Enlightenment: Easy

posted in: Chicago, Paean 1
Note bouquet of flowers and candle on large box. It's the little things when your house is full of cardboard.
My living room. I’ve actually made a lot of progress, if “a lot of progress” means making my bed. Photo: Me.


In the course of getting my undergrad degree, I took a class in Indian Buddhism. A lot of undergrads at Iowa did because it sounded cool and fulfilled the Eastern Studies requirement. I’ve forgotten the impassioned notes I scribbled next to passages in the textbook that summer, but I remember a little about Buddha’s enlightenment. Enlightenment is the Western translation of bodhi, which means “awakening.”  Wikipedia says what the we understand enlightenment to be is “sudden insight into transcendental truth.”

I always imagined Buddha becoming enlightened in this searing, brilliant, sunshine-y moment, when he suddenly saw the world for what it is: temporal, finite, and indescribably beautiful. He saw that every single one of us is born and every single one of us must die, and every single one of us is important, and we hurt ourselves over and over and over but we don’t have to. I imagined him seeing the brilliance of roses and commuter trains and coffee cups and bad haircuts. Basically, it was all really intense and beautiful and made him the Buddha.

Being back in Chicago after all this time, after thousands and thousands of miles, I swear I know at least 1% of the enlightenment experience.

Because I walked out into the alley behind my building this morning and the oil on the cement, the rumbling el overhead and the pigeons flapping away as it came, the smell of fresh dough coming from Lou Malnati’s, the crisp pre-snow air, the Columbia kids walking to class, the beep of the parking garage security bar going up across the street, the skyscrapers to the north, painted there just for me, all that metal and glass and the whole city was there, right there, and I was no longer in exile. I saw Chicago, my real home, as it really is: alive, temporal, suffering, perfect. I never knew pigeons could vibrate.

Words can’t express my joy. God, I missed you so much. I tried to do that thing where if you tell a lie long enough it becomes true. But my heart was buried in that alley the whole time I was gone and I had just enough honesty left to come back and scrape it out. Telling the truth should be so easy — but we cover it up, roll trucks over it, let snow fall on it, bury it. For what? Appearances? Fear? Impatience, I think, in my case.

Surely, there’s something better than what I’m doing now, I said to myself last year. Surely, I thought, there’s something else to see than this. Surely, if I don’t put down roots, I won’t grow moss. If I don’t admit I love this place so much it feels like part of my body, if I lose it, or if it rejects me, it won’t hurt as much. That’s what I said when I thrashed and burned and left Chicago. But I’m home, now.

The definition of suffering in Buddhism is “being in one place and wishing you were someplace else.” For one second — and for the first time in a long time — I couldn’t possibly tell you what suffering feels like because there is nowhere, nowhere on Earth I’d rather be than here.


They Call It “Bitter” For a Reason.

posted in: Day In The Life 1
American Expeditionary Force, Siberia. Over 27,000 sets of train wheels stockpiled for war effort.
American Expeditionary Force, Siberia. Over 27,000 sets of train wheels stockpiled for war effort.

I moved quickly on the street to get to the Roosevelt station. I wasn’t running late; I was running from the cold.

The escalator up to the platform at the Roosevelt el stop is long because the platform is up high off the street. It’s a painful ride if you have a heavy suitcase with you: you’re on this long, moving staircase and you simply can’t force it to go faster. When you hear your train coming — worse yet, leaving — you can’t will yourself up to the top of the escalator in time to catch it. You’re stuck.

I was stuck on that escalator ride this morning, straining my neck to try and hear my train was approaching or leaving, straining so hard I almost pulled a muscle. I could not miss the train. I could not miss the train because that would mean I would have to wait for the next one outside on the Roosevelt platform. The Roosevelt platform, like the rest of Chicago, was/is dangerously cold.

“Today,” the city weatherman said, “it will feel like -10 to -20.” But “feel” is a useless term when you’re talking about cold this absurd. Humans “feel” only bitterness, aches, and dread at -10 to -20 degrees. Records are being set every day in Chicago — 2014 now the coldest winter on record — and the winter has taken on a wicked quality. There’s an evilness about it. The cold has a personality and it is monstrous. I was in my home city for exactly 49 hours and I felt scared of the beast that has overthrown her.

The monster has sharp teeth. It’s eating people, throwing men, women, and children into its icy, cavernous maw. Inside it, the wind blows and blows forever and there are coats everywhere but they all have holes and no hoods. Hell does not exist but if it did, the best joke on everyone would be that it is not hot and firey, but cold and empty.

The worst part about the snickering, sharp Cold Monster is that it made me afraid of Chicago the two days I was there. I saw people huddled and angry, shuffling along the streets in clothes that looked like bandages. No one speaks. It hurts to breathe. What I didn’t see or hear was worse: three-quarters of the usual citizens weren’t on the streets at all: no one comes out unless they have to. Millions of eyes are looking out from high above or below, waiting out the cold inside (as long as they can without going crazy and you can bet some have gone crazy.)

It’s a terrible thing to be afraid of something (or someone) you love. It’s like being a child and seeing a parent get drunk. The child can’t understand the adult’s funny walk, or why they’re so angry, or why their voice sounds mushy. It’s startling, it’s confusing, and even if it only happens once, the child gets a glimpse into a different, frightening side of their loved one that they will never forget. The fright they experience is indelible, even if the parent never drinks again, because there’s a world inside that person that he/she never imagined could exist.

And it’s cold there.