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City of Hunched Shoulders

Screen Shot 2013-03-23 at 10.02.16 AMThe first week of spring here in Chicago has been a mixture of radiant sunshine and sub freezing temperatures. I have been inwardly savoring the sunshine while clutching my pockets and burying my head in my coat.

On Tuesday, I made several trips along Lakeshore Drive — to the Harold Washington Public Library downtown, back to Evanston, back to the South side. I watched the flicker of sunlight across skyscrapers, its winking, springlike energy, meanwhile, clutching the wheel against a strong wind that persisted in nudging my car toward the concrete median…

One usually thinks of Chicago as a stark, wintry city, less green than silver and inclined to make clumsy leaps from winter to summer. The cold alone compromises a person’s ability to stand tall, take everything in, and smell the flowers. It seems that our shared tendency to hunch over, leaning into the wind with gloved, ear-plugged persistence, could easily be a snapshot of that stubborn, ambitious, individualistic American way. Our cultural tendency to forge ahead, in a manner both self-absorbed and disconnected, is not unlike the crowds of Chicagoans hurrying around in their sleeping bag sized coats.

On my short walk to the library to pick up some librettos, I managed to appreciate the combination of frigid air and bright sun. They are an invigorating pair — more Chicagoan in spirit than clichéd harbingers of spring, like budding flowers or soothing rain. I found myself in a sea of hurried, hunched over pedestrians, moving with the mute, tense persistence I would imagine of flower buds pushing through soil. The clutter of the city had a collective grace to it — a no-frills forward thrust containing the energy and buzz of spring. It reminds me of a poem by Galway Kinnell, “Saint Francis And The Sow,” in a free-association kind of way:

“The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower…”

because

“everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness…”

This poem describes St Francis stroking the wrinkly forehead of a pig, illustrating the idea that everything possesses its own inherent beauty and is worthy of self-love.  The pig takes in this unsolicited blessing by more fully embodying itself, “remembering all down her thick length” the “loveliness of a sow.”

I’d also like to imagine that our city of hunched over, hurried, shivering people is a city in bloom, flowering from within. Spring is present in the quick succession of heavy brass doors, elevator dings, and marble floors, followed by the drone of a computer monitor on the eighth floor of the library, humming over the heavy silence of wooden tables and hunched over readers. Outside, spring is the play of light on windshields, the cacophony of brakes sounding out randomly with car horns, whistles, and screeching subway wheels, all reminders of life stirring.

Here is the poem in its entirety.

[Photo: “When He Comes Ridin’ Into Your Town,” Chicago Man’s photostream]

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