CP says I’m overly nostalgic about saying goodbye, that leaving a city doesn’t mean saying goodbye, that it’s just Boston, it’s not Mars. Maybe he’s right. The first time I left Chicago was 2002, and I was sure I’d never be back. But two years later, I came back and I stayed. He’s come and gone from Chicago five times at this point. Maybe it’s not leaving the city that makes me all tenderhearted and in my feelings; maybe Chicago has a pull on me like a magnet, and I can feel my iron core reluctant to move away.
The first time I visited Chicago, I was thirteen. I’m not sure why: I have an uncle who lives here, and maybe he was getting married or something. My mother worked for a university in Ohio, and was really keen on visiting Northwestern University so she could look at their marketing materials. (Man, if my mother had been born a millennial, y’all, we’d really have a serious, powerful tastemaker on our hands. Maybe not sex tape-celebrity, but she’d for sure be a YouTube/Instagram sensation. For all i know, she might still be, even though she was born in the ‘50s.) We went to a Blackhawks game—of all things. Because I’ll tell you what, I didn’t give a fuck about hockey. I think maybe I liked a boy who liked hockey? I have to believe that tickets to a Bulls game—which woulda been waaaaaay better—were too expensive and impossible to get, because it was the 90’s, and you know, Michael Jordan. I don’t know. I remember getting beer spilled on me, and not ever knowing where the puck was or what had happened, and trying really hard to have So Much Fun and not succeeding at it.
So we went to Evanston and walked around NU, and had a steak or something at Michael Jordan’s restaurant, and did some other things, I don’t know. But I remember falling in love with the city. I remember that from that point on, I wanted to get out of Ohio and move to Chicago. I was determined to get myself an apartment where I could see the city, preferably on Lake Shore Drive. Job? Husband? Family? Yeah, whatever; I knew I had to have this city.
Remember that time we took the Purple line downtown so we could catch the el out to the airport—I think we were going to visit mom and dad for Thanksgiving—and we passed by the Harold Washington Library, and I told you it was the most beautiful building I’d ever seen, and that it had to be the building where the opera took place, because it was just too majestic and amazing to be anything else?
And remember the time we got back all jet-lagged and wiped out after a red eye from LA, and saw the Sears Tower emerging from the passing fog, and we remembered what a great city it is we call home?
And remember how the 56 bus and the 22 bus and the 8 bus are always in the way whenever we bike commuted to school? And remember that woman we used to know who rode her bike to class who worked at that cafe in Edgewater who was killed by a driver while riding her bike. And her little sister being in class with us, writing about her sister’s death?
And remember that summer of Advanced Fiction and commuting to class and not being smart enough to bring a clean shirt, so every Tuesday and Thursday I was so sweaty and gross, and everyone in the semicircle was kind enough not to point it out?
Remember hearing my voice come out of the radio on WBEZ?
And remember the time we were in the Harold Washington library, after we’d moved away from Chicago, and then moved back, and caught that dude beating off on one of the public computers, and we were so grossed out, and you said to me, That’s how you know you’re home in Chicago, when you have a public masturbation experience?
And remember that yoga studio in Edgewater we used to go to, around the corner from CP’s place, when we didn’t want to go back to that sad, shitty hole we lived in, in Uptown, so we stayed with him, and went to that Sunday night community class, and that teacher who taught the half primary series after she’d talk and talk and talk and we’d think, when are we going to practice???
And remember reading Virginia Woolf out loud in that small Bucktown apartment, until finally those sentences began to make sense?
And remember reading all that student work in that even smaller Uptown apartment, and how even with all that work, it felt so good to be teaching?
And remember watching the 08 results roll in? And the ‘12 results with your friends in Rogers Park?
And the ‘16 results?
And remember the time we went out in Snowpocalypse with CP, bundled up like sausages, and traipsed around Rogers Park in so many feet of snow?
And remember the time we stood on Wacker Drive shouting and waving signs because we couldn’t be quiet anymore?
And remember the time we sat together and watched other artists gather in other spaces to discuss the epidemic of black boys and girls being gunned down by police?
And remember leaving CWHC, and finding CP at a coffee shop a few blocks away, and being afraid to tell him the truth because it might mean we’d break up, and him saying all he wanted was me?
Remember our wedding day, around the corner from that yoga studio where I (used to) teach, and how oddly, dreamily beautiful that day was. The lace and the paper and The Commodores and Sade and the singing bowl and ee cummings, and that scotch bar, and the sound of CP bellowing, “Where’s my wife?” as he came to take my hand for a dance, when Miles played Bill Withers “Just the Two of Us.”
Remember how you left my wedding without saying goodbye? Remember all the times you walked away from me?
Remember those early mornings at the studio, practicing together but each of us doing our own thing?
Oh. Remember all the laughter? So much laughter.
Remember how good we felt when I learned to track my own fertility, and how that process put in motion the next five years of my personal and professional life?
And remember that slow, fatiguing walk down the halls of the hospital, and from the NW Memorial door to the cab, and all those slow, fatiguing walks around Dearborn Park, during that summer of healing from surgery? And how many of us were there, how many folks rallied around to help take care?
And remember the day we graduated from Columbia, at the UIC Forum, and ran into that guy I used to like, and realized what a bullet I dodged by not dating him?
Remember Seal at the Lyric? And Jill Scott and Earth Wind and Fire at Northerly Island? And Russell Peters at the Chicago Theatre? Remember The New World Symphony, and Zakhir Hussein, and The Magic Flute, and Ophee et Eurydice, and Chick Correa, and JOHN LEGEND AND SADE AT THE UNITED CENTER?
And remember watching the sun rise over the lake. And the one and only Bears game we went to, and how we got dirty looks for talking about recipes at a football game, so I started talking loudly about dildos because I didn’t have a penis to talk about, and you kept telling me to be quiet and laughing and dying of embarrassment. And the way your breathing changes when you come around that bend on 90/94 and the city unfurls itself like a rising, sparkling Oz. And they way Hyde Park looks in the fall. And the brittle blue of the sky and the bright bite of the sunshine in January. And the first time we told a story at that wine bar that isn’t even on Webster Avenue anymore. And that accident at North and LaSalle and how scared we were because CP was out of town and we weren’t sure if we were injured but we knew we were fucking scared. And those fancy pens from The Peninsula, and watching the lions be wreathed for the Christmas holiday. And the apartment we were in when we found out Bin Laden had been killed. And all the literary events and festivals, and then when they went away. And the perfect blue of the studio walls, and watching the trains go by, and the farmer’s market at the Federal Plaza.
And John and Betty. And Louise. And Jim. And all the loved ones and the ancestors we’ve buried here. And all the love made and the friendships cultivated, all the listening and the shouting, all the tears and the breaths.
The greatest lesson I have learned here, from the citizens of this city, from my friends, students, teachers, and loved ones, is how important community really is. What an incredible blessing, to practice building community among you and with you. I think we can tell when someone is interested in meeting and being met in community, and when they’re not; I’ve learned that learning is a process that requires us to acknowledge our vulnerability. It’s scary to say, I don’t know, and we live in a culture that doesn’t reward it: just ask any woman or person you’ve ever heard say, maybe this is a stupid question. It’s a defensive reflex, and we say it because we don’t want to be judged for not knowing, even though not knowing is how we learn. So we enter a writing workshop or a yoga class or a wellness appointment, or any freaking context at all, with a chip on our shoulder, hoping we look smarter and cooler and stronger and more put together than we feel, and we defend against the offering we’re getting from “the person in charge” because to accept it means to acknowledge the weakness and the tenderness of our own ignorance. If we’re lucky, really, really lucky, we encounter a person who recognizes this defense, this posture, this palm up of “It’s okay, I’ve got this,” and they model humanity and struggle and learning well enough for us that we feel comfortable setting down our own defense so we can pick up wonder; determination; bravery; grace; discovery.
I’ve been really, really lucky. My learning path has been full of these people. The artificial hierarchy of learning aside, I’ve met so many folks who have allowed me to surrender to not knowing, and who have held me so well, and taught me to look around at the community of learners and be unafraid of looking silly or not knowing or making a mistake at 100 miles an hour. Thank you for that, Teachers. Thank you for teaching me the value of community in learning, and encouraging me to ground through my feet and push like hell, and to listen: to my breath, to the vibe of the room, to the voice within.
Man, I have also learned that not everyone is as interested in the beauty and connection that can be established when we practice vulnerability in community. I have had my heart broken, by folks I’m in community with, and by folks who have come and gone. Oh, I’m so tenderhearted; and while I believe that what passed between me and others couldn’t have gone any other way, I’m also grieved by the gulf that spawned between us, that made it impossible for us to connect, heal, and sustain meaningful relationship. So what does getting my heart broken teach me? That healing, restoration, reconciliation is not for the faint of heart: it requires us to be willing to change, to open ourselves up in a way that is scary and difficult, and that many of us are either unwilling to do what feels risky and scary, or we’re unable to, we’re blocked by our own fear of being hurt. Getting my heart broken has taught me to be willing to get my heart broken. It’s also taught me that there are people I know and have met who are willing to get into that scary, squishy, bloody tender place of healing with me. I’m so grateful for those people: they’ve recalled a faith in me that conflict can be resolved sometimes, that there are folks who are willing to grow and change together, even when it hurts.
Thank you, friends, loved ones, teachers and students, citizens of Chicago. Thank you for teaching me what it is to be a Midwesterner: friendly without being gullible; no time to suffer fools but free of craven ambition; human; approachable; feet on the ground, (vegan) cheese on the plate, and determination in the eye. Thank you for trusting me with your learning. Thank you for asking me hard questions, and forcing me to say, “I don’t know,” and to learn. Thank you for challenging me, because out of challenge comes clarity and I have learned so much about what matters and what does not from this clarity. Thank you for pushing me: for teaching me that I can be scared, so long as I keep breathing and keep feeling, and that feeling the fear is not the end of me. Thank you for teaching me to listen to others’ fear, confusion, joy, delight, anxiety, struggle, and discovery. Thank you for teaching me to bear witness. Thank you for teaching me to listen to my own wisdom, to trust that what I want is true and real even if no one else is into it. Thank you for giving me the courage to look foolish. Thank you for teaching me to feel. Thank you for being so brave, and so determined, and sharing your triumphs and success with me. Thank you for walking away from me, and yes, thank you for being small and petty and narrow. Thank you for modeling the best and the worst of what we can be, so that I know I have a choice.
When I was a girl, every Sunday in church the pastor would stretch his hands over the congregation and utter this benediction
May the Lord watch between me and thee,
While we are absent, one from another.
This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
I haven’t thought of it in years, but seated before my last class this week, it came thundering back into my ears and was as instantly recognizable as the tinkle of the ice cream truck in summer. So if I can offer words of benediction, Chicago, let them be these:
I love you. I’m grateful for you. I’m sorry. Keep growing. And may the Creator of the Universe hold us both in joy, wonder, safety, and prosperity until we are together again. Mwah.