Category: *News

Celebrating the Joys of Spring

I know I’m counting my chickens before they’re hatched, readers, but this weekend felt like spring was in the air in Chicago. The air had that special mild feel; the wind that blustered about me was warm, and the sun was bright enough to make me squint. More than these little rises in the thermostat, though, I just felt that extra burst of energy that spring brings with it. I walked all over town, glad to make up errands and excuses to get outside. Before the week was out, I had filled the coming months with excited plans. I’ll be fitter! I’ll eat better! I’ll write outdoors and go to cafes and and and…

I know I won’t be able to accomplish all the excited plans on my calendar, but just having the excitement of planning is enough right now. Spring always gives me a boost of hopeful energy. And before you tell me not to get my hopes up, I know; as a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, I know April has a way of having late snowstorms. My heart is hard and ready for this little taste of spring to fade. But once nature gets a foothold, it never seems quite as bad to dip back into winter for a while.

This also means that I’ve almost officially survived my first Chicago winter. I thought it would take extra strength of character, but it honestly wasn’t too unbearable, except for a few extreme days. And of course, this has me thinking about what the change of season means for our creative lives. Will there be more time, somehow, for writing? Will we be able to sit out in the sun and jot things down in our notebooks, or just think and plan and work on dreamier things? It’s hard to say. But we can certainly set ourselves up for success by seizing the joy of spring.

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In the Heart of a Chicago Winter

THE HIGH IS THREE DEGREES IN CHICAGO TODAY, AND I’M NOT EVEN TELLING YOU WHAT THE WIND CHILL IS. I’ve arrived in this Midwestern city at the perfect time to see it at its worst; the winds are howling off the snow-covered lake, and it’s so cold that it’s dangerous to go outside. I’ve stood out on those elevated train platforms now with my nose tucked into my scarf, shivering under the measly little heat lamps while that wind howls close to my skin. It’s a creature with teeth, a mugger wielding knives. It is a physical presence with a cutting brutality on your face, your eyes, your hands.

Seriously, I grew up in New England, but this cold is a whole different level. This is the cold that people can die in. Homeless or drunk people get locked out at the wrong time and die every year.

And with all this extremity around me, my hometown has STILL managed to best Chicago this year. Again, my timing was perfect; I left about a week before the first snowstorm hit Boston, and it’s been nothing but piling snow ever since. At first, snow is beautiful and delightful. Bostonians I knew were sending gleeful messages about another day of canceled class, another snowman built. Giddy photos popped up online of people making snow angels, sledding down Beacon street, skiing down Comm Ave.

But the snow is overstayed its welcome. With no days above freezing temperatures, the snow has stayed, even as more and more has piled up. Trains are stopped. Buses are spotty. Most roads have become one-way. People with real jobs, people with kids to take care of, are desperate. Snow days and piled sidewalks have become one more thing that a few are privileged to enjoy, and most must suffer.

In the way that we all think the universe revolves around us, I can’t help wonder what Boston is trying to tell me with this howling gale mere days after my final departure from my home. It makes me feel like I was essential to the place, somehow, and now once I’ve left, there’s an icy void in my place. Maybe the city is expressing its rage that I’m gone. Or maybe I belittled Boston too often. I’ve told too many people that it’s really a small town, barely a city. You don’t think I’m a city? Boston is retorting. Well how about this?

I’m being silly, of course; nothing is more impervious to human beings than weather, and yet we insist on taking it personally. On a Chicago day when the winds are so strong that I must take shelter behind a building, in the lee of the wind, I wonder what I did wrong, what I did to deserve this. Am I up to Chicago’s mettle? Do I have what it takes? I don’t know yet, but I’m trying. I’ve leaped into the icy deep end of what Chicago has to offer. For the next few months, you can picture me feeling around in the black waters of the unknown here, struggling to survive.

On the Suspicious Friendliness of People in the Midwest

The strangeness began in the Illinois IKEA.

My boyfriend and I were there, of course, because a week ago we had moved into our new place in Chicago, and where do you go in the first week of a new residence? The nearest IKEA. We were wondering whether a bookcase was too wide for the bedroom when the guy standing next to us spoke up. “This one’s a really great shelf, isn’t it?” he asked. He was young, bearded, wearing a leather jacket. Too thin and with a nice face. I thought, what’s with this guy?

“Yeah, these shelves are great. I’m going to deck out my whole living room with them. And then —” he bent close, letting us in on his great idea. “I’m going to put a really big bookshelf in the middle of the room. Like a divider.”

We agreed: that would be pretty cool. “Okay, see ya,” he said, and wandered off. We both looked at each other.

“What was that all about? Did he want something from us?” we asked each other.

The thing is, I’m from Boston. And the only other city I’ve lived in is New York. In Boston, for half the year you don’t see anyone’s faces. Everyone’s hurrying about with their parkas zipped up to their chins, jay-walking and yeah, who’s gonna stop me? People are crass and loud-mouthed. They’re salt-of-the-earth types. I grew up marinating in that salt. Then add that to living in New York for a few years. There, you get the crassness and the loud-mouthery, coupled with hurry and impatience. The nerve of some people to walk slowly on the street. Keep going, dammit. Don’t look up at the guy catcalling you. Give him the thousand-yard stare. Don’t have time for your problems or your scary wierdness. Someone’s preaching on the subway? Stare right through him. Push your way to the only seat left and don’t look back.

Whenever I encounter altruistic politeness, my impulse is to be suspicious of it, in fact. What’s that guy’s problem? What does he want from me? In places like New York and Boston, if a stranger is nice to you, it’s probably because he either wants something from you, or he wants to do something to you. One of the first days I arrived in New York, a guy chatted me up on the street for a few minutes, welcoming me to the city. Before I knew it, I had bought a hat and brochure that would benefit the Hari Krishna temple. It happened so fast that I was too embarrassed to refuse.

And don’t get me wrong; there’s something I love about that worldview. New England gave me a wariness of emotional display. There was something unseemly about wearing your heart on your sleeve, something uncouth about just putting it all out there. It’s an old Puritan suspicion of too much happiness. And New York added the slight edge of hardness you need not to be taken advantage of. My boyfriend and I noticed that whenever we are in a foreign city or near a touristy site, it’s always he who is asked by strangers to take their photo. I’ve never been asked. I wondered why that was; did I not look trustworthy enough? “It’s your New York stare,” my boyfriend explained. “When you’re out in public you put on this don’t-mess-with-me face.”

And in an odd way, I’m proud of the don’t-mess-with-me face. It was hard won. I arrived in New York soft and naive, red-cheeked and wide-eyed. But New York changes you; New York teaches you things. If you want to make it, you learn to walk fast and not give a damn.

So it’s been pretty disconcerting to arrive in the Midwest and be confronted by all this unabashed Midwest courtesy and and kindness. In every store I visit, people greet you, ask how you’re doing and seem to genuinely want to know. There are strangers who strike up conversations in check-out lines, at the post office. People are holding doors for me and not grumbling about it. Strangers laugh to each other about the relative cuteness of their pets. I’m constantly disarmed, wary, suspicious. I feel a little like a wild dog suddenly dropped in a puppy pen. What are these creatures? Why are they so cuddly? What do they want from me?

It’s going to take some time to adjust. I never realized how hard and crusty my exterior shell had become; there’s the stiff-upper-lip of New England, coupled with the veneer of indifference that New York can add. I don’t know if I fully want to let go of these things. Then I’ll be soft and weak again, naive, open to manipulation. I’m proud of how threat, how the dirtiness, the bigness, the danger of the city doesn’t faze me. But I’m charmed as well by the sweetness I see in the Midwest.

Hello from Chicago!

Greetings from the Midwest, readers! As a born-and-bred East Coaster, and a loyal Bostonian since the age of three, I never thought I’d feel at home anywhere else in the country. But I also was always open to the idea of trying out different cities and exploring other worlds. So a job change has me living in the heart of downtown Chicago, eager to explore another city for at least the next year. Two Cities Review will remain Two Cities, but the gap we’ll leap will be much larger, and we’ll be exploring New York and Chicago instead of New York and beloved old Boston.

I’m sure I’ll be missing Boston in the months ahead. The rattling old T, the smell of salt down by the harbor and all the fresh fish on hand, the crusty, belligerent, loveable nature of the city and its people — I’m missing all of that already. But the excitement of exploring a new city has currently seized my attention. I’m all eyes and ears this month, trying to absorb it all, slip into the wide streets and among the giant skyscrapers. To really know the place and make the most of it, I want to go native as much as I can.

Right now isn’t the most opportune time to wander the streets of Chicago, as you can imagine. It’s minus 3 degrees today, with a wind chill that makes it about twenty below. The few times I’ve stepped outside in the past couple of days, the cold felt like a set of razor blades skinning me alive. It was scary how cold it felt. While the cold of Boston can be miserable, this kind of cold can really kill people. I’ll have to be very careful with what I wear and where I go and whether my car has gas.

Beyond that, though, I’m already excited by the vibrations the city is giving me. There’s a sense of culture bubbling on the surface of every street. The Art Institute is massive and world class; there are independent bookstores thriving; there are plays and poetry readings that await. Boston is wonderful, but it always has the feeling of a small town, a knowable, contained world. Perhaps it’s time to step into a larger world, a more husky, brawling city, a city of largeness and cultural depth. If you live in a place that is too knowable, you risk losing all growth and change in your life. I’m happiest when I’m a little uncertain, when I’m dipping my toe into water that’s a bit too deep.

I’ll continue to share my insights into the city of Chicago from the perspective of a newcomer as I start to explore it. What city is closest to your heart, and what city do you want to explore? What city would you most want to be a stranger in?

Issue 4 is here!

Issue 4 has arrived, readers! We’re very excited about these, dark, cold, and often cruel visions of the season in our first winter issue. We have stunning fiction, poetry, and nonfiction to enjoy, as well as a new letter from your intrepid editors, that can be read in the issue or on our homepage. And we are also announcing our very first Prose contest, which you can learn more about on our contest page. Head on over to our current issue now!

Coming Soon: Issue 4

We are just finishing the final proofreading of issue 4, and we’re very excited about the dark, wintry themes populating the pages. Stand by for issue 4’s appearance in just a few days; and be sure to learn more about our fiction and nonfiction contest. We’ve got some intense, thought-provoking, and surprising pieces coming at you this season. Some pieces you’ll want to cozy up with next to the fire, and some pieces will be delightfully unsettling. Which kind of writing do you prefer? We’ll have a little of winter’s cold and its beauty in issue number 4.

How Do You Carry the Fire?

Candle light burning 1437374 mToday’s post title comes from Cormac McCarthy. In his incendiary novel The Road, his main character, an unnamed boy, keeps reminding his father that they’re “carrying the fire.” It’s an unexplained refrain with unmistakable spiritual overtones; the idea that they are keeping something of humanity alight within them. This is an old connection that many religions make between human beings and fire. We are the only species to keep and use fire, after all, and so we see it as our sacred duty to maintain it, to keep it alive. The Bible tells us not to keep our light under a bushel, and the Buddha tells us that all our lives, we are on fire, burning as if consumed by desire, and our bodies are the fuel.

There are many spiritual meanings for fire; it purifies, it protects, and it is a central metaphor for what makes us human. But in many cultures, fire is also a symbol of creativity. This quality, too, is fundamentally human, and yet it’s the only thing (or one of the few things) that elevates us beyond the plane of simple humanity. It expands the possibilities of what we can be. So in Greek mythology, Prometheus steals fire from the Gods; fire, and creativity, is a semi-divine thing, one that we nevertheless have the audacity to steal.

All this is my way of thinking about creativity as a kind of flame held within the glass case of our lives. Nowadays, creativity is one slender candle flame amid a teeming electric switchboard of lights; so many demands and worries and constraints and expectations compete with that light. It is very vulnerable as a result. So I’m wondering about the ways that you carry the fire of creativity within you.

What are the greatest threats to your fire? Is it lack of time, or family obligations? Is it exhaustion? Is it entertainment temptations, like television or the internet? Does it come from within? Perhaps your own doubts and anxieties pose the greatest threat to your little candle. If you’re going to keep the flame alive, the first step is to identify what threatens it.

Next, I want to hear about what you do to carry the fire — and what you intend to do in the future. Though sorely overtaxed this semester with my usual teaching load, I’m making efforts to find time for myself and my writing in between classes and before I get home from work.

I find that when I get home from a full day of teaching, my mind is ready to quit for the day; I drop my bag to the floor and want dinner and entertainment, not work. But if I stay in a cafe or a comfortable lounge area in the office for an extra hour before I go home, then I can write. I also find that in the long gap between classes on some days, I usually waste the time, goofing off on the internet or reading articles (not terrible, but not the only thing I want to do). I’m making an effort to use that time more wisely, by reading or writing, or using that time to grade papers so I’ll have more weekend time to myself. And finally, if I’ve used those slices of inbetween time well, then I have more weekend time to go to the library or a cafe, and think about my writing.

I don’t accomplish all of these things in one week. Some weeks the papers have come in for grading, or there’s a weekend event. But if I do some of these things, then it means I’m getting a little creative work done. The candle burns another week.

So how do you carry the fire? What advice can you give, and will you try finding slivers of your time to work?

On the Fringe of the City

A recent move has me living on the edge of the city I used to inhabit, looking in a little wistfully. It’s a temporary arrangement, but for several months, I’ll be driving to work in the mornings, blasting along a major commuter highway to the north shore and through Boston. It has me seeing a different side of the city I know; and that reminds me that no matter how much you can get to know a city, there is always another way to know it. We can always be different people, looking at the city from the perspective of office workers or street dwellers, late night partiers or garbage collectors, suburban commuters or city loyalists. There is always another way to see. And what we writers must know is that there is always another way to look.

As a car-owning commuter these days, I see a lot of traffic. I also see the highways that circle viciously about the borders of most cities; and I see the corporate-and-big-box stores that form depressing haloes around most American cities these days. As I head outward I see the sad strip malls and signs for discount furniture and kitchen and tile and pet supplies and food, so much fast food. I wonder who stops at the restaurants in particular, who would want to sit in the window of one of these places and hear the whine of traffic. I think these places are mostly for people who are tired and lonely, the ones whose dinners have been cancelled, whose spouses aren’t home that night. And then, there’s something reassuring in being able to get something hot and mushy and head home with a box warming the passenger seat of the car.

But I still find these outer rings fairly bleak; like who decided every American city had to be surrounded in the same way? It makes me want to live right in the middle again, where I can avoid such sights. But I also want to avoid such snobbery and disdain. These are quintessentially American sights, after all, and if I want to understand my place, I have to experience it without judgement. When a car cuts me off or speeds rudely by, I remember a writing teacher telling me, Always imagine they’re rushing their sick child to the hospital. I conjure the image, and I feel a little warmer; I’m able to see a story, not just a depressing blankness. The trip down route 1 or route 128 or route anything is a line that pulls us all home; the late afternoon sun is warm on our backs or shoulders; you can see houses and stores and church steeples past the high sound barriers of the highway, flickering through the trees.

In that way, the process of writing and imagining is a fundamentally life-affirming act. It affirms that we all have stories, we all have sympathies and concerns, and we all have dignity, all the ones crossing in and out of the trash-ringed city, hurrying home or onward, with feverish children in the back seat.