These migrations all occur at once. Or at least that is how they appear initially. Whether is was for school or work or opportunity, they left in droves and it always hurt. Growing older is acknowledging and accepting the complications of life. We begin adulthood with hopes and aspirations. Aging is both the working toward and the acceptance of success and defeat. This is okay. It must be okay.
The great artistic pilgrimage feels painful because our identities are tied into where we live. Leaving here is like leaving your friend. We feel abandoned and left behind, as if we are missing out on something important. To leave is to reject what we’ve always known. And when you live in one place long enough, you begin to adapt it as your own. I once heard that to call a city one’s own, one must live there for at least seven years. I have lived here my whole life. Losing a friend to a move is a deeper rejection. It feels personal.
But really, the decisions others make are on the part of those who leave. They leave because they want to or they have to. Their identity is not tied to this place. What they set out to do in life can not be accomplished here, not entirely. They need something different and it is a personal decision. It is tied to their path and not the smaller things that we think it is all about. I have friends who moved out of the city for graduate school, for job opportunities in the fashion world, and to be surrounded by communities that support the sort of art that they are trying to make, but can not make here.
In an essay for WBEZ’s tumblr earlier this year, I wrote:
Chicago makes you do the work. I’m not talking just about the concept of “hard work,” although that certainly applies. And I’m not saying that Chicago is not great, or that it does not exceed stereotypes. But it makes you do the work. It makes you find the the things you want. And it makes you build these things, if you want them to happen, little by little. Chicago to me has always been a working class city and it is because of this idea that so much of what happens here feels like the result of a million hands digging deep into the work, getting dirty, and leaving worn out yet satisfied.
I still hold this to be true. But the reality is that not everyone can or will think that way.
“He made a name for himself here, but he left as soon as he could,” a friend once said to me about the young and brilliant artist Angel Otero. What is so wrong with that? Just because one can make something of themselves here does not mean that they must always be here. The art we create and the lives we live should not be informed by loyalty to a sense of place. That can not always be the case for everyone. We are not all the same.
Because these moves often happen in our twenties, it begins to feel like everyone is making the same decisions for the same reason. But really, it is only because this time is one of change and transition. We are being confronted with a multitude of big questions and decisions. The answers to these questions that build and build within us must come to pass or else we will be left with the lingering of what if. One or two what ifs are fine, but too many signify a restless and unsatisfied mind. That must be avoided.
I am facing that as well right now, seeing it for the first time. It at times feels like an act of betrayal on the part of others. But it is because of this that I realize my identity is tied into this city, these massive buildings and decay and regeneration and surprising beauty.
This is also a time of identity creation. It is a time of identity manipulation and chance. To identify with only one place can be an individual struggle. What if this identity I have gained is not good enough? What if it is not accurate? What if there is more to be understood? In the end, this is what change means. We can not truly predict the outcome, but we can dive in head first and wade through on our way to a new understanding of ourselves.