Why the World Needs More Chicagos

It is 1 degree Fahrenheit this Sunday morning. I’ve been here in Chicago a full week for a project.  A west facing window at a close relative’s house, has an ice veneer over 90% of its surface.  It is not even a month past the Midwinter mark and the ground is nearly permafrost.  So, why then do I hear a voice saying “the world needs more Chicagos”? I spent some important, but young, years here growing up: most of elementary school through High School. I visited rarely for many years after, not again until my thirties-then about once each decade. It grew up and became a world class city. Rediscovering the city now as an older adult, exploring Ravenswood, Uptown, Edgewater and Rogers Park, on assignment interviewing social justice advocates for an audio project, I am exposed to cultures and points of view I wasn’t previously.

I’m returning to Denver in the early evening and happy to do so. Denver is a city that won my heart with wilderness just a wild hog’s hair away from the sprawling town; close family I love and, of course, a dog. On days almost as cold as this there is warm sunshine that cuts through the dry air and hits the crest of your head.  Still, I’m moved to a deep affection for the city of Nelson Algren, Carl Sandburg, Saul Bellow and Gwendolyn Brooks. Chicago allows me glances of a patchwork of neighborhoods rich with persons from every family of humankind.  It presents me with a morning when I can walk along a colossal grey lake that sometimes rages to third story offices, often devours beaches and always fascinates. 

What compels this affection is of course the character of the city’s people. They interact with tough weather, struggle with change and growth, troublesome inequities and ceaseless revitilization, while retaining a legendary friendliness. Yes, the friendliness is real.

It is meeting Shaims (pronounced loosely “shay-emz”), my driver one day, a refugee from a Middle East country. He mails a check for some $600.00 to his daughter every month to help with room and board at a University downstate.  At a stoplight in Rogers Park, he wrote his name with his finger in the air, in Arabic, so I could briefly see its ornamental beauty.  He told me it means “sun.”

It’s Miriam and Heidi in a Northshore coffee shop, in their mid to late seventies, overheard speaking of Walt Whitman.  The two are interrupted by me, apologetically. I’m eager to tell them, I’m from Denver– a city Whitman visited and loved.  I share that he was impressed, then, by the smelters where workers shoveled out silver bricks. He even called Denver the “Queen City of the plains.”  It was how they offered me a chair with no second thought, because I had time to kill, and they, like the blessed whole of citykind here, are friendly and “don’t bite.”  I was invited to their book club.  It was an invitation I had to decline but this did not prevent them from chiming: “Next time, then.”

It’s a scavenger potluck dinner of sorts with friends, where the guests bring ingredients to cook harvested from across the city and cabinets. Some of these prove surprisingly difficult to find in local markets. But all arrive, with all the produce and hospitable temperaments intact, despite the late-breaking snow and special side trips required at rush hour. Soon, there are steaming saucepans and the air is generous with the aroma of smoky spices.

It’s close family in the city, who like me wake too early, because each day is so precious you don’t want to miss a second of it, or, worse, fail to behold the cardinals drawn to the feeding platform in the yard with a bounty of raw peanuts.  “Peanut Mountain” was poured there, before full day-break by The Philanthropist to the Birds of the Western Suburbs.

It is being a guest at a local church later on this Sunday for a service honoring Dr. King. The congregation is first met moving chairs from the main sanctuary to an unattached Fellowship Hall –where the newer heater can keep up with the now 5 degree day.   This unlike the 130+ year-old building, wherein, today, you can see your breath. This is a Midwestern welcome: being forced to sit closer together in a smaller room.  It is listening to congregant Sandy’s story.  She, to the left in a folding chair, strikes up conversation immediately with this guest. I learn about her duties as a Census worker and she can tell whether or not I care. I do.

It’s not Wilder’s Our Town. But it is a town of towns, each often full of approachable people. I’m certain that the world-at-large needs more Chicagos.  We need to look further than the reports that unfairly amplify the danger of living in the city. There has to be a balance struck between it being one of the “top 25 most dangerous cities in America,” and hands down, the friendliest. Because, with all the work it still has to do, it’s a place filled with the endlessly curious. These are folks not afraid of making eye contact with strangers.  In fact, watch Chicagoans, they lead with their eyes as they enter a room, the train, or as they flood to the sidewalk. Like the woman responding to my question: “Am I on the right Union Station to Aurora line? Will it stop at Stone Ave?” Because, puzzingly, on the BNSF-Metra sometimes there are stop announcements, sometimes there are not. It was a “not” day. I was on the right train, by the way, as the woman in a nearby seat confirmed, adding: “Your stop is just three away.” Friendly. In other circumstances, maybe your driver’s eyes recognize you warmly in the rearview mirror. My name is Shaims. Let me embroider it in the air and share a small piece of the tapestry of my life.

Vincent Hostak is the creator/host of the podcast “Crossings-The Refugee Experience in America.” Look for a series of Chicago episodes coming in late January through February 2020, featuring topics of resettlement, the changes in public policy affecting admissions to the US, poetry and other writing from refugees and their sons and daughters, special programs for refugee girls, and how trauma and mental health services help integration of newcomers to America. More at: http://crossingsrefugees.home.blog/2020/01/10/coming-soon-refugees-finding-sweet-home-chicago-and-more-art/

The Eighth Day: A Meditation for Monsey & Texas

“Chanukah, Night 7” by ShellyS is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

Many of us have enjoyed weeks of the warmth of family gatherings, expressing love and hope in life and/or faith practice, and application of our deepest principles honoring humanity. It is important to remember that many members of our human family also share these feelings while they grieve at this time. Over the last weekend more were added to the human family sharing these paired emotions. Two tragic and violent events occurred in suburban New York City and White Settlement (Fort Worth area) resulting in trauma, injury and deaths in our communities. Each occurred while these communities worshiped. There were serial attacks reported on the streets of New York near Jewish places of worship across this Hanukkah, Christmas and other important holy days. We needn’t wait for “all the facts to be in” in each occurence to know that the conducts of hate and violence orbit together. How do we take a stand to counter and prevent hate practices? I don’t have the answers, except for myself and to begin by acting with these principles: align service to the people of our world to the practices of love & kindness, respect the differences of our faiths or secular values, and allow absoutely no refuge for hate in either. One thing we can do within the organizations to which we belong and influence is to explicitly prohibit acts of hate and the language of hate by members and within our bylaws and code of conduct. It’s a start.

The lyric offered below was written soon after I learned of the events in Monsey. It is hence dedicated to the people of Monsey and West Freeway Church.

The Eighth Day © December 2019, Vincent Hostak ( it may be shared in whole, no derivatives, & with attribution)

Why does hate have a home
when love is crying in the street?
How does hate visit a place
where it was never conjured?
It comes in darkness, the way it leaves.
Wielding fire, a blade or a gun, 
and a chorus of maledictions: 
“Segregation for survival.”
“I want what is mine.”
“This will show them all.”

It came so on Kristallnacht.
It raged barbarous,
even in These Days:
Laramie, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Sutherland Springs, El Paso.
Wherever love holds an address.
If anyone gives a home to hate,
will it come to ours?

Lift the shamash.
Light the candle
on the seventh night.
You only mean to honor the holy, the improbable-
wax sweltering in the tapers,
growing a tiny pool of fuel
which the flame both makes and drinks.
The light seems to remake itself by the hour.
Now a drip scuttles downward-
moves like worshipers fleeing the room to safety.

How will we shelter the remaining days?
How will we care for the injured?
When will we minister to ourselves?
There is a refuge
which our own hearts and
broad arms alone can render.

The story of each miracle,
from each text:
each are beautiful,
each our truths,
each grow in our hearts.
But we may not survive
unless we add one more.

Light the last candle.
Light it for the day when,
whatever aim or faith we are fixed to,
our lips form the words:
“No” and “Never” to hate:
hate in hiding,
hate in plain sight,
hate enacting its misguided fiction
of how it suffers
deprivation of the spoils
it thinks it, alone, once had, and still deserves;
in some time it thinks all mortals looked the same.

Light it for the day our actions
match our words
and
when our love & mercy are greater
than anyone prophesized them to be.

Christmas Eve 2019: The Life Artist

The Life Artist: Camellia on Pool Water, Christmas Eve, 2019

©2019, Vincent Hostak

From now forward
when I’m called to think
of christmas eve
it will be a camellia on pool water
which first appears.
Snowdrifts and holly crowns,
will always have their place.
But winter comes in many shades.
Stories are shared.
Each tell: how it all began,
how we changed,
became better or were saved.
All of it water from our favored wells,
channels tied to the same true spring,
quenching the same blessed thirst.
I can’t know with any certainty
if this flower moved itself, 
leaving the protective shade,
of magnolias planted near,
like a life artist
building this hopeful new myth.
I’d like to think it was courage.
I’d like to think it was faith.
I’d like to think that all
things share a conciousness-
a will to move to better states.
That we possess all the grace
we need at times as these.
Even the flowers must find a way.

Perhaps, it was just a December storm
that shook the branches,
cast the flower to the water
along with leaves that frame it here.

Whatever is the truth,
or madness, if you think it so,
come every Christmas Eve,
i will first see
a weightless and magenta dream
the blue arena, the cords of sunlight,
and the rewards of bearing witness
on one December day.