With the cooler, even cold temperatures of what seems like a premature fall, and distance from my surgery and permanent separation from Ignatius the tenacious fibroid, my energy levels have risen. During the past year or two, I seemed to spend several hours of every weekend in a torpor of deep napping. I still doze off every now and then, but usually not for entire wasted afternoons at a time. With my shoulder (impingement syndrome) feeling better after a couple of bad days earlier in the month, this weekend I was able to collect and toss the trash, clear junk off the coffee table, stay on top of the dishes, clean the bathroom, vacuum, and take care of laundry. It may not sound like much to a normal person, but for me it was quite an amazing feat. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the place is straightened up, clean, or presentable.
Last Sunday, the 4th, I met J. at the Homewood train station. But I didn’t meet just J. He called to tell me that G., the disabled man he drives to church and Caribou Coffee, was still with him because, when he had tried to drop him off, they’d found the house deserted and locked. Because someone was expected at 2:30 p.m., we went to a bagel place to kill the time. G. could have come with us — we were headed to an art fair at Swallow Cliff Woods — but J. would have had to drive north, then south, then back north again. Waiting worked out, and G. even got a bowl of chili out of it. He’s diabetic and sometimes seems to have wildly fluctuating glucose levels, so J. is reluctant to provide him with anything other than coffee for fear it will have an effect on his numbers. Chili may not be healthful, but I figured it wouldn’t make his glucose spike, either. He enjoyed it, and I appreciated feeling free from guilt.
Finally, we took G. home, then made for Swallow Cliff Woods via Wolf (“Woof” in J.’s lingo) Road. Along here are still some cornfields, old farmhouses, decaying outbuildings, and remnants of rural culture. Parts of it could pass for southern New York or the flatter bits of central Pennsylvania. Sadly, however, more corner signs have sprung up advertising lots for sale — that open field bordered by trees is probably doomed to become another strip mall because there just aren’t enough of those in the Chicago area.
Further north, although I am not sure exactly where, we came across a place where the fields had been converted into a McMansion development. The houses are so large that J. thought surely some of them must be apartments. But no — I’m certain they are single-family homes. I can’t fathom why people choose to live in enormous houses on relatively small plots of land squished together. For the money, I’d rather have a more modestly sized house on a few acres, with a little breathing room outdoors as well as in. The style of these dwellings added to their strangely mass produced ostentatiousness — from the glimpses I had of the materials and look, I thought they were intended to mimic European country chateaux. That is, if country chateaux were clumped together on dimes of land in suburban subdivisions. A man’s home truly is his castle — minus the estate.
After a few wrong turns here and there — thanks to Google Maps on the iPhone, at least we avoided driving into cul-de-sac traps — we arrived at Swallow Cliff Woods. The sun was peering out intermittently, throwing a little cheer and warmth across the field where the artists had pitched their tents.
After picking up some honey, J. settled in at a tent where what he called “fuzzies” — hand-crafted Christmas decorations and the like — were sold, while I wandered ahead. As happens periodically, I found myself tempted to buy a block of amethyst — it looks so magical, and reminds me of my late aunt — but as also happens I resisted. Instead, I headed for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County tent, where they were attempting to find people to recruit as volunteers. I had to break it to the friendly woman that I’m unable to serve, but we had a good talk about invasive species and what volunteers do. I mentioned Volo Bog State Natural Area, which is touted as the only quaking bog in Illinois. In a show of competitiveness, she hastily pointed out that portions of one of their bogs also quake. J., who had appeared, duly noted one of the places she mentioned as a good spot to visit.
The find of the day was Joe Nowak (For the Love of Nature), a wildlife photographer who prides himself on his unretouched photos, taken with a 35mm camera on Fujifilm. His photos are amazing — a red-tailed hawk illuminated by a ray of sunshine, a great horned owl so blended into the tree bark that it takes several efforts to find, a deer scratching its ears with a hind hoof. He and his wife told us that the owl photos are possible thanks to a woman they call the “owl whisperer”; she has an uncanny ability to sense and spot owls and their nests even while driving full speed down the highway. She’d found the camouflaged owl on a golf course and alerted them. His photos and their conversation were delightful.
You can’t visit Swallow Cliff Woods without walking up the old toboggan run stairs. For some people, this means making dozens of trips up and down in the pursuit of fitness. For me, one round trip, with many rest stops on the way up, then broken by a walk in the woods before heading down cautiously, tests the limits of my worn knees and aching back and lungs. Later, on the long way down, we were passed, back and forth at least four or five times, by a determined woman who almost bounded effortlessly. From the bottom we watched her slightly splayed stride, which looked easy. An older man, who also made the round trip several times, did so much more laboriously, soaking his shirt with perspiration. That was me after one trip up.
This time at the top we veered down a path to the left instead of taking the main trail straight ahead. While more level and less of a challenge to walk, it was more interesting visually, with tree-covered ravines that reminded me of New York and Pennsylvania. This seemed to be the way less traveled, a little more hushed, except for a few people like us walking along and the lone cyclist who couldn’t, wouldn’t, or didn’t read the sign prohibiting bicycles and who flew toward and past us with a cheery whoosh.
I remember the summer evening we were at Swallow Cliff Woods after dark, when thousands of fireflies lighted intermittently, transforming the familiar into the magic. Now the fireflies are long gone, having taken summer with them.
Later, we undid all the good we’d done our bodies with dinner at Hackney’s in Palos Park.
The following Saturday, the 10th, J. called me in the morning — unusual for him. I deduced correctly that he’d worked overnight. He wanted to go to Bonjour, and we arrived in time for him to order the breakfast special — Madame or one of her helpers even threw in a drink sample and a miniature croissant. While we chatted, I amused myself by watching people walking away from the neighborhood’s annual book fair with bags, boxes, and carts of books. (The next day, I encountered a young woman on the Flamingo’s elevator who “just wanted to get some groceries” but had succumbed to the allure of the printed word, buying a bag full of bargain books that was clearly weighing her down. “Now I have to go back,” she lamented. “For food.”)
While J. mailed his taxes, I shopped the biography and poetry sections. I found a two-volume biography of John Adams, a volume of Catullus, and some other treasures. I saw, but didn’t buy, a multi-volume poetry set inscribed in spidery writing with a woman’s name, “Bryn Mawr College, 1903.” I doubt many of my college books, not nearly so beautifully bound, will resurface in such fair condition at a 2085 book sale.
While I cleaned the bathroom, I let J. sleep for an hour or so, the off we went to the Chicago Botanic Garden. We shopped; checked out the orchids, which strike me as ranging from sexy to sinister; and walked around the nearly dead rose garden, the English walled garden, and the waterfall. The walled garden reminds me of The Secret Garden, naturally. Oh, to have a private walled garden retreat where magic at least seems possible. Walled gardens and waterfalls — where dreams are real, or reality a dream.
This time, we found Blind Faith Café without too many detours. The menu had changed, so J. chose a Native American-inspired entrée while I opted for black bean tostadas, both vegetarian. We also picked up baked goods, etc., to go. He’d commented earlier that some of the wall quilts seemed to have disappeared, while I noticed that the merchandise — T-shirts and the like — were missing. J. had better hold onto his old Blind Faith Café vase, as it could soon prove to be nearly one of a kind.
And so home, tired, sated, and happy for a time. Outdoors, among the trees, I come alive.