It began as a passing thought, then a thought that became more frequent, then an idea at the back of my mind, then an idea that stepped forward from the back of my mind more frequently, politely coughing to get my attention.
And the idea is this: it may be time to leave Chicago.
There are so many things to love about Chicago: the lake, the public spaces, the restaurants, the music, the theater, the affordability of renting or owning.
And yet, the thing that makes this part of the country so charming -- its Midwesternness -- is what's got me thinking it may be time to move on.
No matter how large a city you are, no matter how much you have going for you, when you are in the middle of nowhere, you develop an insularity that shows. The inward focus, the dialogue that gets passed back and forth and back again with little outside influence.
The unrelenting obsession with sports, sports, sports. The pride in being willfully ignorant, of embracing a smoking culture, appalling eating habits, drunkenness and obesity.
The crime. The gangs. The municipal corruption so extreme and pervasive that it would be laughable if it weren't so crippling and insultingly stupid.
I'm not saying any city has the answer, and Chicago is better than most places for livability. But there is a homogeneity to this area that is starting to wear. I should hasten to say that Chicago lived up to its promise: plenty to do, lots to explore, and (since here, too, I do most things alone), I'm rarely bored. In the five years since I moved here, I've met so many good people, and felt accepted by so many. There are artists who greet me with bear hugs that lift me off the floor, people who've offered to let me live in their house when the job situation looked bad, neighbors who look after my animals, people to whom I give my house keys without a second thought. People who have inspired me. Amazing people.
Yet...the parochialism, the feeling that I just don't...quite fit in. An inability to yet find my tribe.
I suspect, as with most things, the main issue is me, how I interact with my world. Coming to Chicago was an incredible growing experience for me. I had to take care of myself, which included finding others on whom I could depend. Five years ago I knew nobody here save an acquaintance of a friend. Moving to Chicago meant getting an apartment beforehand, arranging for movers, finding work, finding connections, learning how to get a transit card, a driver's license and plates, carrying a map everywhere, figuring out where to shop, where to find a vet, a doctor, a bike shop, a supply of timothy hay. I had to find a mechanic, a chiropractor, an insurance agent. I took improv classes at The Second City, had an art studio, took stained-glass classes, showed my paintings in cafes and neighborhood shows, acted in a number of sketch shows. I bought a condo, got onto the board. I've hiked, biked, slept in a tent in Wisconsin, took a permaculture class. Walked the green roof of a local restaurant, stood at the Baha'i temple with a candle to mark the passing of a friend's father. I've stood at the graves of Mies van der Rohe and Louis Sullivan, looked over the site of the 1893 Columbian Exposition White City, seen breathtaking theater, eaten fantastic food, danced to music I hoped would never end. Stood six feet from Fountains of Wayne on a Tuesday afternoon, listening to them with Robbie Fulks standing beside me. I've been sneered at by Sarah Vowell for confessing I've never seen "The O.C.," heard Peter Sagal read from one of his books. Watched Paula Poundstone almost wet herself laughing at a taping of "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me." Stood in Grant Park and hugged strangers when Obama was elected president.
I've been mugged, called "White Girl," walked though gangs, been afraid. Been angry.
I've had not one job here I've enjoyed.
There is still a sense that I've only scratched the surface here, that there is more to see, but the truth is, I still crave a steady friend with whom to share it. I know many people, but have no best friend. My friends here suffer from depression, a lack of imagination, and a steady decline toward a suburban mentality that unnerves me. Is this here, or is it everywhere? I felt lonely in Boston, left behind by friends who married and moved on or away.
Here, a neighbor and her husband, from New Jersey, admit they are ready to go back East. They love a lot of things here, but are finding the city a bit lacking in edge. A friend of mine in Boston, who did work with Chicago clients, once said, "It's not that the people in Boston are necessarily smarter than the people in Chicago; they just get more pleasure out of using their brains." I have to agree. Where do all the "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" people go when the show is over?
It will be at least a year before -- and if-- I'm ready to make another transition. I don't want to have regrets about missed opportunities, so I'm going to use the next year to re-focus my perspective on what I came here for. One big regret I have is that many of my friends from Boston have not visited me. Not once in five years. Some have visited me a number of times, but not the ones I'd have bet on, which has been disappointing. I'd hoped more old friends would show an interest in my life here.
I also want to live a less encumbered life. I came here to live more cheaply so that I could do more, and yet here I sit with a mortgage, which while not necessarily wrong, has sidetracked me from my original purpose. Part of buying the condo was the hope that it would give me a sense of permanence in an established community. This has worked, to some extent: I have great neighbors, and a singing writer/cop living below me. A harp guilder on the top floor, an actor as well. The baby boy who lives next door is entranced with me and follows me around when he's out with his mother. She can call me to watch him and his sister if she has to run to the store, or borrow an onion. It's nice.
I fell in love with twin toddlers, much to everyone's surprise, including my own. So I do feel invested here in a way I never could in a city I grew up in, because what I have here is borne of a deliberate choice on my part to be here, the result of effort and determination, and the permission I gave myself to follow my heart.
So there's no rush, and there will be a lot of soul-searching, and reconnecting with the values I want: fewer encumbrances, a lower cost of living, more freedom. I've got some ideas, but that's for another time.