Artist Date 3.2: Enough To Say Fuck Off

Every fiber in my being is telling me to go home. To send resumes. Work on my manuscript.

That I’ve been downtown too long already. Eating lunch. Shopping for sunglasses. Having fun.

That I don’t “deserve” it. That I better get back home and get cracking. Find a job and start making money. And until I do, I have no right “playing” like this.

It’s an old message.

The first time I heard it I was in my late 20s, when my event-fundraising contract was not renewed.

“Enjoy this time,” my therapist said. “Go to matinees. Museums. Walks in Golden Gate Park.

“Soon enough you’ll be working again and you’ll regret not taking advantage of this time … Trust me, I know.”

And she did. It had happened to her.

IMAG4599

But I didn’t much enjoy that time off. Or all the other times I’ve been unemployed or underemployed since.

Not until a couple of years ago, when I took on the challenge of the Artist Date — the weekly, solo flight of fancy as prescribed by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way.

Until then, time not working meant time I scrambled. Wrung my hands. Ran the numbers. Sat in front of the computer. Somehow equating worry with work.

It didn’t work. And it didn’t bring me work. Just suffering. Which I seemed to somehow think I deserved.

When I took on The Artist’s Way as if it were my job, I saw the folly of my constant motion. And I learned, albeit slowly, to enjoy my underemployed status.

Friends marveled at my charmed life. Museum lectures. Book stores. Dance classes. Opera. I did too.

IMAG4591

But deep down, a part of me didn’t believe I deserved it.

Perhaps it still doesn’t.

It is the voice that shames me for returning to Chicago after a year abroad and finding myself, once again, underemployed. And reminds me that unlike the years of 2012-2015, I am no longer receiving alimony. It says, “Be afraid.”

Even though I am doing all the right things. Sending resumes. Writing cover letters. Incorporating edits and feedback.

Registering with temp agencies. Seeing massage clients. Applying for non-career jobs.

Babysitting.

It insists it’s not enough. That I should go home and do more. As if the one hour I have set aside for my Artist Date – number 3.2 (119) – will somehow make a difference in my ability to secure full-time work.

Even though I have enough money for today. And even tomorrow.

I tell this voice to “fuck off!” and walk down Washington and into the Chicago Cultural Center. “Which, by the way,” I tell it, “is free.”

The effect is immediate. What I used to get from that first gulp of booze. What I used to think was magic in a bottle. Relief.

My chest feels flushed, my heart full. The voice is quiet. I am smiling.

I’ve been here dozens of times but today I am particularly struck by the beauty of the former public library. So much so I never make it to the exhibit on the fourth floor.

Glittering tile work. Quotes carved in marble. In English. Hebrew. Arabic. Chinese.

Light shining through the recently cleaned stained-glass cupola.

IMAG4593.jpg

A poster that reads, “There are no degrees of human freedom or human dignity. Either a man respects another as a person or he does not.” James Cone.

Equally lovely.

I’d add, “…respects himself, or herself, or does not … enough to say ‘fuck off.’ ”

 

Artist Date 96: Kind of a Big Shot

The Three Graces. Ethel Stein. 1995
The Three Graces. Ethel Stein. 1995

I used to use the Birchwood Kitchen as my office away from my office.

It was at the center of where I often found myself when I was neither at home nor at work.  For the cost of an iced tea (and sometimes not even that, as I was a “regular” and often received drinks and desserts “on the house”) I had a place where I could check my emails, do some writing, take meetings or just stop and sit in between where I was and where I was going.

Sometimes the Art Institute feels like that too.  Like today — Artist Date 96.

I’m sitting in the member lounge drinking puerh ginger tea and checking Facebook on my phone.  Behind me, a couple is telling the bartender their story.  It appears they met online — he is from London — and they are meeting now for the first time.  Perhaps not now exactly — but this day, this week, this visit.  It sounds crazy and exciting.  I wonder how it will all turn out.  I wonder if the bartender wonders, or if she is even listening.

My ex-husband used to love to come here because it made him feel just a little bit like a big shot.  Flashing his card and drinking free coffee.  And hey, who doesn’t like to feel just a little bit like a big shot every once in a while.

I suppose in some small way, that is what membership is about.  A reward for faithfulness and patronage.  Be it a free beverage, a bag with a logo, discounts or a place to stop in between here and there.  And when done well, evokes a sense of identity and belonging.  “One of us.”

It whispers to my unrealized teenage dream of attending art school, which at the time, I thought was the only way to be an artist.  (I was wrong.)

I am reminded of this as I make my way downstairs to the Edith Stein: Master Weaver exhibit.

The exhibit is small, and there is just one other person in the gallery viewing the work.  (There are two Art Institute employees here also — one of them, in my opinion, talking too loudly.)

It doesn’t move me in quite the way I had hoped.  I imagined my internal seven-year-old, the one who made potholders on a plastic loom with loopers, awakened, inspired to create.  Instead, I am completely enchanted by this 90-something-year-old woman.

Trained in sculpture, she turned her attention to textiles when she was in her 60s.  A video loops over and again, showing her working in the studio — clad in heavy sneakers, mixing dye in a pot on top of the stove and immersing wool yarn into it as if it was pasta.

I sit on the bench in the center of the room, watching the short film several times.  It is both soothing and inspiring.  I want to be like her.  Still working, still passionate, respected, at the top of her game.

I want to be like her when I am in my 90s.  I want to be like her now.

Working.  Passionate.  Respected.

At the top of my game.

A little bit of a big shot.

It begins with working.

Artist Date 78: Both, And.

mcbeardo boodI just wrapped up a contract work gig – my first “straight job” in 12 years.

By straight I mean sitting at a desk, in front of a computer, and working 9 to 5.  (Cue Dolly Parton.)

At first I wasn’t certain how I felt about the opportunity.  I wasn’t clear on my role.  My body hurt from sitting.  My creativity suffered.

And then I hit my stride.

I appreciated having a place to come to – a single place, as opposed to the many I traverse to and from as a massage therapist and Weight Watchers leader.  I appreciated earning a consistent paycheck.  I loved working in a team toward a common good – and that I got to spend five days a week with one of my best girlfriends while doing it.

I even enjoyed the sometimes hour-long commute down Lakeshore Drive, listening to NPR.

And before I knew it, it was over.

I was recently telling my friend Gene about this while catching him up on my days.

I mentioned that had I missed several weeks of Artist Dates.  And that when I went on one last Saturday – number 78 – I still hadn’t blogged about it a week later.

“Sounds like you are living life rather than writing about it,” he said.

Ideally, I would do both.

However, his comment reminded me of a conversation I had a few months earlier with my friend Nithin. He had gone to a concert the night before and noticed the number of people watching the performance through camera phones – recording, photographing and uploading to Facebook.  Documenting rather than experiencing.  At least to his eyes.

I wondered if I had been doing the same.  Living with an eye on writing.

——————–

The Saturday before last, two days after my contract job ended, I said no to a sweat lodge in Michigan and to a birthday party across town, and called it self-care.

Instead, I rode my bike, ate ice cream from Jenni’s on Southport (Bangkok Peanut with coconut and dark chocolate) and napped naked under a ceiling fan, wrapped in crisp gray sheets.

And when I woke, I headed across town for a long-overdue Artist Date, the first in weeks – a reading at Quimby’s books, celebrating and promoting the publication on my friend Mike’s book Heavy Metal Movies.

He’d been working on it for years.  And I could not be more delighted for him.

Mike took the stage in a blue, fuzzy hat with horns – think Fred Flintstone and the Royal Order of Water Buffalos – and then shared it with his wife and a host of friends who gave voice to their own stories on what Mike referred to as “heavy metal, hard movies, and the torrid, torpid twain where both doth meet from a pantheon of ferociously funny, horrifically hilarious headbanging crackpots, visionaries, and mirth.”

I’m not a heavy-metal girl.  And at least one of the readings more than verged on the grotesque.  And yet, none of that mattered.

Each had moved beyond ego, to share their words and their work.  Work that came from their own passions, their own living.  Their presence onstage served as a reminder of possibilities — that there is, in fact, room for each of our voices at the table, and on stage — and also an invitation to do my own work, from my own living.  In sweat lodges and in bookstores.  On my bike and in my bed.  Fully awake and sometimes napping.

Writing AND Living.  Both, And.

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.

Plant Whisperer

dying plantI killed a cactus.

Actually three of them.  And two succulents.

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

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

And the jade?

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

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

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

Now, two sad, pale green stalks remain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know.

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