August 5, 2014

Summer Musings: From the ashes

“People in general are beautiful and interesting, but the city is sometimes not.”

“People in general are beautiful and interesting,” said photographer Sandro Miller to me and seven other UChicago interns at the beginning (well, it was actually it was near the middle, but we’re going to say it was the beginning for poetic effect) of our summer internship at Redmoon Theater. “People in general are beautiful and interesting.” Pause. Let those words wash over you like the sound of marbles tumbling down a wooden staircase. Like your favorite song. Let them sink into your skin the way the smell of bonfire smoke seeps into your pores and hair after an evening at the Point. Repeat it again. “People in general are beautiful and interesting.” Sound out each syllable and savor the melody, separate it from the overwhelming generality of existence. Taste the words like the crunch on top of a crème brûlée.

People in general are beautiful and interesting, but the city is sometimes not. Thus the Great Chicago Fire Festival was born, to show the city that it is made of people, not just systems—transportation, politics, oppression, inequality, facilities, economics—which are not always beautiful and interesting. We asked a city to see humanity in all the chaos. We asked a city to be brave.

With little more than a handful of chalkboards, a camera, and some photo release forms, we traveled to fifteen neighborhoods around the city and asked people in communities, in parks, in their homes, from Kurowski’s deli store in Avondale to the corner of Kedzie and Argyle in North Lawndale, to share with us what they overcame in their lives, just like the city overcame the Great Chicago Fire. We weren’t looking for sob stories. We were looking for people.

We had to answer these questions, too. We had to answer them so many times. At times it was exhausting, recounting the worst thing that happened to you on a daily basis. At times I felt like I was becoming defined by the hardest thing I ever had to go through. Around this time, Redmoon introduced a new fill-in-the-blank statement into the mix. I Celebrate. “You are more than the worst thing that has ever happened to you,” this statement declared.

So here we are right now, with a giant interactive map of Chicago with hundreds of pictures and videos of what Chicago’s residents celebrate and overcome. Each one of them has been amazing. Beyond amazing. From overcoming “changing schools” to overcoming “the street life,” every single answer was significant in its own way. Not every victory is about saving the universe. And that’s OK. This is not the Oppression Olympics. This is not the Overcoming Olympics. Each answer was connected to a story, which was connected to a person, which was connected to Chicago.

Here are some of my favorite sound bytes from the summer.

“I’m Rachel and I’m the CEO of Rachel Incorporated.” Rachel told us that no one could represent her interests as well as she could. That’s why she put herself in charge of her own life and stopped letting other people run Rachel Incorporated, her nickname for the running of her life.

“You can’t tell a drunk man he’s drunk with a glass in your hand; you have to put your glass down first.” John from North Lawndale overcame “the street life” and told us that there is no substitute to leading by example. He explained the “beat-up car syndrome” in which you call someone to fix your broken car, but they arrive in their own beat up, wheezing automobile. You would probably question their competence, because if someone can’t do something for themselves, how are they going to do it for you?

“Never let anyone tell you that you are unimportant. Everything you are is what makes up this world.” Jade from South Chicago overcame 5 years of bullying. At 14, she had already gained very mature insights, stating that her “purpose was to help other people who were going what [she] went through.”

Overcoming things is hard. And before you can get over something and do anything about it, you have to admit it and say it out loud. If the residents of Chicago can fix the things in their lives that are bad, maybe that will position them a step closer to fixing the things in their communities, in the city, that are bad. And along the way, we can celebrate all the things that we savor in our lives—family, birthdays, faith, love, independence, and self respect, to name a few.

Life is different from school, because there are no books to highlight. You’re not getting graded on your internship. The best you can do is soaking up as much as you can in the moment and reflecting on it later. That’s highlighting the book of experiential learning.

Kiran Misra is a second-year in the College. Summer Musings is a Viewpoints blog that publishes on Tuesdays and Fridays through September 26.