by KARA VANDERBIJL
For a long time after I moved to Chicago, I didn’t experience the city any other way than walking through it or riding the trains from one end to the other. I had very little money to do anything, and I didn’t know anyone except for my relatives, so I would pass by coffee shops and restaurants and bars and stores and I looked through windows and talked my way into this city by imagination. I tricked myself into believing that it was all open to me, that it was my choice to remain on the outside, to know the city as a pop-up book of glass facades and closed doors and empty space behind them.
Observing rather than experiencing gives every event, every new acquaintance, an air of absolute novelty. Even the simplest things become luxurious. When I visit a new restaurant, my joy is unparalleled. As I soak up a new atmosphere, notice the details, appreciate the presentation or fragrance of a dish I’ve never tried, I can’t even imagine returning to this moment or wanting to replicate it. Every sensation is unique. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I’m afraid of becoming the sort of person who takes things for granted. Who returns, again and again, to known experiences without any sense of wonder, without being as fully satiated as the first time. I’m nervous to try new things that I know I’d enjoy because I don’t know if there is enough in me to appreciate them fully.
When I first started drinking tea, I put a lot of sugar in it. Little by little, until I was tipping only a few grains into the steaming cup, I cut it out. I cut away what was distracting me from experiencing it fully. I feel the same way about difficult circumstances and the truisms we tell one another to make it through them. Cutting away any attempts to make sense of an often senseless (for pleasure or for pain) world allows me to seek peace amidst all my conflicting emotions: hurt, joy, anger, confusion. I am not supposed to feel only one thing. I am not supposed to quiet the cacophony.
Several weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting a restaurant that has quickly become part of Chicago’s foodie mythos. As fragrant, beautiful dishes were brought to us from the kitchen, as the wine flowed and the candles flickered and a collective, satiated sigh bubbled above us like so much champagne, I thought to myself, “This is what Chicago means to me,” and this sentiment was no less true the next morning when I stood in front of an industrial stove in a women’s shelter and stirred a vat of bean soup that smelled rich and homey and comforting.
There was a slim stainless counter between me and the women I served, but there might as well have been a wall, because I will never not feel things like “guilt” or “fear” or “privilege” and despite all my best intentions these feelings, these narrowing words, separate us.
In both instances I was given a glimpse of a world in which I do not belong: one, because I do not have enough, the other, because I have more than enough.
When I feel overwhelmed by all that there is to see and do, by the person I need to be, I imagine myself sitting on the crowded outdoor patio of a small restaurant in Southern France. We drank crisp cold red wine and ate a simple tomato salad with vinaigrette. The air was salty. There was nothing more or nothing less than these things. It was exquisite. There is nothing more required of me than to be completely present in this moment.
Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Mad Men. She tumbls here and twitters here.
"Gold" - Sir Sly (mp3)
"Ghost" - Sir Sly (mp3)