A Chicago Potlatch

During my last week in Alaska, I thought a lot about what lay ahead of me. An apartment to pack up in Chicago. Old friends and also wonderful new friends to say goodbye to. Plans to make for life after the Second City, my second home…

It felt odd in a way to be going back to a place that, in many ways, I felt I had already left. I honestly think, without all that apartment stuff, I very well could have stayed in Alaska for good. But I didn’t and, although I miss that darn arctic place, I’m happy I came back and gave Chicago a proper goodbye.

Chicago’s built who I am, afterall. It’s where I went to school and met friends that feel like family. It’s where I fell in love and out of love a few times. It’s where I worked my first job (and landed a great mentor). It’s where I discovered a passion for helping others grow. It’s where I had to grow up and ask tough questions. It’s where I had a whole heaping lot of fun.

Evening view from my old office at 1 S Dearborn

Go U Northwestern, break right through that line with our colors flying we will cheer you all the time!

PIP fellows on a morning trolley tour through Chicago's Southwest corridor!

And our 2010 visit to check out the hives at Sweet Beginnings, a honey-based social enterprise

Election night 2008 in Grant Park (after driving my roommate to Kentucky the same day to vote when her absentee ballot never came!)

Start of the Chicago triathlon (my first!) in August 2010

Halloween fun at Marissa's 2009

Our Madison to Chicago 200mi 2010 road race team at the finish!

With a week left in Alaska before I returned to Chicago, this all started to weigh on my mind. I thought about the practical things I had to deal with back home (bed, couch, security deposit) as well as the grander sense of all I was leaving behind there. How could I tell Chicago it had meant so much to me?

Enter Bill. Bill is a friend of the oyster farmer I worked for out of Homer, AK (never thought I’d write that sentence). I rode with him one Friday for five hours in his truck as we hauled a dozen tall timber pines (and a black German lab) to Anchorage. On our drive, we talked a lot about what I’ll sum up as “man’s place in the world” and our relationship with objects, with nature, and with each other.

Towards the end of our drive, I share with Bill my churning thoughts on packing up Chicago and he asks me: “Have you ever heard of a ‘potlatch’?” You mean, a ‘potluck’? No, he meant a potlatch. I hadn’t, but as he starts to tell me about it, the gears begin to click together and I know it’s my answer.

A potlatch is an old Native American tradition where a member of the community gives away all their possessions for the sake of that community. They could survive back then because someone else would always have their own potlatch later. It was a cycle. (A cycle that was banned by the U.S., in its infinite wisdom, in the 19th century.)

But more than a redistribution of wealth, the potlatch is, at its core, about teaching yourself and others how to stay unattached from possessions — to not let them “possess” you.

Bill tells me this story to illustrate: a man has a potlatch and his two friends are excited because he has a fine white horse that they have always had their eye on. The man sees this and says he will give away his fine white horse, but not to them. He gives it to a young boy so that he can save his two friends from destroying their friendship with their envy.

I didn’t anticipate having to run this kind of envy-interference at my own potlatch (and I certainly don’t have things like fine white horses) but I liked the basic idea. I liked the idea that my things could become something special to a friend. So, when I got back to Chicago, I threw a birthday slash “goodbye Courtney” potlatch. What better way to ring in the next quarter of my life?

One of my favorite photos from the not-well-documented but well-lived potlatch night!

And it was a truly awesome night. Not just because my friends, who were a bit skeptical at first (You want us to just…take your stuff?), got into the idea. But because I got to see all this weight around me lift off and turn to joy. A tennis racket for a friend that’s always wanted to play with her brother. A picture of Vermont to hang on friend’s wall who loves Vermont. A guidebook to Chicago for a recent transplant. All pieces of my life becoming new pieces of theirs. My joy, their joy. A great cycle.

And there was a gift for me in there too.

In The Hare With Amber Eyes, the ceramist and author, Edmund De Waal, writes how “losing things can sometimes gain you a space in which to live.” By their taking away, my friends created a space for me to start my new life. They helped me get over those attachments that we all form to our stuff and be able to let go and be on my way. I can think of no greater birthday gift. And, in a way, I think it gets to the core of what that day is really about — a celebration of when you started to live.

And here’s what I’m starting to discover too: you don’t need much in things to have a rich life. I’ve been “turtling,” as my aunt and Mom call it when everything you own travels with you, for the past six weeks and have not been left wanting. If anything, I still think I have more to give away, to shed. I like the simplicity it brings to be able to look at everything I own in the world in one glance. It feels satisfying. It feels freeing. It is exactly the same reason I also love backpacking: you carry what you need to survive and leave room for the adventure.

The morning after my potlatch I wake up and go out to the kitchen. I smile as I look around my mess of an apartment filled with signs of 3am monsoon rain dancing, copious amounts of champagne, and a mountain of confetti that came from somewhere. I decide to leave the clean up for later and go out to the porch and enjoy the sun.

My next door neighbor is out there, too. Our eyes meet and she just shakes her head and in a sweet Russian accent says: “Too wild last night, too wild.” In my head, I’m thinking, no — “So happy, so happy last night.”

A week after the potlatch and one of my last nights in Chicago with good friends!

Nothing says goodbye like tacos from Tacos Veloz with Ian and Whit

The lovely Clara B. helping me sell stuff post-potlatch at the Logan Square farmer's market!

A week later I would wash the floor of my empty apartment, thinking how strange it felt to be in there. It echoed too much with the squeaks of my sneakers. It didn’t show any signs of my life; no signs of the celebration and energy that reverberated in it the week before. It was, in the end, just a couple of clean rooms.

I think it’s true what all the wise ones say: We carry with us everyday what really matters. The friendships. The memories. Our dreams. The potential to turn anything into a home, even if it’s just for a little while.

Chicago was home to me for more than a little while. We made it to almost a decade. And oh you windy, fascinating, dirty, beautiful thing: I’ll always carry you in my heart.

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One response to “A Chicago Potlatch

  1. Beautiful! ❤ Chicago

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