It is the Friday after Thanksgiving, and we are enjoying a stroll at the Chicago Botanic Gardens — my parents-in-law who are in town from Minnesota, my brother-and-sister-in-law who are in town from Calgary, and me. It’s cold, but not too cold, and the gray sky perfectly complements the landscape, which is turning from rich golds and reds to cool blacks and whites. There are plenty of people here at “The Gardens” with us, happy to welcome the holiday season this way, although most of them seem to be gathering at a special exhibit. So, our walk is pretty solitary, and the place is quite different than it is when all is in bloom. In June, the beauty here is bright and sweet smelling and romantic and full of potential – kind of emotionally wonderful and loud. In November, the beauty is quiet, and it is perfect for contemplation.
I’m walking with Joel, my father-in-law. Well, to be very specific, he is my step-father-in-law, but when you marry into a family that is rich with a mother, step-father, father, and step-mother, you just kind of have two fathers-in-law, and two mothers-in-law. That’s what I have. Add in my two parents, and my daughters have grown up with the gift of six loving grandparents.
Anyway, Joel has always been quiet and observant. He is not going to tell a long story in a group at a party. He’s not going to intentionally call attention to himself across a room. However, one-on-one, he does have stories to share, and if you ask the right follow-up questions, they might just come out, not in a tumble necessarily, but in a satisfying trickle. Over breakfast this morning, when it was just the two of us, I learned that his father died when he was thirteen, his mother remarried when he was fourteen, and then his life changed again when his baby brother was born, when he was fifteen. I have known Joel for 31 years, and I did not know any of these things until this morning. Maybe he wasn’t telling; maybe I wasn’t asking. Anyway, now I know.
Because of today’s walk, I also now know that a shrub like this grew in his yard when he was a boy in St. Paul. He helped to tend that yard, and as I have always known him to be someone who closely examines his surroundings, it is hard for me to imagine him quickly mowing the lawn and pruning the shrubs. I envision him stopping often, distracted by something that he found odd, or puzzling, or beautiful. Of course, that may not be true — he may have rushed through the job like any other boy, and then run off to play baseball. But I like to imagine him a bit like Dickon from the Secret Garden, talking to birds and coaxing saplings.
Here he is, today, carefully examining an unusual vertical garden. There was a sign in there, and he wanted to read it. Most people would not have seen it, or if they had, they would not have taken the time to gently move leaves aside to be able to see it well. Joel did. He was curious, and was not in a rush. In the 31 years that I have known him, I have never seen him be in a rush.
Joel is also a classical musician, a cellist. This past summer, while relaxing in Minnesota on the beautiful porch that he and Harriet, my mother-in-law, have created, I learned that he hears music in his head, almost all of the time. I don’t mean the annoying ear worm riffs that get stuck in all of our heads from time to time. He hears full symphonies. They play in the background of his thoughts, both when he is quietly introspective and when he is engaged with others. Sometimes, his mind composes. (“Do you ever write them down?” I asked. No, he doesn’t, and he said something self-depreciating about his internal compositions. But I bet that they are wonderful, and that the world is missing out by not being allowed to hear them.) While we walked today, I brought this up again. He’s been hearing these since he was 8 years old, when he began learning the cello. Yes, he was hearing music right at that the moment — he was re-experiencing the beautiful concert that he and Harriet had enjoyed at The Chicago Cultural Center two days prior. Take a moment, please, and try to imagine what that would be like — to have beauty in your head at all times.
Harriet and Joel were married a few years before I married my husband. Here they are, together, enjoying this fall day, this day after Thanksgiving. Really, in fact another day of Thanksgiving. Tonight, soon, we are entering Black Friday Excitement at Barnes and Noble where my daughter is working. They always have an option for holiday gift donation books there. I doubt it is on the list at the register, but maybe I’ll buy a copy of The Secret Garden to donate, in honor of this walk, in honor of Joel. Anyway, tonight — a Black Friday store and a nice dinner out. But today we experienced a quiet walk with loved ones, and for this I am extremely grateful.
My colleagues, Alicia and Jeff, and I agreed that this weekend we’d each blog about a connection between our work and our Thanksgiving vacations. (Please check out their reflections: “Grandkid” Suits Me Just Fine and Of Gratitude.) And yes, I do have a connection. Today we moved slowly and looked closely. At work, I have to fight with myself to be able to do that. There is so much, and it all happens so quickly. And it is important to take time, to examine and not rush past. Beautiful, quiet moments happen all of the time if we are intentional about slowing down and SEEING. In my school world, that moment worth seeing is usually a child making a discovery. It’s too easy and too terrible to miss it.