a geography of leaving

Chicago has become hard for me to live in. Without even realizing it, one day I turned a corner and opened up my eyes and starting saying, “I don’t want to live here anymore.” And my heart broke a little bit, as I think it always does in the moment you realize that something is broken, something needs to change. The moment you realize that you must leave. We must, so we will. Isaiah and I are leaving Chicago. It’s good and bad, heavy and light, everything and nothing all at once, like so many things are. 

I could tell you the reasons, but I’m not sure exactly what they are. So many things, really. Mostly that we have a huge, good opportunity coming our way that we almost certainly would have taken even had we not started feeling pulled away from Chicago. But you have to also add to the mix the fact that we have begun to find the city to feel isolating these past months. That Isaiah and I have both had to deal with periods of depression, sadness, and/or fear in this geographical place. That there has been a rise in unsettling crime directed toward ordinary people in our neighborhood. That one of my best friends is getting married and moving away this summer. That neither of us have settled into jobs that feel empowering and fruitful in this city. That we know in our guts that we don’t belong here. That most days Isaiah and I feel like we probably ought to go out and do something but we can’t for the life of us figure out where we should go or what we should do. That I feel best when my feet are firmly planted in my apartment with my door shut and locked tight. All this and more, added up and mixed together, one door closing and another one opening it its place, almost uncanny the way it feels, the way it happens. 

Still, please believe me when I say that Chicago is an incredible city that I loved living in for a time. Beautiful, resilient, special, it is all true and fantastic here. I have grown up immeasurable while I have lived here, set my feet upon the stone of the sidewalks and walked through fire, spoken my mind, been loved by my husband and my friends, said all the wrong things, made things I’m proud of. These have probably been the most forceful two years of my life thus far, and they have happened in this city in this time, though all the while there have been more shootings in Chicago than most people can remember, though all the while I’ve sort of let myself retreat into fear and trembling, though all the while my husband and I have tapped out the things that we were meant to find here. So we are leaving. In August. And we are going somewhere LITERALLY COMPLETELY DIFFERENT (which I’ll tell you about soon — need to finalize some stuff first). But until then, we are still here, living out some final Chicago days, letting the process of leaving be long, trying to remember what has been sweet in order to still some trembling, to keep walking the sidewalks and keeping our eyes open. 

I think one of the reasons the city feels isolating to me is that very little of it actually feels like it belongs to me. I walk down the street feeling like I own nothing, I am no one, there is no safe place for me, no calm harbor, no sure thing. This feeling has taught me that I am a person who desires roots, stability, sure things. It has also taught me how to stake out tiny parcels of places, to claim things as my own that are not mine at all, to decide something is safe and let it be so. Tiny holy places in this big city. I am going to share with you what these places are for me as specifically as I can. Some of them are really quite silly, some of them are maybe profound (at least for me and my heart). Some of them happened through repetition or happenstance, and some of them were specifically and consciously decided upon. But either way, all these places belong to me in the tiniest and gentlest of ways. They’re not the only places I’ve loved and owned and lived in in this city, but they’re the ones that feel holy today. The shiftiness of holiness, maybe someday we can talk about that too. For now, if you ever find yourself in one of these places in this city, maybe you’ll think of me. Maybe you’ll remember. Maybe you’ll feel the earth groan under the weight of so many people needing so many things from it. Maybe you’ll get a glimpse of the hem of an angel’s robe. Maybe my place will become your place too. Maybe your heart will break and then maybe you’ll leave. Or maybe your joy will be full. 

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  1. The steps of the MCA. In my first summer working in Chicago, when I was still in college and I didn’t even live here yet, I was an intern for a theater on Michigan Avenue. At lunchtime, to avoid feeling marooned and like an imposter, I took myself and my bagged lunch to the steps of the museum, where I sat alone but with the other handful of lunch-eaters on the stairs and ate and looked around me, watched pigeons and people, enjoyed my food, and took long deep breaths. When I sat there I felt the littlest bit special, like I was somehow a part of Chicago. When I sat there I felt the littlest bit grown-up and free. 
  2. The green benches outside Black Dog Gelato. My apartment has a backyard, but it’s supposedly shared with the other apartments in my little greystone, and I don’t really know my neighbors, so I feel a little weird sitting back there in the shared space. Given my lack of balcony (due to basement apartment), I’m distinctly without an outdoor space to call my own. So, now, I’ve decided that the big green benches that belong to the gelato shop two doors down also belong to me when I need somewhere to sit in the sunshine where I won’t really be noticed or bothered. There’s also a tree there that I like to look at. 
  3. My apartment. Isaiah and I managed to find the best dang (affordable) basement apartment in all of Chicago, and even though it’s usually cold, it has a bathtub and really pretty gold cabinet knobs and a big kitchen and big front windows and an okay-working heater that I can sit right in front of all the time. We have made it a home for the two of us, and I think I will always remember it as the first space I made my own, really lived in. I’ll leave a little of myself here, a little of my second year of marriage with Isaiah. My apartment is hands-down my favorite place to be in all of Chicago because it is a place that actually does belong to me, us. I love our little burrow on Damen Avenue. 
  4. Montrose Beach, at the end of the question mark. In terms of outdoor spaces in Chicago, Montrose Beach feels the most simple and special to me. It’s the coastal expression of the Uptown neighborhood, a couple of miles north of the Loop and far from the spread of tourists and the like that you find on the beaches closer to the hubbub. Montrose is quiet but well-used. There is a bird sanctuary and plenty of sand, as well as a big dog park where you can watch dogs running and running and running (highly recommended). But my favorite part of montrose beach is the long concrete walkway that meanders out into the water in the shape of a question mark, a perfect curve with no railings, snaking out and back again. I’ve never been to Montrose alone, but I imagine that if I were I’d sit on the end of the question mark and look long and slow back at the city. I’ve loved sitting on the question mark with my husband the generous handful of times we’ve been there, wondering how the water of Lake Michigan is indeed so blue, how we got to be where we are, giving our questions concrete punctuation. 
  5. The Neo-Futurists. I think this ensemble is doing the most-holy art in the city of Chicago, although I’m sure they would not call it that. Every time Isaiah and I see their work, we leave feeling full and hopeful, weepy and staunch, like steadfastness is worthwhile. They are making beautiful, thoughtful, heart-driven theater that is weird and personal and profound, and, dare I say it, even spiritual, in Andersonville, and I will miss them when I go. My long term plan if we were to stay in Chicago was to somehow weasel my way into their little tribe, even though they would probably be put-off by the air of wholesomeness I have about me. I would say, “I’m maybe something like you, we have the same insides, we are shouting the same shouts!” and they would squint at me and say, “We’ll see.” I only want theater if it’s theater like these guys make. I’m so glad they’re so brave. 
  6. The Chagall Mosaic by the Monroe blue line station in the Loop. One time while in the first few days of work at the first coffee shop I worked at, there was a day when the line of fancy businessman coffee-needers was out the door for literally six hours. When the line died down and I finally got to take a break, I walked out the door and across the street and sat in front of the surreally gorgeous Chagall mosaic and wept, openly, in public. Unavoidable weeping. I think I knew right then that the dumb coffee job was all wrong for me, that it was chewing me up and spitting me out, that I had gotten my little body somehow to completely the wrong place, and that I had to do it anyway for a while longer, who knows how long. So I cried and breathed and looked at all the little tiles all stuck together into something so mind-blowingly beautiful, those colors, and nothing was okay but also it was. And I went back inside and made more coffee.
  7. Va Piano. Early in our time in Chicago, while she was still living in Wheaton and commuting on the train everyday and I was jobless and fancy-free, Annie and I would have lunch on Fridays at Va Piano. We would share a pizza and talk about everything and look out the window and sometimes meander over to the Art Institute garden afterward if we had time before Annie had to go back to work. It was really very lovely to be there with her, and I think the two of us felt for tiny fleeting moments like actual real adults, sort of. With our pizza and our friendship and our having chosen to be there. On the way out, we would take the complimentary gummy bears and munch them, and I would take the pink line home with a skip in my step. 
  8. The courtyard at Fourth Presbyterian. I now have a new job where I sew canvas bags and the like for a slightly confusing design firm, a job where I will learn quite a lot. This job lives in a skyscraper on Michigan Avenue, which I get to by taking the bus and then walking just a handful of blocks. Each time I make the journey I pass Fourth Presbyterian Church, which, if you haven’t been there before, you should know is breathtaking. The church has a courtyard with a fountain and the tiniest little circle of quiet, somehow right there on Michigan Avenue. A safe place, a calm harbor, a sure thing. The last time I went to my job (which I only go to sometimes for now while I finish up my stint as a not-as-good-as-mary-poppins nanny), I veered off in my walk and spent three minutes in the courtyard, leaning against the fountain, watching a robin, looking around, breathing the Jesus Prayer, letting the place be holy ground. I think I will do this as often as I can. And it maybe will help save me. 
  9. The Cherry Circle Room at the Athletic Association Hotel. This is my favorite sort of fancy place in Chicago, mostly because it’s just the sort of place to have a moment or think big thoughts and feel like you have enough space. It’s pretty lounge-y and warm but cavernous, and there are waiters, but they only bother you the right amount. One time I went there and got toast and coffee and read an Annie Dillard essay and thought about God and all his brilliance and confusing-ness for three hours, and it was a nearly perfect morning. And the whole time I couldn’t figure out why I was so cold, until it was right before I was about to leave and I looked and saw that the window beside me was cracked open the whole time. So if you go there to think about God, you’ll be in really good shape as long as you check that the window isn’t cracked. 
  10. That one house on Damen Avenue. There is a house on Damen between my apartment and Wicker Park that used to be for sale. Isaiah and I used to drive by it all the time and slow down to stare at it as we went past. It’s a beautiful red brick home on a double lot that has a striking, big, round front window and a little front porch, and a bit of a side yard, even. It’s a little run down, but the bones of it are beautiful, special. It was the house that we loved to dream about, a life where we stayed in Chicago and owned a home on Damen Avenue, lived there forever, raised a bunch of kids, made life-long friends, let our roots go deep in the midwest. But someone else bought the house and started fixing it up, and our hearts started stretching away from Chicago, like plants seeking light. So we will not live there. We will never live there. But someone else will, and I hope the house, the life there, is as beautiful to them as it was in my mind. 
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