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.”

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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.”

I’ll Be Your Mirror

Overlooking Lake Michigan, at Dawes Park...where, up until this year, my congregation has done tashlich.
Overlooking Lake Michigan, at Dawes Park…where, up until this year, we have done tashlich.

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from my rabbi. It was not directed to me individually, but to the entire congregation.  After 17 years with our synagogue, he was leaving.

I wasn’t entirely surprised.  But I didn’t know how I felt about it, or what to say, either.  So I did nothing.  No email.  No phone call.  Which, for this rather impulsive person, is growth.

Except that I continued to do nothing.

I skipped a part of Rosh Hashanah tradition, tashlich – joining the rabbi and cantor and other congregants at Lake Michigan to empty my pockets of the residue of the past year.  That which I no longer needed.  And considered skipping second day Rosh Hashanah services too.

This was highly unusual.

I’ve been blessed with a close, personal relationship with my rabbi. He led me through my conversion and through my get, my Jewish divorce.  I traveled to Africa with him and other congregants during the summer of my divorce, and I have met with him more or less monthly for the better part of the past five years.

And it hit me. I was avoiding.  Or at least I think I was avoiding.  Rather than facing the pain of change, of uncertainty, of not knowing what to say, I chose to ignore it, ignore him – telling myself I would say something eventually.  When I had the right words.

I wondered if these were the same thoughts that The Chef and Mr. 700 Miles had when they chose not to further pursue a romance but didn’t or couldn’t say anything about it.

I was doing what had (potentially – I’ll never know for certain as I do not live in their minds) been done to me.

I first had the realization I was not free from this behavior a couple of weeks ago. Just before returning to San Francisco, my home for 14 years.

I had a friend there I knew I owed an amends to – I just wasn’t sure what it was.

About four or five years ago I told her I needed space. Without warning.  Without lead up.  I did not return a couple of her phone calls in a timely manner, and when she called me on it – in a voicemail, simply asking if she had done something wrong and if, in fact, I was ok – I responded with an email, something along the lines of “I need space.  I’m sure you understand.”

She replied that she did not understand, but would honor my request. And, with the exception of a single message wishing me well I was moving to Seattle, and my thank you in response, we had not spoken since.

Until a couple of weeks ago.

When, preparing for my trip, I realized I had done to her what had been done to me — almost. I left without explanation – almost without a word.

I phoned before my visit and asked if we might meet. If I might right my wrongs.  She graciously said yes, and we did.

My amends was simple. That I had walked away when she needed me most, with barely a word or an explanation.  That I had been selfish.  That I had been wrong.

And then we talked.

About who she had been in my life and who I had been in hers. How she remembered things and how I remembered them.  About why I had not been able to be there for her – because of “my stuff” and how it and I got triggered.  Things I had never told her.

There were tears. And there was healing, for both of us.

I found myself thinking that perhaps The Chef and Mr. 700 Miles had come into my life, at least in part, to be my mirrors. To show me my behavior.

Mr. 700 Miles finally did make contact with me. His words were simple.  That he had “left” because he fell in love with someone else.  That he was sorry.  And with those words that last bit of wondering, that last bit of residue, was gone.  Like the residue I would normally rid myself of at tashlich.

I wanted to write back, “Thank you,” or “Was that so hard?” But I did nothing – other than thank him and wish him well in my heart.

However, I did make contact with my rabbi. I sent him an email that night after the tashlich that wasn’t.  I apologized for having been so silent.  I told him I had assumed he might be overwhelmed by the response of congregants and others to his news.

And I told him I didn’t know what to say.  But that I honored his decision.  The graceful way he was moving through this transition.  And that I hoped we would find our way to a new chapter in our friendship.

I did go to second day Rosh Hashanah services, where we talked briefly about what I had written. My tears drowning out my words.

I let them flow, rather than trying to talk through them.  No longer avoiding.  No longer doing what I thought had only been done to me.

 

Artist Date 59: Waiting. On The Journey To Becoming

I am waiting on some news.  Both personal and professional.  Nothing scary or life-threatening…as a loving friend of mine recently asked.  But all in G-d’s time, or at the very least, not mine.

The chime on my phone notifies me of messages received and my response is purely Pavlovian.  Hope rises.  And when I check my phone and discover I still have no news, hope falls.  I feel my heart literally sink just a little bit.  Awful.

Radio silence.  My friend Michael says it is normal.  Winter.  “‘Tis the season.”  His words, literally.

I want to punch him.

He sends me photographs of the shore of Lake Michigan, taken from the Indiana Dunes.  This is what quiet looks like.  It is at once both sad and beautiful.

lonely beach

He is right though.  It is in the silence that I find my center, that I soothe myself…even though it is the silence, the not knowing, that has me so uncomfortable.

I turn off my phone at dinner with friends.  No ringing.  No vibrating.  No notifying.  Silence.

I am completely present with the people about me.  I am not thinking about what I do not know.  I am happy and serene…until I turn it back on and watch hope rise and fall again.  And watch myself respond with a level of emotion that does not feel at all congruent.

Next day, at work, I turn the phone off again.  And when I power it back on later, I ignore the notifications alerting me to the messages waiting.  Instead, I bring my attention to my friend Nora, who is sitting across from me.  I am again happy and serene.

I feel empowered.

It feels a little bit like when I quit smoking, nearly 15 years ago.  That first week, I was high on not smoking.  That feeling of “I can’t believe I’m doing this…”

The weeks that followed, sans cigarettes, were not filled with that same awe and wonder.  But that is a different story.  And a different lesson.  Fifteen years later I am grateful for a different identity – one of a non-smoker.  And the absence of the yellow stain on my second finger that I could not scrub off – my personal breaking point, my bottom.

My bottom here is that I fundamentally understand I am powerless over people, places and things, and yet, I sometimes still find myself allowing the actions of others to determine my sense of happiness, security and well-being.  I watch myself hand over my serenity.  It is painful.

And it is in this painful awareness that I recognize I have a modicum of control over the anxiety I perpetuate.  That I can dial down my discomfort by simply turning off my phone, or ignoring its messages until I am in time and space to better receive them.

That I can receive the same relief by staying busy, and by pointing my attention to what is right in front of me.

Like Nora.  Like the Artist Date penciled in my calendar.  Number 59.  Chicago Cultural Center for the “Wright Before the Lloyd,” exhibit.

2014-01-30 15.17.11

I am here just a short time – about 45 minutes.  Just long enough to feel the fog in my brain clear, making way for new information, and for my whole body to exhale.

The show is small – photographs, sketches and placards covering either side of a long hallway.  It is a journey of becoming.  The transition from Frank L. Wright, to Frank Lloyd Wright.  A seemingly subtle, but significant, metamorphosis.

I read about his mother, determined that her son should become an architect, placing engravings of cathedrals in his bedroom for inspiration.  His uncle with wild long hair, unconventional fashion sense, and a memorable three-part name who served as role model.  His work with Adler and Sullivan and the “mistakes” he made on the way to creating his signature style.

I notice that many of the buildings shown on this trajectory from Wright to Lloyd Wright are no longer standing.  Either burned down or destroyed.  Gone.  Like the yellow stain on my second finger.

I think about my own trajectory, and the people and experiences that influenced my becoming the woman I always wanted to be.

The one who dances on red soil in Rwanda and glossed, wood floors in Chicago.  Who has been invited in to the intimacy of rooms where life begins and life ends.  The one who listens with her hands and her heart.

The one with her own signature style – cropped hair, second-hand clothes and super-fabulous shoes – the kind that strangers inquire about.  Who takes herself to museums, operas and lectures – comfortably alone.  And out for strong coffee and a really good piece of cake.

The one who has learned to soothe herself.  To quiet her own crazy.  To be responsible for her own wellbeing.

Post Script:  I got a call on some of the news I’d been waiting on.  It was positive and it made me smile.  But it didn’t change anything.  Not my thoughts.  My mood.  My beliefs.  It didn’t make me feel “ok.”  It couldn’t.  Because in my heart I already was.