The window is open in my second floor south side Chicago apartment. It's early evening, and the sun is at its fullest gilding glory, low in the sky and soon to disappear behind slouching brick walkups. There is a park across the street, where children are always playing and screaming, and laughing and swinging. I've been listening for hours to that sound of rusty swings creaking, and of passing cars and teenagers playing basketball.
Warmth spills through the glass, casting golden flecks on wooden floors and leafy plants that my roommate and I bought last week at Trader Joe's. It's home. If I'm honest, I'm not sure I'm yet settled. But it is home. And strangely, I sense deep reminiscence, and comfort at the marvel of forever familiar sounds.
As a young girl, it was my dream to live here. I loved it every time I visited. After living in Spain, my dream changed. I would live in Europe. Chicago, then, simply represented a notable departure airport. But when I returned from abroad and was working on finishing my degree, I had an internship in the city for a summer and fell in love again. Chicago it is. It was all making sense. Things seemed directional. Life abroad was then simply a teaching moment; a great conversation point, I concluded, especially for my interview at a marketing agency downtown. I saw everything unfolding beautifully for my life here after graduation. I was ambitious, and clear on my goals.
Then about a year and a half ago, at what I would call the pinnacle of my vocational clarity while in college, something shifted. It could have been that at that time there was a crushing falling out with one of my freelance clients, or that I travelled within a few non-Western cultures, or that I was experiencing grief and uncertainty within some of my most longstanding relationships... It was likely a culmination of these things; but I remember the pervading angst I felt about the path that was unfolding. It felt too easy. It was no longer a dream. It was turning into an actual commitment. That felt boring. That felt like settling.
So I used my last semester of undergrad as a launching board for some new plan, pursuing the still-in-process dream of living abroad. Isn't it fun to create problems so that we can solve them? Things worked out (if I'm being honest, a bit forcedly) for me to return to Europe for six months. It was the perfect time to scope out my prospective homeland. I visited many cities. Breathtaking as they were, it was more my hamster-wheel consumption of them which ravaged my ability to respire. The whole thing felt like a race to find perfection. To find peace-- both of which I did not find. It didn't matter what I encountered. Nothing I truly wanted I found. It was an internal matter. And at the deepest sense, I knew I was running.
Life in the states felt like eliminating options, being ruled by student loan obligations, and locking myself into a career that exists only because of consumerism. No thank you. Not to mention what then seemed like the inevitable: unwittingly falling in love with some Midwest-raised, inadvertently racist ("but wholesome") nice white guy and before I know it I'm listening to country music on my morning commute. (An obvious fallacy but hey, the fear of country music alone is reason enough to make a person run.) I was also fearful that I would become yet another fish that doesn't know it's in water. That I would settle to the point of losing perspective. Saying it now, it's regretful that I would for so long equate "American" with every negative stereotype possible. Of course every culture has its issues, and we are mistaken to think that any one country is wholly "doing it right."
My experiences outside of the states had always been learning ones. And humbling ones: it was always a matter of broadening my perspective. I didn't want to stop expanding and I didn't want to become so caught up in a "contented" life that my perception of life itself was meant for buying newer cars and bigger homes, and home security systems. That's not what it's about. And while I know that it is a choice to live purposefully, wherever we are, my specific journey has shaped an inner quest of navigating personal mission even in circumstances that do not present themselves as outrightly "missional."
I still felt this way just a week ago, when a friend visited from Athens who has been working as a volunteer at a refugee camp for nearly two years. I ached to be in her position. Picking her up from the airport, I felt sick with myself for even having a car in the city, or Whole Foods in my fridge, or Vans sneakers on my feet. It feels stupid. I hope, to some degree, that it always feels that way. I hope that healthy awareness of self and surrounding can provide informed perspective, yet without judgement.
Stubborn as the internal battles have been in the last few months of my life (while formational to be sure), it's Chicago for now. If you had asked me in 2018 where I would be and what I would be doing this summer, I would have told you my many ruminating plans: ranging from studying language in Southern France to working with refugees in Afghanistan to teaching English in Vietnam. Being in Chicago, doing what I'm doing (perhaps I'll touch more on this later), was really not my plan. Yet I know it is exactly where I am meant to be right now. And for that, for now, I have found the peace I was seeking out everywhere else.
I am grateful for the way things have happened. I suspect somehow it will be cause for various aspects of my life here to look differently from the way they would have been if I hadn't been reluctant to come. For now, all I know is that my journey has led me here. Back to this country, to this city, to this neighborhood, to this apartment. There is so much to learn here. And there are so many ways to cultivate new appreciation, and to push the envelope.
Many of us are challengers, creators and solvers of problems, and we do not want easy. We do not want to settle. But perhaps more appropriate a phrasal verb than "settling down" is "settling in." I can't say I'm planting roots. I've bought some plants. The definition of settling in, "to arrange yourself and the things you own so you feel more comfortable in a new place" connotes contentment, and commitment. But there is still fluidity, and freedom. These are not mutually exclusive value pairings.
So I find myself here. The sun has set. The swings are still creaking in lulling rhythm and cool air wafts in every few seconds or so. I am not planning something new. I am not looking for endeavors beyond that which is in front of me. I am here. I am here for now. I have chosen and am settling in: it's settled.