I broke through my mental paralysis yesterday. Despite the fact that my lifestyle resembles that of a vampire, prowling around in the dead of night, I dragged myself awake at a normal person hour and headed for the train station for a trip to Chicago. Months ago I’d purchased tickets for the Van Gogh Immersive Experience.
Out of habit, I bought two tickets. Despite over four years on my own, my muscle memory still opts for “partnered.” I find it odd, as I’ve already taken several lengthy trips by myself. I suppose the pandemic has had an impact on my actions. After spending such a long time home alone, except for the internal company that my deep intimacy well of “us” provides, my habit of sharing with Michael is still a thing. Van Gogh was his favorite artist. So…I figured that I’d go with one of my kids. I wasn’t specific about the date as it was a long time in the future. Kid number one had meanwhile planned a family vacation with her crew and which conflicted with the exhibit. Kid number two has been traipsing around the world for months and won’t be back until September. With the Delta variant gobbling up victims and too much uncertainty, I thought I might punt on the tickets and just stay home. But that’s a place I don’t want to go yet, when staying home because it’s easier becomes a regular go-to option. Turns out that my cousin, who lives in Chicago, recently lost her friend of forty years to a sudden aortic aneurysm, a shock as she’d been warring with brain cancer for three years. She is my “little cousin,” fourteen years younger than me. We couldn’t figure out how many years it’s been since we’ve seen each other. Was it 2018? 2019? Whichever, it’s been a long time. Our families were always close even though I went away to college when she was only three years old. Somehow or other, over time, I became a kind of big sister. I offered her the extra ticket as a small comfort for her grief. As a friend of mine reminded me, grief and I are old friends. I know that small positive moments help break up the sadness waltz that becomes part of daily life.
I can’t count how many times I’ve taken this train route up and back to Chicago. As a young college student without a car it was the simplest way to travel home for holidays and weekends. Back in the old days, overbooking was common with people sitting on suitcases in the aisles. I distinctly remember ticket prices of $4.57. Prices are higher now, safety regulations preclude overcrowding, but what remains the same is that the train is always late which it was yesterday. However, given the blistering, oppressive heat, I didn’t mind sitting in the air conditioning which made wearing a mask the whole trip more tolerable.
I’d hoped to get to the city early enough to grab a quick lunch at my favorite pizza place downtown. Actually I’m not quite sure that the traditional deep dish is truly the best Chicago has to offer, but the place is laden with memories of multiple lunches and dinners with Michael and eventually, our kids and their significant others. I was sorry to miss it but you can’t have everything. I grabbed a quick snack at the train station which I’ve always loved. A critical scene from the film The Untouchables was shot there and I always make sure to go through the Great Hall to see the spot where Kevin Costner and Andy Garcia catch up with the accountant whose captures dooms Al Capone to prison.
I briefly considered catching a bus or an El train to get me to the exhibit’s location but the hot wind made me realize I’d be a soaking mess before I arrived at my destination. Besides, with all the Covid worries, I was more comfortable in a Lyft with a masked driver. I was picked up by a nice man named Carlos. In our brief time together, he told me he was from Guatemala and had lived in the U.S. for eleven years. He’d married his high school sweetheart and they had five sons, all under the age of fifteen, down to age one and a half. They’d kept trying to have a daughter but have given up. Five kids is an expensive life journey. Sometimes I forget that I can usually engage well with people and that they often share a lot about their lives with me. There’s no doubt that the past ten years or so have hardened me. I’m less patient, less tolerant at this place in my life and have wondered if all my empathy and capacity to be a receiver, an empathetic person, have shriveled up. I guess they haven’t altogether although I’m an edgier version of the self who once heard life stories from virtually anyone who crossed my path. I still have vestiges of that left in me.
I arrived at my destination ahead of my cousin and found a shady place to wait for her. I took a selfie to remind myself that the Windy City was still that, as my hair had been blown around and flattened by the wind coupled with the humidity and heat-laden air. Then I took a few photos of my surroundings, the tall buildings that often make me feel claustrophobic when I’m in the city. I’m used to living with a lot of open sky broken only by treetops swaying on breezy days.
My cousin showed up and we had a little time to chat and catch up before entering the building. I had no idea what to expect from this experience. My first thought was that I was glad I’d had my knees replaced as there were lots of stairs to negotiate. Tickets were time stamped both to control overcrowding and to ensure that the full effects of what was being projected onto the museum-height walls could be wholly appreciated. A selection of Van Gogh’s paintings were displayed, each one accompanied by a musical selection. Gradually each painting dissolved and morphed into another, filling all the available wall space so you were completely immersed in the piece, while strategically placed mirrors enhanced the depth of the immersion. I know many of these paintings but they weren’t all his most famous pieces. For a long time now, since after Michael’s death, through the endless oppression of the Trump era, I’ve posted a painting on my Facebook page to add a little beauty to the bleak times. Some are artists like Vincent, who are well-known, while others I’ve discovered through a lot of exploration. While combing through different eras and styles I’ve learned more and more about my old favorites. I’ve deeply enjoyed this personal education and barely realized how much more I know than I would’ve thought. As the music played and the walls undulated, I could anticipate what painting was coming next. I found myself moved in a remarkably elemental way, deep in the core of myself, with inexplicable emotions elicited by the art, what I know about Van Gogh’s life, my sharing of appreciation for this work in my years with Michael. I didn’t expect the profundity of it all. I think the most intense moments were when I immediately recognized Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings which accompanied the second to the last painting. That music was part of the soundtrack to the film “Platoon,” where it was played during gruesome scenes of violence and death. I had to work hard to disassociate myself from those memories which have been with me since I saw that movie.
The exhibit was slightly under forty minutes but it truly transported you into an alternate timeless space. After it ended, we wandered out to a gift shop where we each received a complimentary poster. I bought a few magnets for my refrigerator before we moved on to grab an early dinner before my train departed.
My cousin is a vegan, more power to her, but I am not. Since I couldn’t get my pizza, I wanted to go to my other favorite restaurant, Greek Islands. Now in a different and larger location, I went there for the first time with Michael and some other friends to celebrate my 23rd birthday back in 1974. I loved the people who worked there, the food and the Roditis table wine which was so easy to drink that my lightweight self was already barely mobile when the waiters set us up with free shots of Ouzo, the licorice-flavored aperitif which I held my nose to toss back. I stumbled into the parking lot as Michael maneuvered me to the car and decades-long devotion to that place was born. I know the city is filled with all sorts of interesting and wonderful eateries but my sentimental attachments outweigh my experimental side. I can experiment in other places. Vegan choices were available so off we went to indulge me. My cousin was leery about eating indoors but it wasn’t really dinnertime, we’re both vaccinated and sometimes your risk just feels worth it.
I ate saganaki, delicious flamed cheese with lemon, greek seasoned potatoes and braised lamb, which I ingested with terrible twinges of guilt. I had one small glass of Roditis and creamy rice pudding for dessert.
Meanwhile, my cousin and I tried to fill each other in on years of news that we haven’t been able to do for a long time. When we walked out of the restaurant, I felt satisfied and glad about deciding to do this quick trip. I looked up and saw this incredible sky with the ray of light that always makes me feel Michael’s presence. Lovely.
Then the time came for her to return to her husband and son while I was dropped off at the train station. I’d managed to sweat my way through three masks but protocols called for masking in the station and on the train. A good thing despite the heat. There’s a long hike from the station through the tunnel to get to the part of the train that stops at your destination. By the time I climbed aboard and hiked up the stairs to the coach section, I was pretty tired. I settled into my seat just in time to watch the beginnings of a major thunderstorm with lightning bolts striking the rods on the tops of the skyscrapers. I just hoped that the weather wouldn’t cause any major delays in getting home.
All told, I was only away for thirteen hours. I guess that little slice of time can be enough. I went through lots of unexpected emotions which are frequently the best kind. Getting caught off guard, being jolted out of daily thought patterns is a good thing. Clears out the cobwebs. Barring disaster, I’m going to use all my PPE and take my train trip to Yellowstone next month. I’m imagining that if thirteen hours are good for me, a week will be even better.