May 20, 2009

In the Garden

Summer is creeping up on the Midwest. It's a good time to be outside. I picked up some lunch on my way out of macroeconomics and headed for the Lincoln Foundation Garden where I knew the summer concert series had begun this week. A jazz ensemble called Pangea was playing in the gazebo, all percussion and strings. I found an out of the way spot in the shade, near the creek, slightly away from the gathered crowds, and sat to enjoy my lunch, leaning up against the planter ledge/seat. Being a very introverted person, I have been on a multi-decade project to integrate with society and going to events like this was just one more stone in the path.

I noticed something today I had not noticed before. I noticed what I was noticing. I was listening to the music with half an ear, seeing the ebb and flow of the crowd in the corner of my eye, glancing now and then at the birds flitting around, but what I was really doing was a detailed analysis and critique of the design of the garden. Sure, I was being present, noting my surroundings, but in a way that also allowed me to be safely in my own head space (and isolated from everyone else in the garden) carrying out an intellectual exercise. And I realized - I've done this before. I do this a lot. All the time, in fact, and particularly when I'm in a crowded environment.

Some of it I come by naturally. My entire family makes a project out of avoiding crowds. We go to the noon matinee at the movies, eat dinner a little earlier so we never have to wait at restaurants, visit state parks during the off season. We think the perfect time to go to the zoo is nine o'clock in the morning on a Tuesday in November, and better if it's drizzling. To some extent, I've gotten over this, but I've realized I've invented an odd coping mechanism to compensate.

In a crowded restaurant I'll notice the dispersal pattern of fire sprinklers, look for radiators and return air ducts, analyze the wear marks on the floor to understand foot traffic patterns. On a bus or plane or train, I'll trace the lines of the overhead bins and cabinets until I understand how the light fixtures were designed and where all the screws are. Only part of this is an occupational hazard.

I suppose I noticed it today because I've been in this garden two dozen times before. I've analyzed its design down to the most minute detail. My third year studio professor brought us here because it is a particularly lovely urban pocket garden. I had been living in Lincoln a year and didn't even know it existed. It was January but it was sixty degrees out (no global warming my ass!) so he bought us all cones at the little ice cream stand by the entrance gate. It's only a couple of blocks from home, and usually very quiet, almost forgotten, so I've visited it often. Since the first few times, I've rarely given it's beauty much thought and yet today I was studying it down to every leaf and stone.

I had come there as part of my ongoing social experiment, come to people watch and listen to the music. Then I noticed I wasn't really doing either. I glanced across the well behaved crowd and soon enough I was back to contemplating the success the ivy-covered, undulating, concrete wall which separated the garden from the drive-through of the bank next door. I realized that this size of a crowd was usually something I avoided by reflex action. Even though I was here in the garden, though sitting a bit away, I was still avoiding them by reflex action, except this time I was doing it with my mind. Go figure.

The mind is an endless garden and the more branches I peel away, the more things I seem to find.

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