Artist Date 55: Saving Myself. No Wand or Wings Required.

I’ve been having a hard time getting myself out on weekly Artist Dates.  Ever since I hit that “magic” one-year mark.

Carmel and I.  Extras.  Fans.  And Friends.
Carmel and I. Extras. Fans. And Friends.

Maybe it’s because, as suggested, I didn’t date for a year after my divorce became final.  The passing of 52 Artist Dates meant that that year had passed.  And perhaps on some subconscious level I thought it was time to date others instead of myself.

Even though nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed in my romantic life.  Even though I don’t even have a crush.  And for perhaps the first time in my life, the world still feels full of possibilities.  That is a big change in my romantic life.

Or maybe it’s because maintenance is hard.  Of anything.  Eating well, moving my body and maintaining a healthy weight.  Staying sober.  Meditating.  Artist Dates.

Each serves me, makes me feel better, be better in the world.  It would seem I would only want to perpetuate these patterns.  But somehow it doesn’t work that way.

My brain is a liar.  It tells me “I’ve got this.”  Which, when it does, is the exact moment I need to redouble my efforts.  And I need other people to do that.  To remind me that my brain is, in fact, a liar.  And of what actions I can take anyway.

It’s why I work for Weight Watchers.  Surround myself with sober individuals.  And probably why I only meditate in the morning but not the evening, even though Vedic meditation is a twice-daily practice.  I’ve been doing it alone ever since I left California in 2007.

The Artist Date is a solo process.  No one would know, or probably care, if I did or did not engage in it.  Except me.  By stating my intention and blogging about it, I invite others in, and I stay in the action of it.  Action that always makes me feel better.

So I was grateful when I saw a Facebook post from my friend Lori late Friday night, asking if anyone was available to be background talent for a music video she was filming the following day.  Without thinking, I said “yes” – Artist Date 55.

“Who knows?” I thought.  “Perhaps I will meet Mr. Right…”

skatersBy morning I wasn’t so sure about that.  When I opened Lori’s email with details for the shoot, I found myself feeling incredibly resistant.  So much so, I told her I may have spoken too soon.

I shared my “dilemma” with a friend who reflected back to me that I am a woman who does what she says.  And so I did.

But when I arrived, the first words out of my mouth were, “Do you have enough people?  Because if you do…”  Yes, she said, adding, “If you have somewhere to be, go…”

But I didn’t.

Knowing that, something shifted.  And I decided to stay.

I took a seat on an empty bench where the Windy City Rollers practice and watched the girls go around and around in circles, fading in and out of the fog of the smoke machine – the set for the music video, for a song written by one of the skaters, Xoe.

I joined about a dozen extras as a Windy City Rollers fans.  Our job was to rush the red team after winning the bout.  To jump up and down and high-five the skaters, and each other.  Simple enough…even for a non-sports fan like myself.  But first, we waited.

angelsI watched the big cameras zooming in and out.  Xoe’s stunt double — dressed like a guardian angel with wings, a wand and a sequined dress — “saving her” from herself, and knocking out a couple of the Rollers in the process.  I looked at the snack table and thought it could use a makeover.  That I would replace some of the donuts, Oreos and chips with fresh fruit and vegetables, hummus and low-fat cheese.  But nobody asked me.

A woman I know just a little, but like quite a bit, showed up and she and I talked like old friends for the better part of the afternoon – telling stories about boys, our bodies and travel.

I noticed the high concentration of men on the set – lots of tattoos and wool hats.  But I didn’t “recognize” my mate.

The day ended with a whack upside the head.  Literally.  It was an accident.

During a “pretend” fight scene,I leaned into the fist of a wisp of a girl standing next to me.   She apologized profusely.  I laughed.  It somehow seemed right.  Like I had definitely “connected.”

This morning, I put my hand to my forehead.  It was sore.  A little tender spot reminding me of how much I fight myself.  And of how I can save myself – no wand or wings required.

Artist Date 53: You Don’t Say

I used to swear like a sailor.  It was part of my tough-talking, cigarette-smoking, don’t-mess-with-this-Jew personae – affectionately known by my newspaper colleagues as “Brooklyn Les.”

Until I got hired by Weight Watchers.  My friend, and mentor Stan told me I would need to watch my mouth.  That I might think people thin-skinned, but that not everyone cottons to the liberal and casual use of the word fuck.

I trusted him, and learned to curb my four-letter tongue.  I found the more I didn’t use those words in the workplace, the more they slipped away from my vocabulary entirely.

Don’t get me wrong.  I still like a well-placed fuck.  (Double entendre not intended, but appreciated.)   Especially the unexpected sort that shocks.

tribes

Like in Tribes.  Artist Date 53 at the Steppenwolf Theatre.

The word punctuates each breath of the play’s first lines, followed by cunt and a graphic, fairly vulgar description of the much-older object of Ruth’s affection.

Uproarious laughter covers a collective gasp.  There is a shared sense of ok-ness.  That we have chosen our mores.  That we have agreed upon this use of language.

I am a part of this conscious collective too.  But I don’t feel that way.  I am self-consciously aware of feeling “not a part of.”  Disconnected.  The word rattling in my head since I lost Internet connectivity minutes before leaving the house.

It is exacerbated by the series of phone calls I make while driving that dump me into voicemail.  And even more so by the conversation to my right, once in my seat.  Flanked by two couples, I listen as they share highlights of their collective creative genius.  She leads workshops teaching artists how to write grants.  He is a photographer.  The other she is an actress.

I am envious.  Irritated.  It does not occur to me that I am a writer.  That I too have a creative genius.  One that connects me to others every time I engage it.  I am, as my friends like to say, looking for the differences.  All of the places where I don’t measure up.  At least in my mind.  I have been all day.

This afternoon, interviewing with a recruiting firm — really more of a temp-to-permanent staffing agency.

I went in worried about not wearing a suit.

I haven’t owned one in more than 12 years.  Ever since I traded prestige for peace of mind and left a nearly six-figure job to answer phones at a massage school for $12/hour and 50 percent off future classes – supplementing my new cobbled-together career as a massage therapist and Weight Watchers leader.

It had not occurred to me that my plaid, Pendlelton coat and patterned spectators might be the least of my concerns.

All around me – on both sides of employment table – are “kids.”  They appear to be born the same year I graduated from high school.

I lose myself in self-conscious concern.  About my age, my appearance, that I have not looked for work in 12 years.  And when the questions come about desired salary, and ideal work environment, I stammer.

Photo by Sandro. Steppenwolf Theatre.
Photo by Sandro. Steppenwolf Theatre.

Like Daniel in Tribes, when his sense of security – false or not – is taken from him and he reverts to old patterns.

The old tendency to try to be what you need me rushes in.  People pleasing.  Like Billy, learning to read lips rather than pushing his family to learn to sign – which seems selfish, at the least inconvenient, and might make them uncomfortable.

It is an old behavior and yet it sneaks back in as effortlessly as the fucks that can still fly from my mouth.  I feel tired and small.  And sort of stupid.  Even though I know that none of that is true.

But suddenly not so separate.  I see myself in bits of the universal dysfunction unraveling on stage.

I am like Beth.  A tentative, later-in-life writer.  Like Christopher.  Using bluster and swagger to cover up my own not knowing.  Like Ruth.  Looking for love.  Except I no longer ask “What is wrong with me?” while sobbing in my mother’s arms.

Nor do I succumb to the urge to call a boy I know while driving home, when the separateness has returned to me.  A boy fighting demons far greater than my own right now.  A boy who could never give me what I want – which right now is nothing more than to be held.  I know that this is beyond his capabilities – so I think better than to ask for it.

Age, experience – it is grace.

Once home, I write a note to my friend Melinda, as I do most nights – sharing an inventory of my day via email.  I will receive hers in the morning.

Connectivity has been restored.  To the Internet.  To my friend.  To my truth.

Artist Date 52: Exactly Where I Am Supposed To Be

This time last year I was on my knees.  Literally.

It was my first holiday season divorced and living back in Chicago, alone.  My girlfriend called me out on my obsession with the man I like to call the Southern Svengali — the one I kissed for two nights while in Charleston in late October.  She said she could not hear about it, or him, anymore.

My non-relationship was affecting my relationships.

I felt desperate and scared.  I called a friend who advised me to get on my knees and ask God to remove my obsession him every day.

I did.  But I needed something more.

the artists wayI remembered the comfort I had found in the structured creativity of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and decided to pull it out again —  a hopeful, albeit artsy, roadmap out of myself.

This time, in addition to taking on the weekly reading and writing assignments, I committed to the weekly Artist Date – the weekly hour or so block of time, alone, to fill my creative coffers – and to a weekly blog about it for a year.  Fifty-two Artist Dates.  Fifty-two blogs.

Thursday is Artist Date 52.

I am sitting in a Starbucks on Michigan Avenue killing time before Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.  It is 6 p.m. and I have been downtown since 11.  I am tired.  I am questioning the wisdom in staying here as opposed to driving home at 2 p.m. when I was finished with my work and returning later.

Until I get the text which lets me know I am exactly where I should me.  It is from my friend Matt.  He is at a coffee shop around the corner, also killing time, before his couple’s therapy session where he will ask his wife for a divorce.

I tell him where I am.  Within moments he is standing over me and then we are hugging each other tightly.  Teary.

I remember when he told me that he and his wife were separating, more than a year ago.  I still lived in Seattle, but was visiting Chicago – smack dab in the middle of my own divorce.

Matt is appropriately anxious.  I reflect back to him how thoughtful he has been through this entire process – never rash.  We hold hands and we pray together, in the middle of Starbucks.  It doesn’t seem strange.

He leaves.  And shortly after, I do too, pulling my wool long-underwear back on over my tights.  It is December and the temperatures are already in the teens.

I love Chicago at night.  Especially during the holidays.  Michigan Avenue twinkles with white lights, and skaters glide around in circles on the tiny patch of ice in Millenium Park.

Photo: The Inside Scoop Chicago
Photo: The Inside Scoop Chicago

I walk up “the hill” that is Randolph Street to the Harris Theater.  My body has once again adjusted to the flat Midwest and takes note of the incline.

I pick up my ticket at will-call and make a beeline for the bathroom, peeling off my long underwear.  Winter in Chicago is a lot of work.

My friend Lori is coming out.  We embrace and talk excitedly about her ceramics show.  Lori is a genius potter.  We met her at Lil Street Art Center, where I was stumbling through a beginners’ class.  Lori taught me how to glaze.

She asks if I will come back to Lil Street.  I am not certain as I have committed my creative energies to my writing and my dance – at least for now.

She asks if I remember Kevin from the clay studio and reminds me he is a member of Hubbard Street.  I do remember.  It is one of the reasons I am here.

We part company and I run into a woman I have danced with.  She is enrolled in Level three West African Dance.  I am in Level two.  Later, I see Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The world seems small and I am a citizen of it.  Or, at the very least, a citizen of Chicago.

The woman in the seat next to mine is alone.  As is the woman next to her.  We make easy conversation.  She is a Weight Watchers member.  I am a Weight Watchers leader.  She is looking for a massage therapist.  I am a massage therapist.  She is a widow.  I am a divorcee.

She tells me she lost her husband four years ago, and she tears up.  For the second time today I am clear that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.  Right down to my seat: BB10.

The performance, One Thousand Pieces by Alejandro Cerrudo, is inspired by Marc Chagall’s America Windows – the installation I visit every time I am at the Art Institute, my favorite.  I shared it with Matt a few months ago when we met downtown for a member’s-only café re-opening.  It was summer and we sat in the courtyard noting who was checking the other out.  It seems a long time ago.

One Thousand Pieces, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
One Thousand Pieces, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

It is my first time seeing Hubbard Street Dance.  The dancers’ bodies are strong.  Gorgeous.  Not sinewy, like ballet bodies.  I think my legs approximate the same shape as theirs, albeit less toned and I feel at the same time cocky and ashamed admitting this to myself.

The stage is glossed and looks like water.  I am looking for Kevin.  My eyes occasionally roll back into my head.  This almost always happens to me at performances.  The lights go down and my sleepy kicks in.  Except for last year when I saw Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre  – twice.

My seats were good – dress circle one night, main floor the other.  My experience was dramatically altered by looking straight at the dancers as opposed to peering down at them.  I vowed then I would always buy good seats for dance.  These seats are good – the Harris Theatre is small and there are no “bad seats.”  But not good enough.

And then it is over.

The performance, but not my Artist Dates.  They “work.”  Like being on my knees works.  Not so much in desperation (although I am certain I will find myself there again many times in this life), but in prayer – the antidote to it.  Exactly where I am supposed to be.

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.