Autumn Bloom

For some reason, here in the Midwest, it feels like spring happens overnight. Regardless of what the calendar says, one day, the muddy gray, rainy landscape turns lush and green. Crocuses seem to bloom and leaves fill out branches seemingly overnight.

Like when Dorothy steps out of her Kansas cabin, newly landed over the rainbow, everything goes from black and white to Technicolor.

Fall announces itself slowly. The leaves on trees start turning colors. The temperature goes back and forth between hot and dry to cool. People debate whether it’s time to remove and store window air conditioners or wait a little longer. Fall creeps up over weeks.

That’s somehow fitting. After all, we mark births by an exact day and hour. Dying or going into hibernation is a process.

One day last week, while I was walking home from my physical therapy appointment, I saw a small collection of sunflowers in front of the Bateman Elementary School.

A few blooms were low to the ground but several came up over four feet. Sunflowers, I read, tend to open up mid-summer or in the fall. Somehow, they seem especially suited to fall.

Their golden color seems to go with the changing colors of leaves; the burnt orange and blazing red or crackling brown.

Generally, one bloom comes out per stem. For me, spring and summer seem like more social times. Activities, like picnics or concerts, are enjoyed in groups. Fall seems to be more of a solitary season. In October, I might put some thought into what movies I want to include in my Netflix queue or what foods I might want to stock in my cabinets or freezer.  I expect to be at home more — alone.

And of course, sunflowers actually turn to face the sun during daylight hours. This so captures the mood of fall. Knowing that the sun will be scarcer to see and feel on my face and arms for months, I want to drink in sunlight now as much as I can.

It’s funny to think of the season as having a special bloom, and maybe it’s just my tendency to want to see what’s unique or special about things, but I have an unusual fondness for sunflowers.

I don’t even think about cutting them or buying a bunch at a farmer’s market and bringing them home to put in a vase.

They’re at their best when they out in the wild, when they’re overgrown and a little unruly, when they crown a fibrous and thick stem in such fullness it’s automatic to think they could topple the plant over; when they share their space but are not too close to each other. Maybe part of their beauty is that each sunflower seems to be a solo act.

So, I had to snap a picture of this sunflower in front of the playground of the Bateman School. It was about my height (5’4”) and perfectly imperfect.

The head or bloom of a sunflower is actually composed of many flowers. I stared at the small yellow petals, ray flowers, that fanned around the dark mysterious center, a mega-cluster of disk flowers that clung to each other as they turned towards the brightest spot in the sky and sought warmth.

Standing in front of a flower, face-to-face, is no small thing.

Café Seating

Okay, this past weekend was hotter than Hades. Here in Chicago, we broke records for consecutive ninety-degree days this late in the year.

But last weekend – well, it was perfect.

The temperature, the infinite deepness of the blue sky, not having obligations that needed quick attention, feeling that, although perhaps months away from recovery, I am actually making progress on the use of my arm and hand after my July accident – all these things led me to decide I needed to take myself out for breakfast.

I didn’t just want to go anywhere. I was in no mood for a quick bagel or Starbucks fix of sugar and caffeine. I wanted to go somewhere where I could sit under a big umbrella and watch the neighborhood enjoy the perfection of the September day. I wanted café seating and eggs cooked differently than I make them at home.

I took myself to Glen’s Diner. The sign over the awning claimed the honor of being the best diner in the world. I don’t know about that, but sitting under one of their giant umbrellas near the Montrose Avenue el stop seemed to be just what I needed.

I somehow remember the first time I heard the expression, al fresco.

I thought it referred to a man named Al Fresco. I assumed he liked to go out to eat a lot because I always heard his name in conjunction with a restaurant.

When I traveled in Europe, I enjoyed spending time in outdoor cafes. Whether for a glass of wine, cup of coffee, or a full meal, the people watching, the buzz of being OUT — was as important as the menu.

In Portugal and Spain, in France — it seemed that people took public transportation more often, regardless of their station in life, and they took special pleasure in communal life.

People filled the pubic squares and plazas. Going to a café was not just for slamming down food. It was about having a place to view the world, to experience life happening around you.

When I chose a table, I situated myself so that the umbrella would block out the sun’s rays from their most direct path.

I took a few deep breaths and took note of the other patrons; a few young couples, the men in long khaki shorts and the girls in light summer dresses. There was a fit, older man at a table near the street, the Sunday paper spread out up to his coffee mug, which was refilled frequently. Everyone seemed to relish the simple pleasures of Sunday breakfast out.

As I reviewed the menu, I remembered a friend telling me once that he didn’t care for the place. I realized that review might have kept me from trying Glen’s years ago. I decided to reserve judgment until I had my own experience.

I had a meatless version of a benedict; poached eggs with fresh tomato and fresh spinach, under pale gold hollandaise over an English muffin. They threw in one of their signature potato pancakes. A nice breakfast plate.

I enjoyed seeing my waitress bustle about, running between the kitchen and the outdoor seating section. No one chose to sit inside with the weather so perfect. She seemed happy and acted so graciously. Wearing a Rosie-the-Riveter tied bandana, jeans and black tee decorated with Glen’s logo, she obviously liked to answer menu questions and be of service.

I found myself amused by the condiments that were arranged in the middle of the table. Fifties style glass salt and pepper shakers with metal tops sat next to a molded plastic tray holding individual Smucker’s jelly packs. There was ketchup and tobacco sauce.

A single red carnation stood upright in a small bud vase, matching the color of the geraniums in large planters along the black wrought iron fence around the perimeter of the café seating section.

Someone came by regularly to top off water glasses.

I recall feeling in no hurry to leave. I felt I had everything I needed.

What a strange realization — that I could be so content by so simple a situation.

Eating outdoors, when the weather is perfect, and seeing your contentment reflected in the faces of your own neighbors, is no small thing.

Flow Moment

Last week, when I was taking my dog, India, out for her morning walk, I found myself stopped in front of a modest Chicago brick two-flat.

I wasn’t sure why I stopped.

It was 7:00 AM and quiet. Very few cars were moving along the narrow street and commuters were not yet scurrying off to the nearby train station. India was not curling her butt down in preparation for her toilet routine, nor was she stationed motionless in front of a tree, waiting for a squirrel to come down and rejoin her on the earth plane.

I felt compelled to stop as if some invisible force wanted me to notice something –- and damn if I could figure out what was special.

Unconsciously, I took a deep breath in. I tried to decode the mixture of fragrances of springtime flowers my neighbors planted along their small, neat front lawns.   I scanned the street for activity, looking for other dogs (and their people) that we should try to navigate around.

A small bead of sweat rolled down my back. I thought about the dew point and conjectured that it would be getting uncomfortably humid as the day wore on. I mean, if I was sweating already this early in the morning….

What was special? Nothing and EVERYTHING.

I don’t take the same route every morning. And today, I found myself looking at an odd sort of fountain in front of a home on Eastwood.

The fountain itself was noticeably out of place. A stone figure, like a 15th century Botticelli angel, poured water from one pot into another vessel. It belonged in Rome or at Versace’s ornately decorated mansion in South Beach.

But here it was in 60625.

I tuned in to the sound of the water flowing. Ah, what is it about the sound of water?…

I thought about people who like to sleep near the ocean so they can hear the sound of waves. I thought about my own childhood in Melrose Park.

There used to be a small channel that ran along the perimeter of the modest shopping center on the corner of North and 9th. We called it Silver Creek and, to some extent, it was more of a dumping ground than a body of water.

Before everyone was concerned about environmental impact, people threw all sorts of things into Silver Creek. It was rumored to have gotten its name because Sherwin Williams, which had a manufacturing plant nearby, used to dump paint into it, giving the water a grayish tint.

As a twelve year-old, when hanging over the rail of the tiny pedestrian bridge that crossed it, I’d see crumpled soda cans, store flyers and coupons soaking in maybe 6” of water, tree branches, large stones, abandoned shopping carts other kids pushed in on a lark…

And still the current flowed. The direction and force of the stream changed depending on the curves of the channel at any point and the randomly landed objects, the garbage, the water had to move around.

Silver Creek was basically full of crap –- and yet it flowed.

There is something so comforting about the way water flows… despite obstacles, despite limited volume. Its movement is purifying and generous. Whether coming from mountains, or from larger bodies of water, it flows until there is no more.

I know the flowing water of the small lawn fountain in front of me worked with the help of electricity, but in its own magic, I could feel the pull of gravity and the pull of my own conscious focus. The sight and sound of the cascade brought me to so many different places while I stood still in one place. I felt so grateful.

I feel grateful for anything that makes me stop and take a deep breath; listen with unexpected openness; think of journeys instead of destinations; marvel at the notion of movement — even if it’s subtle, even if something is traveling only inches or from one container to another; grateful to be reminded of ways to refresh myself…

Stopping in front of a fountain, and basking in a flow moment, is no small thing.

Private Audience

Ah February. Although the calendar page will tell you it’s the shortest month, it can feel like the longest.

Yes, there’s the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day, and, if you’re really hard up for an occasion, many people like to make a ritual observation out of the groundhog’s comings and goings. It’s a short stretch of four weeks that feels like an eternity.

For me, February is no different than every other month. I might make a pot o’ jambalaya for Fat Tuesday, but my daily life is pretty much the same as it is in September or June.

I enjoy watching the pro sports of the season on TV. I’ll pick up a book to read, and I’ll take walks with my dog.

I’m always on the lookout to fulfill one of my personal lifestyle goals — to see live music a couple times a month. When going to an outdoor concert is not an option, and I don’t want to hang out in a bar, this can be more challenging.

On the east side of Francisco, there’s an adorable collection of storefronts. It includes a dry cleaner, a beauty parlor, a neighborhood attorney’s office, the First Slice bakery and café, Le Petit Ballet Studio and Narloch Piano Studio, where private lessons are given.

A few weeks ago, as I was walking India, I looked at a couple handmade posters in the window of the piano studio. They were advertising a Friday night recital. It featured a youngish performer with an impressive resume. It was planned to be just over one hour and only cost $15.00.

The poster mentioned the composer and pieces slated for the upcoming Friday performance. Bach’s Italian Concerto, Beethoven’s Pathetique, and something by Schumann. Right away, I knew I had to go.

I asked a few friends to join me but was happy enough to go alone. The studio was only a five-minute walk from my home.

A small standing sign was placed in front of the studio. SHOW TONIGHT. At only fifteen minutes to show time, I seemed to be the first to arrive. There were cookies placed on a table at the back of the studio for after the show.

I liked looking at the walls. They were decorated like a bulletin board outside of a principal’s office in an elementary school. There were colored marker drawings of Mozart and Bartok and other composers with fun historical facts about their lives, contributed, I assume by young students.

The owner of the studio and the soloist, an attractive twenty-something year old- woman, sat in the back. There were maybe 25 or 30 chairs set up in a few rows and along the wall leading to the door.

The soloist wore gloves to keep her hands warm. A shiny black grand piano occupied the front of the studio.

At 7:55, the place just filled up. Local music lovers ended up occupying almost the exact number of chairs that were set out.

I had never been to a performance at the studio before, but it was clear that the other concertgoers knew the drill. A small metal cash box was placed near the front door. Everyone handled their monetary transaction themselves.

The soloist was very good. Each piece was memorized and a lot of attention was given to dynamics, to the subtle and grander changes in volume and mood.

I loved the music, but I really loved experiencing the music in this venue.

It was INTIMATE. And isn’t that what classical music is about? In a very small room, on a beautiful instrument, the nuances of each composition and the soloist’s personal rendering of them, felt like they were emanating from inside of me.

I got to see my neighbors’ faces. Even though I didn’t recognize anyone, I liked knowing that people living only blocks away from me would come to a local piano studio on a Friday night. I got to thank the performer personally for a great performance.

I really found the whole evening especially beautiful. It was so quiet in the room. The sound of the piano was the only thing that was audible.

I couldn’t hear the sounds of candy wrappers or rustling programs or latecomers taking their seats. I could only hear notes from the piano…and the silence in between the notes.

Hearing the silence between the notes is no small thing.