Two weeks ago I accepted a spontaneous invitation to meet a friend for a long weekend in Chicago. Whether intentionally or not (I don’t want to accuse him of anything) the invitation as communicated was quite different from the situation I found when I arrived. On the first night I was texting a friend back home about the weirdness, and I felt myself falling into the same negative thought traps I usually do.
– This is all my fault – I am so stupid and naïve for believing a guy would just want to spend time with me as a friend.
– I always do this kind of thing, where I only see the best in people and then end up in super awkward and potentially dangerous situations.
– Way to go, Bridget, you’ve gotten yourself into an after-school special at age 34, have you honestly learned nothing about life?!
And so on. My friend back home talked me off the ledge (thank God for true friends), and we reviewed some of the discussions and precautions I’d taken before leaving. I was incredibly relieved that in what little last-minute planning I did the night I was packing to leave, I connected with a few friends on Facebook, whom I’d forgotten or never knew lived in Chicago. Everyone gave great suggestions for things to see and do, and a few friends said they’d be in town. It immediately became clear that I would need to plan another trip soon, and I was intent to salvage this one.
I met up with a very dear friend whom I’ve known since I was in high school (who happens to have dated my brother for several years when they were kids). We had lunch and drinks, and she very generously showed me around downtown Chicago. I joked with her, as she repeated the offer of a safe place to stay if things kept getting weirder with my host, that I was genuinely glad I made such a foolish and impulsive trip because it gave me the chance to catch up with her. There aren’t many people in the world who have known both my grandmothers and my aunt Elise, who knows the goofy guys I sometimes ate lunch with in high school (when my boyfriend and I were on-again) on a first-name basis, or who has been a friend to me and my brother for so long. She’s also just an all-around awesome, good-hearted person and great company, so it was a real treat.
I was incredibly grateful to get to know such a wonderful new city because it turns out, I seriously love Chicago. The architecture and art is amazing, the way the city is laid out is extraordinarily pedestrian-friendly with loads of things to see and do, I finally experienced true Midwestern manners and kindness, the food was delightful, I fell head over heels in love with Lake Michigan (seriously, I am certain the color will haunt my dreams all my life), and I discovered a lot about myself on this trip (more on that in a moment). I met up with a friend from college whom I haven’t seen in 15 years and his spectacularly lovely fiancée for deep dish pizza and sundaes on my last night, and I admitted that I felt like I was babbling about a new crush with how much I loved Chicago and my time with them. From what I understand, it’s pretty common to fall in love with Chicago, even – or especially – if you’re a New Yorker.
One of the most profound things that happened for me was at the Art Institute of Chicago, which is one of the loveliest museums I’ve ever visited and the place I most wanted to see besides Lake Michigan. I have a sometimes embarrassing tendency to burst into tears when I see works of art that are particularly meaningful to me (Michelangelo’s David, the Monets at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Cypresses etc.). Sometimes I’m able to keep it together in an academic sense, as in the Sistine Chapel, when I was able to take a step back and really look at the imagery that I’d written about for a semester in a Michelangelo seminar, but as an artist who has been in love with painting as long as I can remember, my heart usually takes over.
This little painting by Georgia O’Keeffe called Blue and Green Music has been one of my favorites my whole life. It is one of the pivotal works that opened my eyes to abstraction as a child thumbing through books, and it has remained a touchstone in my mind for the power of what simple painting can do emotionally. Seeing it in person was more intense than I even would have predicted (a real tear-sprayer, honestly) and it was deeply significant to me because I saw, yet again, there was not any particular wizardry going on, even in what I consider one of the most magical paintings in the world. O’Keeffe is one of my all-time favorite artists because she captures the elegance and simplicity of nature in her painting without gimmickry, pretense, or affectation. It is her own style, but it is faithful to nature’s style, and it may be the most perfect organic abstraction yet achieved. I also saw this painting was not made through any esoteric inaccessible technical skill or method beyond my grasp – it was her clarity of thought and vision made tangible, and that’s exactly why it was so beautiful and powerful.
Later that afternoon, walking along the lakefront in intermittent rain, I realized that all my life, whether I wanted it or not, I’ve been an artist and I can’t stop being one. I can paint with the same clarity and emotions as O’Keeffe, and maybe if I handle my career the right way, my work can have the same genuine, emotional impact on other people that this painting made on me. I also had this rush of exhilaration that finally, I am pursuing art for real, setting up my business full-time instead of wishing that someday I could get it going, and I am putting my whole heart into it. I truly believe it is the right time, and my experience in Chicago showed me that repeatedly.
A few years ago, I would have succumbed to the part of myself that apologizes too much, allows myself to be mistreated and literally shoved around for my lack of assertiveness, lets my time get wasted, watches people try to manipulate me and stays silent, and generally, acts as my own worst enemy. On this trip, I found myself able to speak up, assert myself while remaining pleasant and keeping things friendly, change plans when they were not okay, and make sure that I got to have the experience I wanted out of Chicago. I saw so many incredible things, spent so much time walking around the city and being outside in alternating sunshine and sideways snow, proved Frank Sinatra correct that the El is a piece of cake after NYC subways, saw species of birds I’ve never seen in person before, and reconnected with beautiful, kind people in wonderful ways. In the past, I probably would have been too shy to accept their invitations or felt obliged to stay with my host when he kept turning his nose up at plans. I’m so happy I’m not that person anymore, and that I trusted myself enough to be myself instead.
By the time my early-morning flight home got cancelled and I accidentally bought a ticket out of Milwaukee, I wasn’t even flustered. The gate agent assured me that I had time to take a bus and check in for my flight, and I trusted her, even though it meant running at a full-sprint through the Chicago airport because I misheard the departure time as 6:25 instead of 6:45 (whoops). The Milwaukee airport was unbelievably pleasant (it’s a toss-up for most charming details: the sign after security for the Recombobulation Area or the dishes of candy at the gates), I had the incomparable pleasure of hearing a TSA agent say in a thick Midwestern accent, “Hey look, there’s a piece of pizza in this bag!” about my Lou Malnati’s leftovers, and I took the sign from the universe that I was supposed to use the opportunity to buy a wheel of Wisconsin Cheddar as a souvenir.
I was intent on getting back in time to meet with my beloved cousin Desireé for dinner and drinks on her last night in New York, and we stayed out talking and laughing late enough to shut down a speakeasy on a Monday night. I kept thinking how much more accurately this version of my life fit with what I truly care about and value than previous times when I had to cut things short to get home to fret about work, or when I’d say I loved my job (because I thought I did) and friends knew I was just putting a good face on a situation that was making me deeply unhappy. I am done with regrets now, I am spending my time with kind people who have beautiful hearts, and I am already planning my next trip(s).
The wonderful thing about travel is that beyond experiencing a new place, it lets us see our daily lives through a fresh lens. I stepped out of my patterns and tendencies and acted spontaneously and flexibly instead. I stopped making decisions out of fear or insecurity and just did what I wanted to do. I remembered the joy of living life the way I mean to, instead of the way I think I’m supposed to, and I came back to New York refreshed, empowered, and excited for all the big things coming up this spring. I didn’t need to go all the way back to India for another life-changing experience, just a few hours away in my own country. For a long weekend, that’s quite a lot to be thankful for.