It’s Not Where You’re From, It’s Where You’re At

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And I realized I missed Chicago. And I was living in Chicago. And that’s how I remembered I love Chicago. How about that?

I seem to go through this every, oh six-and-a-half years. But this time, it’s really thrown me for a Loop. (See what I did there? It’s all madness, I tell you.)

A couple, three things knocked me sideways into the emotional wayback machine about chicago lately. A native New Yorker friend of a friend who’s having a hard time getting over the culture shock of living here. The Cubs winning the World Series last week, which pried open the vault door. Then over the weekend, sitting in front of my iPad, for reasons I can’t pinpoint but for which I’m grateful, the floodgates opened and I’m happily drowning. I want to go deeper into why.
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We New Yorkers aren’t used to hearing ourselves think. Especially about our own lives. The din of, well, just everything in my hometown often makes you want to go home, shut the door, pull the blinds, turn off everything mental inside your head, turn on your TV or thumb on your iPad, and for at least a little while drift away somewhere—anywhere—else.

It’s always a surprise for natives living outside of New York that the lack of your entire city metaphorically—and often literally—yelling at you allows you to pay more attention to what’s going on inside. It’s a good thing to have a break from living life on an entire city’s terms and not necessarily on your own. But it can also be a shock if you’ve been hiding behind that all-encompassing Gotham distraction because you’ve been afraid to really look inside.

That shock-of-the-quietude was my experience when I moved here almost 14 years ago, and I counsel every new NYC transplant I meet to watch out for it. It’s not a culture shock specific to Chicago. As native New Yorkers, it’s a blessing wrapped in a surprise waiting for us in any new city that isn’t Gotham. It just seems to drive New Yorkers craziest here in Chicago, because at first glance, the two cities can seem so similar. Of course, it’s that second glance that gives you a yearlong headache.

As I’ve blogged over the years, some visiting or transplanted New Yorkers can’t see, or do their best to refuse to see, that Chicagoans think they live at the center of the universe the same way New Yorkers do—or that once you get far enough away, other people really just think that New York is nothing more than the center of New York.

For more than a decade I’ve pondered my native New York navel about this. About the inexplicable hold my hometown holds on some of us who hatched out of our eggs there, and for worse and not better refuse to connect either with themselves or with the rest of the world in ways that they fear derogate from the Gotham myth of superiority. Yet, nowhere else is that aphorism about the importance of leaving home to find out who you are and where you really want to be as stridently pooped on as it is in the city of my birth.

And all because, when you get right down to it, my fellow New Yorkers are like that simply because they’re scared out of their minds at living somewhere less convenient, less all-encompassing, quieter. We act like perpetual teenagers in New york City because we’re terrified of growing up. After all, the city is tough. How much more responsibility are we supposed to handle?

In 2007, when I got a great job offer back home and then turned it down to stay in Chicago, I thought it was because I didn’t want to deal with my hometown’s knee-jerk, center-of-the-universe defense mechanism anymore.
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Except that’s all bullshit.

The truth is, my decision to remain in Chicago had nothing to do with New York. The reason I stayed in 2007 is the same reason I’m still here after Ryan and I long ago decided on a long-term plan to leave this place (first for Los Angeles, but now re-aiming back to Queens to be with my family.)

Ian Brown was right. (Or The Hours’ Ali in the Jungle, if that works for you, but really, they got it from Ian.) It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at. Ignore that at your own peril. Embrace that, and the world is yours.

I left New York because I was afraid I loved it too much for all its problems. I’ve wanted to leave Chicago for the same reason. When my family came back into my life, I realized I could love New York anyway. Unconditionally—which is the only way we should love, anyway. I can’t believe it took another year and a half to realize that about Chicago.

And we’re back to me getting knocked sideways. The way that Chicago’s largely low-rise urbanity seems to go on forever when you’re passing through it. The way longstanding Chicago neighborhoods and those who for years or for lifetimes have called them home share a sense of place, loyalty, and almost-alarming bravado that instantly made me feel at home when I first got here—because that’s just how New York City rolls, too. The feeling that a fare on the CTA opens up the entire world for you. The bravery of people here simply to casually engage each other in an elevator, at a cash register, or while passing on the street.

The knowing that if no one ever told you about the New Yorks, and Londons, and Los Angeleses beyond Chicago, you might very well take this place for the center of the world. The memory that you used to feel grateful and honored and lucky to be here. And that you don’t want to leave here until you let all of that back in.

Actually, the realization that you can’t—and shouldn’t—leave here until you let all of that back in. It’s not just that last week I remembered the Chicagoan I used to be. It’s that I remembered I’m still him. And that if I leave this place without honoring that, I don’t have a shot at loving and being happy in New York or anywhere else. Instead of carrying my problems from city to city, this time I’d rather travel lighter, with love.

Which is good, because I can’t seem to stop feeling giddy about Chicago. It’s driving Ryan crazy. It’s blowing my mind. I never thought I’d feel happy again about living here.

What can I say? I’m happy again about living here.

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