Under the Table

We’re back in hibernation, due to both a terrifying covid spike across the country and to winter weather in general. I’m half Wildling and full Chicagoan which means that not only do I typically thrive in winter weather, I also love to boast about it. But this year is obviously quite different–no football games and tailgate parties, no cozy game nights with friends, no weekend matinees at the movie theater while a snowstorm rages outside. A slow creeping dread overwhelms me when I think of not being able to see my family for the holidays. I have roughly 1,000 family members, and I am heartbroken over the thought of a Christmas without a table stacked with turkey, lechon, lumpia, all the sides, five different desserts including a chocolate cake that a real American hero picked up from Portillo’s, while dozens of people cluster around the table to jockey for a good spot and fill the house with voices. 

I’ve been leaning into familiar habits, favorite movies, and hygge culture for comfort, exhausting every Nordic folk rock playlist on Spotify, becoming an emerging pro at differentiating Icelandic blues from Norwegicana. Also, I started making hand poured soy wax candles, which is the coziest of pandemic hobbies (if this is something you’d like to follow along on, my candlemaker Insta handle is @byriverandroads).

My mind feels scattered and random: should I go back to school and study Medieval History, or do I just secretly want to rewatch The Witcher? Should I learn the dance from the Britney “Slave 4 U” video or Megan Thee Stallion’s “Body”? Can my knee even handle the “Body” dance? A ghost definitely finished that box of wine, right?

I was driving home from an appointment recently on an unseasonably warm, sunny day, when a Dave Matthews Band song came onto the radio. DMB is one of those bands I stopped caring about the second the ink dried on my high school diploma, but in that moment, the sun felt warm on my skin, the air smelled crisp and fresh, and I was in a suddenly joyful mood. So I cranked that shit, singing along, remembering every word from senior year, mimicking every idiosyncratic inflection of Dave’s voice. “Goes to visit his mommy/ feeds him well, his concerns, he forgets them/ and remembers bein’ small/ playing under the table and dreamin’.” Nostalgia is a hell of a drug these days, and I’m not sure if it’s because of my age or this pandemic or the double whammy of both, but I can be absolutely floored by the opening notes to a Sheryl Crow song I totally forgot ever existed. I’m at the point where I’ve lived a long time, but I’m not quite old yet. I’m older, for sure, but I hope to still have a good stretch left laying out ahead of me. I have taken it for granted that for the most part, during my little ants-marching sized life, I’ve expected a certain level of consistency. I never once thought that there would be a time I couldn’t get on an airplane and go somewhere that I wanted to go. I didn’t think I’d have to view my newborn niece for the first time through the glass window of my sister’s back porch. I never thought that I’d be terrified of the thought of a crowded restaurant. No wonder a Dave Matthews Band song from 1994 was such a comfort to me for those four minutes of driving in surprise sunshine. I sang along with the radio with my whole body, nodding my head along to the drumbeat, shimmying my shoulders to the fiddle solo. For a few minutes, I could be 17 years old riding around in my best friend’s Geo metro, wandering without a destination, playing under the table and dreaming.

Summertime

I blinked and June  and July were gone. How is August almost over too?? I swear that summer just started. In a midwestern city where summer flies by so fast, we feel the need to be outside every single moment so as not to miss a precious drop of sunshine.

Remember when you were a kid and summer was the greatest time ever? Long days at the swimming pool, cruising town on bikes with friends, sprawling out in the backyard to look up at the moon while cicadas chirped a soundtrack to your most secret sleepover conversations–summer meant pure freedom. No school. No responsibilities. Even when I eventually had summer jobs as a teen, they were easy, carefree times. I’d scoop ice cream for a 4-hour shift before my friends came to pick me up from work so we could drive around, playing Alanis Morisette’s “Jagged Little Pill” on repeat and riding past boys’ houses.

As an adult with a full-time job and a mortgage, it’s hard to capture that delicious taste of summer freedom again. How do you fit in long, lazy weeks of bicycle-riding, dock jumping, keg beer drinking, and s’mores burning amidst the work week, the paying of bills, the doing of laundry, the running of errands that never go away? I used to have a co-worker who, every time I’d run into her and ask how it’s going, would reply “Same shit, different day.” That phrase perfectly describes the grind that is adulthood.

How do you make summer magical again? It’s all about catching the little moments when you can, as often as you can. You head out after work to the local street fest near your house to listen to a band and eat meat on a stick. You drive up to Wisconsin to spend 36 hours at a cabin to ride on a pontoon boat while drinking New Glarus before jumping out into the deep dark water in the middle of the lake, floating on a pool noodle and letting the sunshine beam down on your face. You go to a  giant music festival and sweat through the summer heat until the sun goes down, the night air soothing your sunburnt skin, and you share a spontaneous moment with tens of thousands of people when the headliner plays their biggest, most classic song, and you all sing along and feel the communal thrill of happiness over being present for this moment of time. You go canoeing with a few dozen friends, lazily floating down the river while drinking light summer beers and laughing at what everyone says, because everyone is hysterical when you have known each other for so many years and have a rich history of shared, hilarious stories. You let yourself float along the edge of the bank of the river, feeling the current tugging at your feet while a sun shower breaks out overhead, dappling the water all around you while warm raindrops bounce back up onto your face. You stand on the back porch of the house you bought and listen to the cicadas, the soundtrack to every summer of your Midwestern life, and remember the times you heard their chirps while riding around in your best friends’ Geo Metro listening to “Jagged Little Pill” so many years ago.

 

 

 

Maps

Every line in a map is a new possibility. I love tracing the routes with my eyes, imagining the experiences that each detour might bring. Unfolding a map is unfurling a new adventure; I want to spread them out on the hardwood floor, studying the topography, noting the landmarks, exploring the options.

Looking at a road map brings back a rush to my senses: the roar of a motorcycle engine cutting through the light spring breeze, the overpowering smell of sulfur while driving through Yellowstone National Park, the Trampled By Turtles album that filled the car as we drove through the Smoky Mountains in a light rainstorm, the unsettling beauty of the Pacific Ocean just beyond the steep drop-off of PCH. It reminds me of how much of the world lays out there that I have yet to see, beyond the 23 inches of my computer monitor.

A Chicago city map is a different kind of map to me: it is a map of memories. I don’t need to look at the street names; I know them by heart. The phrase “know by heart” is in itself very sentimental. My heart knows these places because I lived in them, and they are a part of me. When I drive down California Ave past my old apartment, I always crane my neck to see if I can spot someone beyond the fence in the front yard. We used to stay out there all night, the patchy grass littered with beer cans, sitting in camping chairs and talking and laughing until the sun started to rise and the smell of baking bread wafted over from the nearby panaderia. Dodging traffic in Ravenswood reminds me of the sprint from work to home to roller derby practice, a routine that dominated most of my evenings for a portion of my life. 17 years, 2 dorm rooms and 7 different apartments in 6 different Chicago neighborhoods–that’s a lot of push pins on my heart map. Now, I live in a house with my husband–our first real house. Our street is lined with old, towering trees that create a green leafy canopy in the summer over the quiet, one-way street. There’s a hot dog stand on the corner, which brings back a bear-hug-embrace of nostalgia for the street where my grandparents live, not very far from this house. As kids, my siblings and cousins and I were allowed to bike up and down their block, and when we were lucky, one of our parents would take us to the hot dog stand on the corner. Being in my our own first home, with our own hot dog stand, feels like I’ve come full circle. I may not be very far on the map from where I started, but I’ve visited many places along the way.