How can a public place can be so personal?

How can I be so attached to a place I don’t own,  maintain, nor have a say in its very existence? Such as the pier and lighthouse at Loyola Beach? That place is a touchstone in my life, a spot where I feel I meet myself and can think about who I am now and who I used to be all those times when I visited before.

I haven’t been there in a while, and I miss it. Many a morning, when I used to drive my boys to school from one end of Chicago to the other, sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I would reward myself after dropping them off: I would stop at my favorite café, run by Ethiopians who hugged me and brewed my favorite Cafe Mocha. I would sit on the café’s long vinyl bench, write in my journal or review manuscripts, while the elderly Russian guys who meet there every morning chatted at a neighboring table.

Then, when I’d be done sitting, I walked out to the lighthouse. Even on days when I didn’t feel like it, I’d tell myself, “Just go to the lighthouse.” I would zip up my raincoat, tighten my hood, or pull on an unbecoming beanie, depending on how cold it was—who cares what I look like? The main thing is to be out there, to see the skyline shimmer on the horizon, to have the city’s noises recede into the background and to take in the endless horizon of Lake Michigan.

Approaching the end of the cul-de-sac where Pratt Avenue meets the beach, I would wonder: What is the lake up to today? Will the crescendo of the waves wash over me, soothing, steady, everlasting? Or will there be this odd silence, with no wind, and the water smooth like glass? Is the shore frozen, piled high with snow on the shelf ice, or will ice floes sway in the gray water?

Then there is the worry: Is someone else out there behind the lighthouse? Contemplating the open horizon or being more productive and fishing? On weekday mornings, however, even in the summer, the beach and the pier are never crowded and often deserted. Alone at the end of that pier, I am joyously at sea. The honking and hum of the city are gone. There’s only the gurgle of the water and the occasional squawk of a seagull. A seagull! Yes, we are at sea! Ahoy, I want to shout, on that boat of a pier, on that little platform beyond the lighthouse. Ahoy, whither are we sailing?

But sometimes we are not sailing and we are not at sea. Then the lighthouse looms beyond a mountain of snow or the pier is glazed with ice so slick it would send me flying into the grey never-never-land of the wild sea were I to step on it.

Icicles are strung along the pier’s wire railing like crystals on a necklace. My fingers freeze taping my Smartphone to capture them.

A place to see myself in

What a privilege to have this place, a public place and at the same time a personal place, to experience the seasons, to measure them bit by bit, to see myself in them. The pier’s parched concrete, scribbled with graffiti in summer, or crusted in snow in winter. The water bottle green, clear to the rocks below, or opaque, marbled in ice.

My shadow jaunty in spring against the pebbly beach, or bundled and stocky, sharing the glistening sand of winter with iced-over stalks of dune grass. Like the beach, I brace for winter and then again, I sigh at the milder breeze off the lake and the warmer sun of spring on my face. I witness the beach’s readying for summer and its bracing for winter storms.

What a joy to return here again and again, to have this place that is mine and isn’t. To see how it changes and how it remains the same. And to have the lighthouse, a steadfast friend to check in with, and a lookout into the wide, wide world.