(Photo: Can George and Mary ever be happy? Three is the magic number, after all.)
“I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…”
I will never be George Bailey. My tolerance for others and wisdom with money leave a lot to be desired. But we have one thing in common: we’ve both had the punishing desire to run away. Try as he might, George never did manage to follow his dreams out of old Bedford Falls. In the end, that turned out to be a good thing.
I thought I was following my dreams when I traded in New York City for Chicago six years ago to leave behind a set of problems I thought included a nowhere planning job, out-of-touch friends, and a crappy apartment. But as I’m sure Mr. Bailey would have discovered had he actually made it out, all I managed to do was bring my problems with me. My dreams really began to come true when my attempt to leave behind my adopted city, Chicago, went up in flames two years ago.
Now, I have not always been a happy Chicagoan. In 2003, when I arrived in the Windy City, times were tough. Arriving with no job, few friends, and an even crappier apartment, although I instantly preferred Chicago’s subtle charms to Gotham’s brash ballsiness, I didn’t exactly feel like much had changed at all.
Not much had. Even after finding a great job, local friends, a downtown apartment, and a steady boyfriend, I still felt something was wrong. Throughout my two year relationship with urban photoblogger extraordinaire Devyn, that unnameable shortfall continued to gnaw at me. Traveling around to other, denser cities like San Francisco and my NYC hometown–which happened to be Devyn’s city of dreams–I started to suspect again that the solution to what I yearned for lay elsewhere. I thought I was missing the density, the buzz, the bagels at 3 a.m. of New York.
After a year of pushing for us to move in and move together to our mutual east-coast target city, we decided to take the plunge in early 2007. Once there, I would have had a huge, built-in set of old friends, thanks to the mass online reunion of my teenage youth group, Gay and Lesbian Youth of New York.
But our relationship self-destructed before we made it off of Central Time. Soon after, I was offered an unadvertised communications director job by a leading environmental-justice organization in Harlem. I took it, then turned around and turned it down. And although my GLYNY friends provided an astounding amount of heartfelt support, my heart was too heavy to move on from here.
When the great, 20-year GLYNY reunion came in September 2007, I went nowhere. Instead, I remained in Chicago–in my crappy apartment, with my dwindling savings, and a small group of local friends literally not knowing anymore whether I was coming or going.
It wasn’t until I faced into that unnameable void that things finally began to change. As it always turns out in cases like mine, that void was never on the outside to begin with.
While the initial shock of staying behind wore off, I sat down and asked myself why I was so upset at sticking around in Chicago–or anywhere else I’d ever lived, for that matter. The answer astounded me: I was afraid if I ever truly reached out into my life, no one would be there to reach back.
This time, I realized I didn’t have much choice but to find out whether my fears had any basis in reality. I dug in my heels, dosed up on St. Johns Wort, and marketed my way into a new communications career, said yes to every friend, acquaintance, and networking invitation that came my way, and redid my apartment.
At first, I groused and cried a lot about still being a Chicagoan. Quickly, though, I came to realize the benefits of opening up to my chosen fate. I continued to grow my local reputation as a strategist and local commentator. I made more than a dozen new friends and solidified my relationships with a dozen old ones. And I came to feel supported by my life here in ways that I never had before.
Trekking by ‘L’ today to the western home office, Lido’s Caffé, as I watched the west side of Chicago roll by the Green Line window, I felt an amazing feeling arise. I found myself momentarily wishing I had been born a native Chicagoan, making me from this town rather than just of it.
I wondered what it would have been like to know the history of my twice-adopted hometown first-hand, rather than just from books and word-of-mouth. I’m sure while I was musing on that, somewhere on the east coast the 350-year-old bones of every New York City founding father roused, rattled, and rolled over.
I know now, I would have been painfully unhappy had I gone back to New York. I don’t doubt I would eventually have gotten the memo that you can’t run from yourself, but I’m sure it would have taken a lot longer.
In the end, the only thing gnawing at me–back in New York and eventually in Chicago–was my unexamined fear to engage with the world around me. As Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön wrote, Start Where You Are. So I did. And amazingly enough, when I freed myself to simply be here now, in the process I finally fell back in sync with the world around me.
I don’t pretend to know whether I’ll remain in Chicago forever. The wonder of my journey has taught me to never say never. But I can’t imagine how much I would have missed by moving on for the wrong reasons.
Choosing to remain moored to this maddening, marvelous Bedford Falls on steroids and reach out in love to the world around me, I learned that my life was waiting to love me back. And that someone right here was waiting to come out with me.