Regular visitors of my arts center's website know that I'm in the middle of a special essay series there called the CCLaP 100, in which I read for the first time a hundred so-called "literary classics," then write funny and informative reports on whether or not they deserve the label. I recently finished Henry David Thoreau's Walden, in fact, which I hadn't even thought of since high school, when I had been forced to choke down a couple of excerpts in American Lit, and I discovered quite a shock when taking the full book on for the first time in my forties -- that instead of being the hated chore I found it as a teen, I ended up really responding this time to the famed Transcendentalist's anti-consumerist, get-back-in-touch-with-nature message, as relayed here in his detailed notes about what it was like to live for two years in a one-room tarpaper shack in the woods on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts.
I detail in my CCLaP 100 write-up the main reasons I feel like I responded so well to the book this time at middle-age -- basically, a combination of understanding Thoreau's message a little better this time (his experiment was actually less about 'roughing it' and more about breaking himself of the middle-class habit of endlessly collecting rooms full of worthless shit), plus now not having to emotionally overcome the fawning love for the Transcendentalists held by all the former '60s hippies I had as teachers in high school in the '80s -- but there was also a part of my enjoyment that I didn't talk about in my review at all; namely, I found myself really charmed by Thoreau's habit of revisiting certain well-known spots around his cabin over and over through the course of a year, and noting all the subtle changes that happen to that spot as the weather progresses from spring to summer to fall and then winter. And the reason this struck me so profoundly, I'm convinced, is that I've recently been doing the same thing in my own life; for the last five years or so, in fact, ever since quitting smoking and starting to bicycle on a serious basis, I've found myself really starting to love more and more my regular bike rides through Chicago's Lincoln Park, of traversing the same paths over and over and noticing all the subtle changes that these paths go through as the weather goes from warm and sunny to cold and rainy and back again.
Although I suppose for this entry to make sense, I need to first get across what exactly Lincoln Park is for those who have never visited, and its relationship to Chicago in general; in a nutshell, it's one of the greatest urban parks on the planet, a seven-mile stretch of green space that largely comprises the northern half of the city's lakefront, which at almost 200 years in age has now provided generation after generation of Chicagoans their main dose of unstructured nature in their lives. Or, "almost 200 years" isn't exactly accurate, which is a large part of the park's charm; it is in fact only the southern tip of the park, down near North Avenue, that is this old, and hence unsurprisingly is the location of many of the park's most important structures, things like the Chicago History Museum and the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue, and the mansion serving as the home of the Archbishop of Chicago (with a public back alley, by the way, that is one of only three streets left in Chicago still paved with wooden blocks instead of brick or asphalt). As the city slowly grew outwards, then, over the next 150 years or so, so did the park itself, with various sections developed in big chunks every 20 or 30 years, literally from the 1860s to 1960s, the northern half situated on land that was literally created artificially, originally for the purpose of constructing the badly needed Lake Shore Drive highway.
Living up on the far north like I do, then, this makes biking Lincoln Park a fascinating lesson in living history: how the section right above my neighborhood of Uptown, for example, originally constructed in the 1950s and '60s, is filled with soccer fields and skate parks, and with all the bridges and lamp posts done in a sleek Mid-Century Modernist style; how my area of the park, originally constructed in the 1910s through '30s, is dominated by golf and tennis facilities, with local architecture done in an Art Deco style; how the section below that, constructed in the 1890s to 1910s, is full of baseball fields and beach facilities; how the section below that, constructed in the 1860s through '90s, contains most of the park's well-known Victorian elements, things like the zoo and conservatory and formal gardens, with narrow underpasses done in the organic pebbled-stone style of the Arts & Crafts movement. The whole thing is hooked together, then, by an unbroken bike and running path that extends way past the park itself, 21 miles altogether until hitting almost the southern city limit; and of course, this being a city park, most of the square mileage is devoted simply to landscaping, the massive space randomly dotted with surprises both old (an endless supply of statues honoring people you've never heard of) and new (wild-growth bird sanctuaries, the Chicago Nature Museum).
As a Chicagoan, Lincoln Park has of course been a regular part of my life the entire 16 years I've now lived here; but it wasn't until I quit smoking and first became an urban bicyclist in 2006 that I started traveling through the park on a profoundly more regular basis, almost every day when the weather is warm (it's a great way to quickly move up and down the city on a bike in a fast and safe manner), definitely 150 times or more over the course of every calendar year. And I've discovered here at middle age that, far from finding such a repetition tedious like I did in college, the last time I biked through semi-rural spaces on a daily basis, I now find this repetition a real delight, and find myself deriving real pleasure out of anticipating and then passing the various landmarks that are a part of my most common rides -- Peace Garden at Buena Avenue, the totem pole at Addison, Dog Beach just north of Belmont, the weeping willows near Diversey, the Shakespeare statue near Fullerton, the creepy straight lines of trees forming a canopy over the path just north of the Ben Franklin memorial, and a lot more, way too many to recount here today in full.
Over the last half-decade, these places have become like old friends to me, the various bumps of the bike trail now memorized (look out for the dip across from Wellington!); and I admit, I find something comforting about watching these landmarks be affected by the differing weather just like I'm affected by it -- to witness a wet Hans Christian Andersen statue in that weird little nook just west of the zoo's Cafe Brauer, where all the new-age yoga moms meet on weekday mornings, to plow through a leaf-covered trail hugging the edge of the North Pond, to see the steam of my own breath while keeping pace with the sculling teams going up and down the South Lagoon. I'm not sure what the exact connection is between this and my growing age, but I admit that there's something about the continuance of it all that comforts me, in a way that I neither needed nor noticed in my youth; I find it soothing to realize that city dwellers have been passing this particular tree or that particular stone for decades before me, noting like I have the never-ending cycle of budding, greening, coloring and hibernating that the park goes through, a cycle that will continue in its gloriously natural way no matter what's happening to us petty humans around it at any given moment.
I don't have much of a big point to make with all this; I just find it interesting, that's all, that the simple process of aging brings changes to our lives on such a regular basis, changes we can literally see and track over decades, much like this recent experience with Thoreau shows in such an eye-opening way. It reminds me, mostly with satisfaction, that I am indeed a profoundly different person than I was just 20 or 30 years ago, so easy to forget when you're just living your day-to-day life; that I'm a more patient person than when I was younger, a more contemplative one, a person who has a better appreciation for the simple cycle of life, someone who better understands that the universe for the most part just continues on its regular merry way no matter what we do, so the real key to happiness is not to try to bend the universe's will to one's own, but rather shape our own life to complement the natural cycles of the universe. New-agey enough for you, fucking hippie? Yeah, welcome to Jason Pettus At Middle Age, who in many ways the 21-year-old me would've been disgusted by; but then again, the 41-year-old me's not much of a fan of the 21-year-old me either, so I suppose it all works out at the end.
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