“Nostalgia for samsara is bullshit…”

(Photo: Ten years ago, I thought I had seen it all… Credit: Photos4Travel.com.)

In Buddhist circles, Chogyam Trungpa, the seminal Tibetan Buddhist teacher on American soil, is often said to have remarked, “Nostalgia for samsara is bullshit.” Yearning for the return of bygone glory days in a universe that’s ever-changing is a great way to lose forward momentum. Yet, I can’t help but ponder the first day of the last decade as I resolve myself to go a bit more gently into this one.

The morning after the world didn’t die from the Y2K bug and the official Brooklyn celebration at Grand Army Plaza managed to miss midnight by about 60 seconds, I clearly remember taking a walk up Flatbush Avenue towards downtown Brooklyn. The day was crisp and overcast, but I was filled with wonder that the new millennium had finally arrived. As far as any child of 1970 was concerned, 2000 was a big deal. Every car that passed, every storefront that I passed by, every person who crossed in front of me, I thought, “Wow, that’s what cars, and stores, and people look like in the future!”

I also remember feeling disappointed that, by the look of it, the January 1, 2000 version of the world wasn’t any different from the version I woke up to on December 31, 1999. As January wore on, I began to wonder what I wanted to do with my life in the newly arrived future. As a lifelong New Yorker (at the time, I still considered the city something of a center of the universe), working at my dream job as a nonprofit public-transit advocate, and having traveled everywhere I thought I’d ever want to see, I got a little depressed that I couldn’t figure out what should come next.

I was on the toilet when I decided to visit Paris. Considering how poorly I took to Parisians when I made the trip that April, there’s surely a metaphor in that. In Paris and sulking, my Lusitanian friend, José, began teaching me words in Portuguese. By summer, I had taught myself the rest of Portugal’s language and began the first two of what would eventually be eight weeks spent exploring that country over the next two years.

The job soon changed, too. I loved the nonprofit world, but I needed benefits. The jump to a dispiriting, cut-throat commercial engineering firm helped me gain better perspective about the sector in which I should have remained. Though I doubt I had much of a chance at the new firm to begin with. I never felt like more than an outsider. How could I? It was a shell-shocked office–the company was forced to move uptown from lower Manhattan when part of the the World Trade Center collapsed onto its former building. While I was safely evacuating over the Queensboro Bridge on 9/11, their staff were dodging bodies on West Street.

Besides, they wanted me to learn how to drive.

And, of course, the love affair with New York came to a close when disaster sent me looking for a less angst-ridden urban idyll, which I found here in Chicago in 2003. It’s been a wonderful seven years, too.

I hardly noticed how much I ossified.

Much like that first day of 2000, I began 2010 wondering what on earth I was going to do with my life in a new decade. It was my own fault. I spent most of the preceding one in Chicago creating and settling back into a carefully crafted idea of who I was and what I was here on this planet to do. You think I’d have learned already.

I enter 2010 as a communications consultant ravaged by a lack of nonprofit clients themselves ravaged by the New Depression. As a downtown resident whose entire social life takes place in neighborhoods far beyond downtown, yet who remains in a neighborhood for which he’s paying a premium that can no longer be justified. And as a Buddhist who realizes it’s time to let go already. I made a good go of the work-at-home thing, and have some nice successes to show from it. I did it at the second-worst possible time in our nation’s economic history. Who knew?

And much as I still love downtown Chicago, at this point I remain a resident of the neighborhood mostly out of inertia. I stayed down here after my former long-term partner, Devyn, and I  broke up in 2007–and after my failed attempt to follow him to New York–to prove to myself I was still a Chicagoan. Funny thing, Chicago being my home is a moot point by now. I have nothing left to prove. (And for full disclosure, Devyn and I have long since mended fences as friends.)

So many of us live on autopilot, ensconced in a rigid yet comfortable idea of who and what we are. Some of us manage to at least recognize that, occasionally break out of our stale molds, and then–like me–fall right back into believing seemingly secure, foregone conclusions about ourselves without realizing it. Trungpa’s star student, popular Buddhist author Pema Chodron, points out that life has a habit of trying to pop the bubbles of security we try to wrap ourselves in:

“As a result of that new place, of course, I wanted to nest there, but then the next challenge came along, and the next challenge and the next challenge. And each one pops a bubble. And you become more and more able to groove with bubblelessness. And you can quote me on that.”

Oprah Winfrey’s favorite new-age author, Eckhart Tolle, would spin it more succinctly. He suggests that it’s better to wonder about who you are than to think you already know–because if you already know, then how will you ever be any greater than you already are?

So file me bubbleless for 2010. I no longer want to define myself as the sum of stale assumptions. At least as long as my ADD brain can remember not to. I’m letting some key ideas about myself go that no longer work for me:

  • I’m giving up consulting and going back to the rat race–I’m looking for a wonderful new day job. I’ve had enough of shaking the tree. I’d prefer health benefits and a prescription plan. (This does not mean I’m giving up blogging. See: Firewall.)
  • I’m planning to say good-bye riddance to Marina City and (here’s the buried lede, folks) to move out of downtown Chicago. I want a real neighborhood back, with mom-and-pop stores and local restaurants that aren’t drowned by tourists every day at dinner, like I had back in Brooklyn. And I want to be closer to my large and loved network of friends, most of whom live on the North Side.

Yes, in a way this means I am throwing in the towel about life in downtown Chicago. I still think it’s the best urban environment between New York and San Francisco and highly livable. I may be back. But priorities change, and at the moment being able to walk to the Art Institute has become less important than being able to walk to visit close friends. Not to mention the cheaper rent that will help me pay my bills better. (See: New Depression.)

In January 2000, I looked for diversions to keep me from facing ideas about myself that were no longer true. This January, it feels a lot more liberating to change the storyline, instead. Out with the old. Looking forward to the new. And I wonder who I’ll turn out to be in this telling.

Happy New Year.

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