The river flows.
Chairs hold their owner’s spots.
The streets are quiet in anticipation.
They wait for the parade to begin.
A street cleaner readies them.
A lone person swings in the park.
Coffee drinkers buy their morning brew.
Flowers, fields, and structures seem unconcerned.
Soon, the quiet will cease.
Drums will beat.
Children will dance.
Flags will wave.
The parade will pass.
We will celebrate and be proud.
I made my purchase in 1989. My purchase being the house that I still live in. Four bedrooms, two and one-half baths. It was considered nice in the day, now deemed modest, dwarfed by the new multi-million dollar mansions just up the street.
I was drawn to my town. I knew that I wanted to live here since I was a teen. I remember traveling here in the 1970s. Then a small farming community of about 20,000, it was separated from metropolitan Chicago by miles of corn and soy. Now a far western suburb of almost 150,000, it is connected by urban sprawl. Often on top 10 lists of best place to live in the country, it was carefully planned with beautiful parks, great schools, and a charming downtown. It still draws me.
The downtown is an easy walk from my house, a walk that I take multiple times a week. Sometimes for purpose, often for ambiance. My town has a river that runs through it. It runs through my neighborhood, through my downtown, and beyond where it eventually empties into the great Illinois river.
My river has been gentrified with cobblestone paths, shepherd hooks streetlights, artistically arranged flowerbeds, and even a carillon. People travel to its Riverwalk from surrounding communities for the flowers, sculptures, restaurants… the well-crafted package.
An army of workers make sure that the paths are litter free, the flower beds are weed free, and the grassy lawns are trimmed to perfect regulation height. I love the Riverwalk, and when I walk along its prosaic paths I feel fortunate and blessed. Beautiful people, happy children, street musicians, food cart vendors. The experience is more akin to a Norman Rockwell painting fused with a Hollywood creation like Pleasantville, rather than a Chicago neo-suburb.
It is easy to get caught up in the well-planned magic. It is easy to set a high standard of expectation. It is easy to assume that by some type of osmosis I am part of this picture perfect community, part of the picture perfect beautiful people that gracefully shop in the little boutiques, dine in the fine restaurants, rejuvenate in the spas. It is easy to disconnect from the real world and to assume an artificial specialness about myself, among the herd of artificially special residents. Cohabitants synthetically elevated by their SUVs, impressive wardrobes, and high-limit credit cards.
My reality is disconnected from this fantasy. A blue-collar kid with a gift for science who pursued graduate school, then medical school. A kid who never took a psychology class as an undergrad, then exposed to the novelty and complexity of human behavior during his 3rd-year psychiatric rotation. Impressed by this complexity enough to change his plans of subspecialty internal medicine to psychiatry. My outward appearance now white-collar, my inner core still blue-collar; a core that finds excitement and wonderment from honest labor and earned dirt under my fingernails.
There are other places in my town. Places that can reconnect me to my real self, and the greater world. Places to re-educate me, to reground me. One of those places is the swamp. The swamp is along the Riverwalk, but away from the gelato shops and fusion cookery. It is in a wild area, less managed, more natural. To find the swamp you need to veer off the cobblestone paths and onto one of crushed ash. Not very far, but a world apart. A wild place dotted with fallen trees, covered with a carpet of blue-green algae and surrounded by wild flowers.
A place teeming with life. Frogs, snakes, insects that can dance on its surface without sinking. Listening, I can hear the sound of the swamp. Deep rich sounds of insects calling each other, splashes of swampy creatures, songs of birds.
The vegetation wasn’t planted. The swamp wasn’t sculpted, the fallen trees weren’t artistically placed. They just are. They make me feel alive, they fuel my soul, ignite my creativity. Most importantly, they ground me. They make realize that beauty comes in many forms. One not better than another.
How easy is it for me to judge others based on their outward appearance, their social standing, or their credit card limit. How foolish of me to do this. How grateful I am to have my swamp to visit. A place to experience a different kind of beauty. A place to appreciate the benefits of diversity, the greatness of difference. A place to understand that the world is a better place not only because of carefully architected landscapes and personas but also because of wild places and people whose outward appearance reflects who they are in earnest, rather than a holographic projection of who they want you to think they are.
When I got the news I thought it may be an adventure, but I had some trepidation. There was the distance, the unfamiliarity, and even the concept to contend to. However, my attendance was assured. My niece Emma was getting married, I would attend. The event made sweeter by the passage of time; the last wedding on my wife’s side of the family was ours. The distance measured by 25 years, three children, and the loss of my hair.
My niece met her husband when they were both counselors at a summer camp in Michigan. A Swedish Covenant Bible camp, to be specific. She hailed from Minnesota, her husband from Michigan. Joined by a mutual heritage, they found each other among the cabins and fields in a place that they initially attended as campers, metamorphosed by time into camp counselors.
Their shared friends, experiences, and memories from that epicenter; it only made sense that they marry there.
I only attended summer camp once as a child. It was a Boys Club camp somewhere in Wisconsin. Barren uninsulated cabins, metal cots, and a community bathroom were the biases that I brought with me. My biases were wrong, as biases often are. The beautiful setting was picture perfect with clean and neat bunkhouses, grassy lawns and a sparkling lake.
We had been assigned a room in one of the cabins that was jam packed with beds. Our room was one of four in the building, which also contained two bathrooms. The camp also functions during the winter months as a retreat center, and there are comfortable spots to meet, discuss, and exercise. It even has its own coffee shop, a perfect place to purchase my early morning Americano.
It was clear that my niece had put a tremendous amount of work and planning into making her wedding memorable. Clever homemade signs, packets of information, strung lights, these were just a few of her special touches. The officiating minister had known both Emma and Luke for years, so his sermon was heartfelt and personal. The music performed by friends.
The reception was held in an all-purpose building at the local county fairgrounds. Classic in presentation with food, music, and the now ubiquitous photo booth. The music got me dancing. The dancing made me grateful that I had been jogging and going to the gym. Overall, I was able to keep up with the younger attendees, at least in endurance if not in style.
The event warmed me. I was warmed by the love that the newlyweds radiated. I was warmed by family, who traveled long distances to celebrate with my niece and her new husband. I was warmed by their friends: fellow campers, college connections, childhood besties. They all came to be part of the momentous event. I was happy to be there. Happy to witness the genesis of their marriage. Aware and happy that their union signified the passing of one generation to the next.
Weddings are happy times. Weddings are serious times. Their wedding was unique in a wonderful way. Stamped with their personalities, dusted with their experiences, and filled with their connections.
As I drove the long drive home I savored the sweet aftertaste of the event. A smile on my face as my imagination projected forward into their coming weeks, months, years, and decades.
Today I am grateful for the opportunity to be included in great events in the lives of others.