The end of the calendar year has always felt a little awkward to me, a little arbitrary. The line between December and January is so thin, almost indiscernible, save for the dwindling number of round fir wreaths on doors and hazy twinkle lights in windows. We go from love and ritual and celebration to stoic facial expressions and lists written in pen, I-resolve-tos and I-really-mean-it-this-years. I know the new year signifies a fresh start for many people, an opportunity to try each month, week, day over again. But I struggle to find new energy between one cold, snowy day and another.
On the other hand, the door between days in early May swings wide. 24 hours of sleet can be immediately followed by sun-warmed skin and a cloudless sky. Trees that were asleep on Monday can sprout on Wednesday and stretch wide to full leaf by week’s end. Spring was a subtler affair when I was growing up in southern California, but here in Chicago, in early May, it’s a 30-piece brass band: warming up with a rumbling din; a sudden, jarring racket of out-of-tune notes; a swelling, well-known tune played in perfect harmony, uncanny in its effortless perfection.
It’s easy to see this time of year as the time to start over, to brush off old plans and introduce new goals. The endless changes in the natural world almost demand it. “We’re in transition. What about you?” It’s not the beginning of the calendar year, but it is the time to visualize and resolve. As it turns out, it’s also the beginning of my personal new year. My birthday is in early May. The 4th, to be precise. So today, it all starts fresh.
Last night in my living room, as the sun set, I watched the thick gray clouds dissipate and uncover a hot, pink sky. The colors, almost impossibly saturated and strong, didn’t last for long — night draws its flat shade quickly this time of year. But as the afternoon disappeared into evening, the sky sizzled, burning through everything that had happened in the past 24 hours, and in the past 365 days. I saw the sky’s fire consume all I’d done and thought and lost and broken, won and created and accomplished and forgot, ignored, adopted, transformed, destroyed. It all fell away. The colors began to lose their heat, fading to a dustier range of hues, and as the day retreated, I put the old year to rest.
Today, the new year begins. The 30-piece brass band is warming up. Their fingers fiddle nervously at valves and reeds, tightening and polishing the cool metal. When they’re ready, they inhale in unison before letting the first, clear note ring out, familiar and sweet.
At time of writing, I’m sitting on my back porch, wearing shorts. It’s mid-morning and it’s the first truly warm day of the year. The wind is pushing our spindly branches of our pear tree against each other, a rhythmic clacking, almost like the first few drops of rain against the window. The soft sound is interjected by the roar of speeding cars. After months of hearing the traffic muffled through closed windows, the rumbles are sharp again, sudden, surprising. The bird chatter, too, stretches easily to my ears — their calls, like laughter, ringing loud and close.
I’m sitting here, watching the air swirl around me, push the last of the petals from the leafing plum tree up into the air and across our weathered wood deck. The air itself sounds warm again: the sound of leaves brushing, sweeping, rustling. The smells are back, too. After winter’s dry, howling vacuum, even the pear tree’s overripe scent is a welcome reminder that things are alive. I light some incense. It’s what I do when I know I want to sit a while, linger. It’s the kind I can’t burn indoors because it’s too strong, too dusty, will fill the house and our lungs too much. Out here, on my back porch, on the first truly warm day of the year, the sweet clouds rise and twist, hanging on for a few moments before dissolving away.
It’s our nature to want more, to imagine things being different and therefore better. I remember longing for a morning like this, just a few weeks, days, hours ago. Now that it’s here, I feel my brain struggling to stay, focus, accept. I go backward, remembering what the plum tree looked like earlier this week, an explosion of white, pink-centered blooms, bright and clear among the foggy weekday haze. I go forward, spotting the new branches on treetops two blocks away, imagining them bobbing and dancing in full leaf. My eyes understand them to be bare but my brain knows it’s not for long.
How do we — how should we — process moments that we know are fleeting, that we know may never happen again? There are only so many photos to be taken. In the in between times, just being aware must be enough. On my back porch, a heavy gust of wind rushes through, waking up all the wind chimes in the neighborhood. As the wild, tiny orchestra pushes into action, I lean toward the sounds, let each tone sink into my ears, hold them tight, and then let them go.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When I walked through Humboldt Park during the famous snowpocalypse of 2011, the drifts came up to my waist. When we all lived in nearby Ukrainian Village, two friends and I bundled up in several layers and stumbled through uncleared sidewalks and alleyways. Parked cars were buried in snow up to their rooftops. We crossed Western Ave and into the Humboldt Park neighborhood, usually electric with action and conversation. That day, it fell silent, as silent as the Park itself. Everyone was still inside, huddling beneath blankets and beside space heaters. In the Park, a lone figure trudged through the snow off in the horizon. We wandered through quiet, covered fields — in awe of the overwhelming whiteness, ice falling into our high boots, fingers frozen and balled inside our pockets.
Last week, on an unexpectedly warm fall day, I walked through Humboldt Park again. I wore a short sleeved shirt. No socks. The sun beat down on the top of my head, fingers fell lazily at my sides, not balled up like they instinctively do in cold weather. It was me and a crowd of other west siders, strolling, sitting, fishing, bartering, and jamming with their dueling salsa bands, speaker volume turned all the way up.
I’ll never get tired of the sights and sounds of people loving being outside. That day, as I walked through Humboldt Park, I fell in love over and over. With families watching the ducks float in the lagoon. With weekend warriors stringing up portable hammocks between the trees. With grillers, runners, strollers, and salsa dancers, shoes off, feet twirling in flattened crabgrass. And all around us, the angled sun pierced through gaps in the turning leaves, tinting the crowd in swatches of orange and warm yellow.
In fall, as in summer, the pace can be frantic, there’s an impulse to take advantage of the weather “while it’s still nice.” And it can all feel very rushed, if we let it. We push ourselves to go outside so at the end of the season we can say, I was there, and I didn’t let it pass me by. But pressure and pleasure make bad bedfellows. I’ve realized the secret to enjoying fall is in refusing to take heed of the clock. It’s in recognizing each day for what it brings, releasing expectations on ourselves and on the world around us. The secret is in loving each leaf when it’s there, and accepting when its time to fall has come.
So on the warm fall day when I walked through Humboldt Park, I didn’t think once about the chill I felt in my bones during my snowpocalypse wander five years before. I didn’t dread the inevitable day when the trees would all lose their color, when the lagoon would freeze over, and the sky would turn soft and gray. I didn’t preemptively mourn the retreat of the autumn revelers, imagining the pull of itchy wool against their arms and the track of salted footsteps up their wooden front stairs.
I just watched, and walked, and enjoyed the day for what it was.
Humboldt Park is a gorgeous 200 acre park on the near west side of Chicago. It holds a nature sanctuary and bird/butterfly habitat, as well as many areas for protected native prairie plants. This isn’t generally a park to visit if you don’t want to interact with other people, but I think that’s part of its beauty. Come here to people watch, to joke with the fishermen, to help a wayward toddler back onto the trail, to gobble down a picnic of jibaritos that you bought down the street, and to enjoy the sights and sounds of a well-loved public park. Humboldt Park is easily accessed via public transit: the #72 North bus, #52 Kedzie/California bus, and #70 Division bus all drive right by.
Back on Labor Day, surrounded by all that loud, vivid green, I was almost able to drown out the “last day of summer” whispers. Summer was alive and present. The sun was still out. The day was hot and muggy and the cicadas were screaming. People still strolled sleeveless, sockless.
As we wandered through deep woods, the first step on our journey back to the city, I saw it on the edge of a row of bright green oaks and alders. Fall. It was a little spindly thing with lime-veined pink vellum for leaves. It grabbed the early evening light, and radiated a nostalgic warmth. It stuck out, a lone blast of color and crunch against a soft green backdrop. I wondered about this little tree. About the accelerated calendar it must have been using. About the singular forces that made it begin to turn so much earlier than the others.
I kept walking, leaving fall behind, thinking it was an anomaly of the far northern suburb we had ventured into, something to deal with later. I reentered the city, blindly expecting summer to blaze on. But, sitting in my living room staring out at the treetops I’d grown so used to these past few months, I saw it again. Fall. I noticed the leaves of the honey locust across the street. A canopy of the brightest, boldest green whose uppermost leaves had now begun to yellow. Its bits of confetti gently released their hold on the branch, almost indiscernible for those not paying attention. And I realized, I hadn’t been paying attention.
For all the walking and wandering and gazing and thoughtful considering I’d been doing this summer, my eyes had been closed. I saw what I wanted to and ignored what I didn’t. I’d quietly trained myself to take in the good, the green, the growing — and avoid the signs of change and transition. The fading color, the curling edges, the going-to-seed. Summer is on its way out, and fall is humming its arrival.
Change is something I’ve never been good at accepting. I resist it, averting my eyes and ignoring the inevitable. I crave stability but rarely attain it. Out of control, hovering just shy of the unknown, the anticipation of the changes to come tighten in my stomach.
For the gardener and greenhunter, these last days of summer feel a bit bewildering. Just as I had settled into summer, I now feel its warmth waning: an embrace that always ends too soon. Outside, things are changing everyday, usually signaling the end of something that had been beautiful to behold. But this year I heard a ringing in my ear. The echo of something I had already, somewhere in me, known to be true:
Don’t think of it as the end of summer, think of it as a season of new beginnings.
It’s a lofty task for someone who generally resists change by any means necessary. But in the spirit of new beginnings, I’ve started to look for signs of fall like I do with spring, spotting and uncovering the hints the living world has left around me. It’s still a slow shift — a flutter of yellow, pointed tips turning red, crisp brown wedged within curb — but I see it now, everywhere.
I don’t avert my eyes. I don’t avoid the signs. The exact shape and color and sound and smell of it is still unknown, but fall is coming. It’s ok to not know exactly what’s on the other side of all this change. And I’m working hard to welcome it.
We’ve been taking an annual trip to the Chicago Botanic Garden for a few years now. The Garden’s hundreds of acres unfurl into an infinite number layered views, gushing with color and texture. I’ve spent many, many hours exploring the individual themed gardens, walking as many of the crushed gravel paths as I could, maximizing my time in this planted oasis. But every year, I find more. More hidden corners of the grounds, more plant combinations, more sights for these sore city eyes.
We always take our trip out to the Gardens on Labor Day. The bonus day, third day in a three day weekend nestled well inside the warm weather season. This year, it felt like half the city of Chicago had the same idea. The gardens were full. Multi-generational families lingered on bridges, beers clinked in the grill patio, and rows of strollers lined up outside the butterfly tent.
There were thousands of people exploring the gardens, bickering, laughing, sharing seating space on wide, flat rocks. We listened in on friends catching up, a wife telling her husband her cheeseburger-and-red-wine order, mothers and sons giggling about recently made memories. I heard different languages, many of which I couldn’t identify. I saw white linen robes and jewel-toned saris billowing with the wind, and baseball caps shielding eyes from the late day sun.
We all wandered from garden to garden. Inspired by the same call to leave our homes and enjoy a day off together, outside. We all sighed in relief under the shade of a tall tree. We all inhaled deep when we passed the scent throw of a flowering plant.
I enjoy spending time in beautiful gardens because I love the plants. The way they look and smell and feel. Their patterns, the way they splay their leaves, the way they catch sun and shade throughout the day. But my favorite part about the CBG might be watching how other people interact with the garden. You don’t have to know everything about horticulture or garden design or biodiversity to be able to enjoy the space. You just have to use your senses.
From afternoon until evening, I watched the Garden come in and out of focus. It shone as scads of eyes grazed over its hills and ponds, picking out particular plants as singular objects of attention. And then it faded into the background, sparkling like lens blur, behind the faces and stories of all its visitors.
The Chicago Botanic Garden is almost 400 acres of beautifully planted gardens located in Highland Park, a north shore suburb of Chicago. I get there using the Metra Union Pacific North line, which costs about $6 roundtrip. Get off at Braeside and walk 20 minutes to the Visitors Center where you can get your bearings and plan your route. My favorite stops include the Japanese Garden, the Council Ring on Evening Island, the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, and the Prairie. I’ve only ever been to the CBG in the summer, but it’s open year-round and I imagine it is stunning during any season. Parking costs $25-30, but entrance on foot or by bike is free.