Art is Magic

Dear Friends,

I wanted to tell you about the Wizard of Oz themed gala I attended last weekend, how it was a gorgeous and magical experience, but I got a bit tripped up editing and thinking, “Yes but what’s the point? What am I really trying to say here?” I started telling myself that I don’t know enough about art to have any business writing about it. Forget, of course, that I am an artist, as is my sister, that I grew up in a creative household and have been practicing some form of art at all times for essentially all of my life. I don’t have a degree in it … oh wait. Yes I do. But I don’t have the right degree? In the right kind of art? Whatever. The ways I can come up with to undermine and disqualify myself are too many and nonsensical.

What I want to tell you about the gala is not a whole run down of the event like a magazine review. My intent is not to make you envious but to memorialize a certain magical experience. Okay, and maybe to brag a little bit. I got to wear a red sequin dress. We danced. There was art and champagne and free food and the most gorgeous drag queens I’ve ever seen. We got to tour the studios of resident artists, see works in progress, smell the pure joy of art supplies wafting on the air. It reminded me of when I would visit my sister when she was in art school. The combination of wet clay, oil paints, and the inevitable dust of creativity at work — it’s one of my favorite smells, and I had all but forgotten it. Even though the studios were crowded with both artists and audience, all carrying food and drinks, many perfumed for the occasion, still the dry, earthy smell of art being made got into me. I won’t soon forget it again.

And, my friends, there was a funk band — Jonathan Gilmore & The Experience. They blew my damn mind. I only stopped dancing because I had to pee, and then we got caught up talking to some friends, then stopping for a drink, then considering a last minute bid on the art auction, then being swept up by the drag show … The evening was a truly beautiful experience. I felt as though I’d been temporarily transported into a world where all the people are kind and magical, where Dorothy is a good girl flaunting a bad streak, and even the Wicked Witch is a magnificent queen who just wants to be accepted as her authentic self.

I’m as reluctant to bring this letter back to real-world topics as I was to leave the fantasy world of the gala on Saturday night. Since I failed to purchase any art at the auction (I will come prepared to do so next time), what can I bring back from that night besides a couple selfies? After the weekend, I had a bit of social hangover as I’d spent far more (and more intense) time among strangers than usual. But I keep thinking of the band leader asking us to close our eyes on the dance floor. “Art is magic,” he said. “Just close your eyes and feel it. Let’s see if we can experience a little magic here tonight.”

He was right. Art is magic. Magic is creating your life and your reality. Art is doing it your way, adding sparkles, singing a song about it as you go, living as though life is more than just a series of difficult and terrifying events. We are all too familiar with the difficult and terrifying, and I for one, needed a night of glitter and magic and art. I needed to be surrounded by the smiling faces of diverse strangers. I needed to dance in a room full of people pretending to be in an Emerald City disco. I needed candy in my champagne, a sparkly dress, men in rainbow suits and fluffy Toto costumes. I needed the stunning older woman with her grey hair whipped up on her head like a tornado. I needed the breathtaking art work of the resident artists, to be so close to its creation, and to be in the midst of the living, breathing, walking, talking, singing art of all those people. It was magical to be able to be there.

Over the years, I’ve become the kind of person who likes a lot of privacy and quiet nights at home. But for one night, what I needed was to open myself up to experience the magical flow of people and music and inspiration all in one place. I feel at once washed out from the flood of sensory experience and saturated with the residual creative energy. I need a moment to integrate it. I keep closing my eyes and feeling it again. Art is magic. Go make some.

xoxo~

Mary

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Worry less, practice more.

After a rough practice, I felt pretty rattled and decided to do a bit of skate maintenance to settle down.
After a rough practice, I felt pretty rattled and decided to do a bit of skate maintenance to settle down.

I fell at practice last night and scared myself more than I hurt myself. I needed to get back on wheels tonight* and not let that fall defeat me, so me and my anxiety went to the skating rink with Jennanigans and her daughter.

The cool thing about skating with the Little One (we need to give her a derby name!) is she distracts me from myself. I’ll skate backwards in front of her slowly, pretending to guide her when really, I’m using her as a focal point so I will stop obsessing about the fact that “omg I’m going backwards!” After a few laps like that, I started to feel pretty good, but still struggled with transitions. Going backwards? Not so bad. Getting backwards? Scary, apparently.

One of the lame parts of open skate is self-consciousness (also known as just another form of fear). At derby practice, everyone is working on themselves and you know they’re not judging you. People fall so often during practice that no one even looks twice unless they think you might be seriously hurt. But at open skate, derby girls tend to stick out, and it’s a whole different atmosphere. The thought of a fall like last night’s during open skate made me too nervous to practice transitions on the track with kids.

I spent some time on more familiar skills including one-footed weaving. The weaving was where I got in trouble. Certain rink regulars love to give advice, and I haven’t minded it in the past, but tonight it was just a distraction. I really wanted to focus on my own work, but here I was trying to ignore this guy who wanted me to use my lifted leg as a rudder. He tried to quiz me on how boats work and actually asked, “Have you seen a boat?” I had to tell him, “Are we having a physics lesson now? I just wanna skate. I don’t wanna talk about it. I learn things by doing them.” What I wanted to tell him was I am from the motherfucking Gulf of Mexico. I have seen boats, my knee is not a rudder, and pumping your leg out to the side like you’re working an invisible thigh master is not going to make you go faster.

All the distractions eventually frustrated me enough that I gave up and went to work on the thing I was feeling afraid of. I went in the center of the rink and skated back and forth for around 30 minutes turning around over and over again. I figured out which one was my “bad side” and kept turning that way until it felt as good as my other side. I practiced until it didn’t feel scary, and then I did it some more just for good measure. It was not glamorous or interesting to watch I’m sure, but it felt pretty great.

Some days (like yesterday), I don’t even know why I want to play roller derby. I don’t care about being a star athlete. I’ve never even viewed myself as very athletic. I love the community, but that alone isn’t a good enough reason for me to push myself like this. Yet I am addicted to derby. It’s not just the endorphins from a good workout but the exhilaration of having dome something I was once afraid to do.

Chances are, the next time I put on skates I’ll still feel a little intimidated by my first couple transitions. Just like I used to be scared of crossing over. But crossovers kept getting easier until they became natural, and transitions will be the same. It’s funny to me that I can predict: This is going to get easier. I know it will because I’m practicing. That actually makes me feel powerful in a really simple and practical way. I have the ability to get better because I choose to practice.

*It’s 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday, but I’m still calling it Tuesday because I haven’t gone to sleep yet. So sue me.

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A Different Gratitude

Homeless_on_bench_stencil_Melbourne

I’ve been feeling unusually grateful lately because I’ve come to realize I have just about the best husband, family, and group of friends a woman could want. But yesterday, I had an experience that humbled me, and made me feel a different kind of gratitude.

My friend Katie and I planned to meet up at Starbucks. I was running early because I expected traffic to be worse than it was. She was running a little behind. So I sat on a couch and fiddled with my phone while I waited for her. An older black woman shuffled in. She moved slowly, carried two reusable grocery bags full of stuff, and wore two hospital bands on her wrists. The weather had been just above freezing and rainy for over 24 hours, and she had clearly been out in it. She asked if the couch across from me was taken, took a seat, and at a fast food sandwich from one of her bags.

When Katie arrived and went to order her coffee, the woman asked me if she could use my phone to make a call. She told me the number, I dialed it for her, and she proceeded to talk on my phone for about 30 minutes while Katie and I sat and talked. She kept saying, “I am sick. I am tired. I need to heal.” She was asking people for money so she could stay in a hotel. When she finally got off the phone, I asked her if she was OK and if I could help her get somewhere like a shelter or a church where she might get assistance. She didn’t want to go to a shelter because they stole her clothes. She didn’t want to go to any churches either. She said they used to sometimes pay for a hotel room for her, but they wouldn’t anymore, and they told her not to come back. But she had a friend up Rt. 2 working at a cell phone store who said he could give her a few dollars. She was sure he wouldn’t give her a place to stay, but “every little bit counts,” she said.

If I were by myself, I probably would have wished her luck and gone on my way, but with Katie there, I felt a little braver. Katie’s a former public defender with the social skills and resources to connect with people in need, like this lady was. I offered the lady a ride to the cell phone store. She said she could’ve waited for the bus, but it would take a really long time and there are no shelters at most of the bus stops here. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and it didn’t seem right for her to be standing around in the rain. So, we drove up Rt. 2 more than half way to Baltimore, and dropped her off at this cell phone store. She didn’t know if the guy there was going to actually give her any money. I did not offer to hang around in case he wasn’t even there or wouldn’t help her.

On the way there, she told us a little about her life. Her name is Linda. She says her mother hates her and stopped her from marrying the love of her life. When Katie asked if she was sick, Linda gave her her hospital release papers, which we didn’t read. We started talking about Christmas movies somehow. Linda’s favorite Christmas movie is the Charlie Brown Christmas Special (mine, too!) and we both hated Scrooge. She and Katie agreed on Miracle on 34th St. I was the standout vote on claymation. It was a silly conversation, but it felt good to find something we could all have in common.

I didn’t really feel good about leaving Linda. I wanted to help her, but all I did was literally move her up the road a bit to an unknown destination. Katie had been going through her mental files thinking of places we could bring her, but if she wouldn’t agree to go to a shelter or church, there wasn’t much we could do but drop her off where she said her friends would be. Her contacts in the court system could only step in if Linda if had been arrested. And although she had just been released from the hospital, she said she had no case worker or social worker to ask for help.

Still, by the end of the ride, Linda was smiling. I have no idea if we helped her, but she certainly made me realize how lucky I am. Today, my family is coming over to celebrate with us, and really, the only thing we’re celebrating is the fact that we’re so lucky. Linda probably won’t have a Thanksgiving dinner. She told us to eat some turkey for her. I don’t normally eat turkey, but what the hell. It seems a little ungrateful not to.

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In the Shadow of the Grandstand

It was decided that we would attend the Preakness Stakes. Our friends were visiting from out of town, and I had failed to participate in this Maryland tradition after living in the state for six years. As one who doesn’t go for much tradition and finds most sporting events absurd at best and cultish at worst, I put on the floppy summer hat of the amateur social anthropologist and further braced myself with a backup plan: beer.

We drove into the Park Heights neighborhood of Baltimore and took the first decent parking spot we could find. A few men in their late 20s stood in an open lot holding cardboard signs that advertised, “$20, all day parking, you keep your keys.” They weren’t handing out parking passes or promising any form of security, but it was only 1p.m., and the neighbors and a cop car or two looked on without concern, so we paid the men and walked the remaining three blocks to Pimlico thinking ourselves very lucky to get out of traffic so easily.

As we walked, it became increasingly obvious that a culture clash was afoot. While Baltimore’s population is 63.7% black according to the 2010 census, the population of people entrusting their cars to men with cardboard signs was about 95% white and at least 75% richer than me according to my own observations. Meanwhile, of the residents who had come out to observe, socialize and make a few bucks on race day 99% were black and 100% were less wealthy than me.

Of the houses we passed, about a third sported boarded windows and caution taped doors while their adjoining neighbors had little old ladies sitting on the front porch or clusters of young men on the stoop. Three young women stood outside the beauty shop, one with a belly as big and round as a beach ball, watching our albino alien parade. If we seemed absurd to me, then we must have been obscene to them. But I don’t know because I didn’t ask. I walked on by, carried along by the current of what I can only call white privilege, gaze fixed forward like this was all perfectly natural.

Before I knew it, we were crossing busy Belvedere Ave. and entering Pimlico Race Course. The transition from poor urban neighborhood to anachronistic race track was stark. The parking lot around the track was completely full and probably had been since well before the gates opened at 10 a.m. Predictably, many of the cars parked here were of the type that I imagine country club legacy members should drive.

Not to deride the tradition, but I couldn’t decide whether I was less at ease among my supposed peers inside the gates or in the neighborhood outside. Lots of time passed between the races, giving patrons time to buy drinks and place bets, but it seemed the real pastime of choice was walking among the seats like teenagers through a mall, with the primary goal being to be seen.The women paid little attention to one another, or at least to my friend and me. Leathery men wearing jaunty hats and smoking cigars looked pleased with themselves and eyed the many well-bred rear ends around them. Young men in seersucker suits and bow ties noticed with more than the usual disdain that my hair was pink and my legs were unshaven.

Drunk people dressed like they’d just left church patrolled the grandstand. Women in high heels clung haphazardly to the handrails, drifting around turns like sloppy stiletto dragsters. Meanwhile, my own chances of getting drunk wilted at the cost of the beverages: $9 for something called a Black Eyed Susan, which purported to consist of whiskey, triple sec, and vodka but tasted like watered down iced tea.

The races were fascinating to me in as much as I had never seen a horse race before. Wearing my big floppy hat, cheap as it was, was fun. And though I don’t like betting in general, putting $10 on a couple of horses added some excitement to the main event. Based on the odds listed in the day’s program, my husband picked Bodemeister to win and I’ll Have Another to place.

The Preakness itself was magnificent yet short like sex with my high school boyfriend. I hoped to hear the thunder of the horses’ hooves, but instead all I heard was the crowd cheering and the drunk guy behind me shouting, “Go, you sonofabitch!” For a moment, it looked like my husband’s picks were dead on, but I’ll Have Another pulled through at the last second.  I was grinning, clapping and “wow”ing with the rest of the crowd as the horses crossed the finish line.

Still, all the charm of Charm City, even decked out with horses and hats, doesn’t change the fact that I don’t like crowds. Standing in line to cash out our three-dollar winnings was the last of what I could take. Walking back to the car, we passed a small cluster of young men dressed in baggy white pants, loose T-shirts and all wearing their hair in cornrows. A block further was a trio of furious frat boys who had parked two slots away from us and had their car stolen. There was no sign of the cops who had been directing traffic earlier in the day. The neighbors had dispersed, and none were looking our way. All that remained was a mess of glass on the pavement, shimmering with the sea green of a new, untinted window in the late afternoon sun.

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