February 16, 2015

Strange. Familiar.

Part of this year is about putting yourself out there. About seeking experiences that help you find the familiar in faraway places.

But for me, staying in Chicago these last few months, a home I’ve known for 10 years, I’ve struggled with a different challenge.

How do I find novelty and adventure in a home that I’m comfortable inoften dangerously comfortable? How do I carve refreshed routines? Seek novel inspirations? Forge new friendships? Feel that deep sense of renewal and reflection that comes from the unexpected?

An adventure at home

“To be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.”

- Rebecca Solnit, Field Guide to Getting Lost

The act of making the familiar strange is a technique loved by authors, sociologists, and psychologists alike. Defamiliarization helps us see with new eyes, sharpened perspective, and bit more wonder. This fall, as I rode my familiar route to the city, drank the same coffee, slept in the same bed—my senses seemed to dull. Many of my Experience Institute comrades had traveled many miles and disrupted their lives to start this journey. The last thing I wanted to do was to teeter on the edge of complacency in my home city.

I missed the the wandering mindset that colors travel or fresh beginnings. While in Scandinavia this July, I found myself walking upwards of 15 miles a day as I greeted new neighborhoods, senses sharp with discovering, mind rich with imagination. So, I thought:

How can I recreate this experience of newness in Chicago, a city I know so well?

Chicago is a city rich in neighborhood diversity…and my friends’ rich in hospitality. Perhaps waking up in a different neighborhood would be the key to reinvigorating my day-to-day. I hesitantly posted an ask online:

“Looking to shift my routine, build new habits, and find new inspiration…can I crash at your place for a mini-retreat?”

I thought I might get a few turned heads and, if I was lucky, a hesitant offer. Instead, I was overwhelmed with over a dozen eager volunteers and nearly 50 virtual high fives. Something about my creative urban staycation resonated with people.

With that, I set up emails to my gracious soon-to-be-hosts on the south and west sides. As of December, I’ve had two of these mini-retreats. I rejuvenated my writing and wandering habits in Logan Square and renewed my cultural appetite in the Hyde and Washington Park neighborhoods**.

With each “retreat,”

  • Set an intention. It’s challenging to strike a balance between directive goal-setting and reflective intention-setting. For Logan Square, my intentions looked like this: “Create daily space for personal writing and sketching. Get to know the neighborhood by visiting at least two new places. Do something physically restorative each morning.” Rather than this: “Write 5,000 words, check off these hot spots, and run 12 miles this weekend.” Your intention is your compass for the weekend.
  • Keep your research and planning to a healthy minimum. I’m a geek for researching –– new restaurants, secret spots, walking paths. This is a great skill when travelling, but it must be tamed as to not distract you from being present. Instead of making any sort of itinerary, I refreshed my knowledge of the neighborhood by glancing at a map, asking for recommendations from friends, and quickly brushing up on neighborhood news.
  • Leave ample room for serendipitous wandering, spontaneous conversation, and following your whim. Sometimes you have to embrace your inner flaneur (person who wanders, strolls, lounges). Setting out for the day with a loose intention and time to wander can yield excellent adventures. A book or sketchbook make great companions, but leave room for interruption. (This book was the perfect sushi date in a room full of couples, and spurred great conversations with my server.)
  • Record in whatever way resonates with you. There’s no need to share with the world, but capturing the magic of your time away in a snapshot, watercolor, or daily jottings can take you back to your retreat when you need a reminder.
  • Say thank you. Whether a returned favor, a favorite libation, or a simple note of thanks, be sure to express your gratitude for those who shared their home and ‘hood during your mini-retreat.

2015 will bring creative local retreats in Portage Park, Humboldt Park, and Albany Park. I relish these chances refresh my perspective on this city that is both familiar and strange to me…and to accelerate my creative practice in the process.

**Thank you to Eric Staples an Ei coach, for his generous hosting in Logan Square and my StartingBloc buddy, Jason Rowley, for opening his family home in Hyde Park.

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