The Present of Being Present

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Wearing T’s marathon medal — the present of being present, of being here now.

I’ve been back in the United States for a little more than a year now.

In these 12-plus months I have made a conscious choice to put down roots, to “bloom where I’m planted” –  signing an apartment lease and buying furniture, dating someone who lives on the same CTA and Metra line as me, securing work and allowing myself to become “a fixture” there.

And yet, at least once a week I am greeted with “You’re here?!” or “How long are you stateside?” or “Where do you live anyway?”

The words reflect a life I’d always dreamed of – the bon vivant flitting from gorgeous here to glamorous there – and at times make it difficult to be where my feet are, here in Chicago.

Especially when Facebook reminds me that last year “On This Day” I was staying in a castle in Girona at a writers retreat; that the year before I was riding a rented bike to the beach in Valencia and sharing paella with new friends; and the year before that, I was volunteering at a chocolate festival in Umbria.

Especially when the second of two new bed pillows I recently purchased now goes unused, and I am no longer certain who will sit at my side next week when I see Patti Smith at The Music Box Theatre – an early birthday gift to myself.

Life on the other side of the Atlantic always sounds sexy — in these moments sexier still. The questions about my being here now – in Chicago — feel like a kitten rubbing its insistent head against my naked leg.

That is, until Monday at 4 pm — the day after the Chicago Marathon when T. gingerly walks into my massage room.

She and I started working together about a month ago, when a chronically tight hamstring had her questioning her ability to complete the 26.2 mile run – her first.

It was one of those easy, graceful connections where few words were necessary and those we did exchange were about our connections to Africa — my weeks in Kigali, her years in Nairobi, yellow jerrycans and her fundraising efforts to provide clean water there.

“Well?” I ask, hopefully, my voice upticking at the end of the second “L.”

Her mouth curls into a smile and she pulls a medal out of her bag.

“I did it!” she says.“Can we take a selfie? I never take selfies …”

Neither statement surprises me. I nod and say, “of course.”

Meanwhile, T. hands me the medal as she pulls her phone out of her bag.

“I think you should wear it,” she says.

I feel silly. It is her medal, her marathon. But she insists she couldn’t have done it without me. I slip the red ribbon over my head and hold the medal between our faces.

Click.

“I appreciate you,” she says.

“And I, you.”

The moment is a gift, the present of being present, knowing that being where my feet are has allowed hers to carry her 26.2 miles. I feel my roots begin to twist up and gnarl under the earth, finding their place … on this side of the Atlantic.

 

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A Good Time To Be Here

metro tickets.jpgIt 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.

Artist Date 115: Distracted

I appreciate a good distraction.

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.

For Doty.

Not for Yale.

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Selfie of me and Mark Doty…delightfully distracted.

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.

Artist Date 78: Both, And.

mcbeardo boodI just wrapped up a contract work gig – my first “straight job” in 12 years.

By straight I mean sitting at a desk, in front of a computer, and working 9 to 5.  (Cue Dolly Parton.)

At first I wasn’t certain how I felt about the opportunity.  I wasn’t clear on my role.  My body hurt from sitting.  My creativity suffered.

And then I hit my stride.

I appreciated having a place to come to – a single place, as opposed to the many I traverse to and from as a massage therapist and Weight Watchers leader.  I appreciated earning a consistent paycheck.  I loved working in a team toward a common good – and that I got to spend five days a week with one of my best girlfriends while doing it.

I even enjoyed the sometimes hour-long commute down Lakeshore Drive, listening to NPR.

And before I knew it, it was over.

I was recently telling my friend Gene about this while catching him up on my days.

I mentioned that had I missed several weeks of Artist Dates.  And that when I went on one last Saturday – number 78 – I still hadn’t blogged about it a week later.

“Sounds like you are living life rather than writing about it,” he said.

Ideally, I would do both.

However, his comment reminded me of a conversation I had a few months earlier with my friend Nithin. He had gone to a concert the night before and noticed the number of people watching the performance through camera phones – recording, photographing and uploading to Facebook.  Documenting rather than experiencing.  At least to his eyes.

I wondered if I had been doing the same.  Living with an eye on writing.

——————–

The Saturday before last, two days after my contract job ended, I said no to a sweat lodge in Michigan and to a birthday party across town, and called it self-care.

Instead, I rode my bike, ate ice cream from Jenni’s on Southport (Bangkok Peanut with coconut and dark chocolate) and napped naked under a ceiling fan, wrapped in crisp gray sheets.

And when I woke, I headed across town for a long-overdue Artist Date, the first in weeks – a reading at Quimby’s books, celebrating and promoting the publication on my friend Mike’s book Heavy Metal Movies.

He’d been working on it for years.  And I could not be more delighted for him.

Mike took the stage in a blue, fuzzy hat with horns – think Fred Flintstone and the Royal Order of Water Buffalos – and then shared it with his wife and a host of friends who gave voice to their own stories on what Mike referred to as “heavy metal, hard movies, and the torrid, torpid twain where both doth meet from a pantheon of ferociously funny, horrifically hilarious headbanging crackpots, visionaries, and mirth.”

I’m not a heavy-metal girl.  And at least one of the readings more than verged on the grotesque.  And yet, none of that mattered.

Each had moved beyond ego, to share their words and their work.  Work that came from their own passions, their own living.  Their presence onstage served as a reminder of possibilities — that there is, in fact, room for each of our voices at the table, and on stage — and also an invitation to do my own work, from my own living.  In sweat lodges and in bookstores.  On my bike and in my bed.  Fully awake and sometimes napping.

Writing AND Living.  Both, And.

Artist Date 72: I Hadn’t Even Realized They’d Been Gone

On Wednesday, Linda emailed me to cancel our date to the Art Institute.  Understandably, as she recently fell and cracked a few ribs.  She is on the mend, but not quite well enough to go out.

And just like that, the universe provided me with my Artist Date – Number 72.

I’ve been struggling with them lately.  Planning.  Going.  Writing.

I thought about messaging R. to see if he wanted to meet me.  We’ve been messaging one another on OKCupid, but haven’t met yet.  We will next week, over coffee.

Yes, I just not-so-subtly slipped that in…that about two weeks ago I somewhat hesitantly joined the world of online dating.  Although I haven’t had a date yet.

Yes, my entire blog centers on life after divorce.  The heart-breaking dalliances, and the more than year-long commitment to dating myself, courting my own creativity.  But I neglected to write about this.  Amazing.

Yes, blog forthcoming.

And yet, something knew better.  A higher self?  Just the universe at work?  For several weeks now, despite my feelings and my best efforts, time and space for my solo sojourns has serendipitously appeared.  And my feet have followed.  Habitual.  Almost like brushing my teeth.  But coupled with a craving –for time.  With me.  Outside of me.

And so I nix the message to R.  Grab a banana and a latte at Starbucks – the divorcee’s dinner – and head to the Art Institute for the lecture, “Return of the Modern Masters.”  I hadn’t even realized they’d been gone.

Crossing the street I see A. reading a newspaper, waiting in line to enter the museum for free after 5 p.m.  I invite him to jump the line with me – pulling out my member card.

We are early for lecture.  We wander into the Nilima Sheikh’s exhibit “Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams.”  I saw it the day Mr. 700 Miles slipped out of my life without a word.  When the heart space between us –which up until then had been just inches –became a chasm I couldn’t seem to reach across, no matter how I tried.  Artist Date 68.

I tell this to A. while we view, Farewell,” a red scroll with two bodies entwined.  A man peeling open his chest, exposing his heart.  It reads “If only somehow you could have been mine.  What would not have been possible in the world?”

I tear up.

“I’ve done that too,” he says quietly.  Somehow, this makes me feel better.

He tells me he couldn’t face hurting her.  That he told himself he was sparing her.  Sober now, he understands he was only sparing himself.

I tell him that 700 Miles is active in his addiction to drugs and alcohol.  He nods.  “That’s what we do.”  This is not the first time I’ve heard this in regards to him and our story.  I nod, but I still do not understand it.

I show A. Marc Chagall’s “America Windows” outside of Rubeloff Gallery, where the lecture is.  He hasn’t seen it before.  I tell him that Ferris kissed Sloan here.  I am not sure he is old enough to remember the movie.  I feel like a docent, showing A. my Art Institute.

The lecture moves quickly – giving context to the positioning of the paintings and sculptures that have been returned to their rightful homes.

I am tempted to take notes.  I have before, knowing I was going to blog.  Sitting with A. I feel somehow self-conscious.  As if he might ask why.

I think about my friend Nithin commenting on kids and not-kids filming concerts on their phones.  Experiencing the music through a screen rather than directly.  Disconnected.  Too busy “showing” everyone where they are – via Facebook, Twitter and the like – rather than “being” where they are.

I imagine my note taking might fall into the same category.  I allow myself to just listen.  I free myself from the need to remember.

A. and I part ways after the lecture.  He is meeting a friend for a concert at the Chicago Theatre. (I wonder if he will watch it through his phone.)

I climb the open-backed stairs – the kind that make my ex-husband nauseated and panicky – to the third floor galleries, to see the “Returned Masters.”

The galleries are crowded.  I wander.  Thinking about the lecture.  About artist life in Europe before and during WW II.  But ultimately seeing the work through my own lens.

I drink in the juicy, ripeness of Max Beckman’s “Reclining Nude.” And I wonder why I am so set on waif-y thinness for myself.

I smile at Chagall’s “White Jesus,” recalling it is a favorite of the current Pope.  I notice my tendency to breathe deeply when facing his work.  As if I might inhale something of him.

I recall “Human Figure with Two Birds” from the Max Ernst show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I greet it and Loplop – the bird which comes to represent Ernst, “the private phantom attached to my person” – like an old friend.

I giggle at the “Exquisite Corpse,” a game played on paper by Man Ray, Andre’ Breton and Yves Tanguy while they waited for WW II to end – each adding to an unseen figure, folded back accordion-style, out of sight.

I long to feel the smoothness of Alberto Giacometti’s “Spoon Woman” and Constantin Brancusi’s “White Negress II.”

The “returned Masters” have helped return me to my own.  Out of my head and my heart.  Into my feeling body.  Like the Masters, I hadn’t even realized it had been gone.