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 66: Risk It. Sell It. Consider It.

I recently entered a Weight Watchers-sponsored contest called, “You Only Live Once,” where I described a bucket-list dream, one that is possible only now that I am a healthy weight.

I had two.  One, to dance in Senegal with my instructor Idy Ciss.  The other, to dance Alvin Ailey Workshop classes in New York.

Before Class.  "I am here!"
Before Class. “I am here!”

I didn’t win.  But clearly the universe heard my desire as I am about to walk into a 90-minute Master Class with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – Artist Date 66.

I feel a little bit like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance.  A self-identified outsider taking another step inside the sometimes seemingly-closed world of dance.

I notice the opportunity a few weeks ago while purchasing tickets for the Ailey shows.  The class lists as intermediate, and I hope my six years of West African instruction will qualify me.

Three days before the workshop I get a call from the Auditorium Theatre requesting payment.  I am in.

I am over the moon.

And now, standing at the studio doorway, I feel I should be more nervous than I am.  But as I told my dear friend the night before, “The worst that happens is they say, ‘You suck.  Please sit down.’ ”

I can live with that.

Inside I meet Kristen.  She recognizes me from the Ailey shows earlier in the week – seeing me pin a slip of paper to a board in the lobby reading, “How Does Alvin Ailey inspire you?”

“To Dance.  No matter how badly.”  I scrawl.

Today I will get my opportunity.

There are about a dozen of us here.  I am the oldest by at least 15 years.   Surprisingly, this lends me a sense of calm and confidence, which I do not question.

We are joined by company member, Antonio Douthit-Boyd.  He appears to be wearing slippers on his feet – quilted booties.  I wonder where he is coming from as it is snowing outside.

He moves quickly through the warm up.  Much more quickly than I am used to.  I breathe and do what I can.  So far so good.

He moves across the floor, making adjustments to each dancer’s movements and posture.  “Widen your legs.  Go lower now.  Keep your balance.  See.”  “Jut your hip first.  Muuuch more movement.  Excellent.”

He comes to me.  I do not avert my eyes, hoping he will not notice me, in case I am doing it wrong.  I smile at him.

“Beautiful flat back,” he says, touching the space between my wings.  I lower into the squat – legs wide, and come up on to my toes.  Antonio meets my outstretched arms with his own, our fingertips touching.   My legs are shaking.  I struggle to balance.  “Good,” he says.

Before class begins.
Before class. One of the “significantly more trained” dancers.

The other dancers have had significantly more training than I.  It is clear.  Ballet.  Jazz.  Modern.  They nod knowingly to the terms Antonio throws out.  And more importantly, they can execute them.  I am in over my head.  Kind of.  But I just keep moving.  Smiling.  Trying to mimic the other dancers.

I notice that I am not frustrated.  I am not angry.  I do not stop.

I do not ask Antonio to slow down and bring the class to my level.  I do not burst into tears.

I have done all of these things previously.

I am not jealous or envious.  I notice the beauty of the dancers.  Their bodies.  What they can do.

I am amazed by my response.

I am equally amazed that I occasionally “nail it.”

Moving across the floor – a quick, leg-cross-over-leg, jazz step.  Hips wagging.  I think of Harry Detry, another of my teachers at the Old Town School, calling out over the drums, “Shake your babaloo!”  “Sell it!”

I am “selling it.”  And I know it.  Antonio does too, clapping, “Yes! Yes!  That’s it.”

But the final movement has me stymied.  Leap, cross over, lift the other leg, turn, lift the other leg, jump.  Or something like that.

I am not even close.

No one cares.  No one is watching me.   They are watching themselves.  I am free.

And in that freedom, I see the pattern that will keep my body in constant motion.  Give me my momentum.  Right leg back, left leg back, right leg back, left leg back.

After class.  All smiles, with Antonio Douthit-Boyd.
After class. All smiles, with Antonio Douthit-Boyd.

“Yes, better.”

It is.  But I still don’t have it.

A couple more times across the floor and I might.  But it doesn’t matter.  I risked being “the worst.”  And by all accounts, I was.  But I don’t feel like it.  Not even close.  Just less trained.

Pulling on my jeans, my body feels different.  My pelvis is open.  Open – I could drop a baby out of me with a single squat – open.  I like it.

It is the ballet, I am certain of it.  The one type of dance I never consider.

I do not have a ballet body, I tell myself.  I don’t even know what that is.  It is an excuse.

And I am out of excuses.

I consider it.

Plant Whisperer

dying plantI killed a cactus.

Actually three of them.  And two succulents.

One of the cacti sat in a beautiful terrarium – a gift from a friend.  I took it to the shop owner and he replaced it with a sweet baby succulent, along with specific instructions.  Water once a month.  Half a cup, using a dropper.  The succulent gets an extra watering mid-month.  Ditto for the larger succulent, a jade, I bought the same day.

The baby succulent wilted to nothing – is lying flaccid upon itself.  One of the cacti, like the first, is about to go.  And one is gone. Dead.  Dried up.  As if it had never been there.

And the jade?

I bought it in response to the suggestion I don’t date for a year.  An homage to Leviticus – to the prescribed year without planting and harvesting that follows seven years of specific crop rotation, allowing the soil to rest, regenerate, to become prepared.

I remember sitting in meditation and the imagery coming to me, followed by the thought, “I am the soil.”  And then, “I should get a plant.”

All went well for a few weeks.  And then it appeared to perhaps be outgrowing its container.  (The shop owner assured me it wouldn’t for at least five years.)  The soil seemed constantly dry, even though I followed watering directions to the letter – sitting it in the sink and letting the faucet run until water leaked out of the bottom.

Now, two sad, pale green stalks remain.

Normally, I would laugh about this.  I never have had terribly good luck with plants.  Except for mint.  And even that dried up eventually.  However, this jade had come to be a symbol of me taking care of me, of my own soil.  So its demise makes me more than a little uneasy.

I remember coming home with it.  Talking to it.  (I never talked to a plant before.)  I told it I didn’t know how to care for it.  That it would have to tell me how.

I recently read a piece in Oprah about a woman who claimed to have a black thumb.  She planted a garden and she got weeds.

One day a friend informed her that her weeds weren’t just any weeds – that they were delicacies in Japan, good for cooking.

But her cooking was like her gardening — yielding less-than-desired results.   Until she asked for help.

She took the weeds to a chef in New York.  He taught her how to cook them.  And she kept bringing them.  Eventually selling them to the restaurant, and about 100 others.

A couple of years ago, she and the chef wrote a cookbook together – Foraged Flavor .  She quit her job as legal counsel to devote herself fulltime to her new work.

And my dead plants?  What are they, the universe, God, trying to tell me – besides that I too have a black thumb?  As my friend Stan likes to say, “What’s the lesson?  What’s the gift?”

That sometimes conditions are just too unfavorable – that the plants needed a little bit of light and received none?  That other people – even shop owners, even experts – don’t always have the answers?  That I can follow directions and still get shitty results – that nothing is guaranteed?

That things die?  That I need to pay attention to what is still living (barely) and nurture that?

That the soil is poor, needs nutrients?  That my year off is ending early?

I don’t know.

The plants have proven themselves to be quiet messengers.  I will continue to ask, and to listen closely.

Have You? Do You?

Me and my cousin, Andrew.  He was my first crush.  He shows me what a good man is.  What love looks like.
Me and my cousin, Andrew. He was my first crush. He shows me what a good man is. What love looks like. He has also heard most of these stories.

Have you ever held onto a crush because it made you feel like you had something going on?  Even though you had nothing going on?  With him or her or anyone else?

Even though you haven’t spoken a word or had contact in quite some time?  Even though he knows he could have you if he just said the word…but doesn’t?

Have you ever latched on to a few kind words from an ex?  Allowed a simple sentence to set your mind reeling with possibilities?  Wondering what he is up to now?  Even though you haven’t seen one another in more than a decade.  And you aren’t even sure if he’s married or not?  Have you ever wanted to inquire with a mutual friend of his relationship status but decided against it only because you didn’t want to appear tacky?

Have you ever rifled through old journals looking for entries about your time with the above-mentioned ex because you are certain you wrote about it?  And when you found those few pages read them over and over again until the images were seared onto your retinas?

Have you ever lingered over every detail about a romance that happened nearly 20 years ago?  The one where you were 25 and he was 40 and you asked him, “What is 40 like?”  Where he made sure you didn’t die or kill yourself in a drunken frenzy – your first time overseas?  And then sang to you in the airport when you said goodbye, lamented over the things he didn’t do with you, knowing you would never see one another again.

Do you tell it with such vivid color all these years later that your girlfriend insists you to write about it?  But you don’t.

Have you ever felt closer to your crush after spending time with his friend?  And felt guilty about it even though you didn’t do anything wrong?

Have you ever slipped his name into conversation just to keep it alive? To keep him alive?

Do you ever wonder about the ones you call unfinished business?

Your first real love.  The first one you got naked with?

The one with good boundaries, who kept you at arm’s length because he was your professor and you were his student.  But sometimes you wonder if maybe…just maybe, it could have been different.

The one who slipped his hand down the back of your pants and guided you down the street by your crotch.  Made you praise God for dirty minds and dirty hands.

The one who wanted a partner when you wanted a parent.  You couldn’t see it then but you can now.  And sometimes you wonder what it would have been like if you met later?

Have you ever looked up your ex’s current on Facebook and wondered if you were thinner? Prettier? Better in bed?

Have you ever waxed nostalgic over others and wondered what the hell you were thinking?

Do you sometimes forget that you are making a choice every day?  Not to settle.  Not to post a dating profile online.  But to grieve.  To get your own house in order.  To trust in magic and serendipity and the divine rhythms of the universe.

Do you sometimes forget that you actually have said, “no”?  Not because the suitor wasn’t perfectly lovely, but because you didn’t have romantic feelings.  Because you wanted to honor the feelings you did have, wanted to honor yourself and honor him.  Because you remember what it is like to say “yes” when you really mean “no.”

Do you congratulate yourself when you remember?

And yet, choice or no choice, do you sometimes feel that strange sense of empty space – like a wall waiting for art?  You know nature abhors a vacuum because your friend Teresa told you so and she’s rarely wrong.   So you wonder when nature will come charging in.

Do you sometimes wonder if the universe remembers exactly how long it has been since you have had sex?  Does it sometimes make you cringe?  And other times fill you with a sense of esteem for discernment you had never previously known?

Do you sometimes know that God has done you favor because you otherwise might have stayed somewhere you shouldn’t have. Or gone somewhere you didn’t need to be?

Do you sometimes still have a little bit of crazy that tells you that you are better, worthier, more interesting and more attractive if you have a partner?

Do you sometimes look at someone new and think “maybe,” and know in the past you would have forced that “maybe” into a “yes?”  Made it fit, damn it.  Made him fit.  Like Cinderella’s shoe on a stepsister’s foot?  But for now you just say “maybe.”

Have you?  Do you?

Me too.