Cut in Two

It is four weeks today since I left Paris. It feels like forever ago.

Not for the reasons most people think. Not because I love Paris, have dreamed of living there for as long as I can remember (even before I had ever visited), and occasionally wake up with French words on my lips – even though I don’t speak the language. Not because a reiki practitioner once told me I have “agreements” with Paris. (I still don’t know exactly what that means.) Although all of that is true.

Quite simply, I left my heart there … and I miss it, and him and what we shared.

What was meant to be 14 days together, zipping up to Normandy on his motorbike (“It will be like our honeymoon,” he said.) was goodbye instead.

I never saw it coming.

We met in October, on my way home from a writer’s retreat in Girona, Spain. It was, as my friend Michelle likes to say, “A romance for the ages.”

We found one another in a church basement – the kind where we both learned how to get and stay sober a number of years earlier – on his birthday, the day before mine. What began as coffee led to a meandering walk through Paris — sharing our stories, and a piece of cake — and ended with three knee-buckling kisses at the Bastille roundabout, my salmon-colored wool and silk scarf blowing in the breeze. One for his birthday, one for mine, and one to “tide me over” until we saw one another again in two days. The stuff of Hollywood movies.

Four days later, my last in Paris, he told me he loved me, and that he was in love with me.

“Is that crazy” he asked over a steaming bucket of mussels and live accordion music that wafted up the stairs.

“Yes,” I replied. “But I get it.”

He also told me he didn’t want to think about me every day, that he didn’t want to know how I took my coffee.

“But you already know how I take my coffee,” I said, smiling.

We agreed that we wanted to continue getting to know one another and that neither of us knew exactly what that meant. The next morning, boarding a plane back to the United States, I received a text, “Still love you, babe.”

locks of love paris
Love Locks in Paris.

Later that week, during the first of many marathon phone calls, he asked if I would come back in the spring. I said yes without hesitation and purchased a non-stop return ticket from Chicago to Paris for $500 the following day. I had never paid so little to fly to to Europe and chose to see it as a sign — a nod from God.

We spent the next six months writing long emails and sexy Facebook messages, talking on the phone for hours and eventually Skyping. What joy it was to finally see one another again.

I felt like I had met my twin. Funny enough, one of the last things he said to me was, “I met myself when I met you.” That was four weeks ago, when we said goodbye.

One month earlier, I had received an email, “I have some difficult news …” he wrote.

His son’s mother had asked once again if they might get back together. This time she said “all the right things.” This time, it was he who didn’t hesitate to say yes.

Brokenhearted would be an understatement.

Ten days later we Skyped and I asked if I might see him in Paris … to say goodbye.

“You’re still coming?” he asked, visibly surprised.

“My ticket is non-refundable. I’m going on to Barcelona, but I’m still flying in and out of Paris.

“Can I see you? To say goodbye?”

He agreed, and so we did. And when we did, he reminded me that his nine-year-old son lives in Paris … so he lives in Paris.

I knew he had certain ideas about the family he wanted – what it looked like – and believed he was healing some childhood wounds by giving his son what he had wanted most, stability and love, and the picture of family that he himself craved.

“I’m portable,” I said, reminding him I had said this all along.

He said I wouldn’t like living in Paris. (I disagreed.) That it is extraordinarily hard to get work there as a non-Parisian, even teaching English. That he never wanted a long-distance relationship.

He also said that we were “magic,” that I was his “vacation” and his “fantasy.”

What he didn’t say was, “Move in, lean in … we’ll figure it out.”

And so, with seemingly no other choice, I dropped the rope.

eating cake in paris
In October, sharing a piece of birthday cake.

The day I had asked if I could see him in Paris, he asked if we might still be friends. “This,” he said, gesturing heart-to-heart, “I’ll miss this.” I said probably one day, but that I would need time — brave words that fell apart once on the other side of the Atlantic, when I hopefully asked, “Will we stay in touch?” even though I had been the one to ask for space after our goodbye.

“I don’t think so … I’d prefer not to,” he said. “I want you to go back to Chicago and write to me and tell me you found a man there who can give you a real relationship.”

I was crushed. Writing these words now, my heart aches.

But a funny thing happened when I returned to the United States, something that had never happened after a breakup before — I respected his wishes.

We agreed I would let him know when I arrived home and that I would send some of my writing to him – musings about our time together. I did both and he responded warmly, but without opening any doors. “I’m not ready to read this just yet, but it’s good to know it’s here” he wrote, and thanked me for sending. Seems this ending is difficult for him too.

Now there’s nothing left to do but grieve.

I’ve never had a clean break before.

In my 20s, breakups included language like, “Of course we’ll be friends,” which seemed to mean something entirely different to my former partners than to me, which looked like me acting as if nothing had changed, except for the addition of some teary, “I miss you’s” and “Are you sure’s?” In the end my ex’s usually had to push me away, it seemed the only way I could give time and space apart.

Since my divorce five years ago, I’ve had only one other relationship, which only sort-of ended when I moved to Madrid in 2015. We spent my year abroad in a liminal space which, while not exactly ideal or exactly what I wanted, seemed to suit me on some level. It was never entirely over until I moved back to the United States last July.

So this is new, this clean-break thing, and here’s the rub – it still hurts like hell. There’s nothing to do, nothing to be done. This clean break means there’s no drama around calling or not calling, writing or not writing, dissecting every bit of conversation. The not-clean-break means I can feel like I’m still in something. There’s some kind of crazy hope, but with this there is none.

Just memories. And sadness.

Yes … I have days where I’m not really sure we’re done. Others say that about us too. But I know, at least for now, we are.

Michelle was right. I did have a romance for the ages … and I haven’t even shared a tenth of it. I haven’t written publicly about it at all, until now. It was tender and private and new. It was ours. It still is. But it is my story too and I am a storyteller.

at shakespeare and company
With heartbreak comes a story. Paying homage.

Last night I listened to a TED Talk by Anne Lamott. In it, she said, “You’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your own heart, your stories, memories, visions and songs – your truth, your version of things – in you own voice. That’s really all you have to offer us, and that’s also why you were born.”

It was those words that inspired me to write. That, a fire in my belly, and the memory of blogging about every other romance gone astray since my divorce. Sharing my story and opening it for conversation had felt both vulnerable and healing. There is something about speaking one’s truth, being witnessed, and hearing, “me too.”

It’s what we do in those church basements where he and I got sober and where we keep going so we can stay sober. As my friend Bob likes to say, “A problem shared is cut in two.” If that is so, then posting this hits it with a sledgehammer – cracks it right open sending sharp little shards in every direction that I will be picking up off the floor for months to come, even when I’m certain I’ve vacuumed them all up. The sun will hit the hardwood in a certain way and I’ll find another little piece.

I guess that’s what great love does – cracks us right open and destroys us. I hate it. And I wouldn’t change a single thing.

 

 

 

Home

The following long-form piece was written for and performed at Nikki Nigl’s AboutWomen in Chicago on July 19, 2016.

I have been back in Chicago exactly 12 days.

I miss Madrid.

I miss the winding cobblestone walk to my metro stop at Opera. The flat buildings washed yellow, orange and pink with black wrought iron balconies on every window. Cartoonish by streetlight. I swear I could push them over and they’d tumble. Just like a movie set.

I miss the fountain at Cibeles. That “birthday cake of a building” as Dirk used to call it. The old Correos. Post Office. Now a museum I never made it to. A “Welcome Refugees” banner hanging from its top, a fountain in front. In the center of a roundabout that leads you to the Prado or Calle Gran Via, depending on your preference.

I used to walk here on Saturday nights alone when the sun had receded but the air was still hot and all of Madrid filled the streets, up from its collective summer siesta. The goddess Cybel and her lions riding on illuminated pink and blue water.

I miss my metro pass. Fifty euros for unlimited rides on the super clean, super-fast metro that would take me anywhere in Madrid. And if it didn’t the train or the light rail would.

I miss Turron gelato.

2015-08-08 21.39.03
Plaza de Cibeles and that “birthday cake of a building.”

I miss private health insurance to the tune of 57 euros a month. Gynecological exam chairs that tilt down, working with as opposed to against, gravity. I miss not having to ask for a pelvic ultrasound instead of a pap as it is a matter of course.

I miss feeling safe walking home alone at night.

I miss taking the train to Seville or Valencia for the weekend. Or a quick flight to Portugal, North Africa or Nice. I miss swimming in the Mediterranean upon reaching the coast. The salty taste of my lips and the white streaks drying on my legs surprising me.

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On the beach in Valencia.

I miss tomates that taste like tomatoes, pimientos that taste like peppers and pepinos that taste like cucumbers. I miss their names. I miss Paco choosing them for me at the market and our impromptu intercambio. His corrections to my beginner Spanish. My approval of his modest English.  His stories about his daughter and the victory I felt in understanding them. Mas o menos.

I miss cheap groceries.

I miss eating rye for breakfast instead of oatmeal. Eggs that sit on the shelf. Good, inexpensive coffee.

I miss Nick, the Greek waiter at Dionisos, flirting shamelessly with me.

I miss speaking Spanglish.

I miss all of this, and yet I chose to leave it. To return to Chicago. Where I pay for every El ride. Both financially and energetically. Nausteated by the slow, insistent rattling of the train. Knowing I would get there in half the time if I still owned a car. Knowing it’s best to ask someone to walk me to the train at night in some neighborhoods. My keys laced between my fingers as I leave the station and approach my own door.

Chicago. Where politicians are proudly corrupt. People hold signs on freeway off ramps … begging for money. And 2 bags of tasteless produce cost nearly $50.

Where zero degree FARENHEIT winters are a real possibility. As is a shooting death every weekend.

I chose this.

I chose home.

Lumbering Greystone buildings, summer rainstorms and leafy maple trees. Sunday dance classes at the Old Town School of Music. Lectures at the Art Institute. Lake Michigan.

Art-Institute-Of-Chicago-HD-Wallpapers
Copyright Art Institute of Chicago HD Wallpaper.

I’ve moved several times in my life. Four states, seven cities, two countries … if you count where I was born and raised. Which is not the same as home.

I learned that the first time I moved to Chicago in 2007. I’d been living between San Francisco and Oakland for nearly 14 years when my husband and I packed up our two cats and all our worldly belonging and headed east, to the Midwest, a place I vowed I’d never live again, for his medical residency.

God has a sense of humor.

It was grey and sticky, drizzly and hot when we arrived. We opened the car doors and felt the steam rise up around us, looked at one another, and without saying a word asked “What have we done?” Followed by “We are Californians. (Albeit adopted ones). This is a temporary residence. A sojourn. We will hate Chicago together.”

For months I wore ear plugs on the El and held my hand over my heart as I walked up Michigan Avenue. Each felt being accosted, until my own vibrations rose to match those of the city.

Whenever people asked where I was from, I responded, “I was born in Detroit. I live in Chicago. Oakland is my spirit home.”

But eventually … I got worn down. I surrendered. To this city. It’s people. To my addiction. I made a life for myself here. I grew my business. Got sober. And converted to the faith of my childhood – righting a religious technicality.

I stopped beginning every sentence with “In California …”

I found my biological parents. I learned to dance. I took my husband to the place where I spent my childhood summers, 8 hours away in northwest Michigan.

I began having experiences rather than talking about them.

And somewhere along the way I fell in love with this sometimes dirty, noisy, violent city. I fell in love with its architecture. Its people. Perhaps, most of all, I fell in love with myself.

Four years later I moved to Seattle. The wife of a now doctor, I felt obligated to go.

I cried like a wounded animal. Like I cried when I left Bay Area. Mourning the loss of morning hikes in Redwood Park, Peets coffee, and KFOG radio. The Golden Gate Bridge. My old house in Haight-Ashbury. The place where I met my husband and was married.

 

spirit home
Spirit Home. The French Trail in Redwood Park, Oakland.

Except this time, the loss felt strictly internal. Chicago, the place, has never spoken to me. Its topography. Its flatness and lack of nature feel uninspired. But there is something in its soil, in its DNA, that takes root in me.

It called me back after a year in Seattle. When my marriage ended and for the first time in a long time, I got to choose where I would live.

And it called me back after a year in Madrid, where I was teaching English. Fulfilling a childhood dream of living overseas. One I spoke about here, just before I left, a year ago. My only lament that my passport is far less sexy than it would be pre-European Union.

Since arriving, I’ve been greeted with warm “welcome backs” and tentative “welcome homes.” And the inevitable, “What brought you back?” It’s a fair question. One I’ve grappled with myself since making the decision not to renew my visa a couple of months ago.

There are lots of reasons.

Living in a country where you don’t speak the language – at least not fluently, is at best, frustrating. At worst, infantilizing. Without words, one’s personality changes. Mi casera, my landlady, once commented “You are quiet.” To which I replied, “Not in English.”

I needed, and asked for, a lot of help. Scheduling doctors’ appointments. Opening a bank account. Translating government documents. Buying a Spanish cell phone to replace mine which didn’t work.

I slept in a twin bed in an already furnished room in a grand, old Spanish apartment. I felt like a child. I moved the bed. Removed a chest of drawers. A few pictures. I hung up a batik of Ganesh, a string of elephants on a gold chain and a vision board I created around Thanksgiving time. I was still acutely aware that the place was not “mine.” It was not “home.”

The thought of living alone, setting up internet and utilities felt overwhelming. Even friends who were fluent in Spanish waited two months or longer for connectivity. Making due with coffee shops and on occasion, cold showers.

I focused on gratitude. For the opportunity to live with this 83-year-old former UN translator who lived through the Franco era and who was willing to speak with me in halting Spanish or easy English. For my inexpensive rent and the courtyard our apartment looked out on to.

For the community I created. With other teachers. Other expats. And others I met traveling.

For the ability to see Eastern Europe, North Africa and a good deal of Spain. For getting paid, albeit not as much as I had hoped, to talk.

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Traveling in Tangier with my friend Lindsey.

My students adored me. And I, them. But I was acutely aware that they were my students and not my friends … much as I wanted to talk. And much as they were eager to listen.

I had a life. But it was a smaller life.

The English-speaking community in Madrid is transient, making it difficult to build and sustain long-term friendships. And I couldn’t imagine beginning a romantic relationship … in part due to my lack of language skills. But also because of cultural differences. And while my work as a massage therapist surprisingly followed me to Spain, offering me a few clients and a few extra euros a month, my opportunities for employment would always be limited.

I felt limited.

I didn’t know that until a few weeks ago when I was talking with my friend Pam … who had spent six hours in the Social Security office. Playful, friendly and highly communicative, she said to the workers on her way out, “We’re such good friends, I’m going to invite you all to my wedding.”

“That’s it,” I said, pointing to the air, which she – of course – couldn’t see.

I can’t make small talk. I don’t have the language to strike up a conversation on the metro, in the elevator or at the grocery store. I’m too busy thinking about what I’m going to say and how to say it … and by the time I know how, the moment is gone.

And in that moment I realized what home was.

Yes, in its simplest form, home is where I reside. Where I know how to get where I’m going and the fastest way to get there.

Home is the place where restaurants know my face, possibly my name, and often my order. Where I speak the language. And where I sometimes hear my name called out in the street.

But mostly it is a place where I can get bigger. Where I feel expansive. Where I can grow. And to grow, I need to root. Home is a place where the soil is loamy. And conditions are favorable to temperament. A place like Chicago.

 

 

 

Artist Date 102: Driving Me in Reverse Down a One-Way Street

From "Drunken Geometry" by Allison Wade and Leslie Baum
From “Drunken Geometry” by Allison Wade and Leslie Baum

I thought I would be used to this by now. Going it alone.

More than 100 Artist Dates, more than 100 solitary sojourns in an effort to fill my creative coffers, as suggested by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way.

Lectures, live lit events, ballets, book readings. Fabric stores. Operas. Walking tours. A handful taking place in other countries. And yet my stomach does flip-flops driving to an art opening a few miles from my apartment.

If I’ve learned anything in this grand experiment it is to put one foot in front of the other, regardless of how I feel — this time, up concrete stairs to the third floor of a warehouse in Garfield Park, to my friend’s exhibit, Artist Date 102.

Allison is an inspiration.

Once upon a time she wrote marketing materials for the financial services sector. Until the day when she turned right where she would have gone left and applied to art school. Several years, several moves and an MFA later, she is a working artist and an adjunct professor in the Art Department at Northwestern University.

I hear voices and laughter before I make it to the top of the stairs. I poke my head into the first gallery. I circle the room. Large painted swaths of fabric on the wall. Furniture taken apart, mismatched and reassembled — table legs sticking straight up out of a chair, pointing at the ceiling. Deconstructed still life. Or, as Alison and her partner Leslie call it “Drunken Geometry.”  But no Allison.

I poke my head into the second gallery and see my friend. She walks me through the exhibit, explaining its meaning, its genesis. Her process, her partnership. I am all in my head…thinking about my friend Rainey, the first artist I knew who created installations, introducing concepts rather than canvases.

Thinking about my own desire to go to art school.

For fashion. For photography. For the sake of being and calling myself an artist. I recall pictures I drew of myself in elementary school — wearing a beret and holding a palette — and a Saturday morning sketching class I briefly attended.

I did not go to art school.

Instead, I spent one year as a fine arts major at a Big Ten university before transferring to the journalism program at my parents’ prompting.

I tell myself I was more committed to the idea of being “an artist” than to making art. This may or may not be true. But being a visual artist was never “easy” for me.

I was fast-moving, my work somewhat sloppy. Stitches ran crooked on the waistband of a skirt. Film stuck onto itself, improperly loaded on the development reel. The inside of a ceramic slab box left rough, unfinished — the internal belying the external.

Writing came easy to me.

I placed out of freshman college English, enrolling in a senior writing seminar instead. Somewhat grudgingly wrote for the daily college newspaper. And then later, for weeklies in Detroit and San Francisco.

I did not think writing was art. Writing was…writing.

It didn’t feel sexy or tragic or dark. I didn’t wrestle with it, so I didn’t want it. But it followed me anyway…loyal puppy of a boyfriend.

I resented it. Ignored it. Didn’t take care of it. Until I needed it.

In Africa, in the middle of my divorce. When I couldn’t not write. The way junkies can’t not shoot-up. When writing felt like breathing. Like the only thing that gave me relief — the antithesis of how I feel now in this moment. Anxious.Uncomfortable. Squirrel-y.

No one is drunk. No one is ridiculously hip. On the contrary. There is a bowl of Chex Mix on the table near the drinks, and a handful of children stopping short of running around.

I see faces I know — including my own. Myself as struggling, wannabe visual artist. Perhaps this is what makes me uncomfortable.  Seeing my former in-love-with-the-idea-of-being-an-artist self.

I would have turned myself inside out for if my parents would have let me. Just as I have done with the idea of so many lovers and would-be lovers in my past. The title — artist, girlfriend — who I think I want to be, driving me in reverse down a one-way street..

Talking for two in romantic pursuits, attempting to create a connection or intimacy that isn’t organically there. Chasing what’s hard — dark, sexy, tragic — rather than embracing what is light, easy, what would one day feel like breathing.

I pick up a large piece of heavy paper with words printed in pink and blue — a conversation between the artists about their process in creating.

“In all honesty for me, and I think for you, this work is agenda-less. It’s about formal play and making connections.” Allison writes.

Leslie adds, “The beginning and the end. A looping. A circle that wobbles a bit, like a drunk. Our logic and our vocabulary are of this wandering yet insistent geometry.”

Yes, for me too. Except I’m no longer drunk. Just insistent and Wandering (Jewess).

Artist Date 93: The IS in HIStory

album-David-Bowie-Heroes

I’ve been listening to David Bowie a lot lately.

It’s a bit like returning from travels abroad and insisting on eating as I did while away.  Toasted bread rubbed with fresh garlic and tomato following a trip to Spain.  Cucumber-tomato salad for breakfast after a press trip to Israel.  And most recently, coffee made in a stove-top moka upon returning from Italy.  Each time, holding on to that place, that experience, for as long as I am able.

Except Bowie takes me back to a place and experience I mostly do not care to hold on to — high school.  It begins at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the David Bowie IS show — Artist Date 93.  I am transported.

I am 14 and wearing a baseball jersey from the Serious Moonlight tour.  My cousin from Los Angeles has turned me on to Bowie.  The same way he turned me on to weed, the Culture Club and all things French.  He is cool with bleached-blonde hair and skinny ties that match his skinny body.  He lights my cigarettes, walks on curb side of the sidewalk and stands up when I leave the table.  He is my ideal man.  He has been all of my life, and although I don’t yet know it, he will continue to be — long after I stop smoking weed, and Boy George gets sober too.

I am rifling through bins of used albums at Sam’s Jams in Ferndale, Michigan and find ChangesOneBowie.  Soon I will commit the words of each song to memory.  I will know them like I know my own name.  My hair is a pinky-red, spiky and sticky with Aqua-Net Extra Hold.  I am wearing iridescent blue lipstick, a plaid pleated skirt from the Salvation Army that doesn’t quite zip all the way up and a Cranbrook Lacrosse sweatshirt  — hooded with a torn front pocket — that I “borrowed” from a boy named Simon, who I met just once and never saw again.

I am in Ann Arbor visiting my friend Stacey.  We have taken the bus from her house to the University of Michigan campus.  There are no buses in suburban Detroit, where I live, save for a yellow school bus.  I feel urban and cool.  We are watching The Man Who Fell to Earth on a big screen.  It is terrible but we love it anyway.  Stacey has also seen The Hunger and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.  I have not.  She is clearly the bigger fan.

I am sitting on multi-hued blue shag carpeting in my bedroom holding the cover of Heroes in my hands — singing every word printed on the sleeve.  “And you, you can be mean.  And I, I’ll drink all the time.”  Little do I know how true these words will turn out to be.  A few years later it is TonightBlue Jean and a cover of Brian Wilson’s God Only Knows passing my lips.

I am on the cold sidewalk outside of Record Outlet with my best friend A.  We are here overnight, in line for tickets to the Glass Spider tour which go on sale tomorrow.  I cannot believe my mother has agreed to this.

I cannot believe how long it has been since I have talked to A.  Nearly five years.  That the last thing she said to me was, “Keep them.  They look better on you anyway,” referring to the sunglasses I borrowed and that were still tucked in my bag as I drove away from her apartment.  I no longer have them.

I cannot believe I left Heroes and Tonight in Seattle with my ex-husband, along with The Specials, Thriller and the original soundtrack from Hair.

I cannot believe I remember Simon’s name, how long I held on to that sweatshirt, or that I am waxing nostalgic about high school.

But it is.  And I did.  I do and I am.

In 1990, David Bowie played his greatest hits on tour “a final time.”  “…it gave me an immense sense of freedom, to feel that I couldn’t rely on any of those things. It’s like I’m approaching it all from the ground up now.”  In 1996 he resurrected Heroes onstage.

There is an IS in hIStory — as well as a story.

Artist Date 86: On a Scooter, With a Boy in Front and Chocolate in my Pocket

Final moments in St. Victor la Coste, France.  I hiked up to this crumbling castle every day.
Final moments in St. Victor la Coste, France. I hiked up to this crumbling castle every day.

I leave for Italy in 39 days.

I only recently bought my plane ticket, and just last week decided exactly where I will spend the days following my volunteer work in Umbria. I have not booked a single night at a hotel, pensione, hostel or airbnb.

This is highly unusual for me.

By now I would have secured a room for all of my nights, and outlined a rough itinerary of my days – making certain I knew when each museum closed.  I learned this from my friend Tim, who saved the Louvre for his last day in Paris, not realizing it closed on Tuesdays.  He has lovely pictures of the outside.

I would have purchased my train tickets and made copies of my passport.  My travel books would be dog-eared and yellowed with highlighter.

I have done none of this.  I’m not sure why.

And so I find myself tucked into a big chair in the back of the Book Cellar, pouring over travel guides – more out of necessity than anything.  Fodors.  Rough Guide.  Lonely Planet.  Thick books on the whole of Italy.  Thinner versions on Rome, Florence and Tuscany.  Artist Date 86.

I recall my first travels overseas – press trips to Germany and Israel.  I was in my 20s and had dreamed of traveling abroad.  Everything was handled for me.  Flights.  Hotel.  Itinerary.  And yet, I sat at San Francisco International Airport before each trip – terrified.

Flying out of SFO in 1999 to Spain – my first overseas trip with my then boyfriend, now ex-husband — felt wholly different.  I wasn’t alone.

One Saturday morning we somewhat impulsively bid on Priceline tickets to Madrid.  By afternoon, we were sprawled out on the floor of Borders Books – leaving a few hours later with copies of Frommers – Europe on $100 a day and Madrid, Barcelona and Seville.

We traveled overseas together several times over the next few years – me carefully crafting an itinerary each time.   Yet, a part of me longed to travel alone, as so many of my friends had done after college.

And at 37, I do it.

At the time, I feel too old to throw a rucksack on my back, sleep in hostels and shower in train stations.  I find a trip volunteering in the south of France, building walls as part of an architectural restoration project.

I spend a few days in Paris by myself when I arrive.  It does not feel glamorous and exciting as I had imagined.  It feels scary and lonely.  I wander the streets alone, slightly drunk and call my then husband — crying.  A few days later I join my team in Avignon.  Surrounded by volunteers from around the word, ranging in age from 21 to 73, I feel joyous and free.  I have found my place, my role.  I am the friendly American who drinks too much and gives massages.

Building walls in the South of France. 2006.
Building walls in the South of France. 2006.

Eight years later, (I will turn 45 in Italy) I do not drink anymore.  I do not have a husband anymore.  These things that I leaned into ceased to serve me long ago.  This time, this trip, I must lean into myself.  My hesitation in planning suddenly makes sense.  I am afraid.

And yet, I have a plan, a purpose – I am again joining volunteers from around the globe.  This time, at the Altrocioccolato Festival – known as the “other chocolate festival” – outside of Perugia.  This time, my alone time is on the back-end of the trip – and I will have a better sense of place.  This time I have people, “waiting” for me in church basements.  People who also used to drink too much but don’t anymore – people like me.

My friend Pam says I will go to Italy and meet a boy on a scooter and never come home.  She tells me that I am brave.  That she doesn’t know anyone else our age doing what I am doing – traveling, alone.  I do not feel brave.

And I remember what I’ve been told, that bravery isn’t the absence of fear, it is walking through it anyway.

Or perhaps flying through it – direct from Chicago to Rome on Alitalia.  Or riding a scooter through it – an Italian boy in front, and chocolate in my pocket.

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.

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.