In August, when my mother said, “Three-ish weeks from today, you’ll be in California!” I continued staring out the car window. Not a word. I’m still not sure that such a declaration deserved acknowledgment. Typically, one’s move-in date for college is not readily forgotten, especially when there’s a surging variant of COVID-19 that threatens us all with the prospect of the embarrassing mistake of once again trusting too much in our institution’s promises. Students, particularly in my cohort, the Class of 2024, do not want another surprise cancelation, from what I can tell. Negative experiences (e.g., those resulting from a costly, inflated sense of false hope) tend to wedge themselves deeper into the mind than the positive ones.
Thus, for my own sake, I refused to internalize another of my mother’s implicit reminders that I, in fact, have not moved out after an entire remote-first year of Stanford and vaguely too many years of compulsory education.
In any case, it’s been long enough since I would need help counting the number of weeks in a segment of a calendar.
It was a Saturday, and we had a short trip to get to the Gold Coast Art Fair. This annual event in Chicago, I learned, was making a return to Grant Park after some setbacks last year. Originally, I intended not to come to the fair, but as I prepared to walk out the front door of my house and to a nearby coffee shop, in a moment of coincidental mutual departure, my mother invited me to come with her.
“What’s the worst that could happen?” I thought. Maybe it would even be nice.
For a moment, it was. After my mom and I descended into an underground downtown parking lot, an expanse of smooth pavement laid itself out across our peripheries, illuminated by a series of what appeared to be equally interspaced halide lights.
“I haven’t been here in about 18 months,” she observed.
In the pre-pandemic olden days, my mother would park here often, due to its proximity to her office of work. But this time when she held her badge to the security scanner to open the gate entrance, she was denied. Somebody in the company must have deactivated the card, I figured, once it was clear that remote work would last for longer than a few balmy weeks in March 2020. We settled for the machine to dispense a parking garage ticket, passed through the gate and headed to Grant Park.
Notwithstanding that puffy grey cumulus clouds seemingly had followed me from my neighborhood to downtown, I was still looking forward to seeing what was so special about this event. Booths of decorative and fine arts were set up in a large circular circuit around the dominant, central grass field of the park. Typically one or two vendors stood at each one, a table in front of them, the merchandise behind, and a white polyester canopy above.
Going one by one, my mother would stop and peer into the booths, often audibly taking note of what stood out most, what garnered from her the greatest sensation or admiration. There were artists from all over the place, it seemed, and from plenty of specialties: photography, painting, sculpture, jewelry, textiles, and the list goes on.
Then, as if some deity were demonstrating a cruel sense of humor, rain started to come down in buckets before we had walked a quarter of the way around Grant Park. People started to close up their booths to shield the art from the elements; the fair was going to close in an hour anyway.
My polyester Virginia Tech shirt darkened to an entirely new shade of maroon at this point, and the drops that refused to stop clinging to my eyelashes hindered my vision. Still, my mother wanted at least a taste of everything on display. So I went along with it. We trekked on through the rest of the circuit and then went around another time to locate one booth with one necklace that she wanted to purchase. Since she had not brought cash, I gave her all the dollar bills in my wallet to pay for it — whatever would get me out of there the fastest. It wasn’t enough. Thankfully, we were able to work out a compromise by giving the vendor what we had and exchanging contact information to settle the remainder of the payment at a later time. We were back in the car 15 minutes later. As we exited the lot, the irony was all mine when I saw that the sky was now clearing up.
I scurried inside to get out of my drenched clothes once home, making an effort to get to that coffee shop as soon as possible — where I eventually arrived, seated my newly caffeinated self and composed this piece.
Originally, I planned to write something entirely different, but this is the direction it went, and I suppose I must come to terms with it, lest I waste a limited reserve of energy or corrupt myself with further indignation. Like rain, some forces will come into your life and go with no consideration for what you think of it.
How obvious, you say. I know, it is obvious. It is also an attempt to drive home the cardinal notion of Stoic philosophy that is hiding somewhere in this story. Let’s go with the latter description because it makes me sound wiser than I am. (Don’t worry — I’m also going with the latter description because it is more relevant.)
The years of 2020 and 2021 have almost taken on personalities of their own, and though I foresee this observation as a source of an ongoing attitude of resignation for many returning students this fall, it is only an elaborate, self-righteous metaphor. A year is not like a person. A year cannot provide an answer when I pout and cry, “Why me?” It cannot be gracious, nor can it be callous. So for every remaining morning in Chicago, when my mother said that I am one day closer to moving into college, I had to absolve myself of the contempt for these years, that it would not turn inward, recalling that time is an abstraction. It follows, then, that as an abstraction, time does not choose to deal out serendipity to its favorites, so it does not choose to deal out misfortune to its prisoners.