How is it that the search to overcome our alienation from ourselves can also open up the possibility of deeper, richer relationships with all living beings, with all of nature? The hope with contemplative practice is that any healing that takes place within us can in turn contribute to a larger healing. –Douglas Christie, “The Desert Within”, from The Sun Magazine, January 2022 edition
During the first winter of the pandemic, my wife and I started visiting the wildlife refuges to the south of us regularly to rediscover a sense of wholeness and peace. Although we have been making such trips since we moved here seven years ago, I think we fell in love again. Even though the human world seems a mess sometimes, the power of nature can remind us we are living in beauty. Just pay attention to it!
We drive our car down there, but it is only one leg of the journey. The real adventure begins when we step out into the bliss that is this landscape all around us. We climb out of the car and stand on our legs again. You feel the breeze on your skin. Even a cold winter’s day the sun is like an eye in the sky, shining its warming light everywhere on the earth. You hear the cranes calling. Our senses expand outward into those vast spaces listening to all that is around us. We are filled up with nature again. A subtle symphony of sound, but also with clear distinct voices. We’ve escaped from distractions.
Even though our worlds are so different, it really is all connected. The water at the refuges is part of the same system of water that runs through our city. That we drink from our faucets. That we sip now as we wait quietly for sunset sipping our hot tea.
It’s that same sky that is above Albuquerque, though the ambiance is a little different in each particular place, at different elevations, with local rivers, mesas, and mountains. At some of the refuges I can even see the same mountains we see from Albuquerque, the Manzanos and the Sandias, though they are between 20 and 60 miles away. We see the same sunset. There is a symmetry there between worlds.
On one visit we arrived a day after winter storms blew through. The crystalline sky still had moisture in it, made visible by the clouds, and the air was so clear with all the particulate matter having been ‘rained’ out. You could feel the connection with that storm even though it was a day later. Just like the drying sunflower bulbs echo the summer season that blossomed, and will bloom yet again.
Standing there observing nature, we are learning to be still. Our awareness is trained by the action happening around us. And moving through us. A sense of love bubbles up. I think these trips to where nature abounds is restorative. Of course we all deserve to have this right at home too. To build our world in a way that places us in the beauty and recognizes that we need it like we need love, rest and recovery.
I got my legs back in Chicago. When I visited my father in downtown Chicago last May, I walked everywhere, since the city is set up that way. Walking is the fundamental way of going places in downtown Chicago, so you do it naturally. After a year of rehabilitating my stride–recovering from a hip injury in 2020–I finally didn’t have to think about the whole process of walking as a deliberate action. I just thought of where I wanted to go, and got up and went there, usually with family. That was an awesome corner to round.
Our pandemic ‘breakout’ trip of 2021 included travels to Chicago to visit my father, who lives downtown in a high rise building, just a few blocks from the lake. Staying in Chicago was special. Downtown is such a high density place. It was magical to see my dad, and he put us up in a guest apartment on the 30th-something floor in his building. It happened to be right across from the “Shirley Ryan Ability Lab“, which was very interesting to me, because I had spent two weeks in a rehabilitation hospital healing my hip. We also had a great view of the street below, so I could observe traffic flow and how everybody walks! Every day out of the morning silence the street would come to life with pedestrians, people being people.
My dad actually walks everywhere. He likes to swim too but walking is the main form of exercise and transportation. He walks to restaurants, around neighborhoods, to many of his medical appointments, and he walks to the Chicago Symphony. When we were there he walked us to Millennium Park, Navy Pier and more of the tourist trails. It was a low stress and easy way to get around. Just put on your shoes, grab water, and go.
The hardest part of the visit was actually getting downtown. The drive in was tough, with stop and go motorized traffic, but once we parked the car and put our feet on the ground, we recovered quickly soaking in the richness of our surroundings. I brought my bicycle with me, thankfully! Every morning I would get up and go ride for a couple hours on the Lakeshore Trail and beyond. This was delightful exploring the city on my own two wheels, and served as a nice routine of self-care. Cycling daily helped me relax and settle into place, so I could really focus on enjoying the time spent with family. It was like my morning meditation, albeit a rolling one.
I seem to be shy when it comes to taking pictures of people, but the actual people presence in Chicago was something! It is so different than where I live in Albuquerque, or in a place like Phoenix, where you can drive through the city without hardly seeing anyone. Being downtown Chicago out with others walking felt like an ’embodied community’, where the physical form, shape and movement of people is the fundamental reality. Maybe this is like seeing the river system and Lake Michigan and trees growing toward the sky in Chicago’s dense urban center, seeing nature’s infrastructure underneath all of our buildings and other creations and systems, and as a canopy overhead, and in fact running through everything, flowing through us.
It was fun to travel and reflect on it all. I felt safer walking Chicago, perhaps because there were so many people out. I felt less self-conscious and like people walking garnered a higher level of respect, perhaps because everyone walks there, so the community is reflected back in the everyday landscape. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch. Cars are allowed almost everywhere so you’re still exposed to car traffic most of the time. The noises and smells were not always pleasant, and the tall buildings obscure many views. But when I got going on my two feet, I felt unbounded freedom!
We also did some suburban walking when we visited my sister’s family in the Chicago suburb of Lombard. There they have the “Prairie Path” trail system, which traverses their community, and connects their suburban home to main street in Lombard. We walked the soft surface path to Lilacia Park to see the flower blooms in May. It was a great way to get a sense of their community, the place where they make their home.
That visit to Chicago was really a turning point in my recovery. It had become a chore to track my movements all the time, to have to make a special effort to walk. It was all prelude to what happened in Chicago, when I found my stride naturally. It was wonderful to see so many people out helping themselves with a little exercise, and helping each other. Shirley Ryan Ability Center says their patients travel “six times further” in a one-hour therapy session compared to other facilities. I remember from my rehab stay the first thing they do–after the basic rest, food, and hygiene routines–is help you get moving again. Everyday they helped me get up and walk. Sometimes we take it for granted, but moving under our own power is the first step in living our lives, determining our own destiny. It is good to see this happening on a community scale in a quintessentially American city such as Chicago. Really appreciate visiting dad there!
Traffic (people moving) is an artful choreography and public dance in a way, and being a part of it is how we relate to the world, and that felt good, getting along with all those Chicagoans and other visitors. There is something about walking especially that sets a level playing field. I also enjoyed the public art works such as murals I discovered on the ways. When people move through the world with grace and compassion it is very therapeutic. Good for the soul. Glad that place is set up for walking. It’s accessible for all.