The town in northeast Wisconsin on the shore of Lake Michigan in which I grew up had half as many people living in it as were in attendance at Soldier Field on Monday.
I therefore had to learn how to be a city boy when I moved here almost 30 years ago. I had to learn to put my wallet in my front pocket when riding on the el, get to sleep at night with the noise of the city coming through my window and be patient when driving during rush hour.
When I tell my cousins back in Wisconsin why I now love living in the big city, I mention the amazing diversity of people in Forest Park, how I can ride the el to Wrigley Field in less than an hour for $2.25 and that I could eat a different good mom and pop restaurant every night of my life and never come close to hitting them all.
But when I finish telling them about how attractive Chicago is, I look out of my cousin Chip’s dining room window at the woods surrounding his house with the leaves turning from green into gold and red and orange, and I add, “But I still miss all of this very much.”
What I love about living in the city is also what I dislike. I love all the cultural opportunities – the sports, Irish Fest last summer, great bands at Fitzgerald’s, a half hour el ride to the Art Institute, viewing the Chicago skyline at night from the Planetarium. It’s all wonderful.
The problem for me is that it’s all created by humans, and for me that leaves little room for awe. Now, I’ll admit that when I first sat in front of the Grant Park band shell in 1970 while listening to a free concert by Dave Brubeck and gazing at the skyscrapers along Michigan Ave., I was duly impressed. I was impressed by what humans are capable of doing.
But over the years I’ve lived here, I’ve also gotten very depressed by what humans are capable of doing. So, I’m getting out of town several times this fall. I’m going to escape to Wisconsin and immerse myself in nature where the awe I feel comes from a source which transcends the achievements of mortals.
I’m going to spend a day canoeing in Horicon Marsh with friends, where we’ll see geese flying in formation overhead, breathe in fresh air, and actually see stars in the night sky as we’re driving back home. A week later I will take four days out of my schedule to drive 200 miles north and meander along the back roads, stopping to take pictures every time I see a beautiful natural scene.
I’ll probably whisper “awesome” many times during my time in nature. In Ken Burn’s documentary series on national parks, many of the people interviewed in the films talked about nature in spiritual terms. Unlike in the city where what is impressive is the creation of human hands, almost in defiance of nature, the people in that documentary exulted in that feeling of a being just a small speck in the grandeur of the universe – not of overcoming nature, but of fitting in with it.
Another love/hate relationship I have with the city is with the noise. I love the noise of gospel music at Living Word, the stimulation of watching the Blackhawks live at the United Center, the different accents I hear every time I eat breakfast at Louie’s Grill.
But the constant stimulation gets to me sometimes, and I yearn for silence. I’ll go to the Taize service at Ascension on the first Friday of the month and during the five minutes of silence I’d been anticipating for a month, I get distracted by the sound of the Blue Line a couple blocks away and the screeching of tires just outside the church.
The silence of the north woods isn’t really silent, of course. Crickets chirp and owls hoot after the sun goes down and a raccoon often wakes me up as it tries to break into my cooler sitting on the picnic table outside my tent. But, except for the raccoon, it’s the kind of noise that lulls me to sleep instead of keeping me awake.
So, get out of town in the next few weeks. Get out of town to where the packaging truthfully says, “All ingredients are natural.”
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.