Wednesday, April 9, 2008


Sometimes I revisit prior places I've lived in my dreams. I will spend a night returning to college in Valparaiso, Indiana, searching for the perfect low rent apartment and warm late summer nights with friends before classes start. That dream comes when I'm seeking a sense of comfort or safety, but I always reach a point when I realize that things just aren't the same anymore. When I return to New York City in my dreams, I imagine what graduate school and living in the city would have been like without my ex-husband. It's another attempt to replay the past, and I always end up feeling an urge to get back to the life I lead now.

It's no surprise that I recently dreamed about moving back to Chicago. I've been reading The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, in which the city is a character in the book. I've also been listening to Illinois by Sufjan Stevens, who channels that place through the music. Clearly, my hometown has been on my mind.

Unlike the places that I've chosen to live - Valparaiso, New York, and my beloved Twin Cities, I lack a sense of nostalgia for the city in which I was born. In recent years, I've come a little closer to appreciating the city, avoiding the south suburbs and focusing my visits in Oak Park with my friend Val and visiting my dad, who recently became a Hoosier, in his historic Pullman row house. Nevertheless, even when I am there with people I love, I can't shake the sinister undercurrent I feel from the city that never quite lets me relax. It would be easy to chalk it up to the bad memories from my childhood, and there is some basis to my negative feelings to be found there. I can also point to some emperical things, which I usually do when my fellow Minnesotans gush about how much they love Chicago. They see the culture and architecture of a "real city." I see snarling, ugly racism, corrupt machine politics, a relatively barren landscape, and the brutality of working class life (I can be fun at parties). However, these things don't really add up to the fact that Chicago just gives me a really bad vibe.

That vibe is present in Niffenegger's and Steven's work, which are achingly beautiful pieces of art that are dead on at capturing the complexities of the place they describe. I listen to Illinois for a few days each spring, around the anniversary of my grandmother's death because it helps me process the conflicted feelings about my origins. I was wrecked when my grandmother died and cried unconsolably even though I was so angry for the damage she inflicted upon me. I rejected her and Chicago in my adult life as much as one can reject one's own life's history and one's DNA. Without that city and without my family of origin, I float without substance like a ghost or a fictional character, but if I get too close to either I become a physical shell with a scared soul crouching small in the corner. So I need my dreams and I need the art that captures Chicago to reconcile these things in myself. Through an archetypal world, I am finally able to say, "I forgive you, Grandma, I forgive you, Chicago, but for my own good, I need to keep my distance."

1 comment:

Julie said...

This post really resonates with me, Charlotte. Feeling deeply connected to a place and alienated at the same time. Needing your history and needing to start anew. I hope you manage to stay connected in ways that still give you the space and freedo you need to move on with your life. xo - J