There is no feeling that compares to the car ride from Midway Airport to my Bronzeville community. The view of the skyline from I-55 featuring a new skyscraper I can’t quite place, the waves rolling in along Lake Shore Drive, and my mom’s smiling face when I arrive at my front door, all remind me I’ve made it home.
Back in March, I packed a bag and bought a one-way ticket from Oakland to quarantine with my family in Chicago. Four months later, as I reflect on my experience, I want to focus on all the positive things that have happened every day. I want to share how excited I was to run into an old friend from high school last week. I want to share the songs my grandfather plays for me during our bi-weekly visits, as he recounts his love story with my late grandma through a curated playlist of moments. I want to share how incredible it has been to volunteer with organizations that are giving back to this community, like The People’s Grab N Go, all summer long.
All of those things are sweet, real, and true, but they are the polished social media worthy parts of my reality. What I don’t want to share is that the grief I feel when I walk 14 blocks north past my ex-boyfriend’s house who died suddenly last year, causes me to burst into tears. I don’t want to talk about the anxiety I feel about not knowing if I’m moving back to Oakland, and I don’t want to talk about the state of my mental health as the result of the murders of unarmed Black people at the hands of police.
Therein lies the duality of returning to a familiar space with a new perspective. The last time I spent this much time in Chicago was nine years ago, long before I even knew what the word duality meant, a word that perfectly summarizes my emotions and experience during this time. That I can love living at home surrounded by family, and desperately miss my cozy little apartment back in the Bay Area. That I can feel excited for my sister as we sit side-by-side and choose the perfect comforter for her freshman dorm, but feel nostalgic thinking about her as a baby taking her first steps. That I really hate wearing masks but I know I have to do it to keep myself and those around me safe. Duality. That is what coming home has been for me.
Although each day feels like I’m on borrowed time, there have been quite a few silver linings to this experience. I’ve been reminded more than ever of the power of my community both near and far. Growing up, I spent so much time shape-shifting, trying to fit into the image of who I thought the people around me wanted me to be, instead of just being me. Each year I feel more and more like myself, and each time I allow myself to be vulnerable with those around me, we build a deeper connection.
I’ve had more space to dream new visions for the future. I’ve always had big dreams of “making it” (whatever that means) and leaving Chicago to go chase success on one of the coasts, and those dreams have come true. However, it’s a bit unsettling when you realize the things you prayed for have manifested right before your eyes, because you can get stuck in the unknown of “now what?” I held that feeling as I hit my fifth year living in California, and struggled to clearly define a new plan. And while I still haven’t defined that plan, I do know that coming home has reminded me of who I am and some of my core values such as honesty, curiosity and empathy. Regrounding in these values has given me the space to open up myself to new visions and goals that I didn’t even realize I had or wanted to achieve.
Recently, I hung out with a good friend, and I was telling him how I often feel like the best days of my life are behind me (quarter-life crises are real!), and how I work really hard internally to be open to what I hope are amazing things ahead.
“Or you can just be present,” he replied.
It was like the wind was knocked out of me hearing this. These days, taking a deep breath, listening intently while someone speaks, taking a moment to simply wiggle my toes in the grass, and journaling each morning has helped me check in with my heart and keep my eyes open to the beauty unfolding all around me. In March, each day felt like a month, and now the summer is flying by right before my eyes and I don’t want to miss these special moments, as mundane or inspiring as they can be.
Maya Angelou once said, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going. I have respect for the past, but I’m a person of the moment. I’m here, and I do my best to be completely centered at the place I’m at, then I go forward to the next place.” Those words ring true for me now more than ever. Coming home has allowed me to remember where I’ve come from, and to learn to stay present in the moment in order to be open to receive all that lies ahead. I think the best is yet to come, and in the meantime, I’ll be here.
Mariah Matthews is an HR professional by day and budding writer by night. Born and raised in Chicago, she is a self-described connector constantly finding ways to connect the people and ideas around her. You can find her IRL (because she loves a good #socialmediadetox) on a beach reading a book, asking someone 21 questions, or making her infamous margarita. To date, her celebrity round table would include Lin Manuel Miranda, Tracee Ellis Ross, Dave Chappelle, Oprah Winfrey, & Phil Jackson.