On July 31, we went to a concert at Ravinia, our first visit to this outdoor classical music venue in several years. We left our house on the edge of Chicago’s southwest side at 5:30 p.m., traveling from I55 to Lake Shore Drive to head north. We had prepared ourselves mentally for a long ride because of rush hour congestion and road construction, so we were able to relax in the car and enjoy the late in the day sunshine. The weather was perfect: sunny and summertime warm without being too hot or too humid for comfort.
After snaking past the Loop, traffic came to a halt. When it finally began to move again, we inched forward and saw the remains of a multi-car crash along with a host of police and rescue workers. Then the traffic began to move faster, and the sun, now low in the west, sent its nearly horizontal beams between the highrises on our left, across Lake Shore Drive, and into the lush green park beside Lake Michigan to our right.
At the top of the Drive, we turned onto Sheridan Road and followed its twists and turns through Chicago’s far northeast neighborhoods of Edgewater and Rogers Park. Past dense clusters of highrises that gave the road the feeling of a canyon’s floor, the energy shifted to an open feeling as we moved through blocks of low-rise, vintage apartment buildings. As we reached the end of Chicago and the beginning of Evanston, the buildings ended, affording us an unobstructed view of Lake Michigan sparkling to the right as its restless surface caught the sun’s rays. To the left, all was immobility in Calvary Catholic Cemetery, where a profusion of huge, ornate grave markers evoked a giant green chessboard overrun with extra pieces.
Soon we found ourselves in the stretch of Sheridan lined with North Shore mansions, which called up memories of countless drives past these same houses in my childhood and later, after receiving my driver’s license, as a teenager on outings with high school friends. Every trip through the area made me imagine life inside those mansions—not for their current inhabitants, but for their original owners from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Once again, traffic halted, this time because road construction had removed all southbound traffic (along with nearly the entire road) and reduced the northbound flow to a single lane. When we began moving again, our slow pace became a blessing because the way was narrow, and the dropoff at the edge of our lane was well more than a foot. Along the way, the bricks that had once formed this quite old part of Sheridan were thrown up into huge heaps of dark, dirty red.
As we drew closer to our destination, we entered the area of Sheridan Road called “the ravines,” which gave Ravinia its name. The pavement became a narrow ribbon through deep, tree-covered gorges with houses perched here and there. The temporary darkness and seclusion cut me off from the present, plunging me deep into the time in prehistory when rushing water carved through the land to create the ravines. My inner trip back in time ended almost as quickly as it began, for soon the ground leveled out, the trees cleared, and the road curved west. We went a little way, turned onto Green Bay Road, and soon found ourselves passing beneath the rustic wooden sign announcing Ravinia Park. To my relief, we saw that the night’s crowd was small and parking was easy. A glance at the time while taking our folding chairs from the trunk revealed it had taken us exactly two hours to reach Ravinia.
On entering the park, we headed left around the Martin Theatre, which was built in 1904 and would host the evening’s concert. Looking up from the path, my eyes saw the top half of the theatre’s west wall, shimmering an intense gold in the sun’s final burst of light. Suddenly, a soul memory surfaced…something about the building’s Arts and Crafts style and the sun’s dying light made me feel this sight was familiar, probably from a prior lifetime that included the period around the turn of the 20th century. My steps slowed to let my eyes absorb the image and my heart drink in the feeling of being outside of time, in the realm of eternity, where all times and possibilities exist together.
After a moment that held forever in its fleeting existence, we turned away and walked onto the green expanse of the lawn. Nearly all those attending the concert had tickets for seats inside the theatre, as only about ten parties dotted the grass. My mind traveled back to my school days…my family lived five minutes from Ravinia, and we often spent evenings on the lawn among smallish crowds listening to classical music and occasionally to folk or pop music concerts. In high school, we children typically attended with each other or with our friends. The richness of those nights, and their later dwindling and ultimate disappearance as my adult life took shape, rose up together in my memory and deepened the spell that Eternity had begun casting over me as soon as we left home.
We placed our chairs on the grass and walked to a nearby pavilion to purchase dinner because the concert would be starting soon. The light was waning rapidly now, as the sun had sunk beneath the horizon; the theatre’s west wall had lost all its shimmer and was sinking into gray insubstantiality, as if it would disappear completely until the sun rose the next morning to call it back into existence with its beams.
We were eating dinner as the concert began. Soprano Nicole Cabell, accompanied by pianist Susan Tang, opened with three songs by Liszt, followed by five Greek folk songs composed by Ravel. She closed the first half with four pieces by the 20th century Argentine composer Carlos Guastavino. About midway through, the jumble of sights and memories and music inspired me to walk the park while my husband finished his dinner. By now, the sky had turned milky in the twilight, deepening my impression of being in a world apart from everyday life, buffered from the outside by a cottony cocoon.
Every step took me past a building, a tree, or a section of the lawn that helped the past press its case for occupying my thoughts. My throat began to ache with the effort of holding my emotions in check. Many pasts began to fill me: the remembered past of childhood and teen years, the unremembered experiences that snapped to life with exposure to Ravinia’s every facet, and the dimly sensed soul past of the turn of the 20th century. Stopping at a washroom, the Arts and Crafts architecture and the park’s resemblance to a summer camp heightened this multi-layered, multi-time effect.
The music ended just before my walking tour did. Back by our chairs, my husband had stretched out on the grass, which was gradually growing damp with evening dew. Sitting in my chair, a firefly fluttered by, and in the distance, a leafy green tree lit from below looked like a white hydrangea in the strange mix of artificial light and deepening blue twilight. The first stars appeared against the murmurs of other groups’ conversations and the flickers from their candles’ flames.
As the second half began, Cabell left behind the first segment’s older and sometimes heavier pieces for more recent songs that seemed closer to her heart and touched us more deeply. After three works by Andre Previn from Honey and Rue, she served up a trio of songs by Ben Moore that included the jaunty The Ivy-Wife and the carousel-like Bright Cap and Streamers. Edward Hammond Boatner’s uplifting spiritual O What a Beautiful City followed. The formal program ended with the heartbreaking Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child and the joyous Ride On, King Jesus. Throughout, progressively louder cicadas accompanied Cabell outside as her pianist accompanied her inside, and once or twice a commuter train rumbled by on the nearby tracks.
Cabell returned to the stage and spoke briefly to the audience before giving two encores. Echoes of her perfect, polished, clear singing voice sounded in her speaking voice, which exuded grace, charm, and warm emotion as she thanked patrons and sponsors who have supported her artistry. It did not surprise me to learn later that she is a Libra, born 17 October 1977. Then she launched into Wouldn’t You Like to be on Broadway? and What Good Would the Moon Be? from Kurt Weill’s opera Street Scene, which features lyrics by Langston Hughes. She closed the evening with Puccini’s famous O Mio Babbino Caro.
We stopped inside the theatre on our way out to admire its recent restoration and fulfill my need to anchor the Arts and Crafts inspiration for the evening’s soul impressions into my consciousness. Heading back to the car, we agreed to take the Edens Expressway southward; as with our journey to Ravinia, the trip was slowed by construction and by a multi-car accident. Driving with the windows open and feeling the summer night, we decided to stop for ice cream. At the combination Baskin Robbins and Dunkin’ Donuts on Elston Avenue in Chicago, a huge cicada with colorful wings was lying just inside the entrance. Although it probably was near the end of its life, my heart couldn’t bear leaving it vulnerable to being stepped on, so we moved it outside out of harm’s way.
More than four weeks have passed since our Ravinia experience, but the feeling of being outside time—or rather, in all times at one time—has persisted and pushed me to put its effect and its power into words. Although the title of Thomas Wolfe’s novel tells us You Can’t Go Home Again, my experience tells me we are souls who can go any where and to any time through the magic of memory, music, and emotion.