America has a lot in common with the eponymous characters of this famous novella - it too has a split personality. The glorious summers and the raging winters in Chicago offer the perfect illustration of what I'm talking about. But there are other confusing contradictions in this city - some are pretty innocuous, like the rivalry between the Cubs (north team) and the White Sox (south). Other differences - most notably between the north and south sides of the city - are more disturbing, rendering Chicago the murder capital of America or, colloquially, 'Chiraq'.
The truth is, the notoriously 'dangerous' south side of Chicago is not just a hotbed of gang warfare, but also boasts great food, festivals, a football stadium and more churches per capita of all denominations than most. And yet, in recent years, there has been something of an exodus of those moving to escape the south (Chicago Tribune, May 2016) and since our move to a leafy northern suburb, we've yet to venture too far south of the river.
Just as Dr. Jekyll - the mad scientist discovered a way to split his personality in two so that he could pursue his evil desires - Mr Hyde meanwhile, tries to keep the lid on the whole thing and hold up good values. America seems to flip-flop between these two extremes and it's easy to get confused - especially when you're trying to settle into life in such a shape-shifting place. But, whilst tragic stories of school shootings, sexual misconduct and the shocking treatment of minorities seem to dominate the media, there is, thankfully, a more positive flip side to this coin.
For one thing, volunteering is a big deal here. The concepts of 'giving back' and 'paying it forward' seem to be front and centre for many. I've seen incredible acts of generosity and loving kindness - from meal trains for new parents to offering a safe and stable home to at-risk children and refugees. There's a casserole station in our church where meals can be dropped off each week which are then taken to those in need. Just a couple of weeks ago, the church car park was transformed into a construction site where local families spent the day putting frames together for a housing project.
It would be easy to be cynical about such altruism - after all, it's easy to give a lot if you've got a lot, right? And this is a wealthy area. But people's generosity goes way beyond simply putting a folded wad of cash into the collection plate - it's the day-to-day acts of kindness - those things which take time and effort - that really stand out and seem to be a priority for everyone we've met, whether they go to church or not. It starts with being neighbourly - baked goods are delivered warm from the oven, just because - but there seems to be no end to what people will do to help and support one another.
Recently, I've been saddened to read on social media the many reports of crime happening in our UK village - property is stolen and damaged daily. Back in England, we knew all too well that if we left our garage door open, we could expect things to go missing within the hour if we turned our backs. Over the years we've been burgled, our cars vandalised and broken into, bikes taken, even the bricks from our driveway were removed to enable a thief to steal the tyres from a neighbour's car. Amazon parcels have to be hidden behind bushes or in bins if you're not in to receive them. But here, I'm shocked to see parcels left propped up against back gates, in full view - even furniture deliveries! Pottery Barn coffee tables and lamps wait patiently in their boxes - sometimes for days- for their owners to claim them. Garages are left open, bikes are left outside. One of our neighbours even leaves the back gate wide open and the door unlocked... to us this seems unthinkable, even foolhardy, and yet what a wonderful thing to have such faith in our fellow man. And whilst this may not be the norm for many areas in Chicago, it does seem to be the 'norm' here.
Every place has its Jekyll and Hyde side, and that's true of the North Shore too - a walk along the Magnificent Mile in the city - boasting some of the most expensive, high-end stores - cannot be undertaken without seeing the stark reality of homelessness. It's a complex and frustrating issue that can't be fixed by a few coins thrown into a plastic cup. For months, my husband has been building a friendship with 'Superman', the homeless guy who stands outside Union Station. Each morning he stops, they talk and husband asks what he needs - Superman accepts his offer of a daily bottle of water, $5 and his prayers - and nothing else. Husband wants to do more, which is why he's getting to know Superman and slowly discovering pieces of his story. The cynics might think it's a waste of time - perhaps he isn't even really homeless? What difference will it actually make? But if we all think like that, then Jekyll wins, and so last Tuesday, knowing it was his birthday, husband took a hot breakfast and a small birthday cake for Superman - it doesn't stop him being homeless, but it does show him that someone cares.
Our cynicism is a product of our experience, but we're learning to adjust and to trust - a key under the mat, visitors' bikes piled up and unlocked out the back, home-baked brownies delivered to neighbours - just because. We're not naive enough to think that Jekyll doesn't exist here, but one thing is for sure - Hyde is holding his own, and that's pretty inspiring.