Champaign Dreams and Resolution Wishes

map_of_champaign_il

To say that I did not enjoy my undergraduate college experience is a huge understatement. When I was working with my therapist, Dr. T, I referred to September 1996 – August 2000 as “the lost years.” Ones full of missed opportunity, regret and dangerous behavior.

There are many reasons for the crushing depression that overtook me as a young adult attending classes (sometimes) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For the sake of brevity, I’ll mention two. I’d spent most of my childhood in a constant state of distress and/or high alert. I had precious little time to process the abusive, neglectful upbringing I’d experienced and frankly, I’m not sure I could have survived long enough to actually leave home if I’d stopped to let it wash over me. But when I found myself dropped in the middle of corn fields and farms, a quiet place where there were few immediately threatening distractions, I came silently unglued.

At the same time, I severely underestimated the climate shift from pulsing, vibrant, stimuli everywhere you turn Chicago, to the slower, muted lifestyle of Central Illinois. I didn’t know enough to predict the tremendously negative impact this would have on my energy and intellectual curiosity, though in retrospect of course it couldn’t have been any other way. I recently watched an episode of Sex and the City. The protagonist Carrie Bradshaw finished a conversation with a handsome sailor, and then observed in voiceover: “If Louis was right, and you only get one great love…New York may just be mine.” I feel the same way about the Windy City. It fascinates, frustrates, challenges and beckons me. I am Chicago and Chicago is me.

So there I was in Urbana/Champaign gaining weight, phoning in my English Literature degree with Psychology minor (with a complete and ironic lack of self-awareness), drinking, taking drugs, hanging out with townies. I can admit now to a disgustingly passive death wish, but what bugs me the most about it is not the risky conduct itself. Risk I can do – always have in some form.

It’s the indifference, the lack of agency with which I dithered. It’s not who I am. I utterly, completely lost myself on the flat plains of the Midwest. I didn’t care about much. I’ve learned to forgive myself for most of it because I clearly had issues to work through and didn’t know any other way to cope. But still – sometimes it gnaws. The “best” years of my life flushed away with little to show for it except a degree I know I didn’t really earn.

I’ve spent 15 years pulling myself together and today, I’m rather proud of the life I’ve built. I have a talent (words) and I make a diverse, fulfilling career of it. I am healthier – mentally and physically – after many, many hours spent in individual and group therapy. The volatile, unstable parents are out of the way for good and amazingly, my sister and I came away from the experience holding hands in unshakeable solidarity. I live in a good home full of adorable animals and the perfect partner. I have a large network of talented, supportive friends.

And yet…

In my dreams, sometimes I still go back to Champaign.

It’s a few days before graduation and I haven’t completed a class. I won’t receive my diploma. And then they’ll come for the Master’s degree I earned (the right way) from Northeastern. I can’t have the latter without the former.

My father is badgering me for money and he’s in pursuit as I run through a monstrous, Gotham-like version of Campustown.

Bob doesn’t love me anymore. He’s leaving, and he’s driven us down to Urbana to break the news, leaving me behind in an empty dormitory.

I still grapple with nightmares. And they often occur within the context of four years a part of me will always want back up and redo.

In late April, Bob I went to Urbana-Champaign for the weekend. He ran a marathon and I wanted to support him, despite my trepidation. The experience was positive and cleansing in a number of ways, but most importantly for me, I no longer recognized the place that has been demonized by my subconscious. Like so many of my beloved Chicago neighborhoods, the towns have experienced the frenzied build of gentrification. Where once stood empty cow pastures near Memorial Stadium, there’s now a Houlihan’s restaurant attached to a large hotel. I also spent the time engaged in healthy activities utterly foreign to the emotionally stunted self of the late 1990s – writing, running a 5k, and notably, in the company of a man who has earned my complete trust and confidence.

The frequency of the dreams lessened afterward.

Tomorrow morning, Bob and I will pack the car, drop the dogs off at Grandma and Grandpa’s house (Bob’s parents) and make our way to Central Illinois once more. His friend’s wedding will take place at beautiful Allerton Park outside Champaign. Bob bought a new suit, I’m bringing my favorite gown and I already know we’ll have a splendid time. We always do. With every healthy return visit to a patch of earth so pregnant with personal trauma, the demons incrementally recede.

I expect to sleep soundly.

Opposites Attract: A Story of Friendship (November 17, 2010)

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In the Fall of 1996, after a five week whirlwind summer tour of South Africa with the Chicago Children’s Choir, I found myself amidst the cornfields and animal dung that comprise the sights and smells of the University of Illinois campus at Urbana/Champaign. A concrete jungle girl through and through, and a self-described seasoned traveler, I was instantly dismayed by my new surroundings, so close to my hometown of Chicago (2.5 hours driving time) yet so far removed in the way of stimuli and heterogeneity.

The depression I felt upon unpacking my last box in the closet of a dorm room I had been assigned at the Florida Avenue Residence Hall (abbreviated, “FAR” which also ironically matched the domicile’s lengthy distance from campus) had little to do with missing my family and high school friends. It’s like I sensed that the public transportation taking, museum exploring, library wandering, sensory overloaded childhood I had enjoyed was about to come to a four-year screeching halt and I was helpless to do anything about it. A girl who refused to adhere to the U. of I. motto of “Go Greek or Go Home!” had little choice but to keep her head down, get a job and study hard. Graduating and moving back to Chicago swiftly became my raison d’etre.

Completely unable to tolerate living with my mother for longer than necessary, I arrived on campus a few days earlier than the bulk of my fellow incoming freshman. The benefit to this domestic twitchiness is that I had a head start on securing one of the better paying off campus jobs. My work experience comprised to that point of volunteerism and the occasional Sunday selling newspapers, I knew I would need the advantage of time to convince local managers to take a chance on me.

I walked my way along the Campustown thoroughfare of Green Street one determined morning, hitting up every fast food joint I passed. Food service seemed like a noble and poetic start to my career. Surely Jane Austen had worked in a kitchen at some point. She did after all, have seven brothers and sisters in an era without microwaves. After a lengthy and measured debate between McDonald’s and Wendy’s, I accepted a job at the latter for the King’s Ransom of $4.75 an hour.

During my second week of employment, as I entered the back door and assumed my usual place at the fry station, I noticed a new girl working the grill. The way she handled a spatula told me this wasn’t her first time flipping hammies. I was instantly impressed, but simultaneously intimated by her short but solid stature, black lipstick and natural white blonde hair. Unsure how to introduce myself, this dynamic person beat me to the punch. Within a few minutes I learned that Theresa was a fellow freshman and resident of the same dorm. She was from a town about 45 minutes south of Champaign called Mattoon and had the most beguiling hint of a southern twang. When Theresa went on to inform me that she was a Wiccan, I nodded my head in befuddled agreement, realizing that there was an awful lot this supposedly worldly urbanite had to learn.

Over the course of the next four years, a lot of things would be taught to me by the woman I grew to know as “T.” She in turn affectionately labeled me “Becca Jo,” a tongue in cheek nod to my transplant from the nation’s third largest city to a town of 60,000. I would say that T and I became the yin to each other’s yang, but she always seemed a few steps ahead of me. T taught me how to smoke pot in a dorm room without eliciting notice (her trick involved an elaborate setup of dryer sheets and empty Mountain Dew bottles). I went on my first drunken hayride with Theresa and her family (and right afterward, stole my first golf cart), flashed truckers on the Interstate, went skinny dipping, hosted an epic Halloween party that remains the stuff of Chambana legend, and learned the meaning of the local “country run” pastime. I never knew living in the middle of nowhere could be so much fun until Theresa showed me how to survive.

Shortly after graduation, Theresa married her college sweetheart, a wonderful man named Jake, and they settled in Shelbyville, slightly father south than Mattoon. I returned to Chicago to start my career in corporate communications, and the City proceeded to beat me up a little harder than my idyllic childhood memories would have predicated. Adult life turned out to be every bit as difficult a transition as the one from high school to college. In the Fall of 2000, we had the benefit of email, and as the years passed, FaceBook, but T and I have always stuck to our pattern on keeping tabs on each other with old fashioned U.S. Postal Service delivered letters, a la the Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey characters from Beaches. There is no comparable feeling in life to that of getting an unexpected missive, tearing open the envelope, unfolding the pages and greedily consuming the private thoughts of a loved one.

Though we are separated by more than four hours driving time, and T has an all-consuming life that includes two young sons, a demanding job and a large extended family, we still find opportunities, stolen moments to reunite and reminisce. This week was one such occasion.

Anyone who has read my recent work knows that this is a particularly trying time. I am unemployed, at a crossroads in several personal relationships, and ready to be honest with myself about the fact that I may never be ready for motherhood. While that sits ok with me, there are a lot of implications in my world: disappointed in-laws, well-meaning friends and family who believe I have made a hasty, childhood-scarred decision, and a husband who wants me to leave the door open to adoption when I am not sure that I can. I can never express what a welcome refreshment it is to be able to sit across the table from a woman who knows me better at times than I know myself. Someone who has seen me at me worst, has watched me fail over and over again, yet still assiduously leaves a sense of the pride and affection she carries with my name on it.

Well known, long-term friendships are the ultimate gift – the present of unconditional love.

See you soon T. It’s about time for me to make my way through the corn again.

A Generation X Bedtime Story (July 20, 2010)

Once upon a time, there were three high school girlfriends who planned to grow up and cut impressive business figures. All were students in a prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) program at a respected Chicago Public School (that didn’t used to be an oxymoronic statement in the mid 1990s). Each had their own field of study where they planned to make their bones.

Ally, a lover of history and politics, attended the University of Chicago, and graduated in 200o with honors before entering the consulting field with a renowned Windy City firm. She worked long hours but traveled to many places and amassed a solid wad of cash that she hoped would prove to her conservative, immigrant parents that she had, in fact, made it. Meanwhile, she attempted to quash the persistent voice that periodically yelped, uninvited, “but I am not making a difference!”

Becky attended a respected Big 10 University, earning a Bachelor’s in English Literature, followed several years later by a Master’s. In the interim, she told herself that writing was just a hobby, certainly not lucrative enough, and that degree collection was just something to check off her “bucket list.” By way of distraction, she tried to content herself with climbing up the corporate ladder, having reached middle management at a giant non-profit, and the security that comes with it (high salary, 401k, and 5 weeks vacation time).

Carol also attended the University of Chicago, and stuck around after earning her B.A. to take up a law degree. Carol married young and started a family but balanced these demands with those of a well compensated, high power corporate attorney. Like Ally, Carol’s parents were also conservative, hard working immigrants, who looked at their daughter’s full plate and satisfactory income with a strong sensation of pride. But Carol lay awake at nights wondering if her young daughters would ever feel the same about all the time she spent away from home.

Ally, Becky and Carol, as close as friends could be, inevitably drifted a bit in their 20s. Marriages were celebrated, babies born, and relocations carried out. Through the time honored tradition of the 10-year high school reunion, aided by the social bonds of Facebook, the three women reconnected. On a Saturday night in July of this year, the ladies met at Carol’s place for a dinner party. Husbands and children (one of them the unborn baby that Ally is expecting in December) completed the former threesome.

But for these new family members and the obvious passage of time, Ally, Becky and Carol found that their dynamic was relatively intact. Conversation, laughs and intimacies came as easily as ever. However, when the inevitable question presented itself – “So, what are you up to?” – it was apparent for the first time that evening that in fact, a whole lot more than anyone suspected had changed.

Ally relayed the news that several years back, she had left consulting to return to school, earning her education certificate. She now lives in the Jefferson Park neighborhood of Chicago, teaching math and science to middle school kids. She earns considerably less than she once did, but owned that if she had been honest with herself as an undergrad, this is the career she always wanted. The happy smile that set her face aglow, as she held hands with her husband and discussed the impending birth of their first child, served as testament that Ally had found what she was looking for.

Becky mentioned that she had toiled in a variety of corporate operations positions, with a number of successful outfits that granted her incremental increases in title and salary. Becky would begin each role, flush with enthusiasm, only to find herself curiously bored and burnt out in two years or less. One could, in fact, set their clock by this pattern. In May 2009, after the death of a very close friend, she indulged the long haranguing voice that told her life was too short to let this cycle continue. She left corporate America to strike out as a freelance writer by night, publishing in a number of circles, then took a huge pay decrease to manage communications and social media for a human service coalition by day.

Carol just returned to Chicago from Boston, where she moved with her family to accept a lucrative law firm position. She had lived on a property she co-owned with her parents, and could never understand why she wasn’t happier. A few months ago, Carol and her husband finally figured out that Beantown was a dead end. Carol resigned, sold her share of the property and returned to the Midwest. Her hubby accepted a full-time position which covered the family’s immediate financial needs, and Carol was able to tell her daughters that she’d never miss another minute of their lives.

Meet Ally, Becky and Carol – the anti-hippies. Whereas the flower children of the 1960s have been castigated for fomenting the freewheeling, idealistic social revolution of the time, before promptly “selling out” and morphing into the very institutions they once decried, it would seem that certain members of Generation X are playing out this drama in reverse. Raised in the 1980s “Me Decade,” they went through their formal education with tunnel vision, like good little disciples of Gordon Gekko. “Make money, earn awards, plan for retirement,” was the mantra, and they sure did their best to stay on the train to financial and professional glory.

But at some point, independently, and often in separate parts of the nation, these three woman took a good look inside and realized that unhampered ambition may have been good for the bank account, and great for the bragging rights of their folks, but awful for their souls and life satisfaction.

For years now, the death of idealism has been mostly accepted as fact. But the conversation which exposed these changes in destiny gives pause, followed very closely by excitement. Is this idealism in its new form? Not the college-aged anarchistic and rootless version, which is destined to burn bright before blowing out. What we find instead is a slower, more methodical, but eventually, more certain feeling that we must do more for our communities, our families and ourselves?

It seems there is hope yet – hope for more than a predetermined greedy, lazy, shortsighted, and selfish path through life. Lives are changing one mid-30s crisis at a time.

Sleep well.

BufBloPoFo 09 DaySix (March 18, 2009)

Tell me about your first home away from home. Tell me about the first apartment you had that wasn’t under your parents’ roof. A dorm? A loft? A cardboard box? Give us a tour.

Before I proceed, I have to give a shout-out to Garvey for his most excellent, gut-busting post from BufBloPoFo 09 Day 5. It was a three hankie event of laughter:

http://royaltoybox.blogspot.com/

Truth be told, I am feeling a little winded on Day 6 of this blogging bonanza. I have to find a way to recharge. All the more difficult since my day job literally sucks the lifeblood from my veins these days. But I digress…

I could launch into a tale of my first dorm room at the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana, the first time I ever had U.S. Postal mail delivered to a place where I happened to live, besides my folks’ pad. However, I think it would be inaccurate to call this my first “home away from home.”

My first dwelling that deserves the title is a tour bus in South Africa, summer of 1996. I was about to turn 18 and I was on a performing tour with the Chicago Childrens Choir. That all sounds very wholesome, doesn’t it? False. One of the more scarring, and thus maturing episodes of my young life, literally thousands of miles away from anyone who shared my DNA.

What didn’t happen on this tour? The coldest winter South Africa experienced in 40 years. Stop laughing. It was cold on that tour bus at night. It was 40 degrees or so, and bear in mind that South Africans generally do not have central heat on their buses, and almost none of us had brought along our winter coats. The weather was a freak thing, naturally.

I suffer from motion sickness. Ironically, I also enjoy daredevil activities, so that is my cross to bear. But on this tour, I just wanted an adventure off the bus. My mother had filled out my pre-trip medical forms, which clearly stated that I suffered in this area. I had brought a fair supply of Dramamine with me, but at 17, I had no concept of what 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for five weeks really meant. My drug supply was cashed quickly. This led to some unfortunate puking incidents, one of which involved an ostrich farm. Don’t ask. Now, I had a longterm boyfriend who also happened to be in the choir, and also on the same trip. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Of the four chaperones on the trip, three of them were women (one a nurse). Women being the gossipy beeyatches they often are, they saw a frequently barfing 17 year-old girl who spent a heck of a lot of time with her fella and drew the worst conclusions. Much later there were accusations in a parking lot from the nurse as we boarded the bus – in front of just about each of the 60 other choir members on the tour with me. But before we reached that hellacious humilation, the leaders made an executive decision to cut me off from any more Dramamine doses. You know, because it’s bad for the baby and all. So I vomited unnecessarily for days until I found a pharmacy in a South African mall that sold drugs way more effective than Dramamine. All the stomach chill without the sleepiness.

But guess what? My mom was a nurse too. After the Jerry Springer-like confrontation in the aforementioned parking lot, I gave Mom a ring and told her they had driven me around for days and let me upchuck with impugnity, despite my denials of being knocked up and given the fact that I had a medical form stating my condition. It is not for nothing folks that Jen and I are experts at dressing people down. One phone call to the choir elders later, and suddenly I was being given a surprise 18th birthday party in a dorm lounge, and all the anti-pukey pills I could ever want.

I could go on about this trip. Who slept with whom and where (fine, some of that involved me – I told you I had a boyfriend). Don’t ever let anyone tell you that “kids today” are so much more awful than previous generations. Kids unsupervised are always going to be little shits the world over in a timelessly predictable fashion. But what was my point again? Oh yeah, I carried my own money, fought my own battles (and lost some), cried, puked, drank, laughed, had sex, stayed up too late – a foreshadowing of my soon-to-come University days. This was my first adult home away from home. Oh yeah, and I was in fucking amazing and gorgeous South Africa too.