A few weeks ago, I celebrated the seventh anniversary of my move to Chicago. A lot has happened since I pulled up to my Rogers Park apartment in a U-Haul the week after the city experienced the legendary “Snowpacalypse” of 2011. I met a lot of people and befriended a few. I went in and out of relationships, friendships, and places of employment. I started several new hobbies while even continuing some of them. My experiences and encounters shaped my outlook and overall being. Sometimes in major ways and other times with subtlety. Still, my life today is not the same as it was several years ago or even last year.
The longer you live in one place, the more memories you build. These memories become part of the scenery. You walk by a particular spot and see a flash of a past life that seems so long ago, but was still instrumental in the development of your current state of being. These memories can be good or bad, but they are yours. You can allow them to haunt you or you can control them.
I’ve been told the best way to deal with unpleasant memories associated with a particular geographical spot is to create new memories there. I get that and I believe it. If some place made you uncomfortable before, go there and do something so significant that its meaning evolves and you no longer feel anxiety or doubt. It sounds hard, but it is possible.
I mention this because I’ve gotten pretty good at reclaiming places in the city that were once associated with positive memories before I soured on them. This process took time. And that was ok because these uncomfortable reminders were fairly infrequent. With geographical spaces, I can build paths or lives around them that satisfy me. With places that were uncomfortable for me, I would only go there if it was absolutely necessary to fulfill or achieve something relevant to my current life. Once that happened, things were fine and I reclaimed something that was temporarily lost.
The same hardly ever works when it comes to people because of the potential of chance encounters. Chicago is a big city, but it can be small in a lot of ways. You’re bound to run into someone you know walking these streets. These can be friendly faces around your own neighborhood or faces of people that you haven’t seen in so long that is feels like it has been a lifetime since you’ve seen them. Whether these chance encounter are pleasant or not entirely depends on your associated memories with them. However, unlike buildings, reclaiming something lost with a person is a lot harder.
A week or so ago, I had a couple of days that really threw me off balance. Specifically, I had three chance encounters with people from my past all within a span of a few days. My memories associated with these people are quite negative with no chance of fixing what is broken between us. They are individuals from my past I have no interest ever dealing with again let alone actually seeing. It had been several years since I had seen any of them, so to come face to face with all three within one week was difficult to handle. I felt my stride break for a few days and that was difficult to deal with being someone who is very focused on looking ahead.
I’m very open to advice and consultations from people I care about in my life. Both a close friend and a family member have, in the past and recently, told me to stop, breathe, take in my surroundings, and consider what the universe is trying to tell me. What they mean by this is that there could be a signal or a pattern of signals that is attempting to guide me in a particular direction. Where that leads to, I don’t know. But the advice is meant to suggest that I cut out all the distractions that keep me from where I need to be.
For a few days after those encounters, I spent time thinking about what the universe was telling me. I was sure I was being tested. At first, I was thinking that the universe was trying to rub my past failures and mistakes in my face. Why else would I see the three people I have at the top of my list of my “Do Not Want” list all within one week? It seemed like a cruel joke. I could see myself stumbling upon them individually over a much longer span of time, but within a few days was ridiculous.
I consulted with a few friends on the matter. One told me it was just a coincidence and that I shouldn’t think about it. Another told me that they are just reminders that those people aren’t worth thinking about. Someone else told me it could be a reminder of how far I’ve come along and how better my life is for it. When you think about matters of existentialism, demanding a clear answer is an exhausting and useless gesture. And that was what happened. I was exhausted and I needed a do over for the next weekend.
This past weekend, I got the do over I was looking for. I did fun things with people I enjoy. I took some personal time to be alone and enjoy myself and the life I have built for myself. This came in the form of cooking a fancy meal and seeing a midnight movie at my favorite theater.
On Saturday, I had a nice blend of new and familiar. I participated in early primary voting before going to the gym. That afternoon, I went to the library to participate in a feminist book club meeting where I met a whole group of new people and engaged in thought-provoking and engaging dialogue. That evening, I met with close friends to participate in a breakout room game. I had never done one before and while many are zombie-themed, this one was an 80s dance party. It was campy and fun and I enjoyed running around interacting with relics from the Reagan era.
On Sunday, I participated in a charity stair climbing event. It was my fourth year in a row where I’ve raised funds and committed myself to climb a lot of stairs to beat lung cancer. I climbed 180 stories in under 34 minutes which was a personal best. I was really proud of that. A friend came to the event to support me and she even made a sign to encourage me. The sign had references to U2 (a band I love) and The Simpsons (a show I love) and I was so happy that I collapsed onto the floor with laughter. After the stair climb, we ate fried chicken, talked with friends at a music discussion group, and I closed the evening out with cooking and reading.
It was an exceptional weekend on its own, but it really made up for last week. I forget that I am surrounded by people who love and care about me. And when I have weekends like this, I always surprised to be reminder of this. I shouldn’t have to be reminded. I should just know this. Knowing this would be helpful when I have experiences where I am face to face with negativity from past in the form of an old boss or ex-girlfriend. They don’t matter now and, therefore, shouldn’t cause me to feel doubt or anxiety. Whether the universe was testing me or trying to show me how far I’ve come, I don’t know. What I do know is that I need to stay grounded and enjoy what is relevant around me that has my best interest in mind.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Madonna lately. I don’t know why, but I just have. During my charity stair climb, my playlist was a Madonna compilation. As I’ve been listening to her, I have really gravitated towards her songs that promote positivity, empowerment, and individuality. While she has a lot of songs that do that, the one that feels most relevant to me right now is “Ray of Light.”
“Ray of Light” was the second single from Madonna’s seventh studio album released under the same name. Released in 1998, Madonna had gone through a lot of changes prior to recording. She gave birth to her daughter Lourdes, started developing a religious identity studying Eastern mysticism and Kabbalah, and played the lead in the 1996 film Evita based on the musical. The Material Girl of the 1980s was growing into something more individual and realized in the 1990s.
The song deals with Madonna’s changing identities over the years. Deeply personal throughs and experiences, such as becoming a mother, were changing her outlook and music. While she reigned supreme over the charts with anthemic dance-floor songs, she was now transitioning to a form of electronic music that emphasized freedom of self.
Madonna repeats that she feels like she just got home throughout the song. Quicker than ray of light, she is a zephyr in the sky that has a little piece of Heaven until Earth becomes one. That may sound like a lot of 90s new age hyperbole, but there is a lot of meaning in the significance. Perhaps, in 1998, people didn’t expect much lyrical depth form Madonna, but the song signifies that Madonna had matured and attempting to find a balance in her life. She knows the kind of person she is and wants to be. This is a motivation to seek out what she wants and needs in a life full of distractions and dead ends.
I was ten when this song came out. At that age, I thought the music video was incredibly cool and I found the song very danceable. At that time, I didn’t have the ability or experience to relate with what Madonna was saying. At 30, I am in the process of understanding. I can’t say that I completely understand because I’m still trying to find my own balance in the universe. Madonna found it and sings her answer in “Ray of Light.” While there will be times of discomfort that are designed to keep me from where I need to go, I must balance that with knowing I’m more than what those things attempt to define me as. I’m closer to feeling like I just got home now than I ever did back then.