Shaking The Coke Bottle and Other Sexy Little Gifts From the Universe

My friend Dina calls it “shaking the Coke bottle.”

coke bottlesThat feeling when “nothing” is going on.  When life doesn’t feel sexy.  When I am going about my business doing what other people do.  Grocery shopping.  Paying bills.  Taking out the trash.  And, seemingly, not much else.

I don’t like it.  Given my druthers, every day would be my birthday, New Years’ Eve and the 4th of July all wrapped into one.  (Actually, I don’t really care for either of these holidays, but they speak to the notion of fireworks and something shiny, new.)

I want to make “something happen.”  Anything.  Ergo, Dina’s Coke bottle.  I imagine it as glass, and filled with soda made from sugar, not corn syrup – before it was retro.  My thumb covering the opening.  Fingers wrapped around the body.  Shaking violently and knowing when I let up a spray of sticky sweetness will shower me, and anyone in my midst.

Sounds great, actually.  The sweet spray, that is.  Trouble is, the mess.  And the dreaded clean-up.  Sticky residue.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way series, writes that “too much drama equals not enough work.”

There is no drama right now.  Not enough work either.  Correction, it is there.  I just don’t seem to be doing it.

Entering billable time for the past month.  A tedious and mundane task that will take me, at best, 45 minutes.

Submitting two pieces – already written – for publication.  Their titles and the word “pitch,” scrawled on my white board months ago and never erased.

Tackling the looming job search.

What I am doing is writing.  This is a good thing.  (Consider that the word “write” is tattooed on my right, inner wrist.  “Left” on the opposite.)

writeExcept when it keeps me from taking small actions that chip away at what appear large and overwhelming tasks.  When it keeps me from making those satisfying little check marks on my to-do list.

This morning, while journaling my morning pages, I gave words to the hidden fear that the Coke-bottle fantasy seeks to remedy, or at the least, cover up.

That I will run out of subject matter to write about.  My blog will grow dry and fallow.  My life will grow dry and fallow.  I will grow dry and fallow.

There is no romance.  No big, new job.  No decadent travel in the works.  There is “nothing” going on.

What I forget is, when I do what’s in front of me, the rest, somehow, seems to magically take care of itself.  And often, sexy little gifts from the universe emerge – if I choose to see them that way.

Strangely, it is not a linear process.  A plus B does not equal C.

It is like weight loss.

There are weeks when I do everything “right,” the scale registers a gain and I call it a liar.  And weeks when I do everything “wrong.” It shows a loss.  And I thank the weight-loss goddess and keep on moving.  When this happens to my Weight Watchers members, I remind them that it is what they do most of the time that matters.

Or like marketing.  My spiritual business teacher insisted that we students reach out to 20 people a day and speak our vision – what we do, what we offer, what we promise.

“I am a massage therapist and bodyworker.  I help people fall in love with their bodies, take care of their bodies, and do things they never imagined possible.”  Twenty times a day.

When I did this, clients came to me.  Not a single one directly from the outreach.  But from other places.  The universe answering my call.  Proof that energy begets energy.

Or, as my friend Teresa used to tell me, “Nature abhors a vacuum.”  Or, eventually something is going to happen.

So today, I will do what is in front of me.  I will lead two Weight Watchers meetings.  Meet for another informational interview.  Go to a friend’s gallery opening.

I might even drop an email to my friend Steven about a trip to Italy we’ve been considering.

As I commit to this not-so-sexy stuff, the footwork, I feel my grip loosen – fully aware that the sticky, sweet will go flat.  But that my life has not.  Even if it sometimes feels that way.

Post Script.  I met a milliner at tonight’s art opening.  She shared that she used to make hats full-time, but that she had to get a “real job” when she got divorced.  She found one, with great benefits and vacation.  And that leaves her time and energy enough to continue to make hats.

“We’re looking to hire,” she offered.  I smiled at the synchronicity.  I told her our situations are strikingly similar, handed her my card, and asked if we might talk further.

Sexy little gift from the universe.  And no clean up.

Artist Date 48: I Think The Fish Guy Likes Me

There is something decidedly unappealing about gazing into the center of a slab of beef.

Perhaps pork is better.

William "For Sunday's Dinner."
William Michael Harnett. “For Sunday’s Dinner.”

It didn’t bother me to see hocks of pork bolted to a wooden bar, then sliced paper-thin, and served to me, when I was in Spain.  Neither did the whole chickens and rabbits hanging from hooks in the market, which I took photographs of, then framed and hung in my kitchen.

I am at the Art Institute Chicago for the member lecture and preview of “Art & Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine.”  Artist Date 48.  It is dark and warm in the auditorium.  A slide of a still life – fruit and meat – is projected on-screen.  And then another, a fish.

They are not beautiful.  They do, however, evoke a flood of food memories.

Like the time I received a whole, smoked salmon.

It was my 39th birthday and I threw a big potluck soiree.

The man/boy I was crushing on – but could, and would, do nothing about as I was married – was the first to RSVP, saying he would bring Tang.  I laughed.  Knowing him, it might have been true.

Except it wasn’t.

The night of the party, he arrived with a box in his right hand – carrying it like a tray, high above his shoulder.  His name was on the side in black magic marker.  This was something he had ordered.

Inside was an entire smoked salmon.  Head.  Tail.  Everything.  Glistening.  Beautiful.  Although not Jewish himself, he seemed to intuitively know the way to a Jewish girl’s heart was through cured fish.

“He likes me,” I thought, beaming.

The next morning I made scrambled eggs with onions and the leftover smoked salmon.  One of my girlfriends had come to town from Los Angeles to celebrate.  Over coffee, I said the words out loud.

“I think he likes me.”

She disagreed, insisting the fish was about him and how he wanted to be perceived.  That it meant nothing about me.  I didn’t persist.  It didn’t matter.  I was married.

I hadn’t thought about the fish story in a while.  Or the fish guy, which my friends and I affectionately called him from then on.  He moved away while I was still married — to fish.

Memory wrapped in food.  It seems nearly impossible to separate the two.  I am reminded of this all week while leading Weight Watchers meetings and trying to encourage a conversation about what makes Thanksgiving memorable – besides food.

Norman Rockwell.  "Freedom From Want."
Norman Rockwell. “Freedom From Want.”

For the most part, the members are having none of it.  They want to talk about macaroni and cheese.  Stuffing.  Pumpkin pie and cranberries from a can.  One woman mentions waking her daughters late in the evening, dressing them, and taking them shopping at midnight. I would have loved that, I think.  She is creating tradition.

I think about living in California and riding my bike Thanksgiving morning – before the feast at Tim’s house.  I think about the printed menus Tim placed at each seat, like Martha Stewart.  About roasted root vegetables and pumpkin gnocchi.

I think about the year I got married and leaving for my honeymoon on Thanksgiving Day.  Eating breakfast with Tim and his roommate, Steven at the International House of Pancakes near the airport.

I do not mention any of this.  It is their meeting.

The exhibit moves from still life to real life.  There are rationing cookbooks.  Bright Spots For Wartime Meals – a Jello cookbook.  The words, “Armed with a can opener, I become the artist-cook, the master, the creative chef,” from the Can Opener Cookbook, are stenciled on the wall.

They remind me of a story I once heard about the “original foodie,” M.F.K. Fisher.  Suspicious that her celebrity kept those about her in silence, she once made a meal entirely from canned foods.  When her guests swooned, confirming her intuitions, she informed them of the origins of their dinner.

There is a menu for a meal honoring Fisher, created by Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse.  She is the Berkeley, California chef known for purple hats, and for bringing seasonal, local ingredients – cooked simply, cooked well – back into fashion, beginning in the early 1970s.

And there is a menu from Chez Panisse, celebrating Bastille Day in 1976, as well.

chez panisseI ate there just once.  On my birthday.  I do not recall which year.  I saved the menus – prix fixe, with gorgeous drawings of figs on the cover – for a long time, imagining I would frame them and hang them in my kitchen one day, along with my food photographs.  I never did.

Strangely, I do not recall what I ate.  I remember our server.  And the cost of the meal for two – $300.

Driving home in the first snow of the season, I chew on Brazil nuts – 30 grams of them weighed out and tucked in a small plastic container.  Just a snack.  I am full on memory.

A Birthday Story: Celebrating What Is

It is four something in the morning.  I woke up at the same ungodly hour yesterday – my 44th birthday.

I have always loved birthdays.

My birthday didn't begin with laughter...it ended with it.
My birthday didn’t begin with laughter…it ended with it.

I’m a big celebrator in general.  Ask any of my Weight Watchers members.  I love to clap and give out Bravo! Stickers for behavior changes.  Those subtle little miracles.

“Where else do you go that they clap for you?” I ask.

Well, 12-Step meetings.  But I don’t bring that up as it isn’t germane.

Birthdays are like that.  It seems the whole world is clapping, rooting for you, that day.  Mostly.

This year I awoke feeling a little less clap-y.  A little less celebratory.

I’d been aware of a low-grade sadness tugging at me for a few days.  Aware this was my first birthday since my birth mother died.

We found one another in October of my 40th year.

Ours was not always an easy relationship.  Some days I think she would have jumped in my skin if she could have, while I took a more tentative approach to our relationship.  Timing.  Expectations.  Boundaries.  Those were our lessons.  And we were one another’s teachers.

She sent me flowers when I turned 40.  A card the following year.  And then phone calls the next two.  She wasn’t well and it was difficult for her to get out – both physically and emotionally.  This year there would be no flowers, no card, no call.  I felt sad.

Like I did when her name was read at the memorial service on Yom Kippur.  Like I did when I returned from Ireland last month and felt like calling and for the first time realized I couldn’t.  I find myself surprised by the sadness, although I’m not sure why.  It makes perfect sense – at least on a cellular level.

So there was that.

And there was the aloneness of being not-so-suddenly, but-still, single.

My ex was a great gift giver.

Birthday and anniversary mornings I would find a card on the bed, slipped into place when I got up to shower.  A gift would come later.  Usually something I had spied and mentioned in passing months earlier.  Something I had forgotten about until I saw it again.  A hand-carved wooden jewelry box.  Strands of smoky quartz and hand-colored pearls.

2013-10-20 20.19.35
Kristin. Who reminds me of the love in my life when I cannot see it.

He gave me a watch when I turned 42 – my last birthday with him.  I had been wearing the same Seiko tank since I was 14, gift from my Aunt Betty.  She had lost hers.  Found it.  And gave the original to me.

I replaced the band and battery several dozen times over the years.  Until the crystal broke and a jeweler told me it couldn’t be fixed.

I didn’t like the watch he bought me.  I don’t know if I would have liked anything he bought me at that time.  He had recently asked me for a divorce – and then recanted the next day – but it was there.  The truth about our relationship.  It was over.  We just hadn’t cut the cord yet.

He was hurt and offended that I didn’t like his gift, but offered to take me shopping so I could pick out something else, anyway.  I couldn’t do it.  I kept the watch.  I am still wearing it.

When I woke up early yesterday, I noticed the absence of a card.  Of a body in my bed.  Specifically, my ex’s.  I do not crave him being there – but I was used to it.  To him, for so long.

I rolled off my mattress and dropped to my knees in child’s pose – both a stretch and a prayer.   “modeh ani lefanecha.  Thank you G-d for returning my soul to me.”  I asked for several obsessions to be removed.  And then, still on my knees, I opened Facebook on my phone.  The messages had already begun to pour in.  Old neighbors.  Acquaintances from grade school.  Family – by origin and by choice.  From Africa.  And from just down the street.

I wrote. Meditated. Showered and went to work.  Weight Watchers.  It felt life affirming.  As did dance class.  I made lunch and took myself shopping at my favorite resale shop.  I bought a grey wool coat that ties at the waist.  It fits as if it were made for me.

I talked to a few friends on the phone.  Around five a girlfriend picked me up and we went to do what we do to make sure we don’t drink today.

I used to make a big “to do” out of my birthday.  Or at least try to.  Those expectations often left me feeling sad and frustrated.  I was unclear why.  But today was delightfully ordinary.

Indian sweets.
Indian sweets.

It ended with cheap eats at a large, bright Pakistani restaurant on Devon Avenue.  The kind with a menu posted on a TV screen.  Where you wait in line to order food and pick it up on a tray.  Where you eat with plastic utensils.

Where I feel conspicuously white.

There were eight of us.  Among them, my divorce buddy – the man I walked lock step with through the dissolution of our marriages.  And then watched my friendship with him dissolve.  I hadn’t invited him.  But there he was.  I was delighted.

“Of course he’s here,” Kristin said.  “He loves you.”

I decided to believe her.  And to believe in all the love around the table.  JB’s.  Tom’s.  Matt’s.

Rebecca’s.  Brian’s.  Kristin’s.

And to focus on it.  To focus on who was there, instead of who wasn’t.  The calls, texts, cards and Facebook greetings I did receive.  Instead of those I didn’t.  (Well, mostly.)

We took pictures and ate fried bits of goodness – both sweet and savory.  Drank lassis and tea with evaporated milk.

I came home and ate the last of my sweets.  I felt a little overly-sugared.  Overly stimulated.

And I fell into bed.  Alone.  Sated.  Full.

Mourning Pages

This piece was recently published in Catharsis Journal: How Creativity Changed My Life. Krista Burlae, Editor. Balboa Press. 2013

“I am alone because I am getting ready to be alone.”

Every day the same words spilled out of my pen and onto my notebook.  It was March.  I was staying at a friend’s house in Northern California, while she and her partner were in Hawaii.  In their week-long absence, they left me their home, a car and a neurotic dog named Zach.

Every morning was the same.

I’d mash a banana into a bowl; cover it with dry oats and water and microwave for three minutes – adding blueberries and soy milk after cooking.  French press a pot of coffee.  Open the sliding glass door for Zack to go outside.  Sit at the table next to fireplace and write three pages, longhand.

I was in Week 4 of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way – A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity.

The book had been suggested to me for nearly 18 years, but I had only recently picked it up.  Pain is a great motivator.  So is time.

I was living in Seattle.  I’d been there just a little more than six months.  It was my second cross-country move in less than five years.  The first, to Chicago from San Francisco, for my husband’s medical residency.  The second, to Seattle, for his dream job.

Both times, I closed up my massage practice.  Handed over my Weight Watchers meetings to another leader.  Threw a send-off soiree, and said a tearful goodbye to my friends.  Following in his path.  Next time would be my turn.  That was the promise we made.

I wasn’t working much.  I didn’t have a massage license.  I was clinically depressed.  My husband encouraged me to take it easy.  He reminded me that his job as a doctor, and the six-figure salary that went along with it – that it was for us.  That this is what he had been working for.  That now I could breathe and think about what “my turn” might look like.

I hadn’t a clue.

Rabbinical school?  Acupuncture school?  Nothing seemed certain.

Devoid of any clear sense of direction, I picked up the book that had been recommended to me so many times over the years.

I dug in with a hunger and willingness I hadn’t known since getting sober nearly five years earlier.  I read each page carefully, highlighter in hand, taking notes in the margins.  Looking for a clue.  For a promise of direction.  Or at the very least, something meaningful to do with my time.

Each week had a title.  “Recovering a Sense of…” – fill in the blank.  It included readings, suggested exercises, and questions for reflection at week’s end.  Two constants ran through the entire 12 weeks, what Cameron calls the primary tools of creative recovery – Morning Pages and the Artist Date.

Morning Pages were simply that – three pages written longhand, first thing in the morning.  Before diving into email.  Before opening up the newspaper.  Before dressing children.  Cleaning the house.  Talking to the nanny.  Making dinner plans.  Before Pilates.

Morning pages were not meant to be art.  Or for anyone to even read.  They were a practice.  “Spilling out of bed and straight onto the page.”  Without expectations.  Without judgment.  Simply making room for new input.  Morning pages, she said, were non-negotiable.

An Artist Date was a kind of fancy, little-bit grown up, name for a play date – alone.  No friends.  No spouses.  No children.  A block of time for spoiling and nurturing oneself – creatively.

*****

The tools gave my life structure.  Something to hang my day on.  I would wake early each morning, before my husband, make oatmeal with blueberries and banana, coffee, turn on my light box and write.

The routine was established by the time I arrived in California in March.  I found it easy to recreate my process in this new, albeit temporary, space.

I had begun to notice patterns emerging in my morning pages.  The same themes popping up like whack-a-moles again and again.  But I didn’t have to race to pound them down with a big, padded mallet.  I could let them sit on the page.  Powerless.

So I wasn’t exactly surprised when I wrote, “I am alone because I am getting ready to be alone.”  I knew exactly what it meant.  And I wasn’t afraid.

*****

We had been struggling for a while.  Pretty much since we arrived in Chicago nearly five years earlier.  He started medical residency.  I quit drinking.  Our lives took radically divergent paths.  And like a vector, kept moving further in opposite directions.

Nine days before we left Chicago, he told me I didn’t have to go to Seattle.  He didn’t want to be the guy who once again took me from my home, my friends and my livelihood.  I was shocked.  Stuck.  I couldn’t turn around that fast, even if I had wanted to.  Besides, we had already rented out our condominium.  I’d given up my office and my work.

We moved forward – together – as planned.  We hosted a going-away party that weekend – assuming our roles in the story of us as happy couple.  And a few days later, we were gone.

Within weeks of arriving in Seattle, my husband asked me for a divorce.  The next day he retracted his request and admitted he might be acting hastily.  We agreed to see a couple’s counselor.  A smart, young woman, many years our junior, who asked, “How will you know?”  Meaning, how would we know when it was time to call it quits.

Neither of us could answer.  I meditated on the question all week.  The words came to me in the stillness of waiting.

“You know what not working on your marriage looks like.  Why don’t you see what working on your marriage looks like?”

I instantly felt a shift in my body – as if I had just experienced a chiropractic adjustment.  I had an immediate sense of ease.  An increase in energy and flow.  I knew it was right.  I told my husband, and together we told our therapist that we had decided “not to decide,” for six months.  Instead, choosing to focus our energies on the work.

It was during that six-month period that I went back to California, stayed in the big house with the fireplace and the neurotic dog, and wrote the same words each day.  I shared them with no one.

***

My husband flew down to join me at the end of the week.  Before picking him up, I met with a local Rabbi.  He replaced the one I had studied with many years earlier, before I was married.  He had died unexpectedly.  His passing was a source of remorse and pain, mostly as we had never completed our studies.  I had slipped away without a word.  Just about the time I met my husband.

I told the replacement Rabbi that I might want to be a Rabbi.  But that I couldn’t see how to do it, to stay married, and continue to work on my marriage.  He said if it was my path, it would find me.

My husband and I greeted one another at San Francisco International Airport, irritated, obligated.  I remembered coming home from a trip, not long after meeting him.  He met me at the gate, flowers in hand.  I literally ran to him and jumped into his arms, wrapping my legs around his waist.  We were no longer that couple.  And we hadn’t been for a long time.

I drove us back to the big house with the glass fireplace and the neurotic dog.  I told him about the flood of memories that I had experienced that week.  That they had nearly drowned me.  That everywhere I turned, I was reminded of us.  Especially of the hours we spent together on our bikes.

“It got too hard,” he said.  “I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

“Ride with me?” I asked, referring to the chasm between our cycling abilities – a regular source of tension between us.  “Or be married?”

“Both.”

And there it was – the truth that I had written every morning.  The truth that I knew because I did write every morning.  The truth that I had known in my bones before he ever arrived.

I wish I could say I was calm.  That I stood in awe of my knowing.  In awe of the serendipity.  That the truth was spoken in the city where lived together for nearly 10 years, in the neighborhood where we met.  But I wasn’t.  My wheels rolled on to the Golden Gate Bridge.  I thought about driving off.  Instead, I yelled.  A lot.

I was in the middle of Week Four in The Artist’s Way – Recovering a Sense of Integrity.

******

Returning home to Seattle, I named The Artist’s Way my companion in divorce.  It seemed the only thing I knew to do.  That, and walk.  Miles and miles with no particular destination.  The heels of my tan suede boots were re-soled during this time.

I continued to write.  To look for synchronicity in my life, as I was directed in the book.  Truthfully, I couldn’t imagine any greater synchronicity than what I had just experienced.

I went on occasional Artist Dates but couldn’t fully commit to the practice.

I bought The Writer’s Market and considered writing again professionally.

I made Benjamin Franklin T-squares, lists of pro and con, trying to determine where I should call home.  Seattle?  Chicago?  San Francisco?

I sent The Artist’s Way to my friend in Chicago who was also going through a divorce.

I told him it was a book of miracles, my trusted companion during this time of transition.  I told him about my morning pages.  About being in that house alone and knowing that I was preparing to be alone.

I told him about the Rabbi who said if rabbinical school was my path, that it would find me.  And that my husband asking for a divorce felt like being found.  That I had become open to these messages because of the book.  And because of the creative work I had done.

I finished the 12 weeks of The Artist’s Way.

And then I went to Rwanda.

I had planned the trip several weeks earlier.  I would be traveling with members of my synagogue – touring, witnessing and working with two different AIDS organizations.  It was there, under my mosquito net in sub-Saharan Africa, that I heard the next creative whisper, received my next set of instructions.

I started blogging.

****

I entered university nearly 25 years prior, majoring in fine art.  I graduated with a degree in journalism – my parents insisting I choose a more practical focus.

I spent the next five years toiling at a series of weekly newspapers, and then left the profession entirely.  I wanted to make more money.  Which I did.  I wanted to tell my stories, instead of someone else’s.  Which I didn’t – unless you count drunken scrawls in journals and poems stuffed under the bed.

In Africa, I wrote each night before bed.  After my roommate and I finished debriefing about our days.  When the sky was navy and the air was still with silence – nothingness.  I wrote by the light of the computer screen.

I described the land, its people and my experiences with both in lush detail.  The smell of oranges mixed with diesel.  Churches where bloodied clothes remained, remnants of the most recent genocide.  Children born with HIV acting as mentors to those younger than themselves, also born with the disease.

The houses made of mud brick.  A calendar on the wall – a single decoration.  The woman who built her own house, and then another which she rents.  Who sells charcoal, and can now care for herself and her children – mostly.  Women and children robed in colorful fabrics, walking on the side of the road – 24 hours a day, fruit or furniture balanced on their heads.

Reed thin men pushing bicycles weighted down with four or six yellow jerry cans of water.  An opening gala at an art co-operative tucked into a downtrodden neighborhood.  Peeing ridiculously close to a giraffe while on safari.

I posted my blogs to Facebook in the wee hours when I could get an internet signal.  Following each posting I was greeted with words from the unlikeliest of Facebook “friends.”  Girls I went to Adat Shalom nursery school with in the early 1970s, friends’ husbands I hardly knew, and associates of my Rabbi.  They all said the same thing.  “Thank you.” And “Keep writing.”

But I didn’t.  Not for three months.  I didn’t write about my divorce.  My drive cross country.  My first time living alone in 43 years.  I didn’t write a word – until I received a call that my birthmother was dying.  A woman I had met only three years prior, who at 59, was dying.

I flew out of Chicago the next day, pacing just in front of Hurricane Sandy.  When I arrived she was hooked up to IVs and monitors, barely 100 pounds in a hospital gown.  There was nowhere for her to hide anymore.  She could no longer act the part she thought I wanted her to be.  We were both stripped down and naked.  And I felt, perhaps for the first time, nothing but love for her.

I played Pandora radio for her.  Danced and held her hand to Love Train by the O Jays.  I massaged her feet, her papery skin.  I sobbed on her bed.  And I found healing.

I told her about a man I met there in South Carolina.  How he swept me off my feet – literally picking me up off of the ground the first time I met him.  And how he broke my heart a few days later – slipping away without a word.

I chronicled all of it, blogging.  My inbox filled with personal notes.  Words of encouragement.  Stories shared.   From former co-workers.  Friends of my birthmother.  Cousins I had never met.  Even the man from South Carolina who broke my heart.

I felt seen.  Connected.  The connection I had craved all of my life.  That I had twisted myself inside and out for.  Here it was.  And all I had to do to receive it was to tell my truth.  To write it.  And to share it – publicly.

So I did.

I wrote about living alone.  About throwing out food because I didn’t know how to shop for one anymore.  About my Jewish divorce – my Get…  And my civil divorce.  About my breast reduction – a surgery so fraught with pain and shame I had barely spoken of it.

And then, about my second time through The Artist’s Way.

***

I didn’t date after my ex-husband asked me for a divorce.  I experienced intimate friendships – hours spent on the phone telling one another every detail about ourselves.  Sexy kisses under the moon that made me feel like I was 17.  Over the top expectations and the crash that accompanied them.  But I had not dated.

I wasn’t ready.  I was too vulnerable.  But I was lonely.  So I took on The Artist’s Way again as my companion, this time committing myself to the Artist Dates.  Those two-or-so hour play dates by myself.

I perused gourmet food shops.  Spent hours at a bookstore, tucked in a chair with an Annie Leibowitz anthology in my lap.  I bought myself little trinkets and had them giftwrapped.

I went to the movies.  Walked on the beach in winter.  And at the bird and butterfly sanctuary.  I scoured thrift stores.  Visited the polar bear at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

I went to the art supply store. And to the Art Institute – many times.  Visiting Marc Chagall’s America Windows again and again.  I went to the Lebanese and Indian neighborhoods.  Ate syrupy sweet desserts and shopped with women wearing saris and chadors.  I popped into interesting boutiques I’d eyed and wondered about, but had never stepped foot in.

I went to the Joffrey Ballet.

All of it, alone.  And then I chronicled each experience.

I wrote about my ex-husband sending me boxes of things I left behind, and not wanting to open them.  About being afraid of Week 4 in The Artist’s Way because that was the week my ex asked me for a divorce.

I wrote about how strange and uncomfortable it was when my father asked me if I was dating.  How uncomfortable he was when I said no, and how I felt the need to explain my decision to him.  How I told him that I had work to do.

I let go of work I no longer enjoyed, and leaned heavily into my spousal support.

I took dance classes – Mambo and West African.  I attended performances and lectures – on my own and with girlfriends.  I began cooking again.  Collaging.  And I kept writing.  Blogging.

The Artist Dates had become a habit.  I enjoyed a $6 piece of torte and coffee served on a silver tray on a Friday afternoon, just because.  I brought home a silk kimono from Japan and an embroidered, well-loved bedspread from the thrift store, just because they were beautiful.

I began to treat myself as well, if not better, than anyone else had ever treated me.

I began to turn inward, to lean into my pain.  The hurt of love ending.  Of promises broken.  The fear of a big, empty canvas of life.  I gave it a name and a face – with words, and with paintbrushes, pencils and pretty paper, with movement.  And I found it wasn’t quite so scary when I did.

I found my voice.  The one that wrote, “I am alone because I am getting ready to be alone,” continuing to spill out of me every morning and onto three blank pages.  Mourning pages.

Artist Date 39: Story of O (pen)

This Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement (or At One Ment, depending on your school of thought), my Rabbi spoke about being open, and staying open – vulnerable.  To change.  To transformation.

story of oThis is a story about open.

I am anxious to write it.  It is so tender, so personal.  And yet…I have given voice to seemingly every other experience in this year following my divorce.  Specifically regarding the season of suggested “not dating,” and the process of creatively romancing myself on a weekly basis vis a vis, the Artist Date.

I am standing in front of a wall of condoms.  It is 11:30 a.m.  I need supplies.

I pulled into the Pleasure Chest on the way home from leading a Weight Watchers meeting – Artist Date 39.

I took a lover last week.

We are in wildly different places in our lives.  Not surprisingly, we want and need wildly different things.  And we are wildly attracted to one another.

He’s younger than I – which is brand new to me.  He captured my attention with a flirty quip in regards to my Artist Dates.  Something like “I’m not sure what these entail…but I qualify as an artist (I think), and I am free tomorrow.”  (Insert flush across my cheeks, across my chest, here.)

But I wasn’t.  Or the next day.  Or the next.

Until Rosh Hashanah night – the same date my divorce was final last year, on the Hebrew calendar – when the gods saw fit for me to tell a new story.

The days leading up were ripe with sexy texts and suggestive emails.  And our nights together made good on what had been promised in words.

Yummy.  Naughty.  Playful.  And then, Over.

“We can’t do this,” we agreed.  That while decidedly delicious, an ongoing entanglement couldn’t meet either of our more pressing needs.  And might even cause us harm.

Usually I would be devastated by such a fleeting romance.  But I’m not.  I see it all as a gorgeous transition.  A little poke (no pun intended) from the universe that I have opened myself up just a little bit more.  To sex.  To love.  To possibilities.

That’s not to say that I don’t miss the attention, being pursued, and getting to know someone new.  Yes, he is in fact, another artist.  Darling.  Smart and sweet.  But not “the one.”  At least not now.

This is new to me too.  Not trying to make him “the one.”

I used to insist, “this time is different.”  Until my friend Teresa gently pointed out, “It’s always different…and it never is.”  She was right.  It was the same story over and over.  Me believing that he, whomever he was at that moment, had the power to make me beautiful, desirable, whole.

My young artist didn’t make me those things.  He merely held up the mirror.

Being an addict, I (of course) want more.  But I am not acting on those desires.  I am respecting our decision.  Respecting him.  Respecting me.  Respecting us.  And trusting there will be more, with someone (s) else.

And so, I find myself standing in front of this wall of condoms, not for “us,” but for the future.

There are the usual suspects.  Trojans.  Kimono.  Durex.  Latex and non-latex.  Flavored.  Ribbed.  Knobbed.  And some I don’t know.  Plaid boxes.  Sir Richard’s.  Sounds fancy.

sir richardsI am certain any will do.  But for some reason, I decide to call in the experts.  I walk over to the glass counter.  On the other side is a woman with a mess of red curls, funky glasses and a great big smile.  Her name is Sara.

I tell her I need some help.  That I haven’t bought condoms in a while.  That I recently took my first lover since my divorce.  The first man I’ve been with, other than my ex, in 15 years.

“Congratulations,” she says.  “On the divorce.  And the lover.”

She comes around the glass and we walk over to the wall together, where she educates me on the finer points of my choices.  I am reminded of the years I spent at wine tastings, discussing the subtleties of nose and terroir.  Sara approaches our conversation with the same mix of knowledge, passion and joy.

This is what she tells me:

Latex isn’t what it used to be.  It no longer smells like Goodyear Tires when the foil is ripped open.

Stay away from the Trojans.  Too thick.

Pleasure dots are nice for both.  There’s a little pouch on the underside that creates friction.

One brand is nice.  Doesn’t taste bad.

“I’d stick with these,” she says, gesturing to Skyn, Kimono, One and Sir Richard’s.  “Or you might want to consider a sampler pack.  Includes a couple of dental dams and latex gloves.”

She leaves me to shop and reminds me she is available if I have any questions.

So many choices.  I remember coming home from Rwanda last summer, standing in front of the yogurt selections at Whole Foods and bursting into tears – overwhelmed by the abundance.  I feel a little bit the same way.

I pull down a couple of boxes and choose a variety pack from Sir Richard’s – purple and grey plaid.  Made in Boulder.  For each condom purchased, one is donated in a developing country.  A little altruism with my orgasm.  Nice.  I also grab a small box of non-latex Skyn.  I don’t have a latex allergy but, someone else might.

I take a quick spin through the aisles before I leave.  DVDs.  Vibrators.  Strap Ons.  Lube.  I grab a bottle of Sliquid and meet Sarah at the register.

She excuses herself from the couple she is assisting with harnesses.

She nods approvingly at my choices, runs my credit card through, and slips a flyer listing free workshops in the bag.  All of them have passed.

Before I leave, she tells me that she divorced more than 15 years ago, and more than made it through.  “I learned how to advocate for myself sexually,” she adds.  “It’s been great.”

I believe her.  Both on the advocating and on the great.  I’ve already opened myself to it.

Like Trying To Hold On To Lightning Bugs

My mother must have the photo I am referring to...This is me and my brother, before the training wheels came off.
My mother must have the photo I am referring to. My brother and I, before the training wheels came off.

I’m trying to hold on to a new idea.  A new behavior.

It’s like trying to hold on to lightning bugs.

It’s like riding a bike for the first time without training wheels and turning around to see if mom is still holding on.

I have a photograph of myself on a pink two-wheeler.  I’m wearing a t-shirt that says A-Jerx.  (There was a whole series of these – gum and trading cards too –a play on words of household brands with artwork leaning towards the grotesque.)  My hair is in pig tails.

I remember leaning side to side, riding in an S-shape pattern trying to steely myself.  Shaky.  But most definitely upright.

Until I turn around.  My mother is several feet behind me, standing in the driveway.  She is no longer holding on.  I am delighted.  I am doing this thing.

And then I’m down on the ground.  I don’t yet know how to keep my balance looking anywhere but forward.  (Do I even now?  In all things…not just biking.)

I feel like that now.  Excited by self-awareness and the practice of new behaviors – seemingly without effort.  And yet a little uncertain at the same time.

I spent the day with my friend Pam on Saturday.  It began with gelato, moved into thrifting, dinner and ended with a stealth run to Trader Joes.  All told we were together for probably six or so hours.  And I could have kept going.

We never run out of things to talk about.  And we giggle, constantly.  When I am with her I feel like I am at a perpetual Bar Mitzvah party at Tam O’Shanter Country Club circa 1982.

Except for when we are baring our souls.  Speaking the words we only whisper to ourselves in the dark.  And being met with love and compassion, always.

It’s awesome.

I told her so on Saturday night when she was dropping me off.

We were giggling about the cute boy at Trader Joes.  The one I chatted with for 20 minutes in front of the canned beans.  The one I gave my number to a couple of weeks ago.  Who sweetly explained that he hadn’t called because things were “complicated.”

While he and I were talking, she posted on Facebook that she was watching a “love connection.”  So she was surprised that he didn’t ask me out.  That we spoke for that long.  That he seemed completely unaware that anyone else was in the store besides us.   That the chemistry, to her perspective, was palpable.  And yet, nothing.

She asked what I thought I might do about it.

“Nothing,” I replied.

He has my number.  He knows I’m interested.  And his landlord is a friend of mine.  He knows where to find me.  “It’s like you taught me,” I said.  “I don’t ever again want to be a dog begging for a bone.”

It was, as they say, a moment.  A spiritual awakening.

I also told her I decided to not contact an old flame when I head to Detroit later this month.   He’d been dancing around in my head for weeks.  And yet I hadn’t contacted him.  Suddenly I knew why.

I “played the tape.”   I realized that, best case scenario…even if I did see him,even if it was like it used to be, that I would be trading my serenity for a passport stamp at Crazy.

I had learned I’m not the kind of girl who can casually physically connect, then say, “That was fun.  I’ll see you next time I’m in Detroit.”  That I get attached.  That I want more.  Deserve more.  That my life is here, in Chicago.  Looking forward.

I told her, and here’s the kicker, I only want to date someone who I have as much fun with as I do her.

She smiled.  I knew what she was thinking.  What she has said to me so many times, “You are growing.”

Pam and I.
Pam and I.

I felt chuffed.  That great British slang my ex-mother-in-law used to use, that roughly translates to “pleased with myself.”   I felt like I had “licked this problem.  This old way of being.”

And then this morning I felt differently.

I saw Mr. Detroit on Facebook.  I immediately thought how nice it would be to catch up on nearly 20 years.  Just coffee…riiiight.

GRRR!!  I thought I “had it,” I told my friend, Lynn.

I told her how I felt like it slipped right through my fingers.  Like the lightning bugs – which half the time I cannot even believe are real, they are so magical.

I remembered all the times I thought “I got this,” in Weight Watchers.  And all the times I gained my weight back.  And then some.  I wondered what was different this time.  How it was that I had maintained a 35-pound weight loss for 11-plus years.  Through three cross-country moves, getting sober, finding my birthparents, getting divorced, and burying a birthparent.

The only answer I could come up with is that I just kept practicing the behaviors.  When they were new.  And when they weren’t so new.   Even when I didn’t feel like it.

I kept weighing and measuring.  Writing down my food.  Moving my body.  Making better choices.  Most of the time.  I haven’t been perfect.  Thank goodness that wasn’t demanded of me.

It isn’t demanded of me with Mr. Detroit.  Or Mr. Trader Joes either.  I can, and will, have these thoughts…these suggested detours to Crazy.  But I’m no longer a slave to them.  I can notice them, perhaps name them, and…not react to them.  I can do different.  And keep on doing different until different becomes the new normal.

Until it’s like riding a bike.  Which today I can do AND look over my shoulder.  Even take my hands off the handlebars, and stay upright.  No longer on the ground wondering what the hell happened.

Artist’s Date 21: Not Quite Alone at the Opera

opera glassesI called my friend Sheila from the Lyric Opera tonight.  I was seeing Oklahoma!   Artist’s Date 21.  Standing in the lobby, talking into my corded ear piece, I told her I felt at ease here by myself.  That it didn’t seem strange.  That I was comfortable.

Perhaps because I had been on 20 solo Artist’s Dates prior.

Or perhaps because I wasn’t really alone.

I got a call this morning.  My birth mother, Pharen, died.  She was 60.

We just met for the first time three years ago.  She had been looking for me for 12 years, but it wasn’t until I began my search for her that we were connected.  And then it was ridiculously and remarkably fast.  And easy.

We spoke for the first time two days before I turned 40.  I was on a plane to Charleston to meet her a few months later.

During that visit she gave me a pair of mother-of-pearl opera glasses — one of the few things she had to give me, she explained, apologizing that she had long ago given her “good jewelry” to her nieces, as she wasn’t sure she would get to meet me.

I patted the lump in my bag that was the glasses, tucked inside a soft purple Crown Royal bag.  Exactly how she gave them to me.

Sweet irony.  For it is only in getting sober that I finally mustered the courage to look for her rather than talk about looking for her.  That I found friends who had done the same and could walk me through it, step by step.

Sweet irony.  That I would be going to the opera the day she died.

My friend Lynn told me to be gentle with myself during this time.

This time when my stomach feels full with anxiety and yet I don’t know what I am anxious about.  She says it is my body responding to the uncertainty of experiencing something new.

Like losing a “parent” — even if she didn’t raise me.  Or going to the opera alone.

My body has grown accustomed to these Artist’s Dates.

Picking up my tickets from will call, I felt kind of cool and confident, like the girl in a Charlie! perfume commercial from the 1980s.  “Who’s that in the orange suede boots and short, pink-wool blazer by herself?   The one with the bindi and the cropped hair?”

I used to sometimes feel sorry for people I saw alone at events.  I don’t anymore — because I don’t feel sorry for me.

I settled into my aisle seat — main floor, row RR — relieved that I didn’t have to make conversation.  That I could sit.  That I could read from the book in my bag.  That I could return emails and texts from my smartphone, clicking “like” by every condolence I received on Facebook.  Right until the lights went down and the curtain went up.

I’d never seen Oklahoma! before, movie or stage production.  I loved it.  Who doesn’t love a surrey with a fringe on top?  I pulled out  my glasses to see the performers better.  I had a hard time getting a really clear view, but no matter.  I felt her with me.  I wasn’t alone.

I loved the simple story of courting and coupling — a different time, but the foibles and heartbreaks universal, transcending it.  I saw a little bit of myself in wildly flirtatious Ado Annie.  Always keeping her options open.  Easily swayed by pretty words and sexy kisses.

I thought of my Aunt Julie, Pharen’s sister, who I met this fall when I went to Charleston a second time — when I received a call that my birth mother was dying, but didn’t.

I had met a boy while I was there and fell head over heels over head.  And when it didn’t turn out exactly as I had planned, she warned me about “pretty words.”  And to “stop and pay attention” when I hear what I want to hear, words that make my heart race.

Aunt Julie is practical and wise.  Pharen was like me.  A dreamy romantic with her heart on her sleeve and her feet often-times not quite touching the ground.

I loved the singing.  I loved the dancing.  I loved that it was light and I could just smile through it.

I loved that I could, in fact, smile through it.

That I no longer had to be attached to my sadness.  That I could experience moments of joy amidst my sorrow.

That I could go to the opera without wearing the look of “rescue me” painted on my face.

That I coudl go to work today, rather than calling in “tragic victim,” and not feel the need to announce to my Weight Watchers members that my birth mom had died earlier that morning.  That I could engage in their stories.  And when one offered that her niece had recently died, I didn’t have to match her loss with my own.

That I could call my parents, the ones who raised me, and tell them about Pharen’s passing.  That I could go to them with compassion and without expectations, knowing that this isn’t easy for them — my having found my birth family.  That I could turn to others less affected for comfort and soothing.

That I could call my birth dad and not want a thing from him other than to tell him this news.

That I could experience joy when 45 minutes after receiving the call that my birth mother had died, I received another call letting me know I had won fifth prize ina  a writing contest I recently entered — my first ever.  Addressing the topic, “How Creativity Changed My Life,” I wrote about these Artist’s Dates and the book from which they come, The Artist’s Way — my companion in divorce, in my (mostly) chosen single-dom.  Chosen but not always embraced.

That I could take the Mother’s Day card I bought yesterday — signed, sealed and ready to be delivered — and drop it in the mailbox anyway.  Knowing she would “get it.”  Just like I knew she was there with me tonight…

Peering through the opera glasses to see which male performers were cutest.  Knowing Ado Annie but wondering how she might be more steely, like Laurey.  Admonishing me for wearing orange suede booties in the rain, while I waited for the valet to bring my car — the ones that clomped down the hospital corridor so loudly, causing her to yell, “I knew it was you from half-way down the block…”

No wonder I didn’t feel alone.