In recent months, I have been nearly obsessed with appreciation.
Since my move to a new home a little over a year ago, I have been walking twice a day on Humboldt Park. Some days I seem to be alone there, just walking over the turf that rests on top of an ocean of fibrous roots communicating from tree to tree, sharing news of invaders, pests, diseases, drought. Thanks to the inspiration of my friend, Julie, I’ve learned over time that I am not walking through the park or in it, but on it – it supports Dex and me.
While there in the morning, I pick up litter, usually a bag full, but sometimes more. There are gum wrappers, beverage cans, napkins, wet wipes, and face masks – lots of face masks. Then, too, there are diapers, cigarette packs, condoms, beer bottles, and water bottles filled with urine. When I come across tennis balls near the court, I toss them back inside. When I find baby blankets, toddler socks, or sweatshirts, I hang them on a nearby sign or next to a waste bin. I like to look over my shoulder when the pathways change course. Then I can see the uninterrupted greens that I have decluttered.
Most of the time, however, Dex and I are not alone. For two weeks a woman slept on the sidewalk next to her Pick and Save shopping cart about two yards from the splash pool. Another time, a much younger woman shouted at me when I asked if she was okay; the configuration of her sprawl on the sidewalk looked like she might have been attacked.
The older-than-me photographer gives Dex his “shush” look when we get too close to the waterfowl he courts. In the afternoon, the photographer is much more animated, friendlier, watching the birds roosting on one of the islands.
There’s also the two women with two dogs, the one woman with three dogs, the guy with the longest leash on the planet, and Bill – only too delighted to let Olive off leash when she sees her brother who lives a few blocks away. Sue, too, walks Olive, but never off-leash. Emily, Ryan, Sheffield, Eric, Erin, Toni, Tricia, Lars, and Norman – all there in Humboldt Park. Max cuts across on a diagonal toward his work place.
The pre-teens from the Upper Montessori practice cross country some afternoons. Most weekdays, the slow-walkers – those high school students who woke late, missed a bus, or just don’t want to go – file through the park, usually one at a time, and always very slowly. There are strollers, too. Lots of them. And bikes of all sizes. A couple vans stop a few nights most weeks. They stay the night, the guys living in them getting up very early to use the Speedway restroom before work.
On summer Tuesdays, there’s a weekly music festival. Once a month, jazz. Employee picnics, retirement parties, quinceaneras, Indianfest, Puerto Rico festival, and Shakespeare bring visitors, traffic, and excitement. For those events, racoons, skunk, and possum are temporarily displaced.
As a lifelong Milwaukee resident, I have counted on Walker’s Square, Holt, Mitchell, Jackson, Kinnickinnick, Grant, Pulaski, Madison, Gordon, Lake, Bradford, McKinley, Red Arrow, Wilson, Kosciuszko, Whitnall, Wahl, Brown Deer, Riverside, Back Bay, Doctors, Juneau, Cambridge Woods, South Shore, and Humboldt parks across my 74 years. They have marked the events of my life, my environment, and my appreciation of nature. When I think of the environment I personally need to preserve, these parks come to mind.
My appreciations, however, are not limited to my environment. I also note with pleasure Tim, Frank, Martha, Pete, Jason, Patrick, William, Gatlin, Gerald, Ray, Ted, Anne, Mike, Phil, Amisha, Jan, Missy, Erik, Gwen, Kurt, Emilee, Mary Ellen, Mischelle, Mike, Kevin, Ginny, David, Jose, Josh, Jay, Marian, Sheila, Paula, Ilya, Rudy, Steve, Becca, Levin, Dahlia, Jim, Bill, Leonard, David, Sumaiyah, Ellen, Shakita, Ronnie, Jazzy, Harriet, Jna, Olivia, Nick, Matthew, Margo, Linda, Julie, Gregg, Sue, Ray, Jonathan, Kathy, Rose, Lauren, Marina, Chris, Diane, Dvora, Valerie, Tim, Mary, Teresa, Mandela, Kimberly, and so many, many more wonderful humans who think and feel and connect and stretch and grow.
My great nephews and I have deep conversations. I mean deep. One recently speculated that loss or threat of loss fosters appreciation. When I think of my two heart attacks, I do wonder if my appreciation is partially born in them. But I also know that seeing my mother humiliated in public because of our poverty fostered in me a sense that hospitality is a thing to be valued and acknowledged. So, too, did my own work as a hide measurer in a tannery and a laborer in a screw machine company contribute to my appreciation of work and workers.
No, I think that while appreciation may be sparked for some by loss, enthusiasm and zest nurture it more effectively for me and with lasting effects.
Not so long ago, a couple friends from Chicago joined me for a visit to Milwaukee Art Museum. The younger noted with interest and pleasure that I walked through the museum with a curatorial perspective. I can speak of the works there, their provenance, and the generosity of two or three families in particular. I also explain that some items come from an estate in Minnesota, items purchased by the heir to a dynasty based on trading vanilla. Other items given by a much younger couple whose taste in jewelry and decorative arts is exceptional. I knew them because I bought an aunt’s house, and we traded works so that paintings that once graced the home’s walls could return there again.
I know these things about the museum because I have lived in Milwaukee my whole life. I know them because I was an auctioneer, a job I got through a late partner of mine, a job that expanded when I opened an auction gallery of my own. I know these things because I bought a mid-century modern house when it was passe to do so. I also know them because I drove through suburban streets and picked up modern furniture being tossed on the side of the road. But I know all this better because of a man I met forty years ago.
In the past year, I walked the Lake Michigan coast on the north end of Bradford Beach, once on my own, another time with a man whom I tried to date. But in the end, I went with a great nephew and scattered some of Paul’s ashes there. It’s where we met and where we went back to at least once a year, including his last. We’d laugh and reminisce about those first minutes together. In recent years, the area has become less grassy than it was decades ago, possibly because of the swales built there with support of a wonderful local philanthropist who wants to save the lake from unwanted run-off from the nearby road. The feel of the place remains unchanged, however. The wind seems intense close to the ground. Fine sand blasts ankles and quickly coats leg hair. Birds call over rolling waves that either break with a plop or softly overlap with a swish. A slight shift in clouds either warms or chills.
On this date, Paul would have been 65 years old. Part of my appreciation of the world is born in his encouragement of me to “see;” in mine of him, to “look.” He would describe a color to me for minutes on end, knowing that I’d be getting frustrated with the words that would not resolve my color blindness. But ultimately, we would agree that against some of those colors our friends would look better, more interesting, unique. He was born for this discourse. For appreciation.