The Naked Truth About My Decision To Shear Down

My nearly naked head has been ripe for conversation since the first time I put clippers to it, nearly seven years ago.  On Friday, xoJane published the story of my decision to shear down.  Read it here:

Why A Shaved Head Has Become My Signature Look

In Rwanda with a gaggle of what my girlfriend referred to as "Little Lesleys."
In Rwanda with a gaggle of what my girlfriend referred to as “Little Lesleys.”
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Artist Date 103: Oh The Places You’ll Go

Backstage at the Museum of Contemporary Art
Backstage at the Museum of Contemporary Art

I don’t want to go.  I never want to go.

Artist Date “Dirty Little Secret” — I almost never want to go.  The same way I never want to get on a plane to somewhere I’ve never been before.

I do when I book the flight or when I make the reservation for a performance or workshop.  But when the actual time comes, I feel anxious and sick inside.

Like the first time I went to Europe.  The German Consulate in San Francisco sent me.  Lufthansa Business Class.  Four and five-star hotels in Bonn, Berlin and Dresden.  (Or as luxury as was available in Dresden in 1995.)  Access to end of World War II commemoration events where I spied Helmut Kohl, Al Gore and Francois Mitterand.

But I am at the airport in San Francisco, talking with my friend Peg from a payphone — in tears.

Ten years later I am on my way to France, by myself.  This time it is my husband and a cell phone.

And to Italy this past fall.  From Chicago O’Hare.  I call my girlfriends in quick succession.  Ann, Julie, Lynn, Chase.  No tears this time.  Just an overwhelming sense of dread.

Each time, I am anxious with uncertainty.  Anxious, that I don’t speak the language — German, French, Italian — that I won’t understand.  That I will feel foolish.  That I will fail.

My fears are not baseless.  Each time I depart the plane, I don’t speak the language — not fluently.  Just a little French.  A little Italian, leaning heavily on my high-school Spanish.  And German, none at all.

I often don’t understand.  And I sometimes feel foolish.  But I never fail.  Mostly because it is impossible to fail at traveling.  Unless one fails to get on the plane.

It is the same walking into the Museum of Contemporary Art for a flamenco workshop — Artist Date 103.

I am anxious as I don’t know the genre.  I do not know what to shoes to wear (if any), what clothing.  Afraid that I will feel foolish.  That I will fail.

I think back to the master class I joined with a principal dancer from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.  The workshop was described as intermediate.  I had been dancing for six years — once a week at the Old Town School of Music.  But the others had been dancing all of their lives.  It was my Flashdance moment — sans rolling on desks in front of an admissions board — I was out of my league.

I did feel foolish.  At best, I got one-third of it.  But I didn’t fail…because I got on the plane, as it were.

And I lived a fantasy I never imagined I really would or could — to dance with Alvin Ailey company members.

I remember this and call the MCA to inquire about attire.  I do not receive a phone call back.  I pack a pair of hard shoes with wooden heels, a sports bra, yoga pants and too-big jeans and go.

When I arrive the program manager takes me into the theater, through the side doors and into Dressing Room B.  “You can change in here,” she says.

I ask her what she thinks would be best — yoga pants or jeans.  Either will work, she replies.

It doesn’t matter.  I don’t care anymore.

I could leave now and be “good.”

I am in the dressing room at the MCA.  The same dressing room Mikhail Baryshnikov *might* have used when he performed here last year.  (There *is* a Dressing Room A.  And there may be more — C, D.)

I am giddy.

I feel like an imposter.  I take a photograph of myself, change into my yoga pants and go out to the stage.  (The same stage where Baryshnikov performed.  The same stage where Sonia Sanchez will perform tonight.)

I can't believe where I'm at...
I can’t believe where I’m at…

I could have worn jeans as it is not a workout, per se.

We do unwinding exercises and learn the foot pattern that matches the Flamenco rhythm.  (One. Two. Three-two, three, four.  Four-two, three, four.  Five.)  We create improvisational pieces with partners that we perform.

Some of the women have been dancing flamenco for years.  They wear Gypsy-style skirts and black, heeled dance shoes.  Others have never danced a day in their lives.  They are dressed for a winter’s day in Chicago.

And Sonia, she doesn’t speak English so much.  And I really don’t speak Spanish.  But I understand… enough.

Enough to be reminded that I really can’t fail if I show up.  And that when I do, I get access to places I could never go on my own — into dressing rooms, onto stages, into my fear.

Artist Date 101: Si, Es Verdad

2015-01-22 18.18.44
” Los Dias al Reves” — “Inside-out Days” by Pep Carrio. Part of “Think With Your Hands” exhibit at Instituto Cervantes.

I’m trying to download the app that goes with the exhibit “Think With Your Hands.”  I have been unsuccessful so far.

No matter, I am taken with the art — even without the 3-D animation I can control through the app.   If I can download it.

Organizer calendars, the kind kept pre-smart phone, the kind I still keep, filled with images — collage, watercolor, pencil –one for each day for a year.  Then for three more.  In the fifth year, a commitment to fine-line marker only.  The sixth, full-color on both pages of the spread.  More than 1,000 images, 1,000 days. ” Los Dias al Reves” — “Inside-out Days” by Pep Carrio.

Frames loaded with seemingly disparate objects, a wooden cut-out of a woman the only constant.  Wearing a dress made of Swiss cheese.  Sleeping in a horse’s belly.  Swimming, torso-less.  All arms, legs and head.  “Los Suenos de Helena” — “Helena’s Dreams” by Isidro Ferrer.

I am marking my own commitment, my own days — Artist dates, 101 of them today.  Swimming toward my own dreams —  across the Atlantic, to live and to work.

No husband.  No boyfriend.  No booty call.

No kids.  No pets.

My parents are healthy.

Not even a plant.

If not now, when?

I have been dreaming of living abroad for as long as I can remember.  Only really pondering it since my divorce almost three years ago.  Seriously considering it since returning from Italy in October.

And now planning it — researching TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) courses, reading blogs, Skype-ing with friends of friends living and teaching overseas and having coffee with those who once did.

Not so long ago, the only dream receiving this sort of effort and attention was love.  I only knew it when it was no longer true — a few months ago, when the Reluctant Shaman came to visit.

The morning he left, we meditated in front of my altar.  Then he ran his fingertips from the center of my forehead out to my cheeks — opening my third eye — wrapped his arms around me, kissed the space between my brows and said goodbye.

When he was gone, I lamented that we were only friends.

“He lives in Michigan, you live in Chicago,” I said out loud, to no one.

“His dream is to build a retreat center, yours is to live in Europe.”  As the words tumbled from my mouth, I could feel the next ones forming, pushing out, birthing themselves.

“I have a dream bigger than a relationship,” I said, excitedly, repeating the phrase as if to make certain it was so.

It was so.  A revelation.  A victory.

One that is now being tested — less than three months after my big aha — at Instituto Cervantes, Artist Date 101.

"Los Suenos de Helena" -- "Helena's Dreams" by Isidro Ferrer.  Part of "Think With Your Hands" exhibit at Instituto Cervantes.
“Los Suenos de Helena” — “Helena’s Dreams” by Isidro Ferrer. Part of “Think With Your Hands” exhibit at Instituto Cervantes.

I’m fiddling with the app when a man approaches me.

“Hello,” he says, slipping behind me so I have to turn around to face him.  “How are you?”

I search my mental Rolodex, trying to locate him.  How do I know this man?  Clearly we’ve met.  Why else would he stand so close?  Act so familiar?

I tell him I am fine and inquire how he is, stalling.  He grins at me.

I got nothing.

Finally I ask, “Do I know you?”

“No,” he replies.  “I just wanted to meet you and thought I’d say hello.”

This never happens to me.

I laugh at the novelty of his gesture, the simple wisdom in making an introduction to an attractive stranger without premise.

We exchange names and handshakes.  He asks what brings me here.  I tell him I am moving to Spain.

“Where?”

“I’m not certain yet.”

We talk about Barcelona — Gaudi.  The beach.  Sagrada Familia.  Madrid — The capital.  Prado.  Picasso’s Guernica.   A partner program whereby I can learn Spanish part-time and receive a student visa, allowing me to work legally.

He shakes his head.  How can I “just go?”  Don’t I have things?  Stuff?  Property?

“Very little,” I offer.  Whittling my life down to two suitcases shouldn’t be too hard — I hope.

He tells me he taught English in France, when he was in his 20s.  I am not in my 20s.  Not even close.

I smile, thank him for introducing himself, and excuse myself — returning to the exhibit.

I attempt to comprehend the Spanish spoken around me.  (I get about one-sixth of it, at best.)  And by the artists during their talk, taking off the headset that pipes in translation.  (I get even less.)  I try to download the app again.  I never do.

None of it matters.  Only that I “passed.”  That I chose a dream bigger than a relationship.  That I chose me.

A higher mark than I ever received in high school Spanish class.

Si’, es verdad.

Postscript: Less than 12 hours after my Artist Date, my path became clear.  Seven days later, I put down a deposit on coursework in Madrid.  I leave July 2015.

Artist Date 100: No More Fear of Flying

View from the "Jong Section" of Ravenswood Used Books.
View from the “Jong Section” of Ravenswood Used Books.

Second Jewish confession regarding Artist Dates.

I have never read Fear of Flying.

Some might fret about skipping the classics — Crime and PunishmentSons and LoversA Tale of Two Cities.  But this is my own personal blasphemy.  Isadora Wing.  The Zipless Fuck.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.  Ever since my friend Paul asked me which living writer I admired most.  I didn’t hesitate.  Erica Jong.

“Good,” he said.  “I want you to write Ms. Fear of Flying.  I want you to introduce her to your work.”

Gulp.

I remember being introduced to her work, more than 25 years ago.  I was a freshman in college.  That year, Ms. magazine published a conversation between Jong and radical feminist, Andrea Dworkin.

The spread included several photographs of them sitting on stools, talking.  Dworkin wearing a pair of large overalls, her hair — signature frizzy; Jong in a smart, form-fitting suit and heels.  She is laughing.  They both are.  Dichotomies collide.

I do not remember a single word of the interview.  Only these images, and that this was my first introduction to Jong, to her brand of sexual empowerment and liberal use of fuck and cunt — which, at the time, seemed shockingly like my own.

So today, when Jessica at Ravenswood Used Books asks if she can help me find anything, I do not hesitate.

Fear of Flying.  Artist Date 100.

It is bright inside, which I don’t quite expect.

Jessica leads me past shelves slightly groaning under the weight and familiar musty smell of aging paper.  Past the required bookshop pet, a greyhound in a zip-up vest turned animal parka, lying on a large, plaid dog bed.

All the way to the “Jong section” at the back of the store.

She climbs a ladder and pulls down a stack from the very top shelf — Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones.  Parachutes and KissesHalf-Lives — an early book of poetry.  Hard and soft copies of Fear of Flying.

I gather them into my arms and settle into a chair.

I remember reading How To Save Your Own Life, the follow-up to Fear of Flying, in my 20s while living in San Francisco.  Picking it up at Manzanita Used Books in the Mission, where I loaded up on yellowed copies of Philip Roth novels after my once-upon-a-time boyfriend Jason turned me on to Portnoy’s Complaint.

I remember reading Seducing the Demon: Writing For My Life — which I had picked up at another used bookstore, Powell’s in Portland — more than 20 years later.  Cracking its spine I felt eager to tuck into bed each night, alone, to savor a few juicy pages before passing out.

I had let go of this ritual more than 15 years ago, when my boyfriend, now ex-husband, moved into my apartment.  But unlike writing — which, following a similar hiatus, returned to me a few months after our decision to part ways — reading had eluded me.  Until Jong.

Her words pulled me into the bedroom in the wee hours when I otherwise did not want to be there, did not want to be poignantly reminded of the empty space on my mattress.  Her words allowed me to sleep again.

I decide on Half-Lives, as it is about the point I am at — 45, middle-aged, half-a-life — along with a hard copy of Fear of Flying.  I smirk.

On my way to the register, I pick up Women Who Run With the Wolves, a suggestion from my friend Pam.  She said it changed her life.

I want to change my life.

I am changing it.  I have been for nearly three years.

Returning to Chicago — neatly packing my messy life into cardboard boxes, living alone for the first time ever.  Returning to writing.  To reading.  To traveling alone — to Rwanda. To Ireland, Italy, Belgium and France.

I pull Italian Days by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison and Almost French by Sarah Turnbull down from the stacks and add them to my pile — talismen.  Protectors of my very recent decision to not renew my lease, but instead move overseas to teach English.

Anecdotal instructions by those who went before me of how to change my own life.  Reminders, like Jong’s second novel, of how to save it.

Artist Date 94: Do Something(s)

strongherA month has passed since I returned home from my solo sojourn to Italy.  It feels like forever ago.

Life comes on — quickly, strong, demanding — and I struggle to hold on to the peace and freedom I felt abroad.  The joy in getting lost, not knowing the answer — or sometimes even the question, in being alone.  My face looks pinched — the wrinkle between my eyebrows, smoothed by Umbria, has returned.

The decisions I made, the desires of my heart — to live overseas, to publish a book (or more to the point, to be published) — begin to slip into the category of “all talk.”

I recently read that most people would prefer to fail by not trying than fail by trying.  I get it.  I understand.  I wish I didn’t.

And so I find myself at Pizzeria Sera on a Tuesday night listening to six women tell stories about how and where and when they found confidence — hoping to be inspired, or at the very least, to borrow some — Artist Date 94.  The monthly event, called About Women, is the brainchild of my friend Nikki Nigl.  A force of confidence, not to mention nature, in her own right.

The mere decision to be here bolstered mine some, helping move me forward in the hours before arriving.

Sitting at the computer, doing nothing but waiting for something to happen, I mutter, “Do something.  Anything.”

I write an email and send it off.  (Two somethings.  Write — one.  Send — two.)  A few lines to the sister of a friend of a friend who just returned from Spain, where she taught English for several years.  I ask if she might meet me for coffee and share her experiences — how she got there, what it was like.

I tell myself it is something.  It is enough and move on with my day — meeting with my rabbi a final time before he leaves our congregation.  We talk about his departure, my desires, and deciphering the will and whim of the universe.  Especially when it seems to only speak in whispers.

It feels like a game of telephone and I constantly wonder if I’m hearing it right.

Until I get to the parking lot, into my car and check Facebook.

“Anyone want a job in Portugal NOW?”

The post describes an academic coach position at a school outside of Lisbon.  Scrolling down, I am tagged.  “Lesley Pearl, could it be you?”

My heart swells, leaps.  Not because I believe I will get the job and move to Portugal (although I might), but because the universe seems to be speaking loudly, clearly — the message undeniable,”Yes, Lesley, it is possible.”

Settled at home, I write a response.  It begins, “Yes.”  (Three somethings.)  Shortly thereafter, I am Skype-ing with a teacher at the school in Portugal, the one who extended the possibility, dangled the carrot — gathering more information.  (Four.)

Turns out I’m right on course, so say an advertising executive, a scientist, a minister, a mud wrestler, a mother and a writer — this month’s About Women storytellers.  While the details differ, at the core of each woman’s parable is fear — and the decision to do “it” anyway.  Ask for a raise.  Leave a job.  Leave a husband.  Take an improv class.  Ride a roller-coaster.  Pet a dog.  Live as an outsider.

Each took action when the pain of inaction became too great. Was no longer an option.  Or when “the worst that could happen” seemed less scary than living with “what if” and “I coulda.”  And their confidence blossomed.

“Stop focusing on the heart-pounding, vomit-inducing, brick-shitting aspect of everything and start focusing on the payoff,” Kira Elliot — a personal trainer, mud wrestler and Mary Kay Sales Director — says from the stage.  “Pretend until the point of no return…then reap the rewards.”

Amen.

Post Script.  Three days after the event, I send a resume and cover letter to the school in Lisbon.  I am amazed to see the resistance in myself.  Fear masquerading as logic and practicality.  It feels “heart-pounding, vomit-inducing and brick-shitting.”  I fazê-lo de qualquer maneira.  (That’s Portuguese for “I do it anyway.”)

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.

Alone Again…Naturally

A few weeks ago, over dinner, a woman I know asked me who traveled with me to Italy.

“No one,” I answered. “Myself.”

Silence.

Like the silence I heard when I was a we, and responded to the question “Do you have children?” with a simple “No.” The quiet, uncomfortable space while they waited for some sort of explanation.  Something to make them feel more comfortable with the answer that made them uncomfortable.

The same silence that often greets me when responding to the question, “Are you seeing anyone?” with “No.” The same quiet waiting, for “But I was…” or “Well there is this guy I just met.”  Or my friend Patsy’s genius answer, “I am seeing a lot of different men.”

For a while I acquiesced…talking about my not-quite-relationships. My Divorce Buddy.  The Southern Svengali.  The friendships, flirtations and occasional dalliances that made me feel like I had something going on.  The relationships that ended seemingly before they even started.  I think it made us both feel better.

This time was different. I felt no need to explain my solo voyage.  In fact, I was downright chuffed (to turn a British phrase), pleased with myself and the situation I consciously and happily put myself in – alone for 17 days in Italy.

A few days later, I was asked the same question about travel mates.  And I watched as the woman’s smile wrinkled into a pained frown.  “You were alone…on your birthday?”  The same question my mother asked me before I left.  The same question I had asked myself.

Happy on my birthday, in Paris.
Happy on my birthday, in Paris.

“Yes! It was awesome!”

I told her about my 15-hour layover in Paris. About walking along the Seine, seeing Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, laughing out loud, asking no one in particular, “Who goes to Paris for dinner on their birthday?” and replying, “I do.”

I told her about being present to the moment. About the real birthday present – of not wanting anything to be other than it was.  Not wishing for a man or a friend.  Not wishing I had worn something different, eaten something different, stayed in a different apartment.

She looked confused.

I’ve been thinking about why this trip was different. Why I was different.

I have traveled by myself before – on press trips and volunteer projects and meeting up with friends on the other end. But only truly “alone” once before – in the few days before and after participating in a volunteer project in the south of France.

I had longed to travel alone.  It represented who I wanted to be.  Adventurous.  Glamorous.  Strong.  A world traveler.  And yet, when I arrived in Paris alone in 2006 I only felt sad, scared and alone.

My answer, or at least part of it, came in an email from my friend Melinda.  In it, she mentioned going to a play reading – by herself – completely spur of the moment.

“It kind of reminded me of your Artist Dates.”

Artist Date. Balm to my soul.  Savior of my heart and mind.  The simple suggestion by Julia Cameron in the book The Artist’s Way of a once a week “walkabout” to fill one’s creative coffers.

I took on the challenge nearly two years ago. Newly divorced and painfully licking the wounds of my first forays “back out there.”   I had heard others talk about feeling free, having great sex, or at the very least, a lot of it, following the dissolution of their marriages.  My efforts and experiences only left me feeling scared, desperate and crazy.

In a moment of grace, I turned away from convention, from the promises of partnership, and toward myself through weekly Artist Dates. To the opera.  To the Art Institute.  To ethnic grocery stores and new neighborhoods.  To theatre and concerts.  Alone.

Reading Melinda’s email, it occurred to me that perhaps all of this “structured aloneness” had prepared me for this – a seeming marathon of solitude.

Arriving in Rome alone last month, I felt the same anxious fear that had accompanied me to Paris. But this time I didn’t try to act cool.  I didn’t try to pretend I was a local or that I even knew where I was.

I held a map in my hand, asked a lot of questions and opened myself to the possibility of getting lost, or worse, of looking stupid.

I challenged myself to not take cabs. To depend on trains, buses and trams.

On my feet. On myself.  And the time-tested kindness of strangers.

Strangers who reminded me I was never really alone. Leonardo, the 19-year-old man/boy, who saved me from boarding the wrong bus – twice – in Arezzo.

With Leonardo, who saved me from going to God-Knows-Where. Twice!
With Leonardo, who saved me from going to God-Knows-Where. Twice!

Delilah, another volunteer at Altrocioccolato – the fair trade chocolate festival in Umbria where I began my journey – who sent me to her brother, his wife and cousin in Florence for Aperitivo – the Italian version of happy hour, but with a much better buffet, and a drive through the city.

Who organized a dinner party – which became my birthday party, complete with candles, singing and gifts – among her English-speaking friends when I arrived in Rome a few days later.

Roman Birthday Party. Delilah, the hostess, is in black.
Roman Birthday Party. Delilah, the hostess, is in black.

Seems my Artist Dates, my time alone, prepared me to be alone. For long walks, shopping at flea markets and eating fatty pork sandwiches while sitting on the edge of a fountain in Campo De Fiore.

It also prepared me to be with people – with ideas and experiences to share.

But mostly it prepared me for my life, the one I dreamed of not so many years ago in Paris— Adventurous. Glamorous.  Strong.  A world traveler.