Ten years ago, I spent a night with my family in a building on 52nd and Kenwood that at the time was called The Breakers, a living space for people on extended visits. It’s not remarkable. A two-story brick building with long exterior corridors and large-ish windows. It’s not even called The Breakers anymore. Like so many of the old buildings in Hyde Park, including so many far more beautiful buildings that were once used as housing by the University, it’s been taken over as another apartment complex. But whenever I walk to places while going to and from the church of St. Paul and the Redeemer, I walk by it with a bit of reverence.
It was the first building I slept in on what has now become a permanent residency in Chicago.
In 2009, I would not have imagined I would set up a home here for good. The plan was to get my master’s degree, go into a line of work that would result in me starting to pay off the loans taken out for said degree, then see what came next.
Now, in 2019, I’ve unexpectedly planted roots in a city I love so much.
I do love Chicago…the magnificent series of neighborhoods, each with a different character with a heart beating even as constant redevelopment and gentrification threatens to change everything, all of them crashing into each other, connected by the finest public transit system you could encounter. Every stop along the line, no, every step you take leading you to incredible food, places of amusement from concert halls to distilleries to repertory cinemas, all of it pulsing with the diversity that makes our country what it is at its best. And everywhere I go, even on blocks I’ve walked dozens of times, I frequently look around and find something new. Something I’ve never seen before. Something that strikes me right in the soul.
But I may love Chicago even more because of what Chicago has given me, and what I’ve become here.
I came to Chicago at age 24, riding what I’m still convinced was a bit of divine inspiration, thinking a year cloistered amidst the Victorians and a few other rigorous disciplines within the University would lead me to a path I’d walk the rest of my life. The lessons I learned in the halls of academia were indeed important. (Because of them, I could be a giant man of mega-pretensions on twitter talking about story structure six days to Sunday if I wanted to, but who needs that?)
Yet my time at the University was only a small part of the larger weavings of my life here.
No, not only a small part. It feels like a cliché typing this sentence, but what brought me here was indeed only the beginning.
It was a great beginning, my year earning my M.A. (which had to be earned, no question). There are times in your life when you’re lucky enough to click with a group of people where you automatically understand them, or at least try to understand them, and they understand you in return, and that year was it…and it taught me so much about writing, beyond the technical elements of structure, that’s served me so well ever since. That would have been enough. But afterwards…
I did not get a job that let me start paying off my student loans in spades. I instead got a job where for nine months I struggled to work in sales at 100% commission, and nearly lost everything I had. There are things I could say about this job to a negative effect, and I might say them elsewhere, but I’m above all grateful to have had it. I consider it my third degree, teaching me about life and human nature and what I can do with other people and what my limits are…and most importantly, it taught me that I could fall hard and get right back up.
I’ve had other jobs since which carried steady paychecks with them, and for that I’m grateful, and in one I finally got to experience what it was like to teach others, and the joy of hearing from students who tell you they at last understood something so hard to grasp.
My other jobs are not worth writing home about, but I’ve worked hard at them so I can sustain myself, and that gives me a certain sense of pride.
I’ve not only kept the friends I made that first year in Chicago, but I’ve made friends since, and kept making friends to the point where I have several different circles, which would have been a shock to an introvert like me.
I learned from new friends to deeply appreciate Scotch enough to go on a trip of a lifetime to the U.K. and visit the land where it’s made.
I also overindulged myself enough—I think, with self-analysis, I was making up for years when I was a bit of a goody two-shoes—to learn how to get some of my appetites, including for alcohol or otherwise, to a point of moderation or responsible expression. I’m being honest when I say that in my pre-Chicago years I had not been sufficiently mature to handle such realizations and decisions.
The corollary to that is having friends who love me enough to call me out when I’m not being the person I should. This has genuinely been one of the great gifts of my life and I’m beyond grateful for it.
I came to Chicago so thin that my college friends had worried about me. Here, I learned to stop obsessing over diet and exercise but also to make weight training a key part of my routine. I’m a bigger man now, and that’s both a bit of fat and a lot more muscle.
I ran two marathons and listened to a lot of the Grateful Dead in the process.
I made a commitment to volunteering as I realized the world doesn’t change solely because you write about things, and now trying to do what will benefit so many I’ll never know or meet is a key part of my life.
I found a church community that sustains my faith and challenges me in ways that I can’t accurately put into words. It’s suitably ineffable enough for God.
I have seen the entire human experience laid out in full; if Boston and Los Angeles opened me up to a lot, but now I’ve met people who live lives I never imagined you could live, with philosophies and beliefs I never heard spoken before except in books, and every single one of these encounters has opened my mind more and more to tell me how I should live and what I can do for the world.
I fell in love with three women; two partners and one person with whom I had a very intense friendship. One broke up with me without expressing a reason. One ghosted me. One had a mature conversation about ending it with me. Even the easiest of these was hard, but all of these relationships were wonderful when they lasted and I remember nothing but the best. I still haven’t given up hope I’ll meet that special someone. (I probably won’t have kids anymore, but that’s a different story.)
I got to help run a terrific, if I do say so myself, pop culture blog. The Addison Recorder archives are still up!
And I published a couple critical essays, a mini-comic under the auspices of RJ Casey and Yeti Press (RIP), and two hardcover comics for Archaia and Boom!, to say nothing of the many unpublished manuscripts saved to the cloud and which are still to come before you.
These ten years haven’t been perfect for me, and certainly not for the world, but they’ve given me so much. More than I imagined.
And as I look over these paragraphs, I thank God I am where I am.
My hometown is a wondrous place but I know enough to know it wasn’t where I was meant to do what I was destined to do. Boston is a perfect city but I may see it through the rose-colored glasses of the last days of carefree, ambitious, irresponsible youth. Los Angeles is a beast all its own where only certain people with a temperament for the sprawl have it in them to reach maturity.
Chicago chose me rather than I choosing it, and while there have been struggles and heartbreaks and much I could change, I know I was meant to be here, where the Lakefront Trail is the greatest running path, and Wrigley Field (as much as I despise the Cubs) remains a temple, and the sun right before it sets, catching off the river and the skyscrapers on each of its banks, hits you as you’re standing on one of the drawbridges and you see the life around you and wonder why anyone would wish to live anywhere else.
I hope the next ten years and beyond are even happier.
(ADDENDUM: In writing this, I remembered a post I wrote on here on my birthday in 2016 that I think fits in pretty well thematically, called “The Ones That Got Away.” If you have the time, give it a glance!)