Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Night on Lake Michigan

A little over a year ago, on a freezing Saturday night in Chicago, I gave up writing in the library and hopped on a bus headed for my dorm. It was the wrong bus. By the time I realized my mistake and got off, I was standing on Stoney Island and 57th Street, across the street from Lake Michigan. I had a heavy backpack, I was cold, and I needed to get back to my work, but I hadn’t seen the lake in weeks. So I walked under the underpass and onto the shore.

I was alone on the beach, which was a massive plain of ice. Out to the east, the ice-sheet broke into drifting floes that dotted the lake into the horizon. The ice was ghostly, glowing in the moonlight. It was completely quiet. And for a few minutes, alone among the millions of minutes I’ve spent in this city, I rested.

Behind me, forgotten until I finally turned around, were the reddish lights of the city and the steady throb of traffic on Lakeshore Drive. The contrast with the lake was almost laughably stark. In front of me was an austere sanctuary, and behind me was a colorful garbage dump. I was a modern Moses, fleeing from Pharaoh's court into the desert.

A lake is fundamentally life-denying. It is everything that a human life isn’t: formless, dark, unfeeling, and enormous. But despite what I’ve said before, there is a proper time for denying life. The crowds that fill a city give me a kind of mild sickness; a sense that life is composed of gray library rooms, well-meaning bureaucrats, concrete highways, and furious socio-political battles. Looking into the void helps me understand just how trivial those things are. No matter how warm and light, I can’t attach my happiness completely to what goes on in the hive. There’s an enormous night outside it, topped with a starry heaven and filled with dew-covered flowers.
"My Kingdom is not of this world."
—The Leviathan

The sum of my thoughts: Chicago, humanity’s monument to enclosure, banality, and congestion, sits right on the brink of its opposite, Lake Michigan. If it weren’t for that lake, the city would have too much life in it to be inhabitable.

I stood looking at the ice and water for a few more minutes, and then walked back into the bright city.

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