Artist Date 2.2: Hello, Old Friend

“Hello, old friend…”

I whisper the words to no one in particular. Smiling as I take a seat in front of Marc Chagall’s “America Windows.” Moments ago, the bench was occupied, but serendipitously it is free… as if waiting for me.

My friend Colleen invited me here – to the Art Institute of Chicago – to catch up over coffee and “peel off for our independent Artist Dates.” Number 2.2 (118) for me.

She knows me. The sacredness of my weekly solo sojourn.

We breeze through admissions and before entering the exhibit –“America After the Fall: Paintings in the 1930s”– (my choice), I kiss her on either cheek, holding fiercely to the traditions of my year in Spain. I wish her joy on her Artist Date and thank her for bringing me here.

Here. This place that used to feel like my home. But that I am acutely aware I am a visitor in.

Colleen’s visitor.

I used to be a member.

I loved sitting in on mid-day member lectures … the youngest in attendance by several times around the sun. Taking advantage of early viewings, free coat check, and complimentary coffee and tea.

But most of all, I loved the freedom to just “pop in” at any time … never worrying about “getting my money’s worth.”

I would always end up here. In front of Chagall’s Windows.

Usually I’d stand up close, looking for new details I might have missed. But today I find myself sitting back. Taking it all in. The whole of it.

It is a metaphor for the day.

The AIC is busy and the exhibit feels congested. I’m somewhat surprised as it has been up for almost two months now. There are a lot of children. And a lot of loud Midwestern accents.

It does not feel like mine anymore.

I snap photographs.

“American Landscape” by Charles Sheeler. Grimy and distinctly Midwestern. Something I kind of romanticized while living abroad. Kind of.

american_landscape

The frame from Grant Wood’s “Young Corn” which reads, “To the Memory of Miss Linnie Schloeman Whose Interest in Young and Growing Things Made Her A Beloved Teacher In Woodrow Wilson School.”

IMAG4560.jpg

The rolling hills that make up the naked, female form in Alexandre Hogue’s “Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare.”

mother earth

The cartoonish characters and cartoonishly thick pain in William H. Johnson’s “Street Life, Harlem.”

street life

I wander out of the exhibit and take a photograph of the words on a door across the hall – “A Lot of Sorrow.”

Yes, there is. And I am.

Moving is hard … even when I choose it. The place that was mine has changed. I knew it would. It did before. There are new inhabitants. There always are.

And yet, if I look I can still find myself here.

In the words leaping from the panels introducing the exhibit. Eerily appropriate today.

“The title of America after the Fall refers in one sense to the (stock market) crash, but is also aptly describes the pervasive concern that the nation had fallen from grace.”

“Regardless of style, many painters hoped their art could help repair a democracy damaged by economic and political chaos. The diversity of approaches made the 1930s one of the most fertile decades of American painting.”

In Archibald Motley’s “Saturday Night,” which I saw for the first time a little more than a year ago. On another Artist Date, at the Chicago Cultural Center. The date before the date – the one with the man who would become my lover for the months leading up to my departure for Spain. I smile and my heart aches just a little.

saturday night motley

On the bench in front of “America Windows,” where today I see nothing new at all. The sameness – both beautiful and comforting.

“Hello, Old friend.”

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Nose-ing What Is Right For Me

2015-04-27 09.30.23
The last page of the wedding ceremony…

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.

I Held On To My Own Hand

Carrie and Petrofsky -- BEFORE he let go of her hand.
Carrie and Petrofsky — BEFORE he let go of her hand.

There’s a wonderful scene in the second to last episode of Sex and the City —  where the camera zooms in and in slow motion Aleksandr Petrofsky lets go of Carrie Bradshaw’s hand, the one he had asked her for a few hours earlier in a moment of anxiety and doubt.

“Promise me you will not let go,” a nervous Petrofsky says, fiddling with his cufflinks as he dresses for his art show opening.

Carrie nods, forgoing the party held in her honor — perhaps the first and only experience of and for herself in the City of Light.

Upon entering the gallery, Petrofsky’s fear is quickly assuaged by applause. Forgetting his words, he releases Carrie’s hand, ultimately releasing her.

I am telling this story to the man lying next to me on the futon.

We are making out like teenagers. Except that I never did this when I was a teenager. It is sweet. Tender. New. My whole body is humming.

I feel his weight on top of me and suddenly feel small, pressed down, vulnerable. My body is no longer humming. In fact, I am slipping out of it. “He will move soon and do something else,” I think. “It is fine.”

But it is not fine.

There is nothing aggressive or threatening about this gesture. He is not too heavy on top of me. In fact, I crave his nearness, and yet I am triggered by it.

I don’t know why. I don’t really care. I only know that I desperately want to return to the place where my body hums.

And I intuitively know the only way back is through — through my mouth, my voice, my truth.

I ask him to move. Kindly. Gently. Assuring him he has done nothing wrong, because he hasn’t. Assuring him that this is “my stuff.”

He rolls on to his side, kisses my forehead and strokes my cheek, and asks me what I need from him.

“Nothing,” I say. And it is true. I have exactly what I need. I have myself.

And in this seemingly insignificant moment I see the hundreds of times I have told myself everything was “fine” when it was not — saying nothing. Enduring, hoping, praying something would change, but not recognizing my role in changing it. In sex. In love. In work. In friendship. In family.

I get teary with the realization that I have never advocated for myself in this way before. I tell him this and the Carrie-Petrofsky story.

“I feel like I have held on to my own hand,” I say.

A few nights later we are again lying on the futon, under the front window that faces a church.

I am wearing decidedly less clothing than I was the previous time we were together. I feel myself slipping out of my body again.

“I want my pants back on,” I blurt out.

“Too fast?” He asks. “Too fast,” I reply.

“Yes, for me too,” he says, helping me slip back into my skinny corduroys. Zipping them, I almost immediately slip back into my body — reveling in all of the sensations created by my new partner.

I think of all of the times I have had sex when I didn’t want to. Because I thought I should. Because I thought it was expected. Because I had wanted it but changed my mind and didn’t really believe I was allowed to, that I could. Turns out — I can.

“I held on to my own hand again,” I tell him, grinning.

He smiles back, his hands tracing the seams of my corduroy jeans, kissing me like the teenager I never was.

And I feel my body humming again.

Artist Date 99: Like a Motherfucker

tiny beautiful thingsForgive me, it has been 16 days since my last Artist Date and 19 days since I’ve blogged.

I feel like a Jewish Catholic at confession.  Except the only one I’m asking for absolution is myself.

I miss my alone time.  Artistic input into my body.  My head feels foggy.  Squeezed.  Heavy and thick.  As if there is no room…no room for anything more.  No room for anything at all.

I am daydreaming about when and where I can get my fix — my dose of solitude and creative sustenance.

I didn’t expect this, didn’t expect to be “hooked” when I entered into this commitment a little more than two years ago.  I didn’t know what to expect.  Only that I needed help.

I was newly divorced.  My biological mother — who I had only met just four years earlier — was dying.  And the relationship I wasn’t having  — the one with a handsome southerner who lived some 900 miles away, who I kissed for two nights like a horny but innocent teenager —  was effecting my relationships.

My friend S. told me in no uncertain terms she could not, would not, hear his name again.

I was on my knees, desperate.  The humbled position where all change grows from.

On Christmas night 2012, a voice I’ve grown to know — my wise-self voice — suggested I work through The Artist’s Way again.  Adding that this time I go on weekly Artist Dates — a once every seven-days solo sojourn to fill my creative coffers — as is suggested in the book.

I went to lectures, museums, opera.  To pottery classes, dance performances, walking tours.  Movies, thrift shops and book stores.  All of it, alone.

On occasion, I miss a week — choosing to spend a final day with a friend before she becomes a mother or sharing my artsy outing with another — but it is rare.  And I’ve never gone this long without…until now, at the Davis Theatre — Artist Date 99.

My therapist in Seattle was the first to suggest Cheryl Strayed.  “I read her before Oprah,” she insisted, imploring me to pick up Wild, as well as Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar — the best of Strayed’s advice column from The Rumpus.

Queen Anne Books placed a special order for both books.  They arrived the day after I left for Chicago.

I mostly forgot about them until this past summer — two years later — when my friend Lori insists I buy both books.  She tells me “writers read,” and drags me into the Book Cellar where she puts a copy of each into my hands and guides me to the cash register.

Both are dog-eared now, and tear-stained.  Sentences underlined, entire pages bracketed.  Words resonate.  Lessons I do not want to forget.  Whispers from the universe reminding me where I came from, where I am today.

“Unique as every letter is, the point each writer reaches is the same: I want love and I’m afraid I’ll never get it.” (Tiny Beautiful Things)

“…for once it was finally enough for me to simply lie there in a restrained and chaste rapture beside a sweet, strong, sexy, smart good man who was probably never meant to be anything but my friend.  For once I didn’t ache for a companion.  For once the phrase a woman with a hole in her heart didn’t thunder into my head.” (Wild)

Sitting in the darkened theater, Strayed words — now images — alive before me, I say, yes.  And yes.

I still fear the possibility of not finding romantic love again, but it doesn’t drive me anymore.  It doesn’t dictate my every action.  My every reaction.

I can be in “chaste rapture beside a sweet, strong, sexy, smart good man who was probably never meant to be anything but my friend.”  Lying next to one another on my couch following morning meditation, the Reluctant Shaman’s lips pressed to my forehead — my third eye.

I no longer ache for a companion.  The words, “I do not wish a man were here,” crossing my lips as I cross the Seine last October, alone on my 45th birthday..

Strayed took to the Pacific Crest Trail  — alone — to learn these truths.  To feel them in her bones.  Mine was a different path, made of clay and dance and music.  Of film and paint and spoken word.  Of pasta and gelato and nearly three weeks in Italy.  All of it, alone.  But the truths, the same.

“So write…,” Strayed writes in Tiny Beautiful Things.  “Not like a girl.  Not like a boy.  Write like a motherfucker.”

Yes.

Artist Date 83: On The Path All Along

Photo: Egyptian Streets
Photo: Egyptian Streets

I’m late.

I peel myself away from the Lebanese pastries – empanada-like sweets filled with sweet cheese, the other with nuts, covered in rosewater – special for Ramadan.  From this conversation which is at once both playful and real.  That reminds me what it feels like to connect deeply. To be met spiritually.

I dash into my apartment and dial into the conference call – 7 Pathways to Freedom, Love and Abundance.  Artist Date 83.

Debbie is mid-meditation.  I sit down at the table, rest my feet on the bar that goes across the underside of it, close my eyes and let myself fall into her words.

She suggested the workshop following my most recent clairvoyant reading and healing.  It made sense to me.  I knew I needed a pathway.  Or more to the point, help continuing on the path I am on.  Lately, I’m having trouble seeing the road.

Nearly two years out of my divorce, I expected to be, to have been, in a relationship by now.  I expected to be financially fully self-supporting.

I’ve had men in my life.  Moments of romance and intimacy.

Months of late-night phone calls navigating the sloppy paths of our mutual divorces, followed by a road trip on the sloppy path cross-country that brought me home.  Hours-long make-out sessions lasting from steamy evening into near dawn.  Skype dates where I bared my soul, and my body, on the promise we’d “give it a go,” throwing caution to the 700 miles that lay between us.

I’ve had work.

A place to show up – more days than not.  Money.  Benefits that don’t fit neatly into an offer package.  No health insurance or paid-time off.  Instead, the opportunity to make an impact.  To work with others.  To stumble in a safe place.  And to shine brightly too.

Cobbled together with the cash and prizes of divorce, I’ve had enough to live on.  More than.

But I want more.  More than moments.  More than enough without spousal support.  (Which, sooner rather than later, I will no longer receive.)

My hope is that something will open up for me in this workshop.  Some chakra blockage will get knocked loose.

I close my eyes and listen to Debbie’s words.  I am overcome with shame.

Shame for the relationships in my life where feelings don’t match.

Shame for the sex I’m not having.

Shame that I was set free…and remain free.

(The words slip off of my fingertips now, in real-time, as I write.  Freedom.  One of the promises of the workshop.  It is not lost on me.  But in workshop time I only feel shame.)

“I am ashamed that my friend’s feelings don’t match my own.”  The words slip past my lips as we share our experiences of the meditation.

(And again, in real-time, I realize this is not exactly true.  I think of this particular relationship, where we share a deep connection – a love for one another that is acknowledged often and freely by us both.  What is not matched is where we are in our lives – what each of us is available for.)

I speak my embarrassing, humiliating truth and nothing bad happens.

A half hour later we disconnect.  I do not recall a thing I have heard.  I am grateful for the audio link which will arrive the next day.

I brush my teeth, wash my face, and write my nightly gratitude list.  I am grateful I do not feel like calling Mr. 700 Miles today.  For Lebanese pastry and time with a friend who loves me.   I am grateful for therapy tomorrow and the Cheryl Strayed book I am reading, Tiny, Beautiful Things. 

The list goes on.  Long.  Abundant.

Freedom.  Love.  Abundance.  The workshop promises.  All right here, right now, in my life.  I am on the path.  I always was.  Now I can once again see it.

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.

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.