It’s like Chicago is a rock dropped at the edge of Illinois, and the suburbs ripple out almost to Wisconsin. The farther you go out, the looser and wider the circles, and I spent my first 18 years living at the quiet northwest edge of it all, 45 minutes from the beating city heart.
My childhood memories of Chicago are concentrated around Michigan Avenue, where we wedged into the winter-worn crowd to see the Christmas display in the windows at Macy’s. Where we saw quirky plays that my Dad found in the paper. Where we took that long elevator ride to the top of the Hancock, felt like we might shoot through the ceiling into the sky.
So it’s new to me to wake up in a best friend’s city apartment, footsteps heavy on the wood floors above. To step out into the quiet movement of the city morning: the joggers, the dog-walkers, the suits and heels and briefcases, the energy.
On the brown line el train, I am entirely surrounded and entirely alone. I can’t stop looking at people. At their clothes, at what they carry, at the way their headphones lace up into their ears. I watch the skyline grow bigger before us. People get on and off, and then I do too.
The day is sunny and perfect as I walk the map I have memorized .72 miles toward the conference in my new boots. It makes me feel strong. I am part of the city in a new way, like she’s waking up, and I’m there for it. Like this is her real, just-out-of-bed face, and I’m, for the first time, seeing it.
I’m there for a conference called Story. The website is vague. It never says “Christian” or even “faith,” just “Creatives.” The lobby is so full of plaid shirts and skinny jeans and weird, artistic displays that you could almost miss the Christian publishers nestled along the walls, the church vendors, the ministries.
I’ve heard of the musician who begins the conference with his plaid shirt and ukulele, but I haven’t heard him until he starts singing about love, and it makes me feel like I’m at the brink of the holy.
He sings, “The sweetest thing I’ve ever learned/is that I don’t have to have all the answers/Just a little light to call my own.” And God, if I’m ever going to give a three-minute testimony again, it’s going to be just that, just those words, just that haunting melody.
He is the first of the artists. Not a Christian Artist but an artist who is imperfectly Christian, who is straining toward the Light, struggling with the complexity of the darkness. There’s the visual artist Makoto Fujimura who says “artists are deeply shaped by their location in the world.” There’s that young music-video director Isaac Rentz who says, “I’m an agnostic when it comes to ‘Christian art.’”
Anne Lamott comes up with her short dreadlocks and black cardigan and says, “I have an hour talk on everything I know about writing, and I have an hour talk on everything I know about faith, and they’re basically the same talk,” and this is what I’m thinking about when I walk the city sidewalks that night, eyes wide open, watching everything.
This is not a treatise on where to live: suburb versus city. (I long ago made peace with the fact that suburban does not mean sellout, that middle is not necessarily synonymous with mediocre.) It’s about that winter night in 2007 when I finally found the words to pray again.
And it wasn’t a worship song, and it wasn’t a Christian book on recovering from Depression, and it wasn’t even the Bible. It was Death Cab for Cutie and “Transatlanticism” in my earbuds as I walked the dog behind our Plymouth apartment building. It was the moon high and full in the clear winter sky. It was the lyrics, “I need you so much closer,” over and over again in my ears, as I walked, walked, walked.
It was the decidedly nonchristian artist Joseph Arthur, who gave words to my doubt-filled struggling when he sang: “I don’t know anymore/what it’s for/I’m not even sure/if there is anyone who is in the sun/can you help me to understand?” And I kept it on repeat for an entire month, that song “In the Sun.”
And what this is really about is art, about how these neat Christian/Secular lines have robbed us of each other’s important voices in the world.
It’s about a Christian subculture that has moved out to the farthest edge of the rippling real. We’ve made our home 45 minutes from the heart of humanity. And there is something utterly tragic about that.
It’s this question that keeps me up at night, the one that I can’t stop thinking about: Can you be an artist working with that striking red thread of God’s love without getting pigeon-holed into some faraway cul-du-sac of faith? Is there a way to write straight into the reality of life, to make something that sounds like a love song? Something that brings others one step closer to the holy?
Because the thing is, I’m on the el train, surrounded by all these strangers, and I can’t stop looking at them. Can’t stop seeing how beautiful they are, can’t stop noticing all that they carry.
When you stand inside the el station at night, you can feel the trains before you see them. You stand alone in the fluorescence of the underground, and the floor shakes with the power of it. The walls too. And when it’s actually coming – actually upon you – it feels a little like the world is about to end.
It comes into the tunnel with the force of so much speed, and you are blown by it, blown flat against the wall that first time you wait for it.
And then it slows, slows, stops. Opens. And the choice, as always, is whether or not to get on.