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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Artist Date 35: Disgusting, Filthy, Transcendent, Delicious Neruda

nerudaThe 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.

Pablo Neruda.

“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.

2013-08-15 15.36.13I 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.

2013-08-15 16.08.21I 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.