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 70: I Am Not Thinking

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Photo: The Grand Budapest Hotel

I have just finished a blog about my friend Clover and the birth of her daughter, Juniper Maya.  She was born nearly 10 days ago, but only now am I at a point where I am able to give words to the experience and my role in it.

I’d been noodling on it for a couple of days and now it is done. I print it out. Set a timer. And read out loud.

Doors open for Story Club in a little more than an hour.  I’ve already penciled it in my book – Artist Date 70.

Story Club meets the first Thursday of the month at the Holiday Club – a bar on the north side of Chicago. Three featured writers read essays on a theme. And three audience members, called at random from a sign-up sheet, read their musings for up to eight minutes.

I’ve been called up just once before, a couple of months ago. My gut tells me I will make it onstage tonight…if I can get there.

My piece is too long. I cross out some sections and set the timer again. Still too long. Then I try again, just reading a portion of it. Up to the words, “The miracle emerges.” This could work.

And I hear it. “Slow the fuck down.” I don’t want to. But I do anyway.

I call Clover to tell her the blog is finished and to ask if she would like to read it before I hit “publish.” She says she would.

I do not usually do this. However, this is not just my story. It is her story too.

I have not given her a clever moniker like the Southern Svengali or Mr. 700 Miles. She is not anonymous. And so I offer my words to her first.

I mention I am on my way to Story Club and ask if she would prefer that I use her initials, as opposed to her real name, as she has not yet read the piece. She says “yes” again.

And it hits me – how much gyrating I am doing to “make this happen.”

To get out the door.   To get on stage. It feels like a push. An awful lot like “my will.” “If this, then that.”

grand budapest hotelI recognize that the words are still fresh to me. That, in some ways, I have just re-lived the birth. That I feel tired and vulnerable, and the idea of sitting in a bar, by myself, in hopes of reading onstage feels neither joyous nor fun. It feels like me trying to make good on my word – as if to make up for all the times when my word meant nothing.

I realize I have nothing to prove, and I give myself a pass.

I put down my papers. I pull on my coat, walk a handful of blocks to the Davis Theatre and purchase a ticket for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

I know nothing about this movie other than my friend Matt invited me to see it with him a few weeks ago. I declined, taking myself to the Art Institute for Artist Date 68 instead.

The theater is about a quarter full. I take comfort in seeing the number of people here alone – even though alone is my preferred way to watch movies.

The previews are dreadful. Even the one with Johnny Depp – who I love.

And especially the one for Transformers. Although it makes me giggle a little as I have a date this weekend with a man 12 years my junior, and he recently posted something about the movie on his Facebook page.

But the featured film is a story for storytellers, told by a storyteller. I am enchanted.

By the glory of the Grand Budapest Hotel in its heyday. And by the quirky outpost for eccentrics that it has become.

By the concierge, at once both straight and gay, tending to the elder, insecure, wealthy – and always blonde – female patrons.

trailer-for-wes-andersons-the-grand-budapest-hotel-4
Photo: The Grand Budapest Hotel

By the refugee hotel boy with a penciled-on moustache. By the love affair between him and the girl who decorates pastry and wears braids – whose birthmark covers half of her face.

It is eye candy. Swaths of bright orange and purple. Handsome stars in less-than-handsome roles. Ralph Fiennes. Adrien Brody. Jeff Goldblum.

I am grinning. I am not thinking about what I will write. Even though I am always thinking about what I will write. The world around me a blog waiting to happen.

I am not thinking that this is a story about family. About status. About love.

About corruption. Courage. Change.

I am not thinking about my own experiences – of family, status, and love. Courage and change.

I am caught up in someone else’s story. I am not thinking. It is a joy.

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.”