Traveling makes me feel existential and nostalgic. No matter how much I do it, and I travel quite a bit, I always have at least one moment — waiting for the bus, sitting on the train, driving along the open highway– where I think “Who decided this was a good idea? When did I get old enough to travel on my own? Isn’t there someone else around here who is in charge of my life?”
This is kind of ridiculous on many levels. Not only do I travel alone quite frequently, but I’ve been put in charge of many children’s well being on many occasions. But for whatever reason, watching the fields and trees and telephone poles whip past my window always makes me feel like a child– small and insignificant, but sort of in a good way.
Speaking of being a child, have you read Neil Gaiman’s new book “The Ocean at the End of the Lane?” If you haven’t you should. Immediately. I’ll do a for realz review of it soon, but there is a lot about having just read it that seeped into my perception of this past week and weekend. I’ll avoid spoilers, but just know that it’s there. It’s one of those books that’s kind of hard to talk about. Because on one level it’s about a little boy’s adventure with monsters and a neighbor family who is more than they seem. But on another level it’s about childhood and adulthood and memory and nostalgia. It’s about acknowledging that along with the “innocence” of childhood comes terrible powerlessness and how as adults we rewrite our pasts to fit into our new world views rather than the other way around. It’s magical. Go read it.
So 10 years ago, my little 19 year old self and my skinny 19 year old gay BFF went to our very first Pride Festival in Chicago. My memory of that day is full of adrenaline and nostalgia. My memory of that day is all excitement and freedom and being caught up in something huge. My memory of that day is pure youthful abandon where nothing matters except the moment– not the future, not the past. Only the present. It is a moment in time before student loans and job hunting, before I started thinking about retirement funds and tax returns and all my friends started having babies and buying houses, leaving me to wonder which turn had taken me to the gravel backroads of life while every other person was zipping down the freeway. And part of me really wanted to have that again this year on the anniversary of a decade of Prides. Part of me wanted to go back, to put my life on hold and once again live with that reckless abandon. To throw myself to the mercy of the crowd and trust that the day, the weekend and really my whole life would be fine, that someone would help me to the train, walk me into my apartment and leave a glass of water next to my bed.
Except if I examine this decade old memory more closely, this memory of unfettered fun, the details start to come back. How my friends ditched me to go have sex, leaving me to stumble my way home on my own. How while I somehow understood that this was my tribe of people, I wasn’t out yet and so still didn’t really belong. How that day I reflected in my journal that everyone seemed to have someone, but I was always, always alone.
There have been other Pride celebrations since then for both J and I. We got older. Moved away. Came back. Not every year, but several times over the course of the last decade, this friend and I have met up at Chicago Pride. It always starts out with the highest of hopes, plans that can’t fail and the promise of the perfect day. And every time, hopes plummet, plans go astray and perfection always proves elusive.
This year was no different. As much as I tried to lower my expectations and avoid bitter disappointment, the pull of nostalgia was too magnetic for me to avoid.
There was fun and frivolity, make no mistake. Also, age and connections have their perks. This year I watched the parade from the window of a 2nd story apartment that overlooked the route. Instead of fighting the constant push of the crowd I sat comfortably on a cushion in the air conditioning with access to a bathroom, appetizers and booze. Once again I made new totally-best-friends that I forgot the instant we parted ways. Once again I felt the rush of adrenaline, the excitement that comes from a crowd of people who are celebrating– celebrating newly acquired rights, celebrating love and passion and pride and life. I love seeing the companies that come out for the parade, who publicly state “I am on your side.” I love that the Mayor of Chicago opened the parade. I love to see old people and young kids march side by side. I love feeling a part of something. I love it.
But I’m not 19 years old anymore, and I know a lot more about the world now. I see how white, cis, boy centric the parade and community is. I see that there is much more to true equality besides only the legal right to marry. I see that the LGBTQ community is full of fractures and divides and is not the unified front Pridefest likes to pretend that we are. I’ve learned that no one is going to look after you, so even when you start drinking far to early in the day and do one ill-advised shot too many that you still need to keep enough of your wits about you to stumble from the street to the train to a safe haven without losing your money, keys or clothing. Because the only one you can truly depend on to get you there alive is you.
(Yes you’ll tell me that you have friends or a significant other who looks after you, and that’s great. I hope you do. Very very occasionally I do too. But I’ve learned never to count on it, because even people I would normally trust have let me down too often.)
Once the hangover headache died down, the world stopped spinning, and the resigned disappointment descended, I found myself remembering those pesky details of that first Pride festival, like the narrator in “Ocean” whose memory of a childhood adventure comes flooding back as he stands on the edge of the duck pond. I wonder if everything about that day 10 years ago, and so many days since, have actually been what I chose to remember them as, or if I’ve just rewritten all my memories in an attempt to ward off bitterness and cynicism?
Or maybe its just that I’ve finally reached a level of awareness and maturity to acknowledge that as much as I may want the wild party scene of a big city Pride to be what brings me happiness, that the moment that made me feel most grounded and lucky and proud and accepted was the small wedding reception last weekend that celebrated my dear friend and her new wife. In spite of knowing my own nature to prefer small gatherings with a few drinks and a long conversation about books rather than fighting an endless sea of bodies, no matter how attractive they may be, have I just created this illusion of Pride as the perfect escape from real life to chase after because my confused 19 year old self thought it was the epitome of cool?
So here I sit at a crossroad in my life. I’m currently job searching and trying very hard not to be discouraged. I try to tell myself that every rejection letter just brings me closer to the offer I am going to get eventually. And even as I keep my spirits relatively high, I am tired of waiting. I am tired of waiting for my life to begin. For the girl to swoop down and take care of me, hold my hand and tuck me in. For the day when I’ll feel like a real grown up instead of someone just always pretending. For that perfect job to present itself and a life with no worry. That is the dream of childhood, the vision that 19 year old me had about her future. And it just doesn’t work like that.
So maybe it took this one event spanned across a decade to really bring all that home to me. For me to face the past as honestly as I can, and try to accept that the future is not a novel with a tidy ending. My life doesn’t have one turning point, or deus ex machina that will wrap up all the loose ends. It’s just day by day, making decisions and compromises. You go, then I’ll go, you go, then I’ll go. And I have to keep moving forward, because you never really can go back.
So it’s been real, Chicago. And It’s been fun. And it’s been really fun. But I have a feeling that this Chicago Pride was my last. At least for a long while. Because it’s time to stop looking over my shoulder and wondering what this door or that door might have led to. And it’s time to start building a life, before the parade passes by.