courtney | the singles project.

I am (and have always been) a person who loves birthdays. I love an excuse to celebrate the people I love, a reason to clink drinks and leave voicemails and treat myself and tell friends and family how thankful I am for the day of their birth because the world just feels that much better with them in it. So when Courtney and I were talking dates for her session and she suggested me coming by to photograph her on her birthday, I knew this would be a great day.

I arrived at her place as she was finishing getting ready for the day, so she encouraged me to make myself at home as she finished putting on her makeup. There were birthday notes scattered around the apartment from her roommate, who works out in the suburbs and typically isn’t around during the day while Courtney is working from home as a photographer. She straightened her hair as we chatted across the hallway, and she told me about her family and where she’s originally from in Wisconsin. Once she finished getting ready, she FaceTimed with her sister and nieces, and they sang happy birthday to Aunt Courtney as she grinned at the screen of her phone. She played peek-a-boo with them from her living room in Chicago as they did so in theirs in Wisconsin, and I realized that birthdays are one thing I’d argue have gotten infinitely better in the age of smart phones. How wonderful is it that we get to see the faces of the people we love who live hours away in the middle of the week – to hear their voices and open the gift we received in the mail from them as they giddily watch us do so? Courtney propped her phone up and tore the tape off a package they had sent her a few days earlier. She first pulled out the card, which her niece had chosen herself, followed by clothes and a book from her sister. She held each item up to the phone screen as her sister and niece responded to her, and as her niece began to play on her own, Courtney started chatting with her sister about the kids, followed by a brief conversation about an upcoming date with a guy. It was the kind of conversation a person has with someone who knows and loves them – the kind where you can always pick back up on what’s new that week in each of your lives, and the duration and excitement and engagement of the conversation will ebb and flow week-t0-week, and it doesn’t really matter because you will always be able to jump back in where you left off, because that’s the way conversations with the people who know and love you can be. As they said their goodbyes, I heard giggles coming through the speaker as the girls told their aunt they loved her, giving kisses through the phone as Courtney beamed at them once again.

She then watered her plants as she told me the different paths her life had previously taken – she initially studying graphic and interior design, then worked full time at a greenhouse, followed by a landscaping company. She spent ten years in the horticulture field and eventually decided it wasn’t the right career path for her, which was the moment she decided to go back to school to study photography. Her job shift also marked a decision to move from WI to Chicago, and as is the case for so many of us (myself included), that’s when Courtney’s love story with this city began.

The thing about a Big Move is that it can be exhausting and nerve-wracking and challenging in so many ways – you may miss the comfort of the people and previous place(s) you called home, and aspects of the new job may not be the way you had expected, and the streets are new and unfamiliar, and you want to connect and meet people, and yet it can be so damn hard sometimes to make new adult friendships. Courtney endured her share of rocky moments when she first moved to Chicago, including working as a newborn photographer for a company that made her sign a non-compete, meaning that once she no longer worked for them, she still wasn’t allowed to do any newborn photography of her own for a year. She also was in the midst of an on again, off again relationship that went on for a few years – and if there’s one thing that’s felt like a common thread in so many of my conversations with single women, it’s these strange, relationship-esque connections we have with people we’re dating, or talking to, or “kind of” seeing, here and there – we don’t know what they are, exactly, because they don’t have labels and they’re sporadic at best, but we stay “in” them nonetheless. (And I use the term “in” loosely – we’re in them in the sense that we’re emotionally tied to this person – we’re hopeful for a something that we aren’t certain will ever (or in some cases, should ever) happen, and as much as we don’t necessarily voice it or want to believe it’s closing us off to other things and people and experiences, there’s a good chance it sort of, kind of is. I say all of this as a person who’s been there, and I don’t think women are the only ones who end up in these scenarios – so many of us, regardless of gender or orientation, have been the person on someone else’s line – quietly dangling, waiting, eagerly hoping for a text, or an invitation, or anything that feels like more.

So Courtney was adjusting to the city of Chicago, but amidst the process of falling for it, she also was feeling said challenges. She’s always loved dancing, so at some point within that time frame, she started going to a local dance class in the area. She laughed as she told me the story of how she eventually asked her dance instructor to grab a drink sometime – and if you’re a single adult, you know how nerve-wracking the classic putting-yourself-out-there move can feel when it comes to making new friends. Her dance instructor took her up on said drink, and then as another person from the dance class eventually joined, they found themselves to be a bit of a crew. They grab wine and thai food and dance and catch up on a regular basis, and soon enough, Courtney had a few more people in her orbit that made Chicago feel like home.

“I think I probably would have gone running if I hadn’t met them,” Courtney told me as we sipped some coffee at one of her favorite spots, and I knew exactly what she meant. There’s something particularly special about friendships forged as adults – they’re intentional and chosen, and since there is a level of vulnerability that comes with the initial process, the bond feels that much more like something you worked for and actively want to make last. And when you’re in a new city that you’re trying to make feel like home, there are few things more important than finding these people.

Courtney and two of those same girlfriends met up at Beauty Bar on the night of her birthday to celebrate in their truest fashion — with some dancing. They sipped cocktails in salon seats and told stories and laughed over the music, and eventually made their way out to the dance floor together. They swayed hips and shimmied shoulders amidst the dotted neon lights, and I watched as Courtney smiled at her friends circling her, and as her hair flew across her face to the beat of the track. I realized I was sitting there grinning, too – grinning because I love birthdays and people getting after it on a dance floor, sure, but also because I realized I had been witness to an entire day of a person who is thriving. I’m not talking about the loud, boisterous, vigorous type of thriving we often picture when we think of the word, because I don’t think thriving always has to feel like THRIVING, you know? I think sometimes a person can be thriving in the quiet, day-to-day moments – in the “I love yous” exchanged with their nieces, and the walks down a city street that used to be foreign and now feels like home, in saying goodbye to the guy who had them on the line, in growing a successful business despite initial barriers, in going out dancing with once-strangers who became great friends. I think maybe thriving can be an accumulation of all of these little things, paired with the decision not to run, and instead to stay and fall deeper in love with this city and the life she’s built here. If that’s not thriving, I don’t know what is.

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