Peace, Luck, and Chipmunks

On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, the Missouri Botanical Garden opens at 7 a.m. for seekers of tranquil walking upon deserted, dewy paths and among the early birds singing in quiet and fresh morning air. As a rule, I am not a disciple of mornings, as most img_1528of my nights are late and disrupted, but I make happy exception for daybreak in the garden. The gentle solitude of an early morning spent walking with memories, lost and found among the trees and the flowers, wraps up my broken heart and brittle bones like a heavy, handmade quilt on a lonely night in winter. For most of these quiet morning walks, I take Mack with me. Like me, she was not enamored of wakefulness at god-awful hours, nor was she a devotee of strolling or of flowers or of birdsong before coffee. Yet I think it is precisely the unlikelihood of this path forward with grief that would lead me and my lost girl into a garden in morning that renders such productive peace upon my soul. These morning walks are when I feel most grateful and lucky and human.

Recently, after a particularly difficult two days, my large umbrella and an overwhelming need to commune with the garden gave me the resolve necessary to venture out on a dark and rainy Wednesday morning. By the time I arrived at the garden, the rain had mostly cleared, although the southern skies still threatened. I stood at the car debating the inconvenience of carrying an unneeded umbrella for my morning therapy stroll in the garden, and I closed the car door and left the umbrella on the passenger seat. I walked away from the car and toward the garden and the dark clouds. Yet although I could feel the warming presence of the sun lurking just beyond the dissipating thunderhead, I stopped walking, sighed deeply, and then returned to the car to retrieve my umbrella. It was to be just my first curious and fortunate volte-face of the morning.

My umbrella tucked uncomfortably under my arm, I entered the visitor center, scanned my garden-member card and collected my ticket, and ascended the stairs to the garden entry. I stopped before the fountain on the main plaza, like I always do, and weighed the options of taking a clockwise or counter-clockwise path. Remembering that my most recent morning walking had taken me left around the Linnean House and toward the Ottoman Garden, I stepped right, thinking I would walk toward the Climatron first and spend a little time in the rock garden. As I reached the tram shelter along the clockwise path I had selected, I abruptly turned back toward the fountain and headed toward the Linnean House after all. I do not know why. I just did. Sometimes simple life choices simply make themselves, I guess. I looped the handle of my umbrella on my right arm, knowing now that the day was free and clear of the rain, and I walked briskly toward the Ottoman Garden. Curious and fortunate volte-face number two.

The Ottoman Garden is tucked away in the northeast corner of the Missouri Botanical Garden on a short spur off of the main circuitous path around the entire perimeter of the garden. It is a small, square, wall-lined garden with a lovely pool and fountain in the center and lined with graveled paths trimmed with Turkish plantings. At the back of this quiet little garden, which is never crowded even on busy afternoons, there is a wooden arbor in front of a stucco wall and topped with a Moorish dome. Under the tiled roof sits a glorious, regally decorated wooden throne that sits up upon a slightly raised portico offering royal views over the fountain and the flowers. Whenever I take a female visitor to the garden, I always snap a picture of her sitting upon that throne being a sultan, if only for the duration of a minute or two. However, I do not always visit the Ottoman Garden on my early morning walks, but I suppose on this particular morning I needed to feel like a sultan in control of my life and the world. Or maybe this was my third curious and fortunate volte-face of the morning.

I walked over to the throne, and of course, it was wet with rain. Too wet for a sit, I thought, but then I brushed off the biggest puddle and struck a pose for a selfie, documenting that royal feeling with a photo I could pull out later as a reminder of yet another productively therapeutic trip to the garden in morning. After I snapped the picture, I noticed movement in the fountain. A small animal was frantically swimming and making repeated attempts to scale the deep lip around the edges of the pool. I kneeled down to see a chipmunk, desperately keeping her little head above the water, legs rapidly paddling. I put down my bag and my umbrella upon the wet stone and watched the chipmunk through eyes welling up with tears, and I wondered how in the world I might manage to catch the soaked and scared little chipmunk with my bare hands, fish her out of the pool, and bring her to safety. Almost before I could even rationalize or consider it, I grabbed the handle of my umbrella and gently dipped the thicker end of it into the pool directly in front of my desperate little swimmer. She immediately climbed aboard her unlikely life raft, and I carefully guided the umbrella away from the fountain, softly depositing its precious cargo upon the solid ground of stone.

She sat for several seconds, shivering and catching her breath, as I counted her blessings, and then she began to dry off and look noticeably stronger and more calm. As she collected herself and I cried, movement in my teary peripheral vision drew my attention. It was another chipmunk, this one much smaller, desperately swimming and barely keeping her tired head and sleepy eyes above the cold water. I picked up my “unneeded” umbrella and it performed its second heroic rescue of the day. For this second chipmunk, the cold morning swim had been more harrowing, and her breathing more labored and her body more shivery, as I gently sat her down upon the stone. She was just a baby and much more disoriented than her “sister” chipmunk, who by now was breathing normally and was drying herself off with busy little paws. I sat with those sweet little animals for about ten minutes, as their tiny bodies were warming in the humid morning air. When it was clear to my mind that they would live to see the sun burst out from behind the morning’s storm clouds, I resumed my morning walk in the garden, albeit upon shaky legs and with eyes still full of tears of sadness and joy and tender feelings for small creatures.

Mack would have rescued those chipmunks, too. And, like her Momma Bear, she would have cried with worry over the unfortunate morning circumstances of their cold and terrifying swim and fretted over their recovery long after they finally scurried along to dry and warm places under the protective branches of a flowering shrub. For the remainder of my walk that morning, Mack stayed with me, bringing to mind all of the memories of her and her tender heart for animals. You see, I do not go to the garden to escape my grief. Rather, I go to walk beside my grief, and to learn how better to live with my grief. I go to share my present life with Mack, because she is and will always be with me. And because she is with me in my memories and in my daily life, she was with me, too, for the lucky rescue of those sweet chipmunks.

I do not often feel lucky, and on many days I feel almost as unlucky as any person who has ever lived. But on one early morning in the garden, I was lucky to have an unneeded umbrella, lucky to visit the Ottoman Garden first, and lucky to happen upon two precious creatures in need of a life preserver. Most of all, it was a lucky day to be reminded of how lucky I was to have Mack, and how lucky I am that early morning walks and the rescue of chipmunks can melt my still-broken heart, can reveal to me something of the beauty in the world, and can bring me a little much appreciated and necessary peace.

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Me and Mack in the Garden

I was in the garden yesterday.

I was there to seek the company of the dawn redwood trees, upon the deeply fissured trunks of which there is written an ancient wisdom and under the branches of which I often find comfort. I was feeling a great deal of anxiety, as I always do at the end of a project that has consumed much of my creative energy and intellect over a long stretch of time. Instead of embracing a contented feeling of achievement, my mind was restless from the release of its previous intensity of purpose; my body was stiff and sore with the lingering memory of the labor, hanging tight and clinging heavy to my bones. It is a regular, and peculiar, ritual with me that the completion of a piece of writing about which I feel so damn good also leaves me, in the bargain, feeling so damned lost. It is similar to the sorrow that overcomes me when I read the last word on the last page of an extraordinary book. It feels something like the loss of a friend, or a missed opportunity, or a misplaced treasure. To complicate my trouble with endings, I also frequently feel a little off-balance within the uncomfortable and uncertain space in my mind that occupies the time between the end (or death) of one creative project and the beginning (or birth) of a new one. It makes me feel quite lonely, very sad, and sometimes a little crazy, too. Usually I can conquer on my own any negative energy that should never cling to a successfully completed project in the first place, but sometimes I need a little outside help to do so.

The Missouri Botanical Garden has become for me not only a physical sanctuary but an emotional and intellectual one. It is a place where nonjudgmental spirits reside and where I find both relief and inspiration. The garden has become my happy refuge and a cherished friend. It grounds my restless spirit to the earth, provides solace to my broken heart, and refreshes my tired mind. It is where I go to be uplifted by the songs of birds and to be renewed by the wondrous, ever-changing colors and shadows of all of the seasons of nature. It is where I go to walk with my memories, my sorrows, my hopes, my worries, and my intellectual and creative ideas. It is where I go to conquer the uncertain and uncomfortable in-between spaces in my mind. Yesterday, the latter was my need for the garden, and to be in the presence of the majestic Metasequoia was my singular purpose. I made a brisk and determined path to the redwoods in the back of the garden, noticing neither the birds nor the colors and shadows along the way. So eager was I for those trees to release me from my burdens, I had ignored all other greetings of the garden and offered my happy refuge, my cherished friend, no greeting of my own, either.

But, thankfully, Mack was in the garden yesterday, too.

As I followed the path, curving around the Victorian section of the garden and leading toward the stand of the dawn redwood trees, Mack popped up in my mind at precisely the moment that a single snow crocus, poking up through a carpet of old autumn leaves, popped into my peripheral vision. “Slow down, Mamma Bear,” she whispered. “Walk with me.”

It was then that I first noticed the warmth of a long-missing sun and the crisp breeze upon my face. It was then that the nurturing characteristics of the garden began to work their magic upon my tired body and to ease the discomforts of my restless mind. We started walking, Mack and I, under the branches of the dawn redwoods, and for more than two hours we mindfully strolled. Along every path, we spied chipmunks scurrying in bushes and we looked for the shiny blades of new-born leaves peeking up through the dirt and promising the coming of spring flowers. In the Japanese garden, we chatted with some turtles sunning on rocks and laughed at the awkward and silly cypress knees randomly jutting up out of the ground. We lingered at every statue we passed, we found some pansies in the home garden, and we sat for a spell on a bench in the woodland garden, enjoying the soothing sound of the water gently falling over rocks on its way down the stream. Everywhere we walked, we listened to the songs of the birds and took in all of the colors and shadows that a glorious pre-Spring day in the Midwest has to offer.

I did not think about the past. I did not worry about the future. I did not think about the end of my completed project. I did not contemplate the challenges of my new one. I just walked, with Mack, breathing easy and settling my mind upon the present. When I finally made my way to the exit, the in-between space in my mind had closed. I whispered my gratitude to Mack and to the garden, and I headed for home, basking in the satisfaction connected to rewarding work and the successful completion of a creative project and happily looking forward to a new creative project on the horizon.

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First Friends

In the fall of 1993, I took my sweet Savannah to kindergarten at Dubois Elementary School in Springfield, Illinois; I signed up to be a classroom mom; and Mack “met” her first friend. Well, kind of, because Mack had not quite arrived in the world, and neither had her first friend. You see, there was a sweet boy named Ian in Savannah’s classroom who had a mom who took him to kindergarten and signed up to be a classroom mom just like me. This other classroom mom, Cynthia, was petite like me; she had long and straight brown hair like me; she was strong-willed and sassy, like me; and she was pregnant, like me. My Mack and her Elyse spent that school year in kindergarten “together” growing into the adorable babies who would be born in 1994 on March 17 and April 12, respectively, while Cynthia and I organized the hell out of all the other classroom moms.

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Mack’s kindergarten bio, in her hand, in her school memories book I made for her (and frequently had to force her to complete)

Now it turned out that Mack and Elyse ended up in the same kindergarten class at Dubois exactly six years later; and they became great friends. It was always a running joke with the two of them that they had known each other in utero and they even frequently succeeded in convincing people that they were sisters. Elyse lived with her family in our historic neighborhood north of Washington Park, coincidentally, in a work-in-progress old house full of animals just like ours; and those two girls had two funky, fun, and familiar homes to grow up in together, and they had extra parents and siblings in the bargain. After school and during the summer months, they rode their bikes and walked back and forth between each other’s houses, often stopping at the Hometown Pantry along the way for giant slushies and sour candies.

Generally speaking, Mack and Elyse were good kids and good students and steered clear of illegal activities. However, there was one time when they were supposed to be playing on the Dubois playground just up Lincoln Avenue from our house, when a Springfield police officer called to inform me that Mack was in big trouble and I should come collect her immediately. I arrived at the school to find the officer, perhaps playing the stern cop a little too seriously, standing beside a very wide-eyed Mack and a sobbing Elyse. Also standing by, looking very worried, were two male co-conspirators, twin boys who were classmates of the girls. One of them was named Chris, but I’ll be damned if can remember the name of the other one. And I really should remember it, because surely those twins were the first two boys to lead my Mack and Cynthia’s Elyse astray. Mack, Elyse, and the delinquent twin boys had climbed on top of a small maintenance building behind the school that the kids called the “smokehouse,” because it had a steam pipe that always billowed smoke into the air. Mack always adamantly swore that they were not kissing, but just hanging out on the flat roof of the two-story building when the Po-Po (Mack’s word, not mine) spotted them, assessed the situation as potentially dangerous, and then decided to scare the little criminals onto a more law-abiding path. I decided that the Po-Po’s stern warning was punishment enough for Mack, as it was the first time I had ever seen that kid rattled. Elyse’s punishment was more severe, as I recall, but all of the bad parts of this misadventure faded. No harm done, and it became one of those wonderful life-bonding moments for the girls, a forever memory of their shared wicked and fun childhood.

After elementary school, Elyse and Mack went to separate middle schools; and Mack’s heavy sports schedule reduced the time the girls had together. Yet they always stayed connected and maintained their unique “first friend,” growing-up-together bond. I guess they were really more like sisters or cousins than friends; and that is one of the reasons that Elyse is stuck with me forever. I was an extra Momma Bear to her during hundreds of hours spent in my house, on my front porch, and in my backyard and eating my food and listening to me gripe about Mack’s messy room or legendary procrastination. Elyse is simply one of those kiddos I am happy to have adopted and to whom I have pledged a lifelong commitment as an extra mom.

For her first big-girl job, Elyse recently moved to St. Louis near where I live, and we planned a little reunion. And would you believe that sweet young woman happily joined me for an early Saturday morning walk through the Missouri Botanical Garden? Of course, I bribed her a little, with Starbucks before and French pastries at my favorite patisserie afterwards. We spent three perfectly lovely hours strolling through the gardens and talking about the past, the present, and the future. She shared some worries, I offered some mom advice, we laughed over some Mack stories, including the infamous Smokehouse Incident, and posed for a Big-Mack hug in the luscious greenhouse. Most importantly, though, we allowed our kinship, the flowers and the trees, and the gentle spirit of the gardens to push aside our sorrows, to refresh our spirits, and to appreciate the bond we have because Mack was here in the world to love us.