We exist in our versions of reality.
These versions of reality are built on what we claim.
And we claim what feels right to us; what fits within our existing version.
I often ride to the south side of Chicago.
I like where it takes me when I go there.
And so I like taking myself there to play.
I go to the areas around the water’s edge, following the lake from the city south until I find the industrial areas along it, where great behemoth iron structures rise out of the water and jut into the sky; where the world drops off and the landscape becomes one of concrete and metal; mineral and smoke. This is where I like to ride.
There is a complexity here – a richness; a texture; a grit.
To me, this place is beautiful. It has aesthetic merit.
I stop the bike and walk along the shoreline, looking out across the lake; I stand braced on the edge of a fragmented concrete platform shoved up against the lapping waves.
I run my hand against the broad, flat surface of an iron beam, touching the same line that extends upward, over me, into the sky. It is so much larger than my own proportions and yet it is akin to it, and I stand in silence, my palm pressed there, feeling the heat and texture from so many weathers rise off of its skin into my own.
Breathe hot against the metal. And it breathes hot back onto you.
I own this moment – this is my own – because I own these emotions and this perspective and I have inscribed beauty onto this place. But I do not own this thing. And the way that I see it does not stand in solidarity. It also belongs to many others in same or similar or separate capacities. And perhaps, one might argue, it also exists to the earth and to itself as well.
And you can ask things about its validity: to what extent, for example, am I actually touching this? To what extent does this touch count? Scanning my eyes over the impossible proportions of this body, in the water and against the sky, I realize: I could probably never really touch this whole structure.
But I am touching this part of it and this part of it is a part of the whole and, if that’s true, then maybe touching it here is really enough to say that I have touched it at all. It has realness because it is real to me.
I am picking away at the corroded areas of the iron beam, where the rust is overtaking the surface and changing its composition.
I flake a chip off and watch as it flutters to the water below, and I wonder to myself: what would be left if we stripped this all away? I could destroy this thing entirely. Or I could only break it down in my own mind.
We have a funny little way of collecting things – this compulsion to gather up the things we see; things we cherish or disdain – and categorize their qualities, break them down in order to better understand them, even crush them a little in our delight.
We pick the leaves of favored plants, press them against cream-colored paper in four-sided frames for our own private re-consumption. We clip the wings of birds and tuck them into wire cages. We stretch canvas across gridwork and lash it there, heave beams into the sky and bind them to machinery so that the elements are at the mercy of our minds. We tack things up like tapestries; press rusty thumbtacks, red and rough, into the lovely bits of our lives, so that we might maintain them.
We destroy and then consume things; dissect and then categorize them by their pieces; reassemble them into something else that suits us; something we can call by made-up labels that may or may not be true to anybody but us.
Here. This is a thing. Let us name it. Let us call it “good.”
We search for things. We take them with us. We claim them as our own.
We wade through harbors and dredge mud out of their basins. We move slowly, some go out farther, unperturbed as the gray water spills over the tops of our rubber wellies, filling them. We run our hands along a bottom we can’t see, feeling for the familiar roughness of broad, flat shells, satisfyingly palm-sized in our hands.
We break these things open and we consume them. There is a grit; a creaminess; an impossible softness; a salt. Both tantalizing in their complexity and beautiful in their fragility; their simple, delicate state.
There is an inherent destruction – a devastation – to the process. But the process itself neither comes from nor serves an actual desire to destroy. On the contrary, we do these things to make sense of our surroundings and, if we’re good, to cultivate delight. We create cherished little realms of our own beautiful truth by pulling together the pieces that are too lovely to ignore and promoting them to “something special” as we do so.
We balance ourselves on precarious things and then we rush to hold ourselves upright. We trust ourselves with things and entrust ourselves to them. And this process, in its subjectivity, also inherently carries the risk of recklessness and indiscretion. All the while we are just one small jolt away from our own little catastrophe; one small miscalculation away from tiny devastation; one correction from colliding with another’s reality and being proven wrong. And part of that is inherent, and that’s okay.
We can read meaning into what others find valueless.
We can also find, conversely, that a thing that means something to others may mean nothing to us.
The smell of smoke and the taste of paper; the buzz and burn at the back of a throat… the weightlessness of euphoria; the breathlessness of speed.
All of us are feeling our footing; all of us taste something different from the shells and the rocks that we find.
I am standing on an iron beam, balanced, braced at the sharp edge of its surface, one eye on the rough footing below me and one eye on the water below that; my mind cast up and around at all this sky. I am playing with a fragment of concrete and toying with the idea of chucking it out into the waves.
The light is slanted overhead; the sun is all askew this time of day this time of year.
It strikes the metal behemoths in the distance and rubs up against the underbelly of the skyway, and all of it burns brilliant in the sun.
I can taste metal and mineral from the lines where the beams come together; I can lick the salt off of a brow. I am weighing the feel of the concrete; I am held here, captive, by a heaviness and a heat.
This is the sort of place that gets under your fingernails.
It gets into your eyes, your mouth, your blood.
I wrap my hand around this piece of it – it’s fragmented, but it’s concrete – and then I tuck it into my pocket.
And take it with me.