This is the essay I wrote for my writing course this quarter. You know, the essay I hated with the firey intensity of a hundred thousand burning suns? …which is pretty silly to say, since it’s about a sunrise. Ha, I made a funny!
1157 words. 1158 self-doubts. Roughly.
I moved here in August of 1995, to live on campus for my first year at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was straight out of high school, and I moved three hours away from my entire family and all of my friends. I made new friends at school, but trapped in a tiny dorm room living with someone who hated me and whom I hated equally in return, wore on me.
This situation was not much helped by my peculiar surroundings: the east campus of UIC was designed and built by one modernist architect, in the once-popular Brutalist style, and because of the tendency of UIC students to live off-campus, these indistinguishable buildings would stand like foreboding sentinels around a bleak, nearly deserted campus by 3:30 PM daily. I’m sure that Walter Netsch didn’t intend the school to make undergraduates weep with the despair of four years imprisoned in concrete, but he did a good job of it nonetheless.
I made a friend with a classmate who lived down the hall from me in my dorm, and every so often, we’d head to the lakefront, just a couple of miles away, to watch the sun come up behind the Adler Planetarium, to reclaim a tiny bit of beauty to take back with us to the wasteland. There is something cathartic about watching the sun come up over Lake Michigan. It’s quiet, except for the splashing of the waves against the seawall, or any wildlife that’s sharing the space with you. The quiet and the peculiar light can stay with you for far longer than the few minutes they last in reality.
I went to the lakefront to watch the sun come up recently, for the first time in many years. The sun rises earlier in July than January, so I set my alarm for the unholy hour of 4:30, and after I blearily shut it off and sleepwalked through brewing a travel mug of coffee, I biked down to the lakefront. Behind the Planetarium, the ground was littered with a handful of bright purple napkins with Hebrew lettering, the remnants of a celebration the night before. I dumped my bike in the grass and sat down on the staggered concrete wall and watched the clouds airbrushed over the pinkening sky.
It’s quiet on the lakefront at just past five AM, though not deserted. The spot I’d chosen for my vantage point was about thirty feet away from someone who had come down for a morning meditation session. A bicyclist passed on the path behind us, and two joggers passed, heading in opposite directions, on the lowest level of the pavement. The other watcher began to do yoga, and verbalized her exhalations, while I lazily sipped at my coffee.
There’s a funny effect if you stare at the lake long enough in this light. It’s almost like one of those pointillist optical illusions, where you can see the hidden pattern of a cat or a number inside a jumble of colored dots if you relax and unfocus your gaze. While looking at the light reflected off the silvery lake, the slow waves pushing toward the shoreline formed a gently rolling white static like an untuned television. There were no cats to be found in it, but it was a visual equivalent of white noise; easy and calming. I had gotten up to watch the sun, but the frame of mind it left me with would have been just as well suited to the end of the day.
The sun rises over the lake constantly, though it seems like it happens in stages. First an angry red-orange sliver slides up over the edge of the horizon, spilling red and gold on the clouds. It grows slowly, until it finally passes the halfway point and starts forming a circle. As it rises, the top part becomes harder and harder to look directly at: the density of the atmosphere protects you for a while, but as the angle gradually changes, the color grows lighter and brighter and begins to make your eyes water with the sharp sting of light. By the time it has fully risen, and a line of sky separates it from the lake again, it becomes too difficult to keep your eyes trained on it, though you may struggle to keep trying.
It’s easier to watch it make progress by the reflection on the waves. The red sparkles, starting like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, widen and grow orange. They grow more dense, until it seems less like sparks scattered at random, and more like a sequined fabric floating on the waves. It gives up its red color bit by bit, transitioning through shades of orange and gold until it turns to a lemon yellow. By that time, the clouds are no longer lit in an ethereal pink and gold, but just ordinary white water vapor again.
After the sunrise had faded into daylight, my yogini companion folded up her mat and, as she was walking away, jumped on her cell phone. I heard her explaining as she walked toward the city – “Today is going to be super busy. I have so much to do.” In comparison, I had nothing to do. My coffee cup was empty, and I walked back to my bike through the grass, my canvas sneakers dampened by dew.
It seems like a very precious thing to have this place. Sitting on those stairs behind the planetarium, at such an early time, it feels secluded and almost secret. Surrounding you for miles to your back are millions of people sleeping or eating or leaving for work, but in front of you there is nothing but water. If you turn your head in one direction you see acres of skyscrapers, only half a mile away, but if you turn your head to the other direction, it’s water without end. If you don’t turn your head at all, you exist simultaneously in the middle of a major city, but also in the middle of nowhere at all.
The difference of fifteen years from sunrise to sunrise is significant, but in some ways not at all. I am still a college student. I still drink too much coffee. I still don’t understand the appeal of religion, and I still don’t watch much television. I have retirement savings plans now, but fundamentally I remain the same as the girl who went with a friend to watch the sun come up in early spring of 1996. I still hate Brutalism, and I’m viscerally glad, nearly gleeful, that they are rebuilding the east campus of UIC with glass and natural materials, so that new students won’t have to feel the same isolation and disconnect that we did back then. I can still see, in my head, the handfuls of scarlet glitter sparkling on the water’s waves, and I can take that with me regardless of my physical space.