Yesterday I went on a date. With myself. First I went to the Chicago Cultural Center, because I understood it to be both beautiful and free. I walked in to a gorgeous staircase made of Greek columns and tiled mosaics. Up there I saw the name Emerson… an American deity. A middle aged woman welcomed me from the Information Booth. She asked if I needed help. Usually I would avoid interacting and pretend I knew what I was doing or that I preferred to be left alone. But I was on a date and my focus was on the journey not the destination.
I said I’d never been to the Cultural Center before, even though I’ve lived here for seven years. She told me the main art exhibits were under construction so I wouldn’t be able to see them. She said this apologetically, as if I knew or expected art exhibits (I didn’t). “But” she said, “There is a glass dome on the third floor that was built as a memorial to the Union soldiers lost in the Civil War.”
I forget Chicago was the new town on the block, an industrial powerhouse built with smoke and steel, a metropolis Thomas Jefferson would have hated. The Cultural Center was built in the 19th century. As good as ancient in this part of the country.
After speaking with her I meandered up the marble stairs and went in to use the bathroom. Sitting down, I saw a piece of toilet paper on the ground in the stall next to me. It was covered in shit. It wasn’t a complete mess; it just looked like somebody had used it multiple times instead of making a single pass with one paper and grabbing more.
Outside the bathroom, before walking through the center, not knowing what to expect, I ate a handful of almonds that I had kept in my backpack. I needed to wash them down but the aged water fountain didn’t work so I had to hike up a ramp trying to swallow the dry almonds. A difficult task. Their insides were cold- an odd sensation- from the time spent in my backpack in the frigid weather outside.
I found the dome for the Union soldiers. It was beautiful without a doubt. Stained glass, heavenly angles, illuminated. I craned my neck, gave it a good long look, and then moved on.
The next room was partially under construction. Two or three construction workers stood around talking about football. Clipboards in their arms. Not sure if I was allowed in, or even if there was anything to see. It was a magnificent room, rectangular with windows and doors at least thirty feet high and half as broad. On the upper walls in gold letters were the names of Civil War Battles. Shiloh. Appotomax. March to the Sea. I was about to leave until I noticed on the ceiling under the arches over the windows a bunch of symbols… the cross, the Star of David, a shamrock. An iron cross, a couple arrows, a Muslim crescent. Over each window these different symbols, incongruous, unexplained, more fascinating than the heavenly dome just minutes before.
I left the rectangular room and marched up more steps. The staircases would bring you to a new floor and then stop. You’d have to wander down long halls to find the next stairwell, also gilded, also glorious, at a different end of the building. Completely non-functional, lovely. In the halls were art exhibits and signs that read ‘Staff Only’. Everywhere ‘Staff Only’, as if the Cultural Center employed half the city.
I came across a small model of a sculpture entitled ‘Build Your Ship’(1). It resonated with me immediately, and as I read the description it resonated even more until the point I was shaking. No, not really, but shaking is a type of resonance. The gist was this: the sea of life is mysterious. It is the universe as such. It has spat you out and will swallow you whole. But in the meantime, you can hop aboard a ship to navigate the sea of life.
Now, many ships come pre-made. People tell you how to look, think and behave. They tell you what to believe in, who to be. Some of these pre-made ships are fine. They’ll get you to open water. But why not build your own ship? It won’t be state of the art. It won’t be the greatest. In fact, it will probably leak. But it will be Your Ship. You will know it both in and out. You will know its strengths, its limitations. You might even use it for a while and decide to build a new one!
The point is authenticity. I’m at a point in my life where I’ve humbled myself a number of times to different masters and mentors, groups and organizations, because I believed them when they said (often implicitly) that I needed them to find the truth. ‘Get On Our Ship’, they said. Being insecure, I climbed aboard… and found myself not being the captain of my own journey, unable to navigate life. During my date with myself at the Chicago Cultural Center, I envisioned my ship under construction: hardy, eccentric, me.
On the top floor of the Cultural Center I looked out at the drab office buildings, traffic and commotion disguised as productivity. It all looked naïve from inside an ancient building. Then, looking toward Millenium Park, I saw someone skating. I knew instantly I’d be doing that once I left the center. I haven’t skated for years, and as a kid did it every day. To feel the grooves in the ice, the cold air passing through my lungs, would make this a really unique date.
I walked back down to the first floor. In one hall was an exhibit about Frank Lloyd Wright- before he was Frank Lloyd Wright. Long before becoming the master architect he was a simple boy from rural Wisconsin. Then, one day, his maternal uncle Jenkin Lloyd Jones appeared for a visit. Now, Jenkin was an outlandish fellow. His dress and ideas were foreign to Frank’s prosaic home. Jenkin ran a church called the All Souls Church. He was a charismatic figure who, unlike the rest of Frank’s family, didn’t work with his hands but with his mind and his voice. Frank saw a lifeboat and hopped on, leaving Wisconsin behind and going to Chicago with his uncle Jenkin, until later learning how to build his own ship (and plenty of other things).
1. Thomas McDonald http://www.choosechicago.com/articles/view/THE-REST-OF-CHICAGO/324/