It is November. The weather gods have smiled upon us with sunshine and seventy degrees.
(Many would say the baseball gods have also smiled upon us as the Cubs are in the World Series.)
It is a good time to be in Chicago.
I pull on a pair of brown corduroy trousers from the Salvation Army. Ralph Lauren. Six dollars. Boot-cut and too long in the legs for my not quite 5-foot, 3-inch body.
I slide my hand into the left, front pocket and pull out two small, slippery stubs. Used metro tickets from Paris.
I smile. Wistful.
I’ve been back just eight days but already Paris seems so far away.
The baguette I never eat here but cannot not eat there. Both doughy and solid. Formidable and yielding. I’ve never found anything quite like it at home.
The coffee. Short. Dark. Thick. Served in little cups and drank leisurely in a café, or standing up at a bar, but never taken to go.
The woman who says over coffee, “It’s like there was an empty chair waiting for you, and you slipped right in it … as if you were always there.” And the faces around the table nodding in agreement.
I try to conjure this up in my body. The bread. The coffee. These people who in a matter of days became my people. And I became theirs.
The pastry. The poetry.
The feeling I have every time I find myself in Paris … that my heart might burst if I’m not careful. The feeling I have always been here and will always be here.
But muscle memory fails me … for I can see it, but not fully feel it. Not in my bones. At least not in this moment.
Perhaps it is because I am so here.
In Chicago on this 70-something November day on a bike that doesn’t quite fit me. A loaner from the mechanic until mine is fixed. Wheels out of true. Seat too low. I am more wrestling with it than riding. And yet, I feel the sides of my mouth curling into a smile when I do. My now 47-year-old body embracing the challenge.
Editing my book. Cooking soup. Applying for work.
Watching a Cubs game at a dive bar for no other reason than I have been invited and it sounds like fun.
I am too present here to fully feel there for more than a few moments. And I realize the gift in feeling the ground beneath me. The swish-swish of fallen leaves under my feet.
I have spent years wishing I was somewhere other than where I was — even in Paris — missing the moment.
My friend Paul recently asked why I “even bothered” to come back in the United States. “Your writing is pure poetry there. That is your place,” he says. Perhaps. But for now I am here.
I slip the tickets back in my pocket — so that I might find them again one day and be reminded. Of baguettes and coffee. Poetry and pastry. Of the people who held a chair for me … waiting.
That mid-October was a good time to be in Paris. And right now is a good time to be here.
In the past 48 hours, I have found myself thinking, “My ex would be so proud of me.” A lot.
But the truth is, I’m so proud of me.
I’ve been doing a lot of the things he used to do. And doing them well. Or well enough. Most of them, weather related.
I grew up in Michigan and lived there until I was 24 years old. So by rights, I shouldn’t be phased by snow. But I am. Especially driving in it.
Living in California for 14 years meant I didn’t have to concern myself with it. Except in the mountains, and only then when there was accumulation. Climbing the winding roads to Bear Valley, I would pull to the side when we hit the snow line in Arnold, and without a word, hand over the keys. Without even asking. It was just understood.
When we moved to Chicago in 2007, it was similarly understood that he would drive when the roads were dubious. That he would dig the car out, if necessary, and carve out a parking space on the street — “holding it” with random household items that would not blow away.
This is no longer an option.
I realized this on Tuesday afternoon, New Year’s Eve, as I watched big, fluffy flakes come down in sheets, sideways. I had made a commitment for the early evening and invited a friend to join me. It was her first New Year’s Eve single again, and without her children.
And so, with no one to hand the keys to, and a strong desire to make good on my word, I got behind the wheel. The side streets were a mess. The main roads weren’t much better. Snow was falling faster than the plows could pick it up. And it seemed there were precious few out on the roads.
As my friend Chris often advises, about most everything, I “took it slow.” Like most everyone else on the road. I didn’t hold the wheel with a death grip. I didn’t take silly risks either. I met my obligations, but also made it an earlier night than originally planned.
Feeling bolstered by the experience, and also frustrated by letting the weather dictate my social calendar, I drove to the South Side on Wednesday for a New Year’s Day party – filling the hours with good friends and good conversation, and my belly with black-eyed peas and seven greens, for health and good luck, as is the tradition in the south.
Driving home I could feel the snow rising under my car. Gliding on top of it. It felt scary and kind of fun at the same time. And I was both pleased and relieved when I parked the car for the night.
Luck ran out this morning when the Honda couldn’t quite make it over the inches of fluffy powder that had accumulated around it, and that continued to.
I sort of expected this and took the train to work. On the way home, I bought myself a spendy new pair of winter boots, as the ones I was wearing had begun to leak. After dinner, I went back outside. Started the engine, brushed the snow off the car and shoveled a pathway out from the white swath that neatly tucked it in. I knew I had to before it froze overnight and I was stuck until spring’s thaw.
I know this all seems terribly basic. But the truth is, I haven’t done it in more than 20 years. Since I left Detroit. And there, I depended on my father to crowbar open the occasionally frozen-shut door. Or I skipped work entirely if the roads seemed questionable.
It all sort of reminds me of this great line from Torch Song Trilogy. In the final scene, Harvey Fierstein tells his mother, Anne Bancroft, “I have taught myself to sew, cook, fix plumbing, build furniture – I can even pat myself on the back when necessary – all so I don’t have to ask anyone for anything.”
My foray into shoveling and driving in inclement weather doesn’t go quite that far. Nor would I want it to. I’m ok with asking for help. And I’m grateful for the people who do for me what I truly cannot do for myself.
It’s more like the postcard I have stuck on my white board. A Lichtenstein-style cartoon of a woman, her word bubble reading, “Oh my God! I think I’m becoming the man I wanted to marry.
It’s true. I have. And not just when it comes to snow and cars.
I just got home from a gelato date. Three flavors is a piccolo (small). I filled my cone with pistachio-almond, yogurt-granola and rose and sat in the square watching children run back and forth and forth and back over a star pattern on the ground – my friend Ernie took a picture of me in this space when he was visiting in the fall. He thought it was a Star of David and wanted me in the center. It isn’t.
The sky is pale blue, silky – like underwear. Clouds like cotton. The weather has been unsettled for the past two days, and I too, along with it.
I feel acutely alone in this moment, which is strange as I spent the better part of the day with people I love.
During the winter I often spent Saturday nights alone – by choice. I looked forward to cozying in, midnight blue outside my window – cooking, writing, sprawled out on the shiny, moss-green futon. Summer feels different, like all the world is out – together.
I remember when my friend Teresa found herself “suddenly single” after a many-years long relationship. Understanding why, on Monday, I was making plans for Saturday. “If you don’t, you end up alone,” she surmised.
And yet, I chose this “alone” – for Artist’s Date 27. But I never quite made it.
I thought I’d throw pottery at Lill Street Art Center. I attended my first, First-Time Potter class on Wednesday. Studio time – every day from 10 to 10—is included in the fee and students are encouraged to go practice.
But I didn’t go. I talked on the phone with Chase, then Monica. I went for gelato. I told myself, and Chase, that I was tired. That I needed to take it easy. Maybe. But mostly I think I was afraid.
What if I don’t remember how to start the wheel? What if I can’t get the tray that sits around the wheel collecting water to snap into place? (I had trouble on Wednesday.) What if the wheel is running in the wrong direction – clockwise, like how they throw in Japan, instead of counter? I vaguely remember Robert, the instructor, telling us the wheel turns in both directions, to make certain it is running counter-clockwise. He did not tell us what to do if it is not.
My friend Mark recently told me an acronym for SHAME. Should Have Already Mastered Everything. Genius.
I get caught up in my pride and it stops me from moving forward.
And yet, I am moving forward. I signed up for the class. I went. I kind of sucked – I certainly had not Mastered Everything. And I loved it.
I was afraid that night too.
Afraid I wouldn’t be able to tolerate the painful callous that developed on the side of my hand the last time I tried to learn to throw. Afraid I wouldn’t like it. Afraid I would be an utter failure.
I didn’t develop a callous. The wheel wasn’t painful against my skin. Different clay, I was told.
I wasn’t an utter failure. Two of four pieces will be fired and glazed.
I did like it. All of it.
Buying my supply kit and writing my initials on each piece with a Sharpie marker, my full name on my blue water pail. Picking up a 25-pound bag of clay and splitting it with a partner – separating the four vertical logs from one another, each of us taking two.
My clay “partner” is here with two of her friends. They just graduated from high school and live in the suburbs. One of their mothers dropped them off here.
They seem so young, so brave.
I run a wire twice through my logs and place four disks of clay in front of me. Robert teaches us to wedge the clay, to take the air out of it and prepare it for use.
I roll one wedged disc into a ball, stick a thumb in the center, and form a pinch pot. As we get acquainted with the clay, we introduce ourselves, sharing a bit about what brought us to this moment, this studio, this canvas table.
There is a couple taking the class together. A woman who just moved from Minneapolis and thought this would be a good way to meet friends. A woodworker.
I mention that I always wanted to go to art school. That at 43 I can send myself. The words tumble out of my mouth. They feel profound, true.
I remember my friend Robyn saying our parents tie our shoes until we can tie them ourselves. Throw us birthday parties until we can throw our own.
Robert moves to a wheel and we gather around him, watching him craft a simple bowl. He shows us how to throw the clay on the wheel – “throwing” pottery. How to center. How to bring it up, bring it out. He tells us to keep our clay wet. Shiny.
We nod our heads. Fill our buckets with water and go to our wheels. My mind is blank. I put my foot on the pedal. Nothing. The woodworker is sitting next to me. He smiles and points to the “on” switch. I smile back.
I throw the clay and press it down, pour water on the wheel. I am having difficulty bringing it up. Robert shows me how. The bottom is too thick. He shows me how to thin it out.
It is rising. It looks good. I don’t stop. It collapses onto itself. I throw it onto a board and put my initials in the clay with a tool. I will let it dry out and re-wedge it to use again.
My second bowl goes better. It is small. Imperfect. A reasonable effort.
Robert calls us to him again and demonstrates another bowl. It makes more sense now that I have been on the wheel. We return to our stations. I remember things he has said. To angle my finger at 5 o’clock to widen the bowl. It feels like arriving home for the first time in a new city, without getting lost. Without using a GPS
My third bowl collapses onto itself. The fourth joins my second on a piece of wood, hydroplaned on. I cover it with dry-cleaning plastic wrap and put it on my shelf – the one assigned to me for the next four weeks.
Cleaning up, I watch the potters in the advanced classes. Their work is beautiful. Elegant. Effortless. Perhaps I will be like them one day. I am over my SHAME. I know there is no reason to believe I Should Have Already Mastered this. Or anything else. Not even my Artist Dates.