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 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, as they do. I would live the life of an ex-pat. 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 conversation point, I concluded, for my interview at a marketing agency downtown. An American life unfolding seamlessly. I was ambitious, and lucky for the relative ease.
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 time 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 all these things; but I remember the pervading angst I felt about the path that was presenting itself. It felt too easy, familiar yet foreign, like the dream of a former self. And it was turning into an actual commitment. Which felt boring, like settling.
So I used my last semester of undergrad as a launching board for some new plan, pursuing the still-alive lust for life 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. Thanks to a sincere enamorment with long train rides and the availability of cheap tickets, 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 blind consumerism. No thank you. Not to mention what then seemed like an impending Hallmark cliché for a Midwest woman who returned after her best failed effort to be unconventional: unwittingly falling in love with some nice, inadvertently racist "but wholesome" country boy and before I know it I'm listening to Tim McGraw 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 it's diluted to think that any one is wholly doing it right.
My experiences outside of the states had always been learning ones; humbling ones: always a matter of broadening perspective. I didn't want to stop expanding and I didn't want to become so caught up in a "contented" life that my concept of life itself was buying newer cars and bigger homes and softer linens and home security systems. The threat of suburbia is depressing. And while I know that it is a choice to live an authentic, meaningful life wherever we are, I find myself pacing along an inner quest of navigating personal mission even in circumstances that do not present themselves as outrightly purposeful.
I still felt this way just a week ago, when a friend visited from Athens who I know from volunteering with there. I ached to be back in her position. Picking her up from the airport, I felt sick with myself just for having a car in the city, or Whole Foods in my fridge, or Vans on my feet. It feels stupid. I hope, to some degree, that it always feels this 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 volunteering nomadically 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 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, living uncomfortably within a zone of comfort (and confronting the privilege that it is to even say that).
Many of us are challengers, creators and solvers of problems, and we do not want easy. We reject the idea of settling. 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 value pairings can coexist.
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: here for now. I am settling in: it's settled.