april 24, 2020—tree hugging in the city

If it weren’t for my dog and our daily trips to a dog park or a local state park (only on weekdays—weekends, the parks turn into a horrifying Disneyland), I’m not sure I’d ever leave my home. I head to the woods to take a break from the laptop and triggering news, to allow the muscles that tighten around my eyes to release, to feel a carpet of pine needles under my feet, wrap my arms around bark, to hear rushing of wind through branches, and bird songs in my ears. To feel something other than uncertainty and fear.

But more often than not, Rocco and I walk in the city (mornings and after dark are best times—who knew a city could be so quiet?), around our neighborhood, taking care of business before I get down to business, or to puncture holes in the monotony of solitary confinement, or to squeeze the last of the day before slipping off to sleep. This morning, we meander over to the playground of Whittier International Elementary, a few blocks from our home. We walk past its small wading pool that will likely stay empty all summer, through the playground draped in warning signs that dangle in the cool, early morning breeze, along the abandoned basket ball court. We end up at an expansive baseball park at the far end of the park, that takes up at least a quarter of the giant city block. Later today, probably even within the hour, the ballpark will be dotted with others and their dogs, others and their children, the basket ball courts shuffling with urban ballers, offering a space to burn off the energy surplus that accumulates rapidly within four walls of confinement, to connect from a distance (though my judgy social distance eye has noted there’s a lot of room for interpretation…), to breathe outside air, crowded as it gets.

Early enough in the morning, though (even back in a time when school was in session), the playground is forgotten land. Early in the morning, it is a soft, expansive place bathed in morning sunshine, draped in long shadows, with lots of room to breath.

Because we’re now living in a lawless land, I look around carefully, make sure no one else is in the park (I’m a conscientious lawbreaker), then unclip Rocco from his leash. We run across the ball field with reckless abandon, zig-zagging and quick stopping from one end to the other. I pick up a long stick and fling it across the field, it sails end over end, Rocco tears after it. The stick barely lands before he pounces, ripping it apart with his jaws. We repeat this a few times with other sticks, until I notice a man on a bicycle in dark, dusty clothes, a large bulky backpack strapped to his back. He looks like a tortoise on wheels, as he slowly winds his way down the sidewalk to a bench at the edge of the playground. I quickly clip Rocco back to his leash as the man dismounts his bike, props it up against the bench. He slides the pack from his shoulders and places it on the bench. We wander around the greening lawn, Rocco sniffs around bushes, lifts a leg here and there, as I glance occasionally toward the man, losing sight of him momentarily, until my eyes readjust.

He is standing next to a pine tree, one arm arm wrapped around the trunk, as though it’s a loved one. His brown face is turned toward the sun, the only part of his body illuminated by light, his eyes are closed. I catch my breath, and look down at the ground, a lump grows in my throat and tears well in my eyes, and I can’t help but feel I’m witnessing something holy. We stand like that for only a few moments, sharing this morning space, he hugging his tree, my eyes cast down, slowly walking my dog around the edges of the school building. When I look up again, the man is back on his bike, pedaling away in the opposite direction. I pull the bandana around my neck, up over my face and cry into the fabric, on my walk home.

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