Following the Footsteps

It’s Memorial Day, the unofficial beginning of summer. As a country, we take our folding lawn chairs and coolers out of storage and we gather at barbecues. Maybe we’ll mark the day by joining neighbors to line a street for a morning parade.

I know Memorial Day was created for us to consider sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, whose lives were lost in the service of our country. I have come to view the holiday in a broader context.

I want to take time to remember the lives of family members and strangers that have offered lessons to me or inspired me.

I don’t normally think of myself as sentimental and am not a history buff, but I can’t help but notice that my travels to all range of destinations have included a trip to a cemetery whose history is intertwined with the location.

During my trip to Buenos Aires a couple years ago, I walked between the elaborate tombs of Le Recoleta Cemetery to see the final resting spot of Eva Peron (her tomb is marked by her maiden name, Duarte).

After descending the narrow and steeply inclined streets of Monmartre, on a visit to Paris in 2012, I paid attention to the line winding around the entrance to Pere Lachaise, a cemetery whose inhabitants include Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde and Maria Callas, although it seemed that the biggest crowds gathered to spend a few moments at Jim Morrison’s grave.

A visit to New Orleans, a favorite destination, would be incomplete without a visit to the Lafayette Cemetery along Washington Street in the Garden District. During my 2015 trip to Memphis, besides Graceland and Stax Records, one of the places I made a point of stopping by was historic Elmwood cemetery.

A slow walk among the gravestones (when I was ten, I remember my sister referring to cemeteries as marble orchards), I felt as if I was walking through time. I looked at low gravestones and read the names out loud. There were Chinese names in two public lots, probably belonging to laborers who were brought over to pick cotton or to work on bridges or railroads or other big projects. Chinese families, in Memphis, I thought. Who knew?

Besides flagged markers over the graves of Confederate soldiers and the tall monuments of wealthy, high society families, I looked for the grave of the University of Alabama’s famed football coach, Bear Bryant, and the grave of Sun Ra who, in his own way, led a revolution in music.

Here, in Chicago, I might get a history lesson by visiting Graceland cemetery, where visionary industrialist Gorge Pullman is buried, supposedly in a lead-lined coffin and a steel vault to dissuade the left leaning population from desecrating his grave. Or, I could visit Waldheim (Forest Home) just west of the city, where laborers, martyrs of the Haymarket Riot, are buried.

In the Jewish side of Waldheim, it’s not uncommon to see small black and white photographs decorate the upper corner of granite gravestones. I remember looking at the pictures and considering the dates that bookended different life spans. I’d think about the immigrants who came here from Eastern Europe; children and parents, grandparents.

Many souls came here following a dream. Many lived long lives and others only a few years. Some faced special challenges and others just did their jobs. Some changed the world (or, at least their corner of it), and others just showed up.

This Memorial Day, I’m thinking about all of them. Not just soldiers.

I don’t think it’s SACRIFICE that leads me to check out cemeteries wherever I travel, although sacrifices were made. I’m touched by the COURAGE of individuals, expressed in the choices and actions that defined their lives.

It takes courage to fight in a war. It takes courage to raise a family. It takes courage to leave home and start over in a new town or a new country. It takes courage to be an artist. It takes courage to be a complete human being, to navigate between personal interests and supporting the family and community, which may support you.

Remembering, with love and respect, the courage of those who have walked on this earth before you, is no small thing.

 

Goose Island

On Sunday, I was running an errand in the Goose Island neighborhood. It’s a section of the city that was named after a small (maybe one square mile) patch of land that formed where two branches of the Chicago River met.

It probably got its name because it was a resting spot for migrating geese managing their seasonal trek. Now, the term refers to the original plot, accessible by bridge, and surrounding area, which is now a very hip, industrial area. It’s home to the Wrigley Gum’s research facility and a variety of businesses operating from restored lofts.

After I emerged from my shopping mission and headed toward my car, I caught sight of a band of geese at the corner of the parking lot.

On a small rectangle of grass, only feet away from the heavy traffic of Division Street, I saw two or three grown-up, long necked geese with iconic hunter green heads and maybe eight brownish goslings, adorable in their awkwardness.

It seemed that they didn’t belong in this scene; so close to delivery trucks and train tracks and discount store parking lots, only a couple miles from a great city’s business district.

Then I thought, Oh yes. They were here first (or, at least, their great, great, great grandparents were). After all, this is GOOSE ISLAND.

I watched them for a few minutes. I marveled at how at home they seemed to feel in this spot between stop signs and dandelions. They weren’t bothered by traffic. I looked on as they scoured the grass for discarded pieces of bread or potato chips, hoping to feast on what people threw away.

The simple beauty of this affected me on different levels.

It’s always great to see a slice of nature up close. Successfully hunting up things to eat, the geese were just being geese.

It was even more delightful to me that this bit of nature could be seen in an unnatural surrounding. It’s heartening to think that birds can find what they need on a small lawn near a busy street.

But I had to laugh at my own joke, my pronouncement. I considered that the sight shouldn’t surprise me being that I was in Goose Island.

It fit.

There’s a certain type of beauty when things FIT.

Mathematicians call proofs elegant when the logic seems to work. Crime detectives seem to think of perfect crimes only when they have figured out perfect solutions. Engineers may get effusive over gears that mesh or seals that are truly impenetrable.

I suppose, as a writer, I shouldn’t being surprised when a word or phrase really sums up the essence of something. It’s something to strive for. When a phrase is both truthful and ironic — it makes me happy.

So the family of geese was hanging out in what could be thought of as an ISLAND of grass, surrounding on all sides by concrete sidewalks and a blacktopped boulevard and parking lot. In GOOSE ISLAND.

To see beauty in things, even in words, simply because they FIT, is no small thing.

 

Garden Off Edens

The Chicago Botanic Garden is not in Chicago. It is actually in a suburb called Glencoe, just off the Edens Expressway about twenty miles north.

Arranging a lunch date with a friend, who lives in a suburb close to the Wisconsin border, provided an excuse for making the garden a destination this past Friday afternoon.

They have a very nice cafeteria, six parking lots (which actually get full during summer months), and constantly changing natural beauty.

At the front of the visitors center, there is a What’s in bloom display and a large scale map of the nearly 400 acre garden. Although, there are plenty of maps and trail markers throughout, I usually just wander down the paths and focus on what’s in front of me (until I want to return to the parking lot).

Friday, when I visited, I read the What’s in Bloom cards that greeted me at the front of the building. If I couldn’t tell already from the colorful blooms I saw on the way from the Lake Cook Road entrance, after checking out the display, I knew to be prepared to see rhododendron, magnolias, and tulips.

“When did this happen?” I remember saying to myself earlier in the week as I was driving home via the Wilson Avenue Bridge.

It seems that my neighborhood came to life overnight. Last Saturday, things were subdued. By Thursday, I saw a broad palette of greens and pinks from budding trees. (Based on the name, who’d think a crabapple tree would be so beautiful?)

I felt like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, when she first opened the door of Auntie Em’s and Uncle Henry’s cabin, after her jarring trip and landing over the rainbow. Everything went from shades of gray to Technicolor. It seemed that the landscape and sense of life happening around me turned just as quickly.

I’ll often find things especially beautiful based on the surprise element. I’ll stop in amazement at the sight of a flower daring to break through the ground at a construction site or a child’s smile caught as I look at the car next to mine while stopped at a traffic light.

But visiting CBG was a different experience of beauty. Flowers and shrubs and trees are always beautiful but being able to walk for hours without the distractions of car horns or technology put me in a state of mind where I’m relaxed and can BE with everything.

I felt elevated. The recognition itself, that a garden is a special place, is beautiful. What came over me seemed inescapable in such a large wonderland of nature, but I think this is true of smaller gardens as well.

A garden doesn’t just happen. It has to be tended.

Over weeks, months, even years, someone thinks of how to use an outdoor space. Seeds are chosen and planted. Soil and rocks and fertilizer and planters may be bought. Someone spends time on their knees making sure the soil is soft and there are no weeds or other things that might challenge a plant.

From March through October, I’ll often see my building neighbor Paula on her knees with a spade in her hand.

I’m always delighted when I see the row of hostas between our building and the brick of the building next to ours. I love seeing the small trees she planted along the wire fence that provides a barrier to the Brown Line tracks just a few feet beyond my back deck.

I know she considers what types of plants need sunlight or shade before seeds are put in the ground. She always makes arrangements for Alisa or Grant or me to water everything when she goes out of town. I’ll take note of her many runs to Home Depot’s Garden Center.

And the Chicago Botanic Garden must have armies of Paulas; keeping their incredible collection of Bonsai trees trimmed and in proportion, keeping their lawns pristine, placing benches in the walled garden so that you can enjoy the trees and blooms in private while dozens of other visitors are doing the same, planning where to arrange different varieties of rose bushes so that when their time comes in June, you can’t help but be bowled over.

Having a special appreciation for a place where the finest expression of the natural world meets the care and stewardship of human beings is no small thing.

Mud

It must have rained for two days straight. At times, the raindrops pelted down and I heard them, tinny-sounding, against my windows. Even when drops didn’t come down as discreet objects, a heavy mist permeated the air.

There wasn’t a sidewalk that didn’t terminate at the nearest street in a sort of lake and even walking to the parking pad behind my building involved planning where I planted each footstep so that my feet would not get soaked on the way to my car.

I hung an old gray towel in the entryway to my building, acknowledging that it would be necessary to clean India’s paws after returning from a walk.

Mud was everywhere.

I noticed how I became fascinated with this; how I looked for paw prints or patterned treads from boots in splashes of mud I’d encounter on the sidewalk.

I noticed that where small bites of earth had been pulled away from its core, exposed dirt became dry sooner than in places where larger craters had been scooped out.

I noticed discarded cans, candy wrappers, and small branches stuck in the mud. It seemed that people were much less apt to clear these things out of the way. An expedition to pick up incidental refuse would surely lead to messing up your shoes.

Mud is innocuous enough when you think about its composition. It’s just earth and water. But it carries it’s own unique danger. It marks anything that comes close. Upon contact, it defines what it touches. Things become muddy.

It’s a symbol, of sorts, of gluttony. When I see mud in abundance, I think about how a lawn or garden is trying to take in more water than it can swallow and absorb.

I told my friend Carol about my recent fixation and she remarked that according to Buddhist and Eastern traditions, it’s important to remember that mud is the environment where the lotus flower grows.

As I’ve been discouraged by many of the recent political and social trends, I’ve tried to keep in mind that a certain level of messiness is necessary for positive change to take place.

In my own creative process, I’ve recognized that sometimes ideas can seem very disconnected and raw before I can put them together in any way that approaches coherence (let alone the honesty and elegance I might strive for).

But this was a notion worth taking in –- that something as beautiful as the lotus flower grows in the mud. Like a baby chick cracking its shell from the inside, the implication is that there’s a certain amount of effort necessary for something so beautiful to be born.

Life itself is mud. There are things that are unavoidable. It’s messy. And the tension itself, the struggle involved in surviving and reaching out, on its own, creates a certain kind of beauty.

Just last week, I heard that someone I had worked with a few years ago died (of breast cancer). I learned that I would get a tax refund this year. One of my projects got postponed and I might not have income for a couple weeks. A friend comp-ed me with a ticket to the symphony. I was complimented and criticized.

Thupten Ngodrup, the State Oracle of Tibet, in sharing his thoughts on the lotus, said;

“The lotus is the most beautiful flower, whose petals open one by one. But it will only grow in the mud. In order to grow and gain wisdom, first you must have the mud — the obstacles of life and its suffering. … The mud speaks of the common ground that humans share, no matter what our stations in life. … Whether we have it all or we have nothing, we are all faced with the same obstacles: sadness, loss, illness, dying and death. If we are to strive as human beings to gain more wisdom, more kindness and more compassion, we must have the intention to grow as a lotus and open each petal one by one.”

Celebrating MUD is no small thing.