, and carry her into another room where “the procedure” will take place.
I hold her in my arms on the stainless-steel table, covered with a threadbare beach towel. I tell her that she was a good cat. That I love her. And the technician injects a bolus of medication that will end her life into her paw.
“It will take a few minutes,” she explains. “Keep holding her.”
I do. I hold onto her for what seems like a very long time. She is groggy, like she was the time we gave her anti-anxiety medication, but nothing more. After about 10 minutes the technician returns.
“She’s still alive,” I say. “Always a fighter.”
This time the technician injects the needle directly into a vein, as opposed to near it, and once again leaves us alone.
This time, I feel her breathing slow down. And then stop. She is gone.
Eight years later, my heart still hurts. Tears streaming down my cheeks as I am writing this.
I don’t like thinking about this moment. And yet I am grateful to Mark for reminding me of it. For reminding me of Stella – this scrappy little cat who reminded me so much of myself once upon a time. Hair slicked back. Wannabe Alpha looking for a fight. And yet behind the bravado, a girl – seemingly unaware of her small size –crying “Pick me. Pick me.”
Of how much I loved her. And the possibilities for loving that girl.
Note: The entire time I was writing, I was certain the Katherine Mansfield quote referenced was “The heart I am in love with has to be a little bit wild.” It was only when I placed the photograph (above) into this post that I realized my error. That the quote was, “The mind I love must have wild places.” I am choosing to leave the essay as it was written, assuming it is the truth of my subconscious…that the heartI am in love with has to be a little bit wild…and honoring it.
“The heart I am in love with has to be a little bit wild.” (incorrectly attributed to Katherine Mansfield.)
The words are written on a wooden bookshelf with black Sharpie marker. I smile as I snap a photo to send to D – as requested – proof that I, this little bit wild heart he once loved, made it here. To Desperate Literature, Artist Date 111.
This mostly used, mostly English-language bookstore is about a seven-minute walk from my house – the other two locations are in Brooklyn and Santorini, Greece – but I’m only just now finding it. That’s how Madrid is. Lots of windy paths, disguised as roads, bumping into one another. Arteries and veins, as I like to call them.
There is an economy of space here, and it’s easy to miss so much as there are no familiar grids to zig up and zag down. One either stumbles onto a place or is told to go there.
In this case, the latter.
First by Naked Madrid – a must-read blog for non-natives looking for a local experience. And again by my friend E after she attended its “The More Eggnog the Better” Christmas party.
It’s noon – still fairly early for a Sunday “morning” in Madrid – when I stumble in and am greeted by a small man wearing small, round John Lennon-style glasses.
“Please excuse me for just a moment,” he says in a proper Londoner’s accent. “My father just texted, insisting I call him.”
I am charmed by his BBC accent. His familiar greeting. His use of the phrase “excuse me” – words I so rarely hear here, either in English or Spanish. It is simply not a part of the culture. Instead, it is common for Madrileños to push against one another on the metro and in the streets. The lack of “perdon” or “con permisso” considered neither rude nor noteworthy.
There are “Books for When You are Bored” here. “Sexy Books.” “Boozy Books.” (Which come with a shot of whiskey.) “Books for When you are Desperate.”
A vintage typewriter with onion-skin paper slipped through the scroll and a hand-made sign taped to it that says, “Write the poem.” Not A poem. THE poem.
A chess board with the words “play me,” written on it – also in black Sharpie marker. A copy of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass on the nearby shelves.
A small, children’s mattress stacked on top of a wooden bench built into the wall – the ultimate reading nook for anyone under the age of 10. Forty-six, I nonetheless settle in with a handful of books and consider the possibilities of words.
Meanwhile, the owner returns offering me a cup of ginger tea and an update on his father – seems he’s getting married for the fourth time – while characters from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, painted on the wall opposite of me, return my gaze.
I open Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Big Country. Four handwritten messages are scrawled inside the front cover. Among them, “Adios, hijo de puta. Que te rompan el culo en NY. Peter.”
And while I am still a Level A – beginner— in Spanish, I do know the meaning of “hijo de puta.” (My teacher Diego just taught it to me last week.) And I smirk.
I lean into Bryson’s first essay, “Coming Home”– about his return to the United States after a 20-year sojourn in England – and well up. I’ve been here just six months but wonder if I too will struggle to find the words I once knew, like spackle and anchor. Already I grasp for language, ultimately feeling like I speak neither Spanish nor English very well. I am told this is not an uncommon experience.
It feels like a nod from God…that I am supposed to be here.
As does Lefty Frizzell piped through the speakers, singing about Saginaw, Michigan – my mother’s hometown.
As does the copy of The Artist’s Way, propped up behind the front counter. The book that introduced me to the Artist Date. That I was looking for a copy of last week – my dog-eared copy tucked away in an attic in Chicago – to cite in my graduate-school application.
As does the Katherine Mansfield quote on the bookshelf.
Somewhere at my mother’s house there is a photograph of me sitting in Mansfield’s husband’s (Irving) lap in Beverly Hills. I am five-years-old, wearing a brown and white, gingham-checked bikini with cherries on it. My hair is wet and we are smiling big – both of us, in love with my little bit wild heart. The same little bit wild heart that brought me here.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine posed a question on Facebook, asking what she should do with her many years of journals in the course of a move.
I’d been wondering the same thing as I am moving to Madrid later this summer. My plan is to board the plane on July 28 with a one-way ticket, a one-year visa and two suitcases — but no journals.
“Burn them,” my friend Scotty wrote in response to the original question, the answer not intended for me. And yet, it was, as I intuitively knew he was right.
I had been an avid journal-er in my 20s — tucking into bed each night with a notebook and pen and chronicling the events of the day. Sometimes in prose. Occasionally poetry. Lush, detailed descriptions of the sex I was having. Barely decipherable drunken scrawls, desperate and self-pitying.
I carried them with me for nearly 20 years — from Detroit to San Francisco to Oakland. To Chicago to Seattle and back to Chicago — about a dozen of them, most of them with hard covers.
I stopped journaling not long after my then boyfriend (now ex-husband) moved into my apartment — choosing to tuck in with him rather than a stack of pages and my most intimate thoughts.
I returned to the practice 15 years later, switching the time to first thing out of bed — Morning Pages, as suggested in the book, “The Artist’s Way.”
When I moved back to Chicago in 2012, following my divorce, I began reading my old words — the ones I had carried with me for so long. Juicy bits about the photographer who kept a studio above the restaurant where I worked. The aspiring rabbinical student. The actor.
The much, much older man from Detroit who suggested I meet him in Vail — “just as friends.” The lawyer and part-time musician. The doctor I met on a press trip in Germany.
I had forgotten.
It was fun at first, feeling like a voyeur, remembering who I had once been — until I considered contacting one of those men, at which time a friend suggested I take a break from my reading. And I did.
Meanwhile, I continued filling soft-covered notebooks with Morning Pages, stacking them one on top of the other on a shelf in my bedroom closet — until a few weeks ago, when I placed them in a box along with my marriage license and a copy of our wedding ceremony and drove them to Michigan, to the home of my friend Paul, the sometimes reluctant shaman.
That evening, at Paul’s suggestion, I tore off the covers from my notebooks and ripped pages from their metal spirals. I threw a glossy journal into the wood-burning stove that heats the entire house and watched the resin-covered cardboard catch, shrivel and glow. I tossed in several more, until the oven was filled with ash. Then Paul played John Lennon’s “Starting Over” and we danced, laughing.
In the morning I brought the remaining notebooks, wedding ceremony and marriage license outside to a fire pit Paul had dug. He said a few words, inviting in the spirits, and I again began the process of burning my words — stopping occasionally to read a random page out loud before throwing the notebook into the flames — until the pit was overcome with ashes like the stove the night before.
Nearly two hours later, I wasn’t done. Paul suggested I leave the remaining notebooks with him, promising to burn them at his next sweat lodge. I agreed, and asked that we end the day’by burning my marriage license.
Several people had suggested I might need it one day, but I couldn’t imagine any reason to hold on to it. So I offered a few words of thanks to my ex and once again set him free — something I had done following the completion of our civil divorce, and again following our Jewish divorce.
The legal document crackled and hissed, engulfed in yellow and blue flames.
Since then, my ex and I have had precious little contact. And the relationship that had begun just prior to my trip to Michigan has blossomed.
Paul closed the ceremony by bringing me inside, where we sat in meditation. Then he sang and he drummed, smudged me with sage and handed me a rubber nose in a small plastic container — the kind from a bubble-gum machine that contains a prize, a ring or tattoos — and assured me if I continue to listen to my heart and to my spirit, I will always “nose” what is right for me.
Like knowing when to let go of my stories and how to do it. With fire, with friendship, and with God.
The first time when I left Seattle — my therapist gave me a copy of the poem “Love After Love” by Derek Walcott.
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome.
and say, sit here. Eat
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back you heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you have ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letter from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on you life.
The second time was a few months later, when my friend Sarah sent me a text, a photograph of a page in a book and a couple of highlighted lines — I do not remember the exact language, something about “holding on to the jewel that is myself” and “no more compromises.”
Both sounded like a bunch of pretty words and glib proclamations — neither which I could relate to.
My heart was broken. I was broken. Being alone was the worst thing I could imagine, as I was sure it was an indicator of what my future looked like.
I wanted to dress my wounds with the skin of another, healing from the outside in — although I didn’t realize it at the time.
And yet, I put the Walcott poem up on my refrigerator, next to a portion of the poem “Dreams of Desire” by Oriah House…
I want to know if you can be alone
and if you truly like the company you keep
in the empty moments.
…and next to a tiny square of paper that had fallen from one of my journals. It was old — leftover from my single days in my 20s in Detroit. I do not know the source.
Most of us approach things exactly the wrong way around. First we want someone else to make us feel secure by lavishing us with affection and approval. But what you find out is that you are the source of love. When you have done the right inner work, you find that those black holes, those persistent needs and demands have been covering up the source of love, the boundless ocean of love within you.
It seems a higher part of me deeply understood the power of words and of seeing the same words day after day, and it believed in the ability of words to burrow into my subconscious and change me.
And so I find myself aching to be alone and responding with what Twyla Tharp calls “the creative habit” — the Artist Date, number 107.
It is unplanned.
I see posters for the show “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” on my way into work and decide to go. I mention this, throwing in the words “Artist Date,” to my colleague Nancy.
“Oh that’s right…you have a date tonight,” she says, not quite hearing or grasping what I have said.
It is true, I do have a date tonight — the first in many, many months. But first I have a date with myself, I explain.
I bound up the stairs of the Chicago Cultural Center as if to meet a lover. Instead, I meet myself along with the paintings that have called me here.
They are vibrant, sensual, humorous — each telling a story that can only be told by one who has lived it.
Gazing in silence, the chatter of my mind clears. I can hear my breath, my heart. I can feel the cool of lush trees and grass and even a man’s suit — painted an Easter green in “Sunday in the Park.” I can feel the heat of pink bodies — all breasts and asses, high heels and cigarettes (Delightful!) in “Between Acts.”
I can feel my own body soften and fill with a sense of contentedness that comes with giving myself what I need most — in this moment it is time, attention, quiet, a sense of normalcy.
Perhaps this is why I take an Artist Date today — before a more traditional one– so that I might fill myself with these things and not mistakenly ask another to, so that I might have a chance to greet myself at my own door and feast.
The other day my friend Gene asked what poetry I was reading. I wasn’t. I wasn’t reading anything at all. Nothing since the juicy Anne Sexton biography, the one that served as an introduction for us.
I asked him to make a suggestion. He didn’t hesitate.
“Disgusting, filthy, transcendent, delicious.” His words not mine. I was immediately hooked.
A few days later, I am at the Harold Washington Public Library, looking for Neruda – Artist Date 35.
I saw this place for the first time just a few months ago, on the way to a party in the South Loop. Driving down State Street, I asked my friend Liz what the building was with the great green gargoyles on top. She told me it was the library. I made a mental note and kept driving.
The gargoyles are calling me as I approach it. I feel giddy and excited to be here, in this place I’ve never been before.
Disgusting, filthy, transcendent, delicious. Seemingly homeless men are sitting on the low wall outside of the library. I take a photograph of the El train sign and am hit by the stench of sewer. I suddenly realize this is the Library stop. The only time I pass it is on my way to Midway airport, when I have to travel the whole of the Loop before heading south. I feel silly. Like I should have known.
I walk in a side door and follow the marble hallway to the main entrance. I have never been in a library this grand. The one at Michigan State University may have been larger, but it looked like post-Cold War “throw-up architecture.” Like the kind I saw in Dresden. Utilitarian.
I don’t recall visiting “the main library” in any city. I have tended toward community branches in Oakland, Seattle, the suburbs of Detroit, and here in Chicago. I am shocked and a little horrified. In fact, I don’t want to admit it here.
I think of George Peppard slipping his book into the stacks at the New York Public Library, Audrey Hepburn at his side. Genius.
Kids are playing ping-pong in the room to my left – some sort of summer program. Ping-pong. It feels almost quaint.
I climb the stairs to the third floor – circulation. I look up Neruda on the research computer that has replaced the card catalog. Seventh floor. On my way up, I read the quotes painted on to the walls.
“My Alma Mater is the Chicago Public Library,” David Mamet. “Wisdom begins in wonder,” Socrates.
I look at the sculptural art. Twisted wood. Women leaning against the wall. They look so serene. So comfortable. I want to lean in like that. Feel that safe.
I stop at the post highlighting today’s activities. “Inside the Whale,” a dance performance. The story of a woman swallowed by a whale, and how she learns to live in her own skin. Too bad I missed it. I could use a few tips.
I am looking for PQ8097.N428713. I wander into the language section. Books and magazines in Japanese, Russian, Arabic. I like how the characters look, neatly lined up in rows.
Continuing on, I am face to spine with a slew of books on publishing. How Fiction Works. Writing Erotic Romance. How to Grow a Novel.
I pull So You Want to Write: How to Master the Craft of Writing Fiction and Memoir by Marge Piercy and Ira Wood from the shelf. It does not seem like a mistake. I tuck in under my arm and keep walking until I find Neruda … waiting for me.
He is sloppy. His books are not lined up neatly, orderly. Some are lying on their sides. Others are upside down. I randomly pull a few and find a table.
Odes to Opposites. “Ode to the present.”
“This/moment/as smooth/as a board,/and fresh,/this hour/this day/as clean/as an untouched glass/ – not a single/spiderweb/from the past:…
“This is our/creation,/it’s growing/this very/instant,/kicking up/sand or eating/out of our hand./Catch it,/don’t let it slip away!/Keep it from vanishing into dreams/or words!/Grab it,/pin it down,/make it/obey!/Make it a road/or a bell,/a machine,/a kiss, a book/ or a caress.”
Yes. Make it into a kiss. Or a caress. Please do.
“…try a ladder!/Yes,/a ladder:/rise/out of the moment…Up and/up/but not too much – just high enough/to/patch the holes/in the roof./Not too far;/ you don’t want to reach heaven…You/are/your own moment,/your own apple:/pluck it/from your apple tree./Hold it up/in your/hand:/it shines/like a star./Stroke it,/sink your teeth into it – now off you go/whistling on your way.”
And I do. With this. With Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. With Marge Piercy and Ira Wood.
Later that evening I receive an email from Gene. He wants to know if Neruda showed up for our date. I tell him that he did. That he was a total gentleman. But that I kind of wish he wasn’t…being divorced for nearly a year and all. I laugh at my own joke…and sink my teeth into this present.
It is subtle. A quiet yearning. It doesn’t scream with white-hot fervor. It is not that impulsive.
It guides, rather than drives, me. Less a need, more of a desire – a siren calling with patient intensity.
I am not certain I have felt this way about anyone.
But how could I?
I’ve been “seeing’” myself (pun intended) for six months now. Twenty-six Artist Dates. Half a year.
This is my third-longest relationship, the longest being my ex-husband, followed by my first real boyfriend – who I dated for just shy of a year. The others have been days, weeks, a couple of months. Until now.
Some dates are exciting, juicy, aimed to impress – the Lyric Opera, Steppenwolf Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet. Others are simpler, without fanfare or tickets.
Saturday is the latter.
I am on my way to the Conrad Sulzer Library in Lincoln Square. An Artist Date return destination. I want to read poetry. Anne Sexton poetry.
I’ve been chipping away at her biography for several weeks, renewing it twice from the library, and paying $7.50 in overdue fines. I read a chapter each night before bed. I had been reading old journals.
One detailing a love affair with a man I imagined was beyond my reach. Movie star handsome. Devilishly sexy. With a name to match. Fantasy sex. It was 19 years ago. I had forgotten.
Another notes that I have stopped reading. Stopped writing. I have been dating my now ex-husband for one month. My therapist has called me out on this.
In many I have written” I want to drink.” Again and again. I know I can’t. But I don’t know how to not. Not yet. I lament the end of early love.
A trusted friend suggested I put the journals away. At least for now. An exercise in being fully present. It’s been Anne and I, mostly, ever since.
I imagine poring over, pouring myself into, her work. To Bedlam and Part Way Back? All My Pretty Ones? Love Poems? I’m not choosy. Whatever is on hand. I want to go to the source. To the one who now keeps me up late at night.
But there is no Anne Sexton here. None of her writings, that is. Most of it is housed at the Harold Washington Library downtown, the one with the huge gargoyles on the roof. I’ve yet to go inside there.
I roam the poetry stacks. Ten Poems to Set You Free, by Roger Housden. Lofty promise. I’m intrigued. Hopeful. I grab it, find a seat near a window – near the jigsaw puzzle half done, inviting patrons to add a piece to its completion— and begin to read.
My head softens. Opens. Like when I meditate. I didn’t realize I had a headache but now it is starting to clear. It is quiet. Blessedly quiet and I am blessedly alone, reading – once again. Like I used to.
“Shake off this sadness, and recover your spirit; sluggish you will never see the wheel of fate that brushes your heel as it turns going by…the only thing which lasts is the work; start then, turn to the work. Throw yourself like seed as you walk, and into your own field,” Miguel de Unamuno
“Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth, without complicated explanations, so everyone will understand the passage, We have opened you. Start walking toward Shams. Your legs will get heavy and tired. Then comes the moment of feeling the wings you’ve grown, lifting.” Rumi.
The poetry is like prayer, each word a meditation.
My nose feels hot. My nostrils flare. My eyes are wet. Emotions greeting my senses.
“And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away from wherever you are, to look for your soul?” Mary Oliver.
No one, I whisper.
“Quickly, then, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk!”
I cannot move fast enough. Suddenly I know that I’ve come here only to receive my map and my marching orders. Not to stay. Not today. My soul isn’t in this place. It is outside the window.
In the park across the street where 10-year-old boys are playing baseball; where parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, sit in folding chairs, drinking beer and soda, watching.
In the gelato shop where this date began. Where I let cinnamon and toasted coconut and sea salt caramel play on my tongue.
I rush down the stairs, adding myself to the check-out queue. Quickly, it is my turn. “Come on down,” the librarian cries. “I don’t watch the Price is Right since Bob Barker retired,” I say. She laughs. Neither does she.
I rush out into the sun that made itself known just an hour ago, after a wet, grey morning. The air is hot and thick. Moist. Steam rising up out of the sidewalk.
I cross the street, walking into the park I pass nearly every day, but have never stepped inside of. I find a quiet bench, mostly, and continue reading.
“…don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now, work gone wrong, your plans all proving deceptive – don’t mourn them uselessly…say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving. Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say it was a dream, your ears deceived you: …go firmly to the window and listen with deep emotions, but not with whining, the pleas of a coward; listen – your final delectation – to the voice, to the exquisite music of that strange procession, and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.” C.P. Cavafy.
I read the words again, flummoxed. Surprised. Affirmed.
My experiences are real. All of them. No matter how long or short. No matter if another understands or believes. Each is real because I felt it, thought it, lived it. It is true.
This is what I hear.
Celebrate it. Honor it. Mourn it. Give it a proper send off.
The former symphony conductor. My traveling companion in Germany. The horny artist from New York.
The photographer, fantasy-sex lover, from journals 19 years old.
I savor each word, read them over and again – like a mantra offering me permission, I tenderly hold each little love. Precious. Complete. Over.
I lie down on the bench and close my eyes. I feel the sun blanket my body. Lie on me heavy, like a lover. Church bells merge with traffic and the dull empty whack of a bat hitting ball. Clapping. Squealing. A man is doing lunges on the cement patch in front of me, groaning.
I walk home slowly, eyeing the cute boys on Lincoln Avenue. They do not look back at me. They never do, I think. And then, “Lesley, that is simply not true.” My own voice.
I walk into my apartment, turn Pandora to Lou Reed. He sings to me. Straight to me, through me. Always. I bypass songs, one, two, three, four, five. Six, I cannot bypass. “Some Kinda Love.” It is what I had hoped to hear. God is with me in the little things.
I chop onions and garlic, cook them with wild cod, capers and tomatoes, grill a side of bright green asparagus. I sit at the table. Cloth napkin. Sunflowers in a vase.
I met Catherine Kaikowska my senior year of college, in an 8 a.m. poetry class.
She was all black. Turtleneck. Boots. Leggings. All hair. Brown. Shoulder length. Wide and kind of frizzy. She hiked herself up on the desk, crossed her legs in front of her and cracked open a can of Diet Coke. “Fuck, it’s early,” she mumbled.
I liked her right away.
She liked me too, and invited me to meet her at The Peanut Barrel – an East Lansing institution known for good burgers, cheap pitchers of beer, and peanut shells covering the floor – where we sucked down Labatts Blues, chain smoked and talked about sex until closing.
She was from Ohio, and used to work the door at a club where Chrissie Hynde played before she made it big with The Pretenders. The place she vowed she’d never return to until that time.
I haven’t thought about Catherine in a long time. Until last Thursday, when I slipped a biography of Anne Sexton into my robin’s egg blue Samsonite carry-on bag, circa 1972, and boarded a plane bound for Nashville.
I was first introduced to Sexton in Catherine’s class, along with Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich and her mentor at Michigan State University, Diane Wakoski. Yet my interests lied with the testosterone-rich voice of Charles Bukowski. The beatnik fantasy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
I pulled the book out – a tomb, really, nearly 500 pages, hardcover and wrapped in acetate that is supposed to protect it – at Midway Airport, after checking my orange hard-case luggage and picking up a mediocre Americano. Artist’s Date 19, surrounded by fellow travelers with faces tucked into ipad and smartphone screens.
If we are only as sick as our secrets, then Sexton was the picture of health – for she had none. She was transparent, as I have been described. Only more so.
Teacher and mentor John Holmes begged Sexton not to publish her darker, highly confessional poems. Advice she ignored, and turned into, “For John, Who Begs Me Not To Enquire Further.”
And yet, clearly she wasn’t well, as she took her own life at 45, just two years older than my 43.
Sexton threaded the stories of her life through men – how they reflected her. She was wildly flirtatious. A presence. And, at times, profoundly sad.
She tended to sexualize significant relationships. She had fluid boundaries.
She felt, at times, in competition with her mother. And was considered alcoholic.
She gave away her heart too easily.
In “More Than All the Rest,” a poem to her long-term psychiatrist Dr. Martin Orne, she writes:
“Oh, I have raped my inner soul/And give it, naked, to you,/Since my warm mouth and arms/might love, and frighten you.”
I saw myself. I looked around the airplane to see if anyone else saw me too.
I felt sick, like the medical-school student convinced she has contracted each disease she studies.
But I am not Anne. I didn’t suffer post-partum depression. I didn’t hand over my children to be raised by my mother-in-law. I don’t have children. I’ve never been pregnant.
I haven’t been institutionalized. I didn’t take my own life.
Sexton’s gift was making something out of her sick. Creating art. Allowing others to see inside the most shameful parts of herself and whisper, “me too.” In the process, she found both “her people” and herself.
The plane touched down. I was 78 pages in. I slipped an index card into the book to hold my place, on it is a prayer I had written. My own words. My own healing.