Photo by John December
One snowy day two years ago, I recalled something from my obsessive reading: The amount of salt in tears is such that, at least at our latitude, they don’t freeze.
I was on one of my daily walks through Lake Park, wet cheeks part and parcel of these new ambles along the bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan, mere blocks from the garden apartment I moved into as the leaves were changing. As the owner of a young Siberian husky named Vito, these walks were unavoidable. I was forced to leave what my friends termed my Hobbit hole at least three times a day. I couldn’t do what I wanted to, which was weep in private, replaying the words my then-husband spoke to me in August: “I can’t do this anymore.”
This being our marriage.
Lake Park became my refuge, even before I realized it. In mid-
December, I penned a lament in my journal about missing the one place I had ever called home, noting, “Here, there are cars & people & heating pipes. / This isn’t peaceful to me.” Yet a few days before, I snapped a photograph at the southern end of the park – a pristine white carpet, frame constructed of bare trees, eye drawn to a lone
empty bench overlooking a horizon with pastel hues of a sunny winter’s afternoon: teal, aquamarine, pineapple yellow, mango and an ever-so-pale lavender.
The bench is in the Central Park style, an aesthetic homage to Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed both parks. Olmsted believed city dwellers should have open access to restorative green spaces, regardless of money or social standing. Installed by Lake Park Friends, the benches feature plaques engraved with literary lines to encourage contemplation. Meeting some of my literary idols – Muir, Thoreau, Shakespeare – through these quotes, while reading memorialized names also etched there, served as a reminder that everything turns in its own time.
The metaphor of those first seasons on my own felt cliched even as they were apt: naively trying to embrace tumultuous autumnal change, wintry grieving punctuated by a blizzard that left the lakefront a sort of lonely polar landscape, that first thaw with its ominous pirate ship fog harboring something fearful or wondrous, greening growth that lined conversational strolls with friends past the Eight Stone Lions, exploratory (even revelatory) romps underneath leafy summer canopies in the near-wildness of the Locust Street Ravine Trail. I would touch the bark of a tree as if reaching for someone or something, thinking about how leaves do not fall from trees, they are flung off. By day, Vito would bound and leap, prancing with a large stick held aloft, causing loud laughter to burst from my chest, always a surprise. By night, harp lights would filter through decorative wrought iron, casting delicate, lacy shadows onto cement paths, allowing for quiet consideration of every step, every rustle of foliage and long exhales of deep breaths.
With the exception of special events or particularly exquisite weather, it’s bewildering how few people (not counting a handful of locals) are present on any given day. Passing beneath Lake Park Bistro’s windows – where diners marvel at dramatic vistas of finger-painted clouds, the tarry blackness of a retreating storm, pumpkin moon on the rise – this perambulating regular wonders how many of them, bloated by wine and rich food, turn not to their cars but instead the concrete footbridge (completed in 1905). Or how many meander around the restored waterfall spilling toward Lincoln Memorial Drive, stopping to hear crashing waves or a softly creaking tree from which a cardinal sings out its haunting yet hopeful tune. How many sit on the grass after midnight, warm air caressing their faces as they stare at bright stars – reclining back further and further still, eyes drifting closed, lulled into a sleepy stupor?
Time turned. My divorce was finalized. I began seeing someone. I moved to a new apartment two miles away. The extent to which this devastated me was not something I had foreseen. Nature soothed and restored me. Now I was without it.
But a few weeks after the move, Vito and I wandered down winding streets and discovered a steep curvature of steps leading to the East Bank Trail. Running along the Milwaukee River, it is vastly different than the bluffs above the beaches, but no less lovely. After all, in those walks through Lake Park, though startled by raccoons, stalked by a coyote and threatened by a turkey, I never saw a hawk swoop into the reedy grasses and rise with a tail dangling from its beak as it flew to parts unknown.