Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Live Lit in Chicago!!

It was a dark and stormy night… No wait, it was a lovely sunny autumn afternoon!

It had been quite a while since I’d played in the sandbox of Chicago’s thriving “live lit” scene. Two years, to be exact, since I’d stepped up in front of an audience at a Chicago Writers Conference “after hours” event to read one of my favorite essays, “Mink Recycling.” (And yes, a hand-me-down mink stole and chandelier earrings were involved that night.) But here I was, hurtling along in three lanes of southbound interstate traffic, headed back to my beginnings in the city of the big shoulders.

A lot stands in the way of getting to Chicago to read out loud very often, most of it made up of more than 120 miles of pavement between my home and my home town. And the occasional stretch of horrible winter weather, always a wild card when planning to show up someplace on time.

But the itch to read in front of a crowd again had been creeping up on me, and when the hosts of the “live lit” series That’s All She Wrote, Angela Benander and Jessica “J.H.” Palmer graciously folded me in to their September event, I was tickled pink, totally excited, and absolutely thrilled. Plus, I had a new book to promote, “When the Shoe Fits…Essays of Love, Life and Second Chances,” and it behooved me to get out from behind the keyboard a bit more often.

If you’d asked anybody I went to high school, or college, or law school with, they might die of shock. Public speaking was not only not my long suit, it quite apparently filled me with terror. Difficulty breathing-hyperventilating-unable-to-get-the-words-to-come-out-without-laboring efforts terror. There’s a reason I’d been so comfortable as a writer for so much of my life—I could hide behind a keyboard and work and rework my words until I got them right, then dispatch them with a keystroke or two to their destinations.

I had striven hard in law school to get this pathological fear and tendency toward panic attacks under control. A courtroom is no place for the faint of heart, and a prosecuting attorney is in court most of the time. I quickly found my comfort zone in the beautiful little Art Deco courthouse I work in on the shore of Lake Michigan. But when the call went out a few years ago at the start-up of the reading series, Essay Fiesta, I sensed another personal challenge was at hand, and dived right in.

Over the next couple of years, I read at several Essays Fiestas held at The Book Cellar, and a couple of “open mic” sessions at The Beauty Bar hosted by the literary magazine, “Two with Water.”

This upcoming night with That’s All She Wrote upped the ante just a little more. Not only had “live lit” expanded into a thriving, competitive scene of occasionally intense physicality and theatricality (e.g. Ian Belknap!) in Chicago…this one was being staged at the upscale Great Lakes Tattoo Parlor on Grand Avenue just west of the Loop. With free beer, no less!
Seriously, you have to admit that the words “live lit” combined with “tattoo” and “free beer” just have a naturally edgier cachet than, say, a bookstore or a bar. Yeah! So into my shoe closet I dived and pulled out my new electric blue suede high heels. Then, like Dorothy skipping down the road in her ruby slippers, I made my way to a section of Grand Avenue I’d never actually traversed while growing up in the city.

I had picked an essay I wrote back when I was still just blogging at Running with Stilettos, before I ever decided to collect my essays into a book…and then two…and then two more. “Cordless and Dangerous” was what I brought to the feast on Sunday, a recounting of my first post-divorce power tool buy, a cordless drill.

On the surface, it told the tale of how I wrestled with fixing a broken pasture fence by myself one day and the series of comic missteps and lessons learned the hard way until the job was done. But it was also about that moment that a divorced woman eventually faces, when there is a crisis at hand that requires a tool kit, and literally no one else to call to fix it, and the only thing left to do is to take up the gauntlet, walk into a hardware store and say—in essence—“rack ’em.”

It is the distance between considering your only tools to be baking pans and mixing bowls, and understanding the difference between a flat-head and a Phillips screwdriver. Between throwing your hands up in despair and wailing “oh no, what am I going to do?” and asking yourself “now where did I put that d—n hex wrench?”

So up to the microphone I stepped, and explained. About myself and the fact I was happy to be back in my home town again. About this particular essay and the emotional journey it represented. And about yet one more thing I valued about the storytelling surge in Chicago.

And that is that as person after person takes their place at center stage, I am drawn back to the same vibes I felt as a parent of young children in grade school. I’ve raised four kids, and so have spent more hours than I can possibly remember sitting in churches, and school auditoriums, and gymnasiums, waiting for recitals, and Christmas programs, and spring concerts, and any number of choreographed performances to start.

And as the lights would dim for the audience and the program of the night was about to start, I remember there would be a collective hush of anticipation and a leaning in, a clutching of the heart as it were, as a tide of good feelings and hope flowed silently toward the stage. Call me a sentimental fool, but that’s some of the same stuff I feel at an event where writers are “reading out loud.”

I was amazed and humbled by the talent and humor and passion of my fellow performers that night!

Angela Benander told of the personal challenges of a solo camping trip, only some of which had to do with the physical tasks of pitching a tent or starting a fire.
Jessica Palmer brought us along on a tenth wedding anniversary trip where she introduced her very urban husband to a former boyfriend and current organic farmer.
Paul Dailing, a journalist who writes the blog 1001 Chicago Afternoons, did a searing stream-of-consciousness journey to the grinding realities of “bond court” in the Cook County criminal justice system.
Karen Genelly, a former Chicago Public School teacher, had us screaming in our seats with laughter at her narrative of teaching “sex ed” every day for six weeks to middle-schoolers.
And in a gosh-its-a-small-world connection, the last performer was Karen Shimmin, who currently co-hosts Essay Fiesta! Karen started us off with laughter at the comic side of setting out to buy a camera lens from a talkative shopkeeper, but then seamlessly segued into a moving reflection on the randomness of horrific events that can happen when natural forces such as gravity and falling ice collide with the man-made forests of skyscrapers.
In yet another “six degrees of separation” moment for me that night, I met Chicago storyteller Lily Be, who co-hosts and produces the story-telling series The Stoop. Turns out Lily goes to the same Catholic church, Maternity B.V.M. on North Avenue, where I made my First Communion and attended all eight years of grade school. Who knew?
I felt my brain synapses absolutely crackling as I finally left Great Lakes Tattoo when the evening was done. Once in my car, I checked my smart phone for a map of how to get back on the Kennedy Expressway from my parking space on a side street, but could make no sense of it.

But…no worries. As a Chicago girl, I am as oriented to the zero-sum significance of the intersection of State and Madison as a homing pigeon, and so I headed eastward, the opposite direction of home and directly toward the Loop. The skyscrapers that had gleamed warmly in the setting sun as I drove in now glittered in the dark like rhinestones in moonlight, a lighthouse beacon of vast and familiar proportions.

Instinct steered me like the North Star to a marker I recognized. Two left turns later, I was on the highway ramp at Ontario, hurtling toward the Kennedy Expressway, delighted to find that the northbound “express” lanes were open in my favor at that late hour.

I gunned my tiny Honda into the express lane, whose steep no-margin-for-error concrete sides felt like the entrance to an Olympic toboggan chute. And then, with the twinkling lights of the Chicago skyline dimming in my rear view mirror, I drove back home to my house in the woods.


Suzanne Brazil said...

Great recap of a wild night. I was fortunate enough to enlist in Dana Norris's Live Lit Bootcamp this summer and I was alternately energized and terror-stricken! What a rush. Your essay brought it all back. Thanks for sharing.

Mike Smolarek said...

I remember meeting you at a reading event nearly three years ago Mary. Live lit in Chicago has come a long way the last ten years.

RunningWithStilettos said...

Mike, it sure HAS!!