Forest and Sun

Chicago Literary Map, Explore Chicago

Forest and Sun, Max Ernst 1927

Fire is truly the great equalizer. Both the massive redwood and the lowly dandelion find fire inescapable. I find myself standing in southern Oregon resting my eyes on the charred remains of a once vibrant part of the preserve. A place that very well could have been considered my home as a child. When my parents divorced I never ended up seeing much of my mom. A strange feeling arises when such a large part of your life leaves to become only a memory. With my dad always working to support what remained of the family, I suppose I would always run to the forest to fill some sort of void that I felt at home.

The preserve was about a 30-minute walk from my home, and let me tell you, it was always worth the walk. As the mowed lawns and trimmed shrubs transformed into unkempt bushes and prehistoric looking ferns, I found myself shedding the weight of civilization. In the forest you could be whoever you wanted. Never being told to ‘write this’ or ‘do that’ is very freeing. I would spend countless hours staring in wonder up at the great redwoods. It seems as if people often forget how small everything is, how meaningless most of what we have done as humans is in the grand scheme of things. The redwoods are a perfect example of existence outside of the human world. Stock markets will rise and fall, presidents will come and go, civilizations will rise and fall, yet the redwoods still stand and will continue standing.

I often imagined climbing up the redwoods and being able to leave the world, perhaps even touch the stars. However, there was one tree in particular that I was sure would at least reach the moon. Its trunk was so large it seemed that an entire town of people could not surround it. Its height was unmatched by any other tree in the forest, with its branches stretching over its neighbors, as if it was laying claim to the preserve. I imagined that you could take an axe to this tree for weeks and it would stand on as if nothing had happened. Naturally I was drawn to this tree. I had spent countless hours making memories in its shadow. It was under this tree that I learned I love peanut butter and fluff sandwiches; it was on the tree that I learned it was impossible to climb a redwood; it was in this tree that I carved my initials with my first love; and I was sure that it was under this tree where I would forever lie.

Usually whenever I found an amazing place like this I would immediately tell my friends so that I could enjoy it with them. However, I am glad that I realized that this was not like the antique candy shop or a new water park; this was a place to be alone. The day that I would find other people at my tree would be the day that it began losing value for me. There was one exception, though. I had deemed it okay to show my first girlfriend the tree, because obviously we were going to be together for the rest of our lives. Just like we had seen in all of those romantic movies, we carved our initials into the tree. She did not enjoy the walk nor the dense wilderness and almost immediately wanted to return to civilization. Knowing that my tree was not an ideal place for everyone, made it all the more special for me. I vowed never to break the oath of secrecy again. This place alone was perfect for me, and I, alone, was perfect for it.

Everyone grows up. I was bogged down by more and more homework, visiting my tree less and less, eventually torn away from it entirely by college. I wanted to become an environmental scientist. Perhaps it was the combination of spending so much time in the preserve, surrounded by nature, and loving science, facts, and the big picture. Unfortunately my college did not take place under my tree and a 30-minute walk turned into a 12-hour drive. A strange feeling arises when such a large part of your life leaves to become only a memory. I went from thinking about my tree on a daily basis, to weekly, to never when I graduated college. I had getting a job, paying a mortgage, and covering taxes on my mind. I was too embedded in civilization to simply shrug it off.

My life had become monotonous. 7 A.M. hit the alarm. 7:30, shower and get dressed. 7:45, coffee and newspaper. 8 A.M. leave for work. 6 P.M. get home. 8 P.M. dinner and prepare for the next day. 10 P.M. sleep. Only to start it all over again the next day. However, my meaningless life was interrupted by a familiar picture in the newspaper one morning. A forest fire. Fallen trees and blackened ground in the Oregonian preserve of my childhood. They say it was the biggest fire of the century. Memories came flooding back to me. Sandwiches, carved initials, and peaceful solitude of a time long since passed. Had the impossible happened? I needed to know.

While driving back I relived everything. The cars passing me were only figments of my imagination as I experienced my parents’ divorce, my first love, and having to leave and forget the only place that meant something to me. Regret accompanied worry in my veins as I questioned if leaving home was worth it. All the while I nurtured the glimmer of hope that I would return to the preserve to find that the fire had stopped before my tree.

It was gone. Charred, blackened, glowing embers took its place. I was incomplete. My memories were not supposed to last even a fraction as long as this tree. I may have been an only child, yet I know now how it feels to lose an older brother. The tree had always watched over me, keeping me out of trouble. Yet looking upon its current form, I already found myself questioning if it really did go all the way to the moon. While the tree that held up the moon was impressive in life, I came to the realization that it was twice as impressive in death.

An eerie beauty surrounded the dark and smoking remains as it released its final pops and clicks of life. There was a light at the center of this dark beauty. I know that saplings will arise from the strong remains of the tree that held up the moon. My panic lifts and my heart and soul ease into a sense of relief. My memories will only be able to pay my brother respect for a lifetime, but the forest will grow again.

Writer: Collin Schmitz
Location: Art Institute of Chicago, Gallery 395C

This story was written in Salli Berg Seeley’s Explore Chicago class at DePaul University in collaboration with the Chicago Literary Map.

I am Margret

Chicago Literary Map

Henri Matisse, Woman Before an Aquarium 1921/23

I might as well be a fish,
Without a thought, without a will.  I’m trapped
in this glass. If only
my confinement wasn’t real.
Scruffy. Yet
smarter than I. They go
places, See the world. I want
to travel and meet people
unlike myself. I want
to meet those that can speak
their minds, Do
as they please, Explore
new cities and visit friends they don’t even know yet exist.
Who made them king? I wonder
what it is to be a man.
I hear music.
It is beautiful! I know
that tune, I’ve played it before,
though it’s been so long, I don’t know
if my fingers still remember
the keys
to lead me out of here.
Anywhere but here.
Outside this glass window.
I don’t remember the last time I opened it.
What time is it?
Have I lost track of the hour again?
Time to feed Ella?
You know,
sometimes I wish she were never born.
I should feel guilty for saying that.
I haven’t blinked in a while. I’m afraid
if I close my eyes they won’t open again.
Sometimes I forget to breathe;
I have to remind myself.
You’d think with an empty mind it would be easy
to remember. I might as well
be a fish.

Writer: Kiana Lewis
Location: Art Institute of Chicago, Gallery 393B

This story was written in Salli Berg Seeley’s Explore Chicago class at DePaul University in collaboration with the Chicago Literary Map.

American Collectors

Chicago Literary Map

American Collectors, David Hockney 1968

When I was young, my mother always told me, “We are one of Native American.” “You should be proud of yourself,” she said. That was 30 years ago. Now I don’t live like a typical Native American, one that other people may imagine. For those years, my clock never stopped, unlike my mother’s. I left the reservation, went to college, went to law school, and became a lawyer. I worked hard, studied hard, and tried so hard to be involved in mainstream American culture, but she didn’t. She didn’t want to admit that there was a world, an American nation, outside of our tiny reservation, and even that had changed. I still can’t forget when I told her I would marry a white woman named Jessi.

I met Jessi in the same apartment building. I was living in 408, and she was living in 508, just one floor away. She was a teacher in an elementary school nearby the apartment. She had two dogs, and they were very big. Every morning, I jogged and she did, too, with her dogs. When we met in the elevator, I didn’t have much interest in her but her dogs. The dogs really reminded me of my last pet when I was 5 years old. I only had one dog, Jake, and he lived for 10 years roughly. I still remember when he was dying. I told him to go out and play, and he shook his tail even though he couldn’t get off from the ground. That’s how I met her. I asked what the dog’s name was. She said Charlie. And we got closer, unintentionally.

In my mother’s mind there are only two types of people: Native American and non-Native American. I couldn’t see my mother’s face at my wedding because she wasn’t there. I didn’t see her for a year after my wedding or even hear her voice. It was the birth of my son that made my mom’s closed heart re-open. I flew a long way from NYC to Arizona, with my infant son on my lap to introduce him to his grandmother. She was 80 years old and alone. My father had died two months before my son was born. He was just like my mother. He was very proud to be a Native American. Sometimes I think my parents were the perfect couple. Like I said, they were proud of themselves as Natives. There was no haunting, no battle between other tribes though. They still loved nature and knew how to communicate with it. In fact, I don’t know how, but one day when I was about 10 years old or so, I saw my father with a wild eagle on his shoulder, and he was feeding it. I thought eagles do not follow people easily, and I’m still wondering how. But now I can’t see him with anything since he died of lung cancer. He started to smoke after our territory was taken back by the government. The government gave us some supplements with some money. One of the supplements was cigarettes, which became his best friends. He was not like before when I was a young boy. He got weak and old When he was dying, he told me that he wanted me to take care of my mother. He didn’t want to leave her to suffer without anyone. 

Even now, she still can’t get out of her sadness because of such big losses –my father and me. Now was the time to bring her to reality, the new world she did not want to face 30 years ago. It was about to time to present her with her grandson, the new world. I had come to take her with me to my home.

By the time we got back home in New York, it was 11pm. I was exhausted but happy in a way. When we got into the apartment, Jessi came out to welcome her, however, my mother ignored her, pretended she wasn’t even there, which didn’t entirely surprise me. The door of my mother’s room closed, and Jessi stood there, stunned. I didn’t know what to say, and I started to wonder if bringing her here was a good choice. 

That night, I had a dream that a big eagle on a cloud was twittering so loudly, like it was looking for someone.  I saw an injured and small eagle moving slowly on the ground. The small eagle looked so tired. The wings were twisted like somebody intentionally did it. The big eagle came down from the cloud and took the small eagle on its back. Before the big eagle went up again, I felt it was staring at me with eyes gleaming with tears. I woke up. I knocked on my mother’s room in the middle of the night. The door was locked, and she didn’t make any sound. I woke Jessi up to find the spare key. When we opened the door, the window was wide open and a small totem pole that was in the shape of an eagle with broken wings was the only thing on my mother’s bed. It seemed the small eagle of my dream went back to the place where she was supposed to be, leaving behind a small wooden token of herself. She had finally found her way back to nature.

Writer: By Hyun Woo Choi
Location: Art Institute of Chicago, Gallery 297C

This story was written in Salli Berg Seeley’s Explore Chicago class at DePaul University in collaboration with the Chicago Literary Map.

CLM & Explore Chicago

Chicago Literary Map

Irving Plenner, 1979

Earlier this year, I was invited by Salli Berg Seely to visit her students at DePaul University. Her class, Explore Chicago, introduces freshman and sophomores to Chicago’s rich literary history. There’s a combination of writers and those who don’t think of themselves as such but, as you will read, certainly have a vivid imagination and the promise of a fluent pen.

We mixed things up outside the standard classroom setting and met at the Art Institute of Chicago. After introductions, we read the poem, Why I am not a painter by Frank O’Hara. We then prompted the students to write a literary piece inspired by a work of art, the experience of looking at art, or even the trek to get to the museum. Salli then worked with the students to develop their piece for the Chicago Literary Map, this website right here.

Where the students took their writing is fresh and enlightening. It was a pleasure to read and I do hope you enjoy it as well. Some stories may end abruptly, but I can sympathize to where the student’s heads may have been, especially for an atypical exercise. I greatly appreciate everyone’s effort and hope the students continue to explore their world with words. Some stories will be posted tonight. Please visit again or follow for more.

Stephanie Plenner