I don’t like to view myself as someone who believes in signs or that the universe is guiding me or that there is a God who has a master plan. I envy people who say they always trust their gut because the most my gut has every told me was that it was hungry.
And then last June I went to Chicago on an unexpected 24-hour business trip. As I stood in freezing drizzle looking at Lake Michigan before I headed to the airport, I thought fondly of my time in graduate school—just north of the city. And clear as day, my heart told me it was time to come back.
I flew back to Denver, where we’d lived for 13 years, and after some long discussions, my husband and I decided we'd move to Chicago this summer. For 10 months we plotted and in February we began putting our plans into action. Initially it seemed that everything would fall into place: we applied to the French school we wanted to send our daughter to, a job my husband thought would be ideal popped up, my employer agreed to let me freelance part-time from afar. All the signs indicated we were on the right path.
And then things stopped moving. For five weeks we waited for answers and finally last week we acknowledged we needed a backup plan. My husband threw out the idea of Milwaukee, which I had vehemently resisted every time he mentioned returning to the Midwest.
You see, the thought of returning to my home state of Wisconsin made my blood run cold. I didn’t particularly like the girl I had been when I lived there. She was such a gloomy misfit. She had some issues with her family. Chicago, though, was a close but safe distance away. Plus it’s where I began my journey to figuring out who I am.
But this time, I considered that Milwaukee and Chicago were less than 100 miles apart. I looked at the website for the Milwaukee French Immersion School and it seemed like a good fit. And so after we used our daughter’s whiteboard easel to go through the pros and cons of every option under consideration, including staying put, we agreed that Milwaukee was where we should head.
When it took just a few hours to secure a spot for our daughter at the French school, it felt like the universe was sending me the OK to modify my direction. That night, though, I experienced the closest I’ve ever come to having a panic attack. My sorrow of giving up my Chicago dream to live in the state I swore I’d never live in again made me cry so hard I nearly threw up. Then I went to my husband and vomited anxiety and fear and near craziness for a good 20 minutes while he looked at me as if I’d grown a second head.
It didn't go well. The two days that followed were full of silence and harshly worded emails. I wondered if we actually would implode and part of me wondered if I even cared if we did. But yesterday we met for lunch and began to talk. We outlasted most of the lunch crowd and it was tense at times because honesty sometimes causes tension.
I told him about the universe and all the signs (the ones I didn't really believe in) and then he brought me back to reality. He reminded me of all the reasons we had decided Milwaukee was the right place. I realized that my Chicago dream of restaurants and museums and living in a chic brownstone just blocks off Lake Michigan didn’t quite jive with my other dream of working less and writing more. But in the right neighborhood, Milwaukee could give me the city life that I craved and the career choice that I desired.
So I faced my fear that returning to my home state meant I would turn back into someone I didn’t like. I acknowledged to myself that maybe Chicago seemed right because it felt so much cooler than Milwaukee and that perhaps my inner teenage girl—the one who still desperately wants to be cool—was standing in the way of the 39-year-old woman who simply wants to be happy.
As I drove back to my office, I remembered the sticky Midwestern summer nights with my now husband in the studio apartment without air conditioning. The bike rides down the path along Lake Michigan. The park bench where when I turned from gazing out at Lake Michigan, I saw him holding out the shining diamond that would start our future. The restaurant where we got married, overlooking the lake as it glittered under the August sun as far as we could see.
When I had my epiphany looking out at Lake Michigan last summer, I was convinced my gut was telling me something. I wanted everything to be a sign that we were meant to live in my favorite city in the world. When things went badly, I couldn’t believe my gut had been so wrong.
But here’s the funny thing about signs, sometimes when you want the universe to validate your choices, instead of taking responsibility for them yourself, you might misread the signals. And while your gut may be good at telling you what you want, it might be better to use your head to figure out how to get it.
Did the universe send me a sign by the lake that day or did my heart merely speak loud and clear? Either way I initially misread the message. The message wasn’t “move to Chicago.” The message was “something’s missing, you have unfinished business, it’s time to move past your fears and take the steps that will keep you happy.”
Boy, that’s a complicated message for the universe to portray with a giant body of water. So when my watery wakeup call came to me in Chicago, it’s easy to see how I got confused.
Chicago was the city that opened my small-town-girl mind to a world of possibilities. It gave me the confidence and courage to head west to Denver, the city that opened my eyes to who I was and who I could be. And Milwaukee? Well, that's the city that opened my heart.
What I had forgotten that day at the lake was that all those early memories I have of being with my now husband didn't take place in Chicago. They happened 91 miles north—in another city on the same beautiful lake.