Winter’s first layer is white glitter. The thinnest sheen of barely solidified water. The flecks of snow are just visible, silhouetted against the nearest streetlight. The dots dust the sidewalk, echoing in a cold breeze like scattered grains of sand.
The first layer usually comes and goes a few times before making the decision to really stick. That first real snowfall is magic. The kind of snow that feels almost imaginary, the kind that only exists in fiction, or theater, or in our memories. Accumulation comes next. It raises car roofs several inches and expands the girth of spindly bare tree branches. The individual particles float to the ground and collect in soft mounds, drifts, miniature mountains.
The days pass and the snow accumulation eventually turns to ice. The dream of that first flurry dulls and hardens. The layers of winter grow, burying the concrete sidewalk under months of city dirt and ragged black crystal. Psychedelic bursts of neon rock salt encircle doorways and slippery porch steps. Dried and dirty dust puddles stay splashed up on the sides of buses, caking the windows and obscuring views of steel building skeletons half-dressed in wind-ripped tyvek.
The months pass and the layers of winter become so thick, so unmoving, that nothing seems possible but ice cold. The memories of spring, or warmth, or soft grass underfoot, or hot red sun glowing through closed eyelids become sandwiched between the crust of slush and sleet. But not this winter.
This winter, snow last fell and stuck in early December, ice was last seen on the ground the day after Christmas, and since then, the weather’s been tolerable, mild, at times legitimately warm. Despite the groundhog’s best guess, spring appears to have come early. Last weekend I saw trees beginning to bud and bloom. Yesterday I noticed my tulip bulbs and strawberry plants sprouting on the back porch. Birds chirp and chatter from every old tree. Neighbors run slow errands in track shorts. Friends ride bikes for leisure, not necessity.
It’s a strange feeling — the pull to enjoy the weather, take a long stroll, drink lemonade on a park bench — all while the date on the calendar still appears to suggest that it’s February. I feel the familiar Warm Weather Impulse, the now premature push to go outside and take advantage of the high temperatures. But meanwhile, my body still feels sluggish and tired, still in need of a long winter’s rest, despite the fact that winter may already passed.
Having lived here in Chicago for as long as I have, I thought I understood the cycles of winter, its shades and layers. I could anticipate the turns and stalls of the weather, I had memorized the patterns of steps drawn in fresh snow fields, and could envision how they’d sully over time. This winter, the layers have all melted away, and my memory alone is what gives the season its shape.
Many months in the making, I’m proud to announce that an expanded version of my essay about Los Angeles is now live in the Spring 2017 issue of Waxwing Literary Journal. If you’ve ever asked me about the place where I grew up, or if you keep an eye on my instagram, you probably know that I have a complicated relationship with L.A. I try to unpack some of that in this essay. If you’re into southern California and rich plant-based imagery, read on.
No, I’m not immune to the fear. It follows me throughout the day and it’s one of the last things I think about at night. I struggle to identify what to do, how to act, who to reach out to, when to protest, what to say when I do speak up. I worry, hunched over a twitter feed, mind racing through what possibilities remain. But in the moments in between, I seek out the small stuff. It builds me up. It restores me with power I thought had disappeared for good.
These are the things that helped calm my mind, refocus it, sharpen and soothe it, strengthen my resolve to do good, reenergize my will for change. Now, just reminding myself about what’s good in this world isn’t the thing that will make progress imminent. But I definitely believe it could be part of the equation.
So I’m grateful for the small, feathery seed that made its way onto my city bus; catching the wind from the heat vents and the back door swinging, floating down the center aisle past stainless steel grab bars and leathery hang loops, looking for a spot to sit like the rest of us evening travelers. I’m grateful for people are who aren’t afraid to ask questions, even if it may reveal a lack of knowledge or experience within them. People who aren’t afraid to start over, and hold themselves and their neighbors to a higher standard of shared responsibility. I’m grateful for unexpected messages of love and support, the recall of old memories, the observance of the past, and the celebration of the possibilities of the future. I’m grateful for the giant, twisting flock of pigeons that live at the intersection where I catch my ride every morning. Their synchronized turns and dips, the organization and spontaneity of it. The endless iterations of their flight and landing and disappearance and relaunch into the thick, gray sky.
I’m grateful for two unknown neighbors, walking hand in hand down the street. Watching them shuffle up their front stoop, and into their home. Quiet and graceful in care and movement. And I’m grateful for a roomful of now known neighbors, standing together to let themselves and each other be heard, speaking up against the erasure of their needs and rights as citizens. I’m grateful for information being dispersed, books being lent, passages being copied and pasted, power and resistance being split up and passed around between households and generations, like a sourdough starter, or a packet of heirloom tomato seeds. I’m grateful for a most well known voice, a perfect and specific range of tones that wake up with mine every morning. A voice that drifts down the hallway from the back room, finding my ears and filling me with the gentle realization that I’m not alone.
I’m grateful for hard frozen ground, and still green grass, peeking out from between flattened piles of leaves and crosshatched mats of fallen twigs. I’m grateful for flowers, growing on cacti and floating in bowls of hot, shared soup. I’m grateful for the briefest patch of sun, and the perfectly placed leaf that rose to catch it. I’m grateful for new roots, and old growth, low lying clouds, and hot, dry air. I’m grateful for fog, dense and wet; the all-encompassing haze, and holding tight to my faith that soon enough, it will lift.
I can’t remember the last winter when it rained this much. The weather’s been swinging wildly from deep, sub-zero freezes to nearly-mild and reminiscent of early spring. But mostly, these past few weeks have brought a lot of winter rain. Usually, I don’t open my arms wide to freezing cold precipitation, the kind that leaves the hand gripping your umbrella frozen in an ice-wet fist. But I realized that, while still cold and mostly uncomfortable, wet weather makes everything look beautiful.
In this stage of winter, the city usually looks crusted over with a thin layer of soot and salt. Colors are dull, energy levels are low, the plants (and the people, for that matter) are hibernating in plain sight. Snow piles up, covering everything in white and eventually, in a range of tints of gritty gray. But rain and water, wet and flowing, bring the colors back to the city. Everything looks alive again: dark, rich, saturated. Even if the sun stays hidden behind the clouds, light feels reflected off of every surface.
I didn’t have to wander far to find shapes and forms that caught my eye again. Blocks I’d walked a thousand times before looked new. I stumbled down misty alleyways with fencing soaked in long and changing patterns. Evergreen blades and weather-cured petals turned to mirrors poised to catch every falling drop. Last summer’s hostas pressed snug against black, water-logged mulch, their puddle-drunk leaves rendered lithe like tea-stained paper.
The rain, collecting in the uneven asphalt, dribbling down drains and through miles of lakebound pipeline, breathes life back into the air, the ground. The possibility of spring feels nearer when the water falling from the sky looks and smells and sounds more like the stuff we drink, the stuff we’re made of. The possibility tickles our brains that this rain might be just what those underground flower bulbs need, the ones waiting down below for the annual cue to start growing.
It was refreshing, all of it. The sights, the soft thudding rhythm, the ability to walk outside again without risk of frostbite. But most entrancing were the raindrops themselves. The way they collected in branches overhead, their low-hanging bellies sloping toward the rising river below. The way the rain adorned each common twig with a necklace of jewels. The way the perfectly formed droplets magnified the muted light of winter, turning the skeletal tree canopies into earthbound translations of the starry night sky.
Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting the past few weeks. With the end of the year in sight, I’ve been thinking of the things I’ve accomplished, the work I did, the people I met, the food I ate. I have a kind of insane habit of writing everything I do down. Yes, everything. I keep a highly detailed calendar, where every day of the year, I keep note of the places I go, the things I do, and the people I see. I have a pretty good memory regardless, but there are always the tiny moments that you forget: that certain coffee shop, the unexpected record store, the surprise six hour hang with a close friend. Keeping the calendar helps me hold onto it all.
Recently I pulled up my entries from 2016. Every month was filled with weird and wonderful experiences. 2016 was difficult, no doubt about that at all. Every day felt like a turning point, a door we weren’t always sure we wanted to walk through. But also, when going back through my calendar, I realized that 2016 was a year of beauty and strength and discovery. I feel grateful for what I’ve been able to do, see, try. I went on long walks in beautiful places. I ate incredible meals with kind, hilarious people. I refocused and accelerated.
There are many things I want to do next year, an ever-expanding list of goals to tick off. But before I get too far ahead of myself, I want to spend just a little more time thinking about 2016. So here are a handful of my favorite experiences from the year.
Best way to ring in the new year: at the Boston wedding of two dear friends
Best classic diner meal: Deluxe Station Diner, Newton Centre MA
Best alternative housing structure I sat in: a huge wooden teepee built along the path near Fresh Pond
Best family vacation: Los Angeles
Best cappuccino: Balconi
Best lunch: Superba
Best sunset hike: Ernest E. Deb’s Park in Highland Park
Best wine to drink three bottles of at Thanksgiving dinner: Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc
The day after Christmas, we heard it was going to be 50 degrees outside, a continuation of the extreme weather swings of the past few weeks. So we put on our fall boots and rode a bus all the way out East. We walked to Lake Michigan, and through Lincoln Park, and into the Conservatory. The wind along the lakefront threatened to push us over, but we bristled ourselves against the gusts and set our eyes out over the horizon.
We joined the steady flow of folks from out of town, folks visiting family, folks venturing out of their homes and pajamas for the first time in days. It was busy, the walkways were stuffed edge to edge with selfie-takers and cousins and new couples meeting parents for the first time. Children pointed out scavenger hunt finds and captured holiday trains on their tiny cellphones.
For the day, we had spring, a momentary break from the hostile weather of early December. At the end of the month, we were welcome outside again. We knew it wouldn’t last, but it felt good to get out, to get some fresh air, to walk along well worn paths and see some color.
The former British poet laureate, Alfred Austin once said: “Show me your garden and I shall tell you who you are.” I agree that the state of one’s curated surroundings says volumes about that person: about what they value and what they don’t; about who they think they are or want to be. My indoor garden is a pretty clear reflection of who I am and what’s important to me. I used to think about opening up a store one day, a place that would be an extension of my home, the public face of my private identity. The dream of a store still flickers sometimes in my mind, often when I’m lingering in someone else’s.
I’m interested in the purpose of a store. I know they’re meant to provide customers with access to goods. But, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, shops are also places that feed the spirit. Have you ever gone into a store and never wanted to leave? Wished you could just live there forever? Remember the statistic that said some Anthropologie shoppers spend up to four hours there? A shopkeeper’s job includes sales, for sure, but also requires creating a space where people will feel comfortable, welcome, at ease. A place where they may be able to be shown, as Alfred Austin put it, who they are.
I recently found myself thinking back on the plant stores I wandered in and out of during my week in New York. On paper they’re pretty similar, but the experiences of pulling open heavy doors and coming inside, wandering aisles, investigating objects and considering purchases — all the tiny actions that amount to “shopping” — those experiences were all so different. These shop visits were an exercise in observation, in being aware of how a space can make me feel, and what it can teach me about myself as well as the person who stocked the shelves and opened the doors.
When you first walk into Sprout, there’s a bright orange wall against which a number of strange and beautifully shaped plants are displayed. I was drawn to it like a moth to the flame. There are colors everywhere you look in this shop, but its white-washed brick walls serve as a perfect backdrop and breathing space. There’s a Sprout location in Chicago, which is dark and sumptuous, but the Brooklyn Sprout is fresh, elegant, and radiant — like a young professional woman in a smart, white wool jumpsuit. The ceiling angles high overhead and is punctuated by cloudy old skylights. The walls are lined with bookcases full of neatly organized textiles, crystals, and gift items. My best friend and I smelled every single candle on display. I got lost in the tangle of plants crowding each wall and overflowing from each table.
Ideal for: fancy people, fine gift givers, event planners, tablescapers
A few years ago when I first heard about Green Fingers Market, I spent the better part of an afternoon doing a deep dive of the shop owner’s entire online portfolio. It was the first time I’d heard of “plant stylist” as a job and I became obsessed. Satoshi Kawamoto has a shop in Japan and this store here in Manhattan, which is nestled into a long, narrow storefront on a small city street. Looking into the store from the front door is like peeking into a lush jungle from the windshield of an off-road trekking vehicle. There’s a feeling that you’ll uncover something here that no one has ever seen before, some perfect display or never before seen species. The place is dripping with plantlife and antique bits and bobs: the result is layered and effortlessly stylish. Keep walking all the way to the back of the store for an embarrassment of vintage menswear and leather bags. If Sprout embodies a savvy young woman, Green Fingers is the perfect mirror of its owner: cool, classy, and masculine.
Ideal for: men who love plants, vintage denim collectors
I had never been to Boerum Hill before this excursion, and the neighborhood fully charmed me. It’s quintessential Brooklyn: tree-lined cobblestone streets, brownstones with front porch gardens, tiny cafes and independent shops nestled within residential blocks. And from strolling around the neighborhood, GRDN is as quaint and wonderful as you would expect. The shop itself is one small room lined with useful gardening tools, gifts, and large bags of potting medium — a great blend of functional and decorative objects. In the middle of the room sits a large table filled with vases of spectacular fresh flowers. But go out through the back door and you’ll enter a secret garden, the nursery area of the shop. It’s almost like time traveling to a backyard garden in London, complete with the antique pots, classic perennials, and gravel crunching under foot. You may find yourself wanting to wrap the whole store up and ship it back to wherever you live. I know I did.
Ideal for: daydreamers, fresh bouquet seekers, classy neighbors who just need a big bag of dirt
When it’s 90+ degrees out and humid, inside a hand-built greenhouse is maybe not the place you want to be. But it’s where we found ourselves the day I learned about Crest Hardware. This place is, as you may have ascertained, an actual hardware store, with rows of hammers and lightbulbs and heavy duty gloves and ceiling fans and all the other things you would expect to find at your local True Value. But if you follow the signs for the garden center, out back you’ll find a glorious green space packed with both flora and fauna. There’s a bird cage tucked in among the philodendrons, rows of succulents, stacks of terra cotta, and a large wooden pen in the open air garden space. This is where Franklin lives, the resident garden keeper, a potbelly pig. Crest is not fancy. It’s not overthought. You won’t feel like you’ll break anything if you turn around too quickly. And that’s where its magic comes from. It’s a space for regular people who want to bring more beauty into their lives. A noble pursuit, and an attainable one, even in the middle of New York City.
Today, here in Chicago, it has started to snow. The first snow of the season is always a bit of a recalibration. It reminds me of where we are within the cycles of growth and decay, of light and dark. I had been finding it hard to believe that it was already December and that the end of the year was only a few short weeks away. But then this morning I woke up to snow, and it made sense again.
I always struggle to remember, when it’s snowing and I’m wrapped in multiple insulating layers and my fingertips are turning blue, that it was once warm. Not just warm, hot. The kind of heat that makes you gasp for air. The kind of heat that seeps into your body and radiates off of you, creating an echoing aura that hums when you get too close to anything or anyone else. The kind of heat that that coaxes your body into producing more sweat than you thought was possible.
This day I spent in Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters was like that.
It was August and my full week in New York City was coming to a close. Despite the intense heatwave and tropical storm system that seemed to be oscillating around the eastern seaboard, I was able to convince my best friend to join me on a sojourn out of Brooklyn and up to Washington Heights.
After riding the cool, stainless steel A train up along the eastern shore of Manhattan, we emerged in a green world. The cicadas were screaming their mechanic song and the heavy air was still in the tallest trees. The rolling Hudson River peeked through a clearing in the leaves and we caught our first glimpse of the giant old fort structures, built and used during the Revolutionary War.
We made our way to the Heather Garden where layers of green folded over and into each other, the landscape punctuated on its edges by tall elm trees. The drunk bees were in wild collection mode, barely visible inside deep flower cups, sucking up the nectar from alliums, irises, black-eyed susans, and all varieties of heaths and heathers. Along the snaking path, we stopped to gape at bright white hibiscus blooms, perfect and unblemished, with diameters bigger than pie pans.
And then we got to the Cloisters Museum, where trefoil arcades created perfect frames for the surrounding greenery. Where potted plants huddled around elaborately sculpted columns. Where low-set walls of marbled gray and pink stone held in serene central gardens: the carefully reconstructed cloisters for which the museum is named.
The indoor galleries at the Cloisters hold a collection of medieval art displaying both the beauty and brutality of the era. Wandering among the intricate tapestries and gold Byzantine jewelry, we caught our breath and soaked in the cool, conditioned air. We dipped in and out of the museum, into the dark galleries and out to the walled gardens. We eased away the goosebumps of the frigid, climate controlled rooms among the scorching hot terraces and beds planted heavily with ancient herbs cultivated in the medieval age.
Watching families wander among the gardens and tiny sparrows spin and flap their wings in a trickling stone fountain, I felt as if I’d stumbled into an alternate universe. One where the traffic and concrete intensity of midtown felt impossible and unknown. Where an interest in history and an avid appreciation for beautiful spaces were shared by everyone in attendance, all ethnicities and age ranges included. Where the immense hand of high summer’s heat touched us all, but couldn’t hold us back from enjoying what the vast city had to offer.
I had a hard time tearing myself away from this place. I’d kept the Cloisters in the back of my mind for years, since learning it held many artworks and artifacts I’d studied years ago in my high school art history classes. My eyes whipped around me, focusing on every leaflet and sprout and piece of delicately carved rock. I watched as the sun blazed mercilessly on everything in its reach, casting hard, sharp shadows through vine and pillar. I breathed in my fill of the thick, fragranced air, held in place by the wide Hudson River and the deep valleys dug out from clay and stone. But then, eventually, we started our trek back to the train and back into the belly of the city. We wandered through the deep brush of Fort Tryon Park and back to 190th Street, past children and adults running through fountains in the nearby playlot, seeking out relief from the profound heat.
Back here at home, in Chicago, remembering this day feels like a distant dream. Here, the sky has turned flat and white, has turned on its faucet producing an endless shower of fat, wet flakes, has lowered to envelop us in its impenetrable opaque globe. I know the sun is still up there, hot and unfiltered, probably warming the skin of park wanderers and lawn picnickers on the opposite side of the globe. But here in Chicago, I watch the fresh snow pile up on the bare oak branches outside my window and reminisce about when the sun, in all its harshness and warmth, was mine.
Fort Tryon Park is located at the far north end of Manhattan in Washington Heights. It’s a nice, relaxing ride on the A train, one made even shorter if you manage to catch an express train. To get to the Cloisters, you have to walk through Fort Tryon Park along a path that leads you through the Heather Garden to the east, or through the dense forest to the west. Gorgeous (and sweltering) in the summer, a walk through these lush areas will definitely impress year-round. Also helpful to note that admission to the Cloisters museum is suggested donation, so you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to enjoy these beautiful spaces.
My voice and story were included in a recent episode of the She Explores podcast. In the first of two episodes tackling the huge subject of diversity in the outdoors, I talk about how difficult it can be to be a black person in the outdoors, how the interactions with other people on the trail can be uncomfortable and unwelcoming, but how important it is to go outside and connect with what truly matters to me: nature itself.
I’m proud to have lent my voice to this topic, and I’m grateful that there are people out there 1) acknowledging the barriers to access underrepresented communities face in the outdoors, and 2) working to dismantle them via discourse and action. Thanks to Gale from She Explores and Liz from Snowqueen & Scout for putting this podcast episode together. Have a listen and let me know what you think.
Gears grinding, steel catching high noon light in creaky crevices, hi-viz orange plastic cones and barriers peeking between branched brown and green grass. Wind rustling long reeds against each other, and workers yelling instruction from cherry pickers up overhead. Traffic running below, bumper to bumper beside the shore of the Hudson River. Airy patches of plantings fusing into a muddled base of patchwork color. And rising out of the shuffle of green: hard brick, poured concrete, glass and transom, brackets, beams, bolts, crumbled mortar, twisted wire fencing. Weather-worn train tracks encased in thick mud glint in the ground like exposed dinosaur bones.
The plants on the High Line are the same plants that grew on this old elevated train line soon after it began to wither into obsolescence. Their current orderly arrangement nods at human intervention, but the feeling remains: nature has taken this space back.
A walk along the Line puts you into a new loop of perception. A plant connects to a railing connects to the street and the buildings beyond. A tree points upward at the skyscraper hovering above. A shrub spreads, its triangular limbs directing your eyes toward the urban geometry around it. The sounds boomerang from wind in the leaves, to birds and people chirping, chattering, to the sudden boom of construction and giant metal claws grasping at endless asphalt.
There are no wheels allowed up here. Our slow, normal, human feet propel us down the snaking green path, forcing a reset of pace and adjustment in awareness: a welcome change against the rush and hustle of the city street below. Up here, you can see it all. You just have to slow down and look for it.
New York City’s High Line is located in the Chelsea neighborhood along the lower west side of Manhattan. It runs from Ganesvoort at the south and 34th Street to the north, with entrances every few blocks. They periodically close some of the entrances for updates and repairs, so check their website before heading over. It gets busy in the summer and in the early afternoon — for more privacy and magical lighting, try getting there early in the morning, or anytime during the winter (just wear a good quality coat)!