Eyeing the six-lane throughway between me and Wooded Island, I decide to wait at the light. It’s out of my way, but the last time I risked crossing mid-block, I was conscious of my older-person lopsided jog, and I don’t trust Chicago drivers to brake for white hair. When you’re young, running’s like breathing. I think of the gazelles at the gym flying in place on the treadmill. I’m pretty fit, but it’s different being older. I fear falling. Fractures.
Anyway, now I’m retired from the day job and I have time to wait at lights and time to wander out into nature, and this morning I’m headed for the serenity and calm of Jackson Park’s Garden of the Phoenix in pursuit of—what else?—something to post on Facebook. I’m pretty much an indoor girl, but my “friends” love nature pix, so that’s the agenda. What’s more, a long walk is a competitive retiree’s dream: I can use it to catch up on audio reading and rack up some “steps.”
As I wait, I tuck my earphone wires inside my jacket. On the street I wear black ones on the theory that they’re less visible to muggers. Less iPhoney. My used iPhone is fairly new and I don’t want to lose it. It’s my first one, bought last year because all the cool kids in my young department had them. Among my contemporaries I guess I’m one of the cool kids. Some don’t even have smartphones. Even so, it occurs to me that I’m not the most likely target for someone aiming to pinch the latest tech.
Safely across Cornell, I navigate around the Museum of Science and Industry, where twenty yellow school buses idle in a whirlpool of carbon monoxide. Staff in yellow vests wave clipboards and halt pedestrians as one behemoth at a time lumbers out of the lot. I hold my breath and walk as fast as possible through the fumes, contemplating plant life versus toxins, rooting for the plant life team. I breathe deeply once I’m on the bridge to the island.
There isn’t a single bike in the rack at the garden entrance. Everyone’s at work. That’s fine—I like photos without a lot of people in them. I dismiss a thought that I might not be safe in the park. This day is gray and a little drizzly. What kind of thug comes to the Japanese Garden in the rain?
The garden is stunning, every surface polished by the rain. Only one other person is there, a man with a vintage single-lens to his face. We circle around, keeping out of each other’s shots. I consider sitting for awhile, sans podcast. I take out my phone to click “pause” and out of habit quickly check email, Twitter, Facebook, Scrabble, my stocks. I should get back. I have a writing deadline, my volunteer gig, and a quilting error I’m eager to undo, even though it means taking out hundreds of tiny stitches.
Still, I’m in nature. I’m retired. I should commune.
I dutifully sit on a rock, waiting to feel privileged, awed, inspired. I sniff the damp ground, the new grass. Rose-blossomed branches frame geese in the lagoon. But it’s when I spot the green dome of the museum through the trees that my heart finally swells, thinking on happy times with the children, on the building’s story and meaning for my community. This is my privilege, my inspiration, my city in a garden.
Twenty seconds later, I click “play” and sail home, renewed. (Carol Saller)
Chicago’s Japanese Garden (also known as Garden of the Phoenix or the Osaka Garden) is in Jackson Park, 6401 South Stony Island.