Artist Date 81: I Could Swim In Your Voice. And Drown In My Own.

With storytellers Carmen and James.  Carmen with trophy from the Dollar Store for Best Story of the Night.
With storytellers Carmen and James. Carmen holding Dollar Store trophy for Best Story of the Night.

I am nearly seven years sober and I am sitting in a bar by myself.  On its face, this does not sound like a good thing.  Except that it is a very good thing.

I’m at Story Club – a monthly “live literature” event where three featured performers tell true-life stories, and three audience members, invited up at random – their names pulled from a monkey carved out of a coconut, the words “Have Fun” scrawled onto the base – do the same.   Artist Date 81.

My feet are slick with massage oil and slosh around in my orange peep-toe wedges.  My head throbs, a reminder of the two cysts I had removed from my scalp just this morning.

I take a seat at a table up front, and immediately wonder if I should sit on a stool at the bar instead – where “singles” sit.  Even though I have trouble seeing and hearing and engaging when I am that far from the stage.

I wonder if I should see if I can join another party of one at one of the banquettes against the wall.

I wonder if it is ok to take up this much space – me alone.  It is a question that has haunted me my entire life.

I stay at the table, order a club soda with lime juice, pull out my reading glasses and dive into my book.

I am sitting at a bar alone with a club soda and a book.

At the table to my right, a gaggle of girls talk about San Francisco.  About writing.  And about a secret Facebook group of women writers – 26,000 strong.

I want to tell them I used to live in San Francisco.  That I too have been wooed into the fold of these female wordsmiths.  That they both excite and frighten me.  And that I’m not even sure how I came to know them.  But I say nothing.

My name is pulled from the coconut monkey – the first of the evening.  I climb to the stage, take a breath and begin reading…”The waxy brown cotton of my lapa feels soft between my fingers.  Like my body.  Like my heart.”

My voice is sing-song-y and gentle.  A heightened version of what I call my massage voice.  It is sweet and loving, lilting and melodic.  It tells you the things you wish your mother had told you.  That you are human.  That you are lovely.  That you are good.

I hear my poetry professor Catherine Kaikowska reading her work – perched on top of a desk.  Her legs crossed, Diet Coke in hand.  Hair wild.  “Deja-rendevous. Deja rende, rendezvous.”  Hypnotic.  I could swim in her voice.

But I would like to drown my own.  I have fallen out of love with it.  My voice.  My story.  Just this moment.  I am bored with it.  All of it.

I have not written about love and pain and loss.  I have not written about sex.  I have written about my connection to my body, to my spirit.  It feels esoteric.  Less familiar.  Less sexy.

I have left out the juicy bits.  The part about tearing off my lapa – my West African dance skirt – and jumping into a pond naked with my crush after the sweat lodge.  The part about him plucking me out of the water – naked – when my strength failed me and I could not pull myself onto the high dock.

I have not written about any of it.  I have not given him a clever moniker and chronicled the story of my heart.  I have held it instead.  Held my heart.  Held my words.  It feels unfamiliar.  Untrue.  It is the story I am used to telling.

But tonight, James and Carmen tell it instead.

James (AKA GPA – Greatest Poet Alive) who has committed to memory the story of Maria breaking his 5th-grade heart when she circled “no” in response to the query in his note – “Will you be my girlfriend?  Yes?  No?”  Not even a maybe.  Not even a spritz of Geoffrey Beene’s Grey Flannel to the paper could sway her.

Carmen who invites us into her bedroom and her psyche at the moment when her friend with benefits asked her to talk dirty to him in Spanish.  Her words are funny and irreverent, honest and sad.  She rolls her Rs and says things like, “Aye, Poppi.”  She feels like a caricature.

They are storytellers.

I fear that I am not.  That I am only a writer.  At least right now.

Carmen – one of the gaggle of girls talking about San Francisco and the secret group of women writers – tells me otherwise.  As does James, when we gather together after the final performance.

My story is lush, he says.  That he closed his eyes while I read.  Listened to my words.  Let my voice paint the pictures for him.

He let my lilting, sing-song-y massage voice – the voice that tells you that you are human, that you are lovely, that you are good – my storyteller’s voice, tell him a new story.

My Heart is a Surfboard

kaddish-coverThere are four cars in the synagogue parking lot in Evanston – mine being one of them.

I do not want to be here.  And I especially do not want to be here alone.

I asked Pam to join me.  Clover.  Michael.  Matt.  All were unavailable.  And then I stopped calling. I didn’t want just anyone to join me.  So I am here, alone, on the one-year anniversary (according to the Hebrew calendar) of my birth mother’s death.

The synagogue sent a letter reminding me of the date, 28 Iyyar, along with the words – in both English and Hebrew – to Kaddish, the prayer that accompanies the lighting of a yahrzeit candle, honoring the deceased.

Her name will be read in synagogue, and I feel l should be here to hear it. I think she would like that – even though she wasn’t Jewish.

I sit in the car a few minutes longer, re-reading flirtatious text messages my friend, Mr. Fashion, sent just before I left the house – trying to distract myself from my uncomfortable feelings about being here.  It only half works.

Eventually, I walk in and am greeted by both the rabbi and the cantor.  Each is a touchstone in my life.  And yet seeing them today does not shift my feelings.

Twenty or so congregants are here for the Friday night service, but I sit alone.   It is my choice.  I feel awkward and angst-y.  I keep my eyes cast down.  I barely sing.  I wonder how it is that I once thought I might be a rabbi.  It seems unfathomable to me now, as it is all that I can do just to be here.  And I again wonder why it is that I am here.

Until the last moments of the service, when I am reminded.

I am standing with my congregation saying Kaddish, the memorial prayer for the dead.  The prayer praising God.  The same prayer I read at home a few days ago when I lit a yahrzeit candle.

The rabbi reads the names of those in the congregation who have passed in the past week, and of those who passed this week in years past.

“Pharen Johnson, mother of Lesley Pearl.”  My rabbi’s voice catches a little – I think.

And without warning, my eyes are heavy and wet.  My nose flares – hot.  I feel a thud in my core, and then its energy rolling out in waves to my hands and feet.  I am riding the currents.  My heart is a surfboard.  My belly flip-flops and then, more heat.

The feeling is not unfamiliar.  I occasionally experience it when I meditate.  But I do not expect it here, now.

And suddenly I know why I am here.

I understand why we are called to go to synagogue in the days after death, and on the anniversary of it.  Why it is not enough to light a candle and say a few words in my kitchen – alone.

The synagogue gives me the space to grieve.  The service, to consider it — which I have not done.

I mentioned this to Pam the other day, on the actual anniversary of Pharen’s death.

Me and Pharen.  Our first meeting.
Me and my birthmom. Our first meeting.

I tell her that after I lit the yahrzeit candle and said Kaddish – alone – I noticed my desire to call Mr. 700 Miles, the “man” who slipped out of my life without a word a little over two months ago.

I remember him telling me he moved home to be with his mother when she was dying – 18 or so years ago.  That he thought about her every day.  That he wasn’t done learning the lessons she had to teach him.  That she and I were kindred spirits.

I think I should call him, because he knows what this is like.  Even more so.  But so do many of my other friends.

I do not call him.  Or them, either.

Pam responds with a gentle, loving “duh,” and suggests that perhaps I nudged out my grief with incongruent affections for the Southern Svengali – another man who swept me off my feet.  This time in Charleston, where my birth mother lived.  While she was dying.

I consider this.  That it might be true.

I couldn’t grieve.  I didn’t have the space, the energy or the capacity for it.

I hadn’t even grieved the end of my marriage.  Or the life I knew for 15 years that I had driven away from in a 14-year-old Honda Civic just a few months prior.  And I continued not to grieve it until only recently – slotting in affections with woefully unavailable men instead.

I consider that I didn’t believe I was allowed to grieve.

Finding my biological mother and father, and having relationships with them, was at times painful and disruptive to my family.  Over the years I have tried to minimize that pain by minimizing how much I talk about them.  About those relationships.

And so, I did not much talk about my feelings with my family — or with anyone else — when my birth mom died.  I talked about the Southern Svengali, and later Mr. 700 Miles, instead.

A year later, these distractions have long since lost their efficacy.

I cannot thread my sadness through another man.  I need to be with it.  And perhaps, for the first time ever, I do not want to run from it.

Tonight I  have a space and a ritual to honor this loss.  By myself, and in community, all at once.

And I understand why I am here.

I text Mr. Fashion when I get home, like I promised I would.  He asks if I would like to get together.  I decline.  I have no desire to distract myself from these feelings.

I ask him for a rain check, which he graciously offers – along with the promise that he will hold me to it, and some other things that I will keep just for myself.

I just smile and let myself feel it.  All of it.

Artist Date 77: Rekindling the Romance

I am writing my morning pages – one of two “core practices” in The Artist’s Way, my unofficial roadmap through the past two years of transition – the daily purging of random thoughts taking up real estate in my head.  It is Saturday, the end of the week, and I realize I have not planned an Artist Date (The Artist’s Way other core practice) for myself.

2014-05-24 15.20.01A part of me rejoices in my loosening the vice grip I seem to have on everything.  A part of me laments.

Am I entering the transition from passionate love to either compassionate love or break up?   The six-month mark in a relationship when partners finally rouse themselves from bed and can think of something other than sex and one another.

If it is, I’ve had a hell of a run – 77 weeks of Artist Dates and only recently have I become somewhat bored, lazy with the idea of planning a solo excursion for myself.

Trouble is, I am the type that loves to be in love – the first six-months girl, as evidenced by my blogs.  The Southern Svengali.  Mr. 700 Miles.  My Divorce Buddy.  Ridiculously romantic stories with heartbreaking endings.

My lament is about wanting to hold on to my ridiculously romantic story with myself – with my Artist’s Dates.

——————–

Italy – quite possibly the sexiest, most romantic place on the planet – calls like a siren.

I Google “volunteer, Italy” and in minutes am poring over possibilities.

I have volunteered overseas twice before – in the South of France and in Rwanda (the trip that gave form to this blog).  Traveling this way gives me a deeper sense of people, place and purpose.  It is cost effective.  And I meet other unaccompanied adventurers I might not otherwise know.

I find “my trip” through Volunteers for Peace – two weeks with the Milano Film Festival.  Only seven volunteers are accepted, and a letter of motivation is required.

I get writing.

I send my short essay to my friend, Melinda for feedback.  She likes most of it, and gently offers, “Is this an opportunity to introduce yourself as a creative, fun, movie-loving, gelato-eating event coordinator who is a world traveler and wants to visit Italy without referencing your divorce?”

Yes, it is.  And so I do – removing the reference to my divorce from the essay before hitting “send.”

——————–

And so this morning, noodling over my morning pages, I settle on a trip to the library or bookstore, to pour over travel books.  Artist Date 77.

I think about Powell’s and flash on a date I treated my ex to when he completed his first year of residency – a bike tour of Chicago, highlighting book stores, record stores and pastry shops.

Recalling what I have done for someone else but am not doing for myself lights a fire in my belly.

2014-05-24 15.20.08It is warm and stuffy in the library – a small, neighborhood branch.  I am surprised how many people are inside, considering outside holds the promise of the spring we Chicagoans have been waiting on.  Most of them appear to be studying – determined.

I find the Italy section in the stacks and am disappointed to not find a single travel book.  No Fodors, Frommers, Lonely Planet.

I pull La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind, Traveling in Italy with Henry James, and D.H. Lawrence and Italy from the stacks.  I finger through the first, I am somewhat amused but it is not what I want to read.  I am distracted by the underlining and highlighting that mars the second.  I put them back, hold on to D.H. Lawrence and check out – unsatisfied.

At the Book Cellar I grab three titles and settle into a somewhat comfy chair wedged in the corner of the shop.

I am quickly overwhelmed.  My plan is to travel on after the Film Festival (I am already assuming I am going.).  But where?  Venice? Rome? Florence?

The Amalfi Coast? Sicily?

Too many choices.  Too much for a single trip.  Too much to consider.

This was supposed to be fun.  It isn’t.

I close the books and return them to the shelves – still unsatisfied.

Perhaps it is enough to know they are there when I am ready – tomorrow, next week, next month.  When I know more, like if I am in fact going.  (I will receive notice in three to five business days.)  Or if I am going somewhere else.  Like to Reykjavic for its film festival, or Portugal to help restore a traditional, community bread oven – other possibilities.

Perhaps all that really matters is I took action to rekindle this romance – the only one I have any control over.  I recall our couple’s therapist, Robert insisting that even if only one of us is doing the work, the relationship will change.

Today I did the work…and wait for the change.

Artist Date 74: Letting Go of The Ghosts

cicada

 

It is Saturday.  My friend Amy has invited me to see the world premiere of Cicada at the GreenHouse Theatre – Artist Date 74.  It has been a labor of love – hers and others – for three years.  She has asked all of her friends to bring their friends.  To spread the word.

I say “yes” to the first part, “no” to the second – honoring my commitment to my weekly solo date.  To myself.  And write it in my calendar in pen.

But now I want to change my mind.  I want to see a boy.

He is young.  Younger.  He visited my OKCupid profile.  I visited his.

He reminds me of Mr. 700 Miles – my last love, my last heartbreak.  Right down to the part where he moved home to be with his mother when she was ill.  That’s the part that really knocked me out about 700 – his seeming unselfishness and big, shiny heart, which he proudly wore on his sleeve.

It is flawed from the start and I know it.  Making contact because he reminds me of someone I used to love.  Someone I am trying to let go of and clearly have not entirely because I am still writing about him.  Because I am attracted to someone who reminds me of him.

We exchange a few messages.  And then we talk.  He isn’t 700.  But I like his voice and there is something sweet and spiritual inside of him.  We talk about gratitude.  I tell him I’m sober – something I have consciously not mentioned in my most recent dating forays up until now, for no other reason than it is not yet germane.

We make a date for the following week, based on my schedule.  But I want to meet sooner.  I think of inviting him to the play with me, reasoning that I sometime go to events with others and still count it as my weekly Artist Date.  Even though it isn’t.

But I know this isn’t the answer.

I meet him in the afternoon instead.  Prior to the play, when a client cancels.  We go for a walk at the lake.  I tell him I had thought of inviting him to the play but didn’t – explaining the ritual and commitment of my weekly Artist Date.  He says he wouldn’t have gone, he wouldn’t want to get in between me and me.  My words, not his.

I had the same experience with 700 in January when I let it slip I would skip my Artist Date to talk with him on the phone for the first time.  He said he would feel horrible if I missed the movie I was planning to see and suggested I call him later – which I do.

It is astonishing how quickly I will abandon myself.

——————–

It is a story about holding on.  And letting go.  About memory.  Identity.  The stories we repeat.

Conversations with ghosts that allow us to live on with those no longer present.  Some haunting and angry.  Some decidedly sweet and tender.

I think about my own ghosts.  About serendipity – the times 700 has recently “showed up.”

An invitation he sent months ago to download Facebook Messenger pops up on my phone without cause or reason – his name and profile picture announcing the old request.

The license plate frame on the car in front of me, from a car dealership in the town where he lives – a village of only 5,000.

I whisper, “Are you there?”  Sometimes I swear I can feel him.  I wonder if he is thinking of me in those moments.  I like to think so.

It hurts watching Amy, as Lily, struggle to let go of the one she loves best.

It is not a single action, letting go.  More a process.  A dropping off, bit by bit, until there is nothing left but the shell of what once was, and you don’t even notice until someone asks you about it.

Like when I went to the Facebook page of the Southern Svengali for the first time in months, and saw he was living in Boston.  How could I not know?  And how is it, I could not care?  I was happy for him.  For the work he was doing.  But I was not affected by it.

——————–

Two days later I cancel my second date with 700 Stand In.

I am overwhelmed.  I am working three jobs.  Plus writing, dancing, and ostensibly looking for work.

I have not exercised since Sunday.  I am again sleeping less than six hours a night.  My apartment is a sty.

Something has got to give.  The choice is obvious.  I choose me.

I let the few other men I have been communicating with know I am on hiatus until June 12 – when my contract work is completed.  I give them my email address and I disable my OKCupid account.

I feel sad.  Like I have given away a puppy.  I forget doing what is right does not always feel good.

I know if I can let go of the attention, and the possibility of romance at least for now – the rest will drop off too.  Like it always does.  Until I don’t even think of it, think of him, until his name is mentioned.  And by then 700 miles is just a measurement of distance between here and there.

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.

Seduced By Words

My friend Rachel met Philip Roth when she was a university student.

220px-Portnoy_s_Complaint
The book that started the seduction.

I was wildly envious.  He was my literary idol, inspiring a poem I titled, “Philip Roth Will Save My Life.”

She told me I shouldn’t be.

She said he was coarse, almost mean.  Not at all who she imagined him to be.  She had been seduced by his words.

Me too.  As well as Erica Jong’s, Charles Bukowski’s Anais Nin’s and a long list of other’s.

Most recently, I’ve been seduced by the words of strangers – men looking for love, or something like it, on OKCupid.

Clever words couched in a seemingly shared commonality, ending abruptly when moved from screen to voice.

I should not be entirely surprised.

I’d learned about the chasm between the written word and reality, online and real-time, this past fall when a friend, a man 12 years my junior, told me in no uncertain terms exactly what he would like to do to me.  Exactly.  And while he made good on his promises a few days later, the flirty simpatico we shared on screen was lost in real life.  All hands.  No heart.

I was reminded of this truth once again on Friday – my first, OKCupid coffee date.

We made plans a few weeks out due to Passover and my schedule.  During that time we exchanged several messages, but we never spoke on the phone.

I told him how to make fried matzoh, and made him promise to cover it with real maple syrup.  He told me about a cartoon character his kids like who carries a flask of the stuff.

While I wasn’t convinced this was a romantic connection, he seemed like someone I would want to know.

In person our conversation was clunky, awkward – made worse by bad acoustics and me having to lean in and ask “what?” constantly.

We didn’t talk about his children’s adoption.  Or mine.  Or even about maple syrup, cartoons or writing – which we both do.  We talked about our divorces (Hmm…) and our experiences on OKCupid.  (Mine being rather limited.)

I didn’t go into the date with expectations greater than a cup of Intelligentsia, decaf –as it was after 3.  And yet, I felt sad.

I suppose there is always some level of hope – What if? Perhaps?  Otherwise we would never meet strangers over coffee in the first place.

I miss my ex-husband.

He was solid.  I could trust him.  He showed up.  Period.  Even if it wasn’t always in the way I might hope.

I am also clear about what didn’t work.  Why we divorced.

Two years after separating, I feel like I am finally grieving.

I miss Mr. 700 Miles — my most recent romance — too.  Even though, I couldn’t trust him.  He wasn’t solid.  He couldn’t show up.  I miss the connection that cut straight through the internet, through phone calls, texts and video chats.  The feeling that I could talk to him all night and into tomorrow and we’d never run out of things to say, or ways to delight one another.

I am grieving him too.  Or perhaps the idea of him.  The idea of us.

I get into my car and head north toward Wicker Park, where I will meet my friends in a church basement.  Later we will have dinner at the Birchwood, where I will eat a green salad with warm lentils, squash and bacon and drink hot water with lemon.  I couldn’t be happier.

My mind wanders, thinking about the rest of the weekend.

Dinner with my girlfriends on Saturday night.

A Sunday morning dance class and performance.  And later in the afternoon a salon hosted by my friend Megan – my Artist Date of the week –where her friend Peggy will read from her just-published collection of essays.  In between, I will work on editing my friend Martha’s new novel.

I feel excited about my days.  About my life.  And grateful for it.  Grateful for its juicy-ness, with or without a partner.

I am not certain this is true for all people – looking for love or otherwise.  I feel lucky.

And a little wiser now too.

I know what I read, on the page or on the screen is only part of the story.  I need to listen, to hear it too.

What is being said.  And not said.

The sound of gentleness.  Laughter.  Banter.  Ease.

And my heart – beating just a little more quickly.

The Accidental Dater

I accidentally started online dating.

One of my online profile photos -- showing my "quirky" side.
One of my online profile photos — showing my “quirky” side.

I know, right…how does one “accidentally” start online dating?  Here’s how:

A couple of months ago I took a peek at Match.com.

More than a year had passed since my divorce was final, and the people who had suggested I take some time off were now suggesting that perhaps I might consider putting myself out there.

I didn’t get very far.

I began filling out a profile and got stymied on “body type.”  I said curvy.  I was told I was mistaken.  That the correct answer was thin or fit.

I pushed it aside and entertained a long-distance love affair instead – pinning my heart to a man who lived 700 miles away, wasn’t quite divorced, and was even less emotionally available.  Until he just couldn’t do it.

He never said that.  He never said anything at all.  He walked away without a word.  And for the first time in my life, I did not demand an explanation.  It was clear.

Well-intentioned friends suggested I consider JDate while I nursed my heart back to health.  Once again, I began filling out a profile, as I had done with Match.  And once again, I didn’t get very far.

The men I saw while trolling neither quickened my heart nor tugged at my loins.  This likely says more about me and my availability than anything about them.  Nonetheless, I stopped looking…even though Match and JDate continued to send me “potential” matches.

A few weeks went by and I thought I’d try again – this time, OKCupid.  It seemed everyone I knew who had any online-dating success – including my ex-husband – met here.  And, unlike Match and JDate, it was free.

I began filling out a profile, believing I would troll anonymously as I had on the other two sites.  Within moments I started receiving pop-ups like, “Mr. OnlyHasEyesForYou viewed your profile.”

What profile? I hadn’t even completed filling one out.  I panicked, but kept typing – adding photos and pithy prose describing what I am doing with my life and the six things I cannot live without, wondering if I had chosen the proper screen name.

"Show don't tell."   One of the first rules from journalism school.  Dancer. Traveler.  Joyous.
“Show don’t tell.” One of the first rules from journalism school. Dancer. Traveler. Joyous.

That was two weeks ago.

I’ve received photographs of 20-somethings’ manscaped chests with a note asking if I fancy younger men.  I’ve received cheesy, singles-bar lines like, “You are too hot to be on this site.”  Recently, I received a note from a man in his 60s looking for companionship on his ranch in Arkansas.  He isn’t looking for love, he said.  If that comes, fine.  But what he really wants company and a stay-at-home gal.

I have not responded.

I’ve discovered humor doesn’t always translate and what I think is clever might not be received that way.

And I’ve learned what looks and sounds good in email also does not always translate, as evidenced by a seriously strained phone call.

I responded by resorting to an old behavior – sharing unattractive information about myself, in hopes it will drive the other person away.  While I am not proud to admit this, it worked.  Neither he, nor I, followed up with one another.

I thought about writing a quick note, wishing him luck, but I didn’t.  I’m not sure what proper etiquette is here.  My ex tells me there is none.  (He also told me to get ready for a bunch of dick photographs.  Thankfully, to date, I have received none.)

my first, with one of the first men who wrote to me.

He appears smart, clever and articulate.  His pacing feels in sync with my own.

We do not communicate every day.

We have just begun to share more personal aspects about our lives.

He has an adopted daughter who is African-American, and he cannot get her braids right.  I am an adoptee too.  My mother couldn’t get my braids right either, and my father never considered trying.

I’m talking to a couple of other men.  Some seem a little too eager.  And I wonder if that is my own fear or if it is the truth.  Others seem a little more breezy – like myself.  And that is the miracle of this.  I feel breezy.  I have not hooked into any of them.  Or even the idea of any of them.

Turns out, online dating is an excellent exercise in detachment.  People come.  People go.  Some respond.  Others don’t.  Some respond and then stop responding without a word.

Sometimes I respond.  Sometimes I don’t.  And sometimes I stop without a word.  When it is clear there is no “there, there,” to quote Gertrude Stein.

Sadly, I’m not quite over Mr. 700 Miles.  However, meeting all of these men reminds me the world is full of romantic possibilities.   I’m fairly sure that this new knowing, unlike how I got there, is no accident.

Pretend Boyfriend

I tattooed my aspirations on my body lest I forget them.  Lest I again consider leaving myself.
I tattooed my aspirations on my body lest I forget them. Lest I again consider leaving myself.

“You want a relationship, right?”

The words tumbled out of my Rabbi’s mouth.  Innocuous.  More a statement than a question.  Nearly an afterthought as we wrapped up our monthly meeting.

“I…I think so,” I stammered.

We stared at one another.  There it was.  The truth.  It fell flat on the floor, spreading out in the space between us.  Consuming.  Shocking.

We’d spent an awful lot of time talking about relationships over the years.  Talking about my fathers – both of them, the biological one and the one who raised me, my Dad.  My husband – now my ex.  The smattering of men who had come in and out of my life since the dissolution of my marriage.

My Divorce Buddy.  The one I talked to each night, into the wee hours of the morning.  Half a country apart.  Both of us alone, in the dark, navigating our way through the sometimes messy endings of marriage.

The Southern Svengali.  Genius artist in a Johnny Cash t-shirt.  He guided me through Charleston and my last visit with my biological mother before she died.  Pressed his lips against mine and nothing more.  Called me “Lil Pearl” and taught me how to be a better artist.

And most recently, the man I have affectionately come to call Mr. 700 Miles – referring to the physical distance between us.  In our hearts…it is just inches.  But in our lives… oceans and continents apart.  He is clearly, plainly, 100 percent unavailable.

Separated, but not quite divorced.  ”Kinda dating” someone in his own zip code.  He is finding his own center – spiritually, emotionally, creatively – and his own truth.  Work I have already done.  Work I continue to do.

And yet, when we talk or Skype, there is a familiarity that speaks of karmic attachments and lives shared.  Quite simply, I am in love with his heart.

He is, what my friend Rainey calls, a pretend boyfriend.  They all are.

A "selfie," on the road with my Divorce Buddy.  He never wants to show up in pictures. Hm...
A “selfie,” on the road with my Divorce Buddy. He never wants to show up in pictures. Hm…

She uses the words in a matter-of-fact way that implies everyone has one.  Has had one.  Like a cell phone or email address.

Deep friendship.  Emotional intimacy.  Trust.

Companionship.  Connectedness.  A shared sense of not being alone even though you are – when you are one instead of two.

But without a physical dimension, or a commitment to anything more.

She assures me that she has had several over the years.  And that sometimes, pretend boyfriends become real boyfriends.  But mostly they are pretend.

This has been my experience too.  Although I am usually too blinded by hope to see it at the time.

Good for practice.  For reminding me of my loveliness.  What it feels like to be close.  And allowing me to believe in possibilities.

No good at all in moments when my bed feels cold and lonely.  When I want nothing more than to feel arms wrapped around me.

Downright disastrous when I bring expectations of a real relationship to it.

My friend Kerry called me out on my penchant for pretend boyfriends this past weekend.  He wanted to know what I was afraid of.  Why I wouldn’t try online dating.  Why I wouldn’t make myself available to someone who is available.

A gift from one of my pretend boyfriends.  He said that I fell out of his head and on to his sketchbook.
A gift from one of my pretend boyfriends. He said that I fell out of his head and on to his sketchbook.

I felt sick inside.

“I don’t want to be left,” I said quietly in a voice that did not seem my own.

Was I referring to my partner of 15 years “leaving me?”  My birth parents “leaving me?”

Or was it me leaving myself?  Pushing aside my art, my values and my aspirations for someone else.  Someone who never asked me to.  And for something else – a relationship.  Believing that alone I was somehow less valuable.

Earlier that day, I left a voicemail for one of my girlfriends.  “I want a real boyfriend.  Not a pretend one.  I just had to say that out loud,” I announced into the digital abyss.

And I do.  Someone who is here.  Who I can physically feel.  His lips over mine.  His breath on my neck.  His hands on my body.

Someone to hold on to me.  And who I can hold on to.

Someone to eat with.  Sleep with.  Dance with.

A partner.  An equal.  Someone I can grow with.  Grow old with.

But I want me more.  The chance to be with myself.  To not leave again.

Yes, I want a real boyfriend.  I just don’t want one yet.

Artist Date 63: True Blue

2014-02-21 15.24.31
TRBL by Christopher Wool

TRBL.

Christopher Wool’s iconographic piece.  The words stenciled in red enamel.   TR.  Drop a line.  BL.

Trouble.  Yes.

“Or True Blue,” he offers from the stage at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Artist Date 63.

Yes.  And that is trouble too.

I have decided to do something I’ve done just once in my life.  Leave first.

The one other time I did this, the relationship had turned abusive.  I felt I had no choice.

I always have a choice, I am reminded.

There is no abuse here.  Not even a relationship really.  Not yet.  An exploration.  A friendship ripe with feelings and confessed crazy attraction for one another.  And 700 miles between us.

He once commented it was 400 miles between us and I didn’t correct him.  When he later said 700, I knew he had looked it up.  “You’ve been thinking about this (visiting),” I said.  “I haven’t stopped thinking about it,” he replied.  We were on Skype.  I saw myself bat my eyelashes coquettishly like a shy giraffe, without even thinking.

But 700 miles aren’t really the problem.  It’s the every thing else.  We are in decidedly different places in our lives.  I am in the clearing, coming out of the forest.  He is, appropriately so, tied up in the weeds.  Almost available.  Like the tables I would hover over at the bar in college, waiting to settle into.  Almost.

Lately, there is more time between our communications.  I find myself in knots.  Wide open.  Vulnerable.  Uncertain of where I stand.

I wonder when I will talk to him.  What is going on in his head.  In his life.  I don’t like it.  I don’t like how I feel.  This poor use of precious psychic energy.

2014-02-21 15.20.40
SEX. LUV by Christopher Wool

I woke up Friday morning.  As my knees hit the floor, I began crying.  “I can’t do this,” I said, to no one in particular.  “I need more.”  Tears.  Shock.  Relief.

In the past, I would wedge my way into “almost available” anyway – finding an opening in a man’s attraction and desire for me.  But untrue to myself and to him.  Acting breezy, when I felt anything but.  And soon pissed off when I didn’t get what I really needed.  And lying to myself and to him about needing it at all.

This time feels different.  I like him too much to ask that of him.  I like me too much to ask it of myself.

All of this is running through my head, as I sit in a somewhat broken chair, listening to Wool speak.  Everything he says reminds me of this relationship.  My heart.  What I have to do.  Am afraid to do.  Am afraid I won’t get the chance to do because I will either lose my nerve or he will somehow slip away without me having had the chance to speak my truth.

TRBL.  Trouble.  True Blue.  Wool says art is most successful when it does what it says.

Does he do what he says?  Do I?

I think about my vision board hanging from a wire on the wall in my apartment.  Mr. 700 Miles asked about it the last time we Skyped.  I brought the computer to it, showing him the words and images I’d torn from magazines on impulse and pasted on a large piece of cardboard.  “Power of the Pen.”  “Happiness is not for Sale.”  “Effortlessly Simple.”

“In Full Bloom.”  “Yourself.”  ““Make love.”

2014-01-01 21.34.47“Find your true blue.”  The words are small compared to all the others.  In typewriter font like my tattoos that read, “left” and “write” and overlaid on a couple standing nose to nose.  I pointed to the picture and the words and he just smiled.

More slides.  SEX. LUV.  He Said, She Said.

Wool talks about process.  Creating images through loss.  Drawing and erasing.  Drawing and erasing.  And sometimes even scraping.  The tearing away became “the most interesting part.”

But he insists process isn’t that important.  That the work should stand on its own.

It all seems a metaphor for my romantic life.  My willingness to tear away from this man romantically to see what the universe has in store for me.  For the first time – perhaps ever – truly believing I deserve more.

I wander through the exhibit after the lecture.  FO.  Drop line.  OL.  I laugh out loud.  Yes.  FOOL.  TRBL.  SEX.  LUV.  I am all of it.

Post Script: Later that day, I did say the words I first uttered on my knees, “I can’t do this.  I need more.”  To him.  I felt sad and strong and sad again.  But ultimately, I felt LUV.  For him.  For myself.  True Blue.

Artist Date 61: Permission to Want Love

I cannot remember the last time I was carded.  My friend Debbie reminds me that I don’t drink, so I am not often in bars.  So my lack of recent experience with carding shouldn’t be a surprise.

But I am in a bar tonight –the night before Valentine’s Day.  I have been “invited” for the final performance of “Solo in the Second City” – a live lit(erature) series about the nature of relationships.  Artist Date 61.

solo in the second cityI wish I would have known about this sooner, but I didn’t.  And the only reason I know about it at all is because I participated in my first ever live lit event last week – Story Club, a monthly event featuring three invited storytellers, and three audience members whose names have been pulled from a hat.  Except it’s not a hat, it’s a monkey carved out of a coconut with the words, “Have Fun” scrawled on it.

It is the winter of the Arctic Vortex in Chicago and only three people have put their names in the monkey.  This is seemingly unheard of.  I am one of them.

I climb up on to the stage, pull on my “cheaters” and read an extended version of my blog post “I Love You.” “Thank You.”  About me and my divorce buddy.  About walking through hell together.  And learning to walk on my own.  It is tender and raw and real.  I feel like I have earned my place on this stage.  It feels amazing.

I am followed by Carly Oishi, a featured writer.  She weaves together three stories of love and loss.  I am riveted.  She is speaking my heart even though I do not recall her exact words.

At the end of the evening, I approach her and introduce myself.  I tell her I like her piece.  She tells me she likes mine and invites me to “Solo in the Second City.”  I mention it to Debbie and we agree we will go.

And so I am here, at Beauty Bar, sitting on a low bench surrounded by 1950s hairdryer chairs, listening to stories of breakups and broken hearts.

One woman reads about watching relationships bloom and wither.  But only watching.  She has closed her heart off.  Closed herself off.  I know there is more because I am overwhelmed with feeling and identification, but I cannot access it.

Another reads, perhaps more accurately shouts, about when a man drops off the face of the earth without a word.   Not a peep.  A text.  A fuck off.  Nothing.   She talks about body parts that are usually covered up meeting other body parts that are usually covered up.  About giving someone VIP access to that place where her children were born from.  She says it is a big deal.

story club magIt is a big deal.  To give someone VIP access to that place.  To literally let someone inside of you.  For so many years I did not think so.  There was no velvet rope.  No line to enter.  At least to my mind’s eye.  And each and every one who came (no pun intended) was given an all access pass.  Once upon a time.  Now single again after 15 years coupled, and solo in the Second City, I can play it differently.  I can have a different experience.

I am humbled by her cautionary tale of pain.  For taking me back to how it was.  And showing me how it still can be.  How I can be.

Carly, the co-producer of the series, is the last to read.  It is the story I heard last week.  But this time I can hold on to the words.  At least some of them.  The part about love and how you will do anything for it.  To taste it.  To experience it.  To feel it if only for a moment.

Yes.  That is how I feel.  How I have been ashamed to feel.  The message I can discern from the noise and static surrounding me post-divorce is “You don’t need it.”  “You shouldn’t want it.”  “You need to learn to be alone.”

I know how to be alone.

I go to the opera alone.  Dance performances alone.   Art shows alone.

I live alone.

I work and dance and write.  I have a large and diverse cast of characters I call friends.

I love my life.

And yes, I want love.  That kind of love.

Hearing Carly’s words I feel somehow lighter.  Less burdened by my desires.  Free to let go of this misplaced shame.

I tell her so after the show.  That I am grateful for permission to want love.  She is visibly moved.

I remind her we have met and she admits she didn’t realize I live in Chicago.  “So you ‘do this’?’  Write?  Tell stories,” she asks.

“Yes,” I say.

She smiles and tell me she is putting together a story-telling series of all women, and asks if I would be interested in reading my work.

I smile back and give her the only appropriate answer – “I would love to.”