From today until June 30, I’m making an effort to eat unprocessed plant-based foods. I’ll make some exceptions in the first week or two, and maybe still incorporate some fish and eggs. But I’m really looking forward to seeing how my body reacts. Rather than dwell on the foods I’m cutting out, here are the foods I’ll be enjoying: avocado, tomato, pepper, cucumber, carrot, leafy greens, celery, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, sweet potato, apple, berries, mushrooms, garbanzos, peanut butter, grape nuts, rice wrappers, almond milk, olive oil, apple cider vinegar, unsweetened black coffee or tea, and super dark chocolate.
Today is May 25, 36 days away from my 46th birthday. To say the least, it’s been a hard year so far. We are collectively suffering in one way or another from the stress of having our autonomy limited by the pandemic.
This week I tested my courage by heading back to my small office where apparently no quarantine rules apply. I’m pleased to report that no outbreaks have resulted from our low key breach of the county’s mask ordinance. In all likelihood, we were all exposed early on when at least one office mate had an “unidentified” severe respiratory illness. Our risk to one another now is relatively low, especially with distancing and disinfecting.
One of the most challenging parts of restarting office life was getting back my confidence. I hadn’t exposed my face-and my severe breakouts-to anyone except family and close friends for a while, and I felt especially insecure about the 5 lbs I had gained from all the comfort food I had been consuming. I was fortunate enough to get out for some uphill hiking on a warm afternoon this week and was stunned at how winded I am now after having lost my stamina from weeks of little to no daily exercise.
This weekend, being one of America’s big grill-out holidays, I encountered a surprisingly well-stocked grocery store. I filled my cart with meats, dairy, eggs, salty chips, sweet beverages, and some veggies and seasonal fruit, and thought about what a great dinner party I could throw if it wasn’t a quarantine (and if I was more inclined to throw parties). And while I’m filled with gratitude for all the conditions that made it possible for me to eat my fill of just about any food I wish, I recognize I need to be a lot more conscientious about what I’m choosing to consume.
My age, metabolism, hormone fluctuations, and food intolerances are all catching up to me. There’s an abundance of information (and common sense) that tells me if I made better choices with my diet, my weight, appearance, and mental state would all improve. Over time, it could prove to be a meaningful way to create less waste. Transitioning to plant-based, and eliminating meat, alcohol, sugar and dairy, is something I’ve been wanting to try to see if my body responds positively. Along with daily exercise and more water consumption, I can’t help but believe it will make me look and feel more like my old self, with fewer headaches, breakouts, mood swings.
So it’s time to do some homework and make a plan for a trial. For the month leading up to my birthday, and as a gift to myself, I’m going to treat my body to healthier food and lots of outdoor exercise.
I admit it, there were some tense moments during the past 9 weeks and every day is imprinted with a dull anxiety of wondering what I could be doing better to prepare for an uncertain future. But today I woke up early, sat in the chilly morning air with my coffee, and went to work on a project I suddenly felt inspired to conquer, and I finally felt like myself again.
My #artalonetogether2020 project was sputtering along these last few weeks. Some of the others who participated started to submit their work to the group Instagram page. I thought I would create a sketchbook with 36 pages, each page depicting a daily element. I got about 8 pages along and didn’t know how it would translate without any ties between the elements. So I recalibrated, and started with a blue square on my 4.5” x 6” card. Then drew 4 intersecting circles in the corners, and one in the center. That became the peach. I picked a cilantro leaf (herb) and traced it. Googled waffle cone and added that in the corner, same with circus tents, lace, seeds, and so forth until I checked off all 34 items. I had to brainstorm for an item starting with the letter “j” and chose jewels (also a nod to my Granny Jewell). I started when the sun was just coming over the east fence, took a cereal break at 1pm, and finished as it set over the west fence.
I’m so grateful for the friends who invited me to be part of this group. We are all creative types with day jobs that pay the bills. In spite of the narrative we keep hearing about how hard it is to be socially distancing, we are secretly thriving. As we go through our days with fewer interactions, we find comfort and strength from looking inward for answers. Today was a huge breakthrough for me, and it gave me the confidence to begin practicing my skills with a new goal: honoring my creative decisions from the beginning to the end.
It’s early on a late April Sunday morning, and I’m gently awoken by the achingly familiar song of robins in the distant trees. No longer silenced by winter’s command to shelter in silence, their orchestrations slowly build; a song that could have begun hours ago hundreds of miles away in an eastern mountain forest, carried across vast plains and bluffs until arriving in time with the first glimmer of daybreak on the land, and penetrating the window I’ve left cracked open.
I peek out from under the covers at the predawn shadows on the wall. As I blink, the blurred face of an old love flickers like a faded film strip projected behind my eyelids, and I swim back down into the warmth of my bedding to catch another glimpse of him, longing to inhabit this scene a little longer. We are lazily getting dressed, talking in hushed voices about the friends who are coming to visit, and he is telling me stories about the small Illinois town where they met. I reach for the soft peacock blue corduroy jeans I bought before freshman year, pulling them over my feet, only to recoil from the sharp metal staples at the ankles, maybe a misguided attempt to shorten the hem. The jarring sensation sends me upward, and my silken dream state begins to dissipate. I linger there, inhaling the dream’s vapor like the smoke from a candle that’s just been extinguished. The weight of my consciousness begins to pull on my insides, and my eyes turn to the window, framing a lavender sky barely ripening to pink. Silhouettes of trees begin to take shape, and the occasional car passes on a nearby road. I feel as though I’m coming around the same bend of track that I associate with Aprils past.
The last time I rose before dawn, I raced out the door, throwing a coat over my pajamas, and headed East to the park for the best view of what promised to be a colorful sunrise. The pond had just begun to freeze. I couldn’t contain my urge to press on the surface with my toe to hear the crackle and creak of ice giving way. Losing my balance, I cursed as my foot quickly got soaked with mucky ice water. That was December, and a desperate quiet escape from a busy week of work and travel and family gatherings. It feels like another lifetime, many bends and turns behind.
Now the ice has melted, and no coat is needed. But I leave the house only for fresh air and essential food runs. For the last 6 weeks, a pandemic has threatened the health and safety of an entire nation. Countless warnings and breaking news alerts have required us to vacate offices and schools and remain home until it’s safe to gather again. We are all vulnerable, and we threaten those around us as carriers, even if we don’t exhibit symptoms. It’s like a plot from a horror film, but it’s real life. And yet, isolated in my home with my closest family member, without any emotional connection to this disease, it’s hard to believe that it’s real. Being a shut-in is challenging for anyone, but for those of us who have a history of mental health issues, it’s utterly terrifying. The waves of loneliness, and the highs and lows of having almost no answers to my questions and no structure in my day, are taking a toll.
Dreams are especially vivid now. Sleep is a welcome side effect to being confined at home, but when I exceed 8 hours a day, my dreams start to feel more intertwined with my waking life. Lately I’m being visited in dreams by old friends, and also by people I no longer share a connection with. I’m experiencing the pain of loving them and losing them all over again. My senses are heightened. I see colors and feel warmth at recognizing their smiles. I can smell their scents and hear their voices just as though they are next to me. Waking up alone after these imaginary encounters is unsettling.
I watched a new film yesterday to pass the time. The director is one I know well, and after seeing his movies for half my life, I feel fluent in the language he speaks through his art. Maybe it reminded me of being a young, outgoing art student, seeing old ensemble cast members and letting the familiar dialogues wash over me. Like seeing an old friend and letting my guard down while he told a story, comforted to be sent back to an internal state of mind where I once existed so carelessly without worries about the future. His movies provoke a sentimentality for outdated sexist tropes, reckless emotional outbursts, violent confrontations. In a present that requires me to be inhibited in thoughts and actions, this movie provided a welcome escape into a part-fiction time and place where a pandemic doesn’t exist, and melodrama solves conflict.
I dreamed about a childhood friend earlier this week. A couple of days later he reached out, and I felt deep down that this was the right time to connect, that the dream was a fateful suggestion. But I have to question everything now. In the past I have distanced myself because of the emotional toxicity of our friendship. In my reckless pursuit of human touch, I considered meeting up with him, and I fantasized about the possibility of hugging him. When I thought of how this could actually threaten his fragile physical health, I felt so much remorse. But that urge to connect was so strong, like the draw of that thin layer of ice on the pond, begging to be tested, just for the pleasure of hearing the tiny shattering sound.
I fear myself at this point. I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to put a public face on after the distancing restrictions are lifted. I take comfort in the practice of using a mask, sunglasses and a hat now. And I suppress my need to be seen and touched, only allowing it in dreams.
About 3 weeks ago I wrote on my personal blog about some events that were simmering. I’ll summarize it this way: I’m simply in awe of how fast the world can change when you let it.
I’m learning to say no. Which ironically, frees me up to say yes to the things I really want in my life. And in between running around to do work and shopping, etc., I’m feeling extraordinarily grateful for the way my life is reshaping itself.
This morning I was feeling off. The sun was disappearing into a dark gray fog, I was sitting in the Starbucks parking lot dreading our status meeting at work, and generally not feeling up to doing anything productive. I’ve mentioned an old colleague of mine before, she now writes about her journey toward becoming self-employed. She sent out an invite to view her latest lesson, so I requested the link. The first line was “So you’ve quit your day job. Now what.” I imagined what it would feel like to say that. (Hard to believe I was in that exact position about 7 months ago…and I’ve already found myself wanting to go back.) And it hit me. Every day I rack up 60 miles driving to and from a job that gives me minimal satisfaction, and very minimal pay. I put so much effort into my work some days that I come home feeling so defeated that I retreat to the couch and let myself be overcome by fatigue. It’s a lot of distance to cover, and the only reward is the occasional opportunity to shadow a couple of very talented women who I genuinely admire.
That–right there–seems to be the problem. Why am I shadowing? I know my craft. I’ll never be more prepared to practice my skills. I don’t need permission to do it. I don’t need to follow someone’s timetable. I just need to wake up and do what I love, and trust that I will track down the resources to do exactly what I need to do for as long as I wish to do it.
Maybe the realization came as a result of a small feat that I accomplished with the help of 60 or so determined women whose combined enthusiasm helped me summit not one, not two, but three mountains in a day. I’ve driven past these peaks nearly every day for months, never fully understanding their size and immeasurable beauty. After Sunday, I looked at them differently, and I saw myself differently too, for having conquered them. One doesn’t attempt an 11 and 1/2 mile hike without some preparation. I prepared. I brought supplies, dressed for wind and snow and sun and brought poles for support so I wouldn’t risk another broken ankle, and I succeeded. For once, that was enough.
On June 14 of this year, I hit the road with my daughter and our cats and a 5’x8′ trailer full of our stuff. No lease in hand, no job, just an email confirmation and a temporary address in Boulder, Colorado.
Our journey wasn’t without its share of excitement. When I arrived I had only a vague idea of the layout of the town. Without GoogleMaps I’d never have found my way around. But we settled in, drove around, found the best spots for ice cream, hardware, people watching, etc. In the spirit of outdoor adventures, we went along on a Father’s Day hike with friends at a nearby mountain lake, where I took a spill on a muddy hill and sprained my ankle; fully initiated into the Colorado way of life. Later that week I hobbled into State and County offices to get my new driver’s license and plates, drove up to North Boulder for a job interview, celebrated a rainy birthday in Estes Park with my daughter, and stubbornly attempted to climb 2 different mountain trails in town. My ankle pain came and went, and it became more difficult to conduct normal activities. Four weeks after the injury I was diagnosed with a fractured fibula, and told to refrain from weight-bearing activities altogether. Two weeks after that, I had recovered enough that I was able to pack up the same 5’x8′ trailer and with the help of local movers, I settled in a new home 3 miles to the north.
I’m now on the eighth week of this adventure. The hummingbirds have given us a warm welcome, serenading us daily with their trills and delighting us with their fly-by’s. The hills in the distance instill hope and energy every morning as I look out on this place that I now have the distinct pleasure of calling “home.”
As I sipped a long-pour of vodka and soda, I listed some things on my neighborhood’s Facebook garage sale site. I didn’t expect it to get so much attention! I woke up to a dozen messages, people wanting appliances, tables, shelves, bikes. One by one I scheduled pick ups, and now I’m about $150 richer while I mourn the loss of my precious stuff. Trying now to take a few moments to think of how my stuff will give others pleasure as it did for me.
The bike, though. That was my form of transportation when I was carless in the late 90’s. I spent every evening on the lakefront riding further and further from my home base, till I was able to do the 30-mile Bike the Drive. One summer I logged 1000 miles riding to and from my job in the south Loop. Then, after handing the car over to my ex in the divorce and before selling our home, I rode 15 miles from Rogers Park to my parents’ home in Mount Prospect, in a symbolic act of strength in the face of sadness. I listened to Bon Iver and Of Monsters and Men as I made my way west, reversing the trip I had made so many years earlier to settle in the big bad city. It was a pattern I would repeat for the next 3 years, visiting my old haunts for a sense of closure. I took up running and made destinations out of schools I had attended, parks and pools where I’d spent my younger years, the filthy bar where I’d shared my misery with grown-up childhood friends, and homes where I had had my first sleepovers, babysitting gigs, piano lessons. I had a rich and rewarding childhood. I loved being able to relive some of my greatest memories when I was so deeply saddened about the course my life had taken in my 30’s.
About 7 months ago I decided to wrap up the old days. As my daughter’s godfather reminded me today, the times, they are a changin’. It’s time to make some new memories and let the old ones stay in the past, to patina and gather dust. Soon I’ll feel a pull to explore new words, and to give my daughter all the joys I never knew as a child.
This week I celebrated the reunion of my old company, Leap Partnership. It had been fifteen years since I’d seen most of them in person. I only set aside an hour, but I managed to sneak in some great conversations. These people, especially the women, were so influential to me at a critical time in my life, and still inspire me today. Each of the ladies in this photo now contributes to the community in a totally different way. One is a clinical therapist, another is the president of a university. Another learned the hard way how to start her own business, and she now helps others achieve the same thing. I talked to one of the original partners, who now manages his own original brand, inspired by (of all things) the actual summer camp in Wisconsin that he attended as a kid, and now owns with his wife. Another long-time management leader had moved over to a similar company which has been going strong all this time. At least four couples paired up during our stint together, with at least 9 kids resulting from those unions.
Before joining Leap, I had been pigeonholed into submissive roles doing clerical work, trying to fulfill my dream of being an active part of the art world in Chicago. By spring of 1999, I was growing tired of having to act a certain way to project the right image to the people I was “serving.” Exasperated, I resigned from my job in a Michigan Avenue art gallery. I don’t recall ever worrying about how I’d pay the rent, I was so confident then that I’d find a replacement job. Soon I landed a temporary position at Leap, which was then Quantum Leap, a small ad agency which was just beginning to engage in web site design. Even on day one I knew this was a big break for me. I sat near the HR office, and was quickly absorbed into a team of smart, dedicated professionals, whose attitude was inclusive and without judgment. Once initiated, I was given the chance to use my design skills, and I was offered a full time position. For the first time ever, I got my own desk.
It was all too good to be true. The sense of camaraderie was fantastic, an office full of young creatives who regularly invited all to their band performances, art shows, underground warehouse parties. Never had I been so socially fearless. Even fifteen years later I can remember conversations with nearly every one of the 60ish employees who made up that core group. Soon enough we had competition, and I was placed on the team that assembled proposals for new business. There was lots to do, but gradually the bottom started to fall out. Ultimately, most of the company was laid off. What followed was a terrible grieving period. I had attached so much of my identity to that job, that when I was cut off, I felt like I was worthless. Till I realized what a gift I’d been given. I stand by this statement: being laid off from Leap was the best thing that ever happened to me. I had to rebuild myself from the ground up. I had to wake up every morning that summer and ask myself what the heck was I put here to do. In a couple of months I would be staying up all night to put together a portfolio of my own creative work (some of which I created that night), and somehow I’d be chosen over 200 other applicants for an apprenticeship with an art conservation lab. A new chapter, just when I thought the story was over.
This is Pop, otherwise known as Jesse Jones, my great-grandfather. He came to me through my aunt, who rescued him from a termite-damaged frame in the back of my grandmother’s closet in Norco, LA. There had been collateral damage which resulted from a difficult removal from the frame. So I stabilized the cracks, filled and inpainted, and refitted the photo in its convex glass enclosure. It’s been a year since I sent the portrait back. It was my first earnest attempt at working from home, and a validating experience in that I set out to do something I normally do with watchful eyes on me. This time I was unsupervised, no training wheels.
The best part about restoring this family heirloom was the conversation that followed with my 85-year old Granny Jewell. She loved her Pop, and described him as a “rascal.” I spent many hours pondering that handsome face, wondering if he was the same tall old man I saw in my parents’ wedding photos. What had he done to make a living? What sort of traits did he pass on to his children? Why had he sat for this portrait?
I learned that this portrait was taken before my grandmother was born, prior to 1930. Pop had previously been married, and he and his first wife each had these studio portraits made. In those days, sales men walked door to door soliciting photos like this, which would have been printed on a domed surface, which was of course vulnerable if not framed in a special frame with convex glass. It would have been more costly than a traditional flat photo, but people liked the look of it. Pop’s first wife divorced him and moved out west, taking her own portrait with her. He stayed in Louisiana where he became acquainted with the town’s post-mistress, Anna. Soon they married and had 3 girls, one of whom is my Granny Jewell.
Granny said that he was often ill, and couldn’t work. They were very poor, but she made a point of saying in spite of that, they were never hungry. Pop had moved south to Louisiana from Illinois for the sole reason that one could grow crops year round. Combined with the availability of fish and game, the family never lacked fresh food. My Great Grandmother, who was affectionately referred to as Great Mom, was a Cajun woman who still spoke the Creole French of her ancestors. Her husband didn’t like when she spoke French in the home, because having been raised in Illinois, he couldn’t understand it. But according to my mother, a few French phrases hung on in their household even into the 1970’s when Great Mom passed away. Pop wasn’t a fan of Cajun cooking either. My Granny was brought up to cook “white sauces” and blander foods which would have come from Pop’s upbringing upriver in Illinois. Pop was the outlier, but he called the shots in the kitchen.
Pop was good with his hands, and he made a hobby of creating altar pieces. These table top folk-art altars were made for the home-bound Catholics in the rural Louisiana community where he lived. They would have been auctioned off at church events and used by the local people who wanted to worship, but couldn’t attend church due to illness. A few years ago, my grandmother’s sister Enid took it upon herself to attempt to collect as many altars as she could to preserve them for future generations. She was interviewed in her local newspaper for her noble efforts, which led to the preservation of at least a half dozen of these artifacts.
The preservation gene runs strong on that side of my family. My mother has long been the family historian, and I got Great Aunt Enid’s itch for restoring old stuff. We all are swayed by sentimentality, looking for answers in our past. Metaphorically turning over rocks in search of clues as to how we all got here.
Two years ago, I had the fortune of being introduced to Phil, an aspiring life coach. A mutual friend of ours arranged for us to meet so we could talk about reevaluating my career choices. He came to me armed with tools like Venn diagrams, reading recommendations, and diagnostic tests to measure my professional strengths and weaknesses. In time, our conversations revealed that he held so many more tools in his arsenal. Phil is a practicing Buddhist, and his philosophy centers on finding greater meaning in everyday life by letting go of the things that don’t serve us. It wasn’t easy to grasp some of the ideas with which he challenged me. He gave me assignments, designed to force me out of my comfort zone, in order to allow me to see my world in a new way.
I had experienced a series of events which had led me to a murky place in my life. I was wandering in a fog of shame and anger, and I’d lost my path. Little by little, we stripped away some the shameful thoughts and doubts that had enshrouded me. We talked about gratitude. We practiced confrontations. He retrained me to say the words “I WANT.” Risks that I had avoided for years suddenly presented themselves as opportunities.
One of the toughest challenges Phil presented to me, from the very beginning, was to create a web site. I had purchased the URL “susandeangelis.com” years ago, fresh out of college, as a way to keep in touch with art school friends. When I had no content to add, my friends teased me and told me to keep trying. I never stopped creating, or wanting to share that creativity, but I became paralyzed by the fear of not measuring up. So it never materialized.
I’m proud to say that almost 20 years (and one giant leap) later, I’ve discarded a lot of those fears. Making a web site now feels about as intimidating as making a pie. I have the knowledge, the materials, the drive, and when I show it to my audience, my hope is that they’ll dig right in past the flaky crust and down to the sweet, juicy center.