14 December - Good Cheer & Ice Skating at Millennium Park

Evening setting in, a bottle of a lovely red varietal, the anticipation, biting fresh cool air that wakes me up when I open the door. Tells me my friend Holly from Madison is back for our annual visit. She and her husband Dan arrive at 9 in the evening greeted by the hors d’oeuvres de l’annee, which this year included gyoza and homemade dipping sauce, hummus and olive tapenade. Late night talks with such cherished friends provide a piece of home that centers me.

The awaited weekend includes a train ride into the Windy City. We pick up our hot toddy and walk up Michigan Avenue with the goal of doing a bit of shopping, but moreso, to soak in the vibe of good cheer and holiday spirit. There is always a stop at the Nordstrom building and Water Tower Place with quite a few pauses along the way.

But first, I of course was running late to even catch the 11:10 train. How did that happen? Was it our Facebooking or Googling random Tubes while still in my comfies at 10:50? Perhaps. I therefore left the house in my sweater, jeans, cabby hat; grabbed the black vest and riding boots. No coat. No scarf. Yes gloves. And sure enough, we pull into the parking lot at 11:10 with the horn sounding its arrival. Ahhh...yes, just in time.

The train ride propelled us towards the holiday spirit. A child was playing Duran Duran and Bon Jovi on his iPhone, not necessarily Christmas carols, but certainly merry. I so wanted to stay in conversation but the curtains of black slowly closed their shades. Too much cocktail and talk the eve before. I awoke to the slowing of the train into Union Station. The reality of what I wore, or lack thereof, bit me as the doors opened. Since this was a dedicated day by the lake, I had to mentally prepare and tell myself to endure, as we were walking out of Union Station. And ... what is that? Mist? Or sleet? The chards of mid-ice flakes pelted gently across my face. No complaints, though. Mind over matter cuz it’s all a state of mind. And since everything is a choice, then in my mind, I was on a beach in Boracay.

We started at the old Marshall Field’s Building to look at the narrative holiday window scenes and extravagant clinquant Christmas decorations. The Salvation Army bellringers all brought their own source of music, from a trumpet player in full uniform at one corner, to two Dutch women with tambourines on the next. From a rapper singing and dancing the next whimsical thought that comes to mind, to a kicking clarinetist who I'm sure could "play so outside that he's inside," as my husband would say. West High High School Choir was singing classical music and carols to passersby; the usual random but expected drum quartet jammed on their upside down garbage cans. Grandmas looking in the ginormous decorative windows with their grandchildren. Loving the vibe of this warm-hearted city. People were in good moods. Osmosis effect.

To change it up this year, dear friend BeeBee suggested we go ice skating at Millennium Park. “Our little salute to Rockefeller Plaza.” Grand idea. What better way to capture that warmth of a holiday scene like in "Elf"? As we approached the Bean, it was a happy site to see strangers gathered with the hope of skating with one another. Onlookers and antsy skaters waited for the Zamboni to finish refreshing the ice. How fun! Until we arrived at the rink and saw the sign “60 Minute Wait for Skate Rental.” Perfect. Just enough time to freeze right before I step onto the foreign ice that plans to conveyor belt under my feet once I make contact. We watched for a while, observing people laughing and taking photos with skating Santa. But I think I decided the sight was enough for me. I was cold. Matter over mind was starting to set in. No blog material. And no matter.

On to Nordstrom's! We forged ahead to our usual stops and found the good cheer warmed me up yet again. We ended the trek with exquisite comfort food. What provides more holiday spirit than a wonderful Mexican fiesta and some tequila cocktails? Feliz Navidad, I say.

The next morning, I could hear Holly outside my room, "So you want to head back down and go ice skating?" Huh. Let me put my eyes in and a cup of coffee in me, then revisit the question. I was thinking the same exact thing. The deflated balloon from our anti-climactic skating expedition was beginning to inflate. Why not? Just a matter of making it happen.

We headed back to the city for another attempt at fun on the ice and a swig of good cheer. Everything flowed with ease - the drive, the parking, the friendly attitudes were still there to welcome us. Grabbed some hot cocoa and some nice chat with strangers to pass the time. Spent some time with the workers who recognized us from yesterday. I will say their system of crowd control and monitoring the number of people allowed in the rental area and restrooms kept it quite enjoyable for everyone. Right before we got on the ice, I panicked. I forgot that I don't skate. Typical me to walk into a situation without much forethought of my possible personal discomfort. But, hey, I'm in a good mood; I always figure it out. Harold, one of the kind employees, skated backwards with me and told me "soft knees. Just relax." And somehow the lessons I took at Wilson Park 25 years ago resurrected.

It felt great to be out in the sun, amidst beginners and seasoned skaters, families, new lovers, grandparents, little kids. We were all out together laughing, going around in circles, looking out for one another. So THIS is what I look forward to each year...the comfort of dear friends who are family and to feel what this holiday season is about – connection, warmth and spreadin' the love to our neighbor, a stranger, family and those dear Streetwise vendors.

For more information on ice skating in Chicago, please visit http://www.millenniumpark.org/.