Life looks different at cruising altitude.

Crammed into my window seat, listening to the business men across the aisle talk trash about brokering yet-unsigned deals and fighting more than I should with a stubborn bag of peanuts, I’m struck by how my perspective of a place can change so dramatically but—at its core—remain the same.

I just spent three wonderful days in Chicago. Yes, that Chicago. The place I couldn't wait to get to when I flew the coop after high school graduation; the place I started a new life on my own, away from family and friends and blissfully enthralled with the potential that I saw around every corner; the place where I eventually got married and started a family of my own (in reverse order, though) and then left.

I've been gone now for 11 years, and the Chicago I am just getting home from is no longer ‘my’ Chicago. The streets are the same but the vibe has changed a bit. The buses have friendly voices directing newbies where to get on and off; the train stations have police officers who double as welcome guides and there are beautiful green parks where I remember there being nothing more than fences and graffiti. 

It’s prettier, this Chicago. I had fun playing tourist for a short time, settling in to a corner window table to watch the fashionistas and aspiring moguls rush by, then wandering in and out of shops, dazzled by the glittery jewels and befuddled by their price tags. I remember why I migrated from Wrigleyville and Roscoe Village to ‘up north’. I thought about how, in that day to day rush, Chicago didn't seem like Chicago all those years ago. It just seemed like the place I worked crazy hours, the place I schlepped groceries for blocks on end, the place I walked right by things I could’t afford and hidden gems I rarely noticed.

But I also rediscovered the cool things still that make Chicago that Chicago. As we walked by the Chicago Tribune Building I finally stopped to notice the stones from around the world. I walked over the Chicago River Bridge and this time read that it was once the site of Ft. Dearborn, and finally realized that each time I walked that path I was passing by a Vietnam War Memorial.

It’s a bit less forgiving, too, this Chicago. I can’t blame it all on the city, though, because my now-42-year-old-body just can’t keep up with the girl I once was. I remembered why I was thinner and healthier back in that day. When I’d spend entire days walking, running to this bus or that train, I could handle flights of stairs and worn down shoes and countless hours on my feet. This Chicago doesn't believe in a curve when it comes to accounting for age and my very own personal suburban sprawl. 

It was a different life, that lifetime ago. A different life lived by a different Lisa, most easily described by the fact that when I first fell in love with Chicago I was a bright eyed college kid enamored with the promise of potential, and now I'm a middle-aged mother more concerned with work, kids and budgets.

Only at cruising altitude does it make sense. 

At cruising altitude life–like the landscape–looks meticulously planned and parceled. It looks organized. Pristine. Endless. At cruising altitude it looks like everything fits right where it should. 

But from the street, life is anything but pristine. Instead, life changes: vows are promised and broken, people grow, babies are born, love dies, opportunities arise, chances are missed, opportunities seized, love blooms again, and moments are cherished. 

Life is messy, just like those all but abandoned doorways on Michigan Avenue that you just can’t see at cruising altitude.