This blog post was started in my mind about 3 dozen times. Now that I’m poised at the keyboard at Anchorage Int’l airport, poised to launch myself back to the Big Village that I was raised in, the village called The Windy City, The City of Big Shoulders, Chi-town, a.k.a. Chicago.
It’s the land of big meals, big homes, and big cars. It’s the land of blue collars, still, despite a wealthy urban class that continues to stockpile riches. It is the land of a lake big enough to be mistaken for an ocean, with waves in high winds. It is a place where interstates are called “expressways”, and they have names like Dan Ryan, Stevenson and Edens. It is the land that created the permanent tollroad.
I could go on & on about the deep-dish pizza & hot dog cliches, the sports fans (best in the world, ahem), and the weather, but you know all that stuff. What many of you don’t know is the real Chicago. The Chicago that makes my eyes weep every time I visit.
It is the Chicago with the most beautiful urban architecture this side of the Atlantic. No, I’m not biased. I’ve been to New York, DC, & other places. Fancy colonnades, facades, and the like aren’t what I’m interested in. What interests me is how a city’s structures get built, integrated, and thrive over time. Sometimes, it’s adding a crazy red statue by a famous artist, like Picasso, to a building’s outdoor sitting area that makes it. Other times, it’s how train tracks get elevated, and repaired, again & again. Despite San Francisco’s magnificent “ladies” in their Victorian gowns, Chicago’s brownstones, 2 and 3 flats, large skyscrapers, and dingy row houses, all blended together, are what make my heart sing every time I drive downtown.
And then there’s the people. You’ll never find the kind of nice, yet distant, helpful but not friendly, protective yet strike-up-a-convo-at-any-moment kind of people like you find in Chicago. They are proud of where they are from, they know the names of all the interstates, all the bad neighborhoods, and all the mayors, ’cause there’s just been one until recently. (I don’t even know the new mayor’s name yet!) The bus drivers, the sewer workers, the meter maids, they all clock in & out daily with no expectation for promotion, pats on the back, or accolades. They are unsung heros of a City That Works. They do their job. They go home. They watch the Bears game. They are Chicagoans.
Most of my time will be spent with my mom, as she transitions to the next life. The “familiar friend” in the title isn’t Chicago. In fact, I’ve almost been away from there, longer than I lived there. Returning to Chicago to attend to my mother will be an act of re-acquaintance. It’s like your high school sweetheart, that somehow you decided wouldn’t work out for the long term, but you’re both now divorced, he has kids, and after bumping into each other at the grocery store, there you are at dinner, looking across the table from one another, memories of youth flashing before your eyes, noticing some grey hairs, noticing some saggy neck wrinkles, but still being charmed by the sparkle in his eye.
Will it work a second time? Too early to tell. That’s why people date.
This time around, I’m wiser to the ways of dating, to the ways of Chicago. I’ve traveled across the world & back again several times. I know what I like, and what I don’t like. I know what I’ll tolerate, and what I won’t. I know the drivers on the expressways are even more dangerous than when I was growing up, instead of driving 70-80 down the Dan Ryan, it’s now 90-100.
I know the bad neighborhoods are just as bad as ever, with teens beating teens with planks of wood. But, there are several new neighborhoods that I’m not familiar with, like the Middle Eastern one. Raggedy neighborhoods have now become gentrified, with boutique cutesy shops, and hipsters competing for the Most Bizarre Piercing Award.
People will look at me strange. I won’t “fit in” in Chicago. I don’t dress the same, and I like to make new friends, something Chicagoans don’t do. Oh, don’t get me wrong – they’re “nice”, but they keep the same friends they’ve had since the 2nd grade. This is Just So.
My monkey hat will get heckles, my new hand-made turquoise parka with the lynx fur trim will get jaw-dropping stares. People won’t compliment me on my hand-knitted purple hat with the flower, like a nice lady in the Seattle airport just did.
And all that’s entirely OK. I didn’t come to Chicago for that. I didn’t come to prove myself, to fit in, to be liked, or to be cool (certainly not – never have). I came to comfort my mother as she finally reaches peace from her horrible cancer, and help her transition into the next life.
I’m coming because I didn’t spend as much time as I wanted with my brother before he died, due to my stinkin’ corporate job and my lousy manager. Thankfully, without a job, I can be with Mom more, and pick a job that is part-time, or more flexible, so as to keep plenty of time for her.
I will catalog & organize the footage of my project, so that I can attract funding, which will allow me to hire editors, PR people & the like to really make the film go. It’s a source of pain for me to see others filming & editing “as they go”. This was my original intention, but I had no idea the footage would be so overwhelming. It’s a good thing really.
Despite the painful nature of my arrival to Chicago, it will be good to stop. My plan was to stop in Bethel, AK, continue to make Alaska film & community connections, and work & live there for the Winter. If my mom passes away in 2 weeks, then I’ll go back. If it’s two months, then I won’t go back til Spring.
I WILL go back.
This is just a detour. Nothing in life takes a linear path. There’s a reason for all of this, even though I don’t know what it is.
Thank You to all the amazing people I met in Alaska. Thank You for your generosity, your kindness, and your love. I am forever changed (for the positive) from meeting all of you!
As I walk toward the tunnel of darkness known as Grief, my old friend, I am stronger now, less afraid. I have better supplies like headlamps & flashlights, but most importantly the flame of love burning in my heart, the same flame all of you showed me during my time traveling in Alaska. With this flame, nothing will ever be as dark again as it was when Mickey died in February.
I am thankful to recognize grief now, to know what it looks like, feels like, and its’ sporadic arrival & departure. When it comes, I know to hold its hand, no longer afraid to welcome it. Who knew I’d get so much practice in grieving earlier this year? “Practice makes perfect” They Say. Certainly I’m no expert in loss, but at least this go around, it doesn’t feel so bad. Not yet, at least…