While racing from museums to gallery spaces over the last weekend as I visited the East Coast, I had the chance to bump into a host of individuals ranging from the new acquaintance to the longtime friend.
How did the topic of conversation turn from, "What do you think of this artwork?" to the instant quantifier of your city's urban pecking order, "Where are you from?" But there that question was, hanging in the air.
It wasn't as if I was wearing any items that would betray my hometown identity. I purposely had sworn off the wearing of an I Heart GR T-shirt since I tend to be averse to knockoffs.
Instead, my choice du jour was a brightly colored, pink unicorn T-shirt from the Meanwhile Bar, with Grand Rapids written only small enough to be viewed up close.
"Oh, this place?" I sheepishly reply. "It's a neighborhood pub where I like to grab a drink back in Grand Rapids."
Sometimes they say, "Hey, I have heard of that town because of (fill-in-the-blank.)" Sometimes their answers provide subtle clues about who they are. If they say Herman Miller, than I know they are into design. If they say something about the lipdub, then they may have a more recent exposure to who we are as a community.
Most times the reply is simply, "Cool," -- which is hipsterspeak for, "OK, next topic."
But it was while clad in the creative uniform of the gallery scene, meaning no visible brands but BYOS (bring your own style), I heard a response that I have never heard before as I wrapped up a cocktail conversation.
As I prepared to move into the next planetary circle of the art scene, I remarked, "We have to get together again soon."
"Well, you will have to come to New York," my new friend exclaimed as we air kissed, "because we are certainly not coming to Grand Rapids!"
All the air went out of the room.
In fact, I did not get my bearings until I started the long drive back to Grand Rapids. My mind could not shake this singular moment.
Could it be that for all our advances and feel-good moments in our history, someone could actually be ambivalent to our community? And why was I feeling so bad as a result?
I thought everyone loved us once they met us. Yet the more I thought about it, I decided that maybe something else was at work here.
For you see, while we have worked to create a community that we want to live in, we seem to be obsessed with crafting our image in the shadow of another.
Have we developed a younger sibling complex where we always look to those that have gone before us and yet hope to replicate with great swiftness the respect that our older siblings enjoy?
I began to question our newly formed projects, from arts festivals to the city and corporations' bids to retain talent within our region. Were we going about this task all wrong?
And then the worst thought began to settle in. What if what we thought was a silk purse was actually a sow's ear to those viewing us from the outside?
I get it that Grand Rapids has advanced in key areas like historic preservation, being greener in important areas of modern urban development and even secured symbolic rights for our LGBT years before Holland would reveal the reality of their "happy places in America" award from ABC.
We have all the markings of what it takes to be the next great American city including good buzz from our many farm-to-table dining establishments, single-stream recycling and even a growing value of the creative class, but still my friend's response would not leave my head.
It was as I rounded the last mile toward my home that a thought began to settle inside my head. Despite the reality of all our advances, whether replications of another city or other ideas that are completely our own, maybe we need to stop trying to make people love us and simply learn to love ourselves a bit more.
When we focus so hard on what the world thinks of us by jumping up and down in a childlike manner, maybe we are saying, "Look at me, look at me, look at me."
Grand Rapids is many things to many people. Maybe our focus going forward should be a little less centered on the outside dwellers so that we can concentrate on the people living here on the inside who call this region their home.
If we do pick up their love along the way, including my new friend's love, then we do it organically because it is our ideas that flow outward like the Grand River.
So, these days I may not wear my love on a sleeve so much as I used to. It is not because I love the city any less. It is just that the glow of new love has worn off a bit.
Scientists have discovered this abatement of intensity is natural because the chemical PEA (and a host of others in combination) begins to taper off around the years 3-5 of a relationship, but in many cases it disappears as early as 18 months.
These same studies also show us that what may develop after that time is not a cynical or mourning period. Rather it is a time when a deeper kind of love, not blinded by the shiny and new emerges -- one where stability, respect, contentment and most importantly, trust begins to settle in as well.
And trust is a big part of the equation when letting go of the need to always be reminded of that love. Trust is the wind we need to give flight to our dreams when we, as a community, take the next steps in our history.
We will always have Paris, New York and even Chicago, but we also have Grand Rapids -- a city that is home to many and is shaping up behind all the glitz and lipstick we like to apply to be a city all its own.
Sometimes you have to leave town to see who you truly are.
The Future Needs All of Us (to be see ourselves.)
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