Thursday, November 11, 2004

Undeveloped Land

I was out for an hour-long rather invigorating walk this morning. Anybody who knows me well knows that I am NOT an outdoor person. Given the option, I will almost always choose to be indoors. My ideal day consists of being in my living room, sitting on my rather large red chenille couch, book in hand, tea on the table, and incense burning. On the most beautiful spring day, flowers in bloom, birds chirping, I am perfectly contented with watching the splendor of the season from the comfort of my kitchen window. I almost feel guilty for spending all that money on deck furniture and the marvelous mosaic table and chairs under the vine-wrapped pergola in our backyard. On occasion I will smell the roses as I go from car to house – although not too often because that involves actually exiting the garage. I have been coaxed outside by Steve and the children to plant tulip, daffodil, and lily bulbs both here in Charlotte and back in Connecticut, but that’s only because I made them promise that most of the bulbs would be planted in lawn locations that are visible from inside the house. In my own defense, I suffer from fairly serious hay fever, so pollen, cut grass, and other outdoor allergens can wreak havoc on my compromised immune system. But mostly, I just can’t be bothered with all the swatting at flies and mosquitoes, and then when the sun's rays shift, I have to change positions, and with all my books and pens and journals, it’s just a pain to haul everything outside. So I just stay in. Having said all that, I have decided to turn over a new leaf. I have made it a goal of mine to go out on walks several times each week. Not with the children. Not with Steve. I just go walking. I am dazzled by Mother Nature’s antics. And I think. I think about friends, family members, travel, books I’m reading, books I’m writing, and books that should never have been written. I think about the traffic that is coming at me at 50 miles per hour on the side of the rather busy road I was walking beside. Oh, yeah. There is one exception to my “I’d rather be inside” rule – and that is if I have the option of being outside in a large city. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and during my entire educational career there, I had a minimum of an hour’s commute to school. Two public buses to elementary school which I navigated alone for the most part. Then in junior high and high school. I walked ten minutes to the bus stop and then rode for 45 minutes before another ten minute walk to school. So city walking comes naturally to me; I don't seem to have any respiratory reactions to smog, carbon monoxide, or traffic noise. In fact, I’d rather walk along a busy boulevard than a quiet country road any day. So there I was this morning walking along Pineville-Matthews Road, traffic hurtling at me at breakneck speed, and it occurred to me that one dropped cup of expensive coffee, one lunge for a favorite CD as it rolls underfoot, one poorly timed lane change, and I would be trapped beneath a Hummer and standing before the Great White Throne in a heartbeat. I was also thinking about the fact that I live in one of the fastest growing counties in all of the United States. Houses, shopping plazas, medical and office parks, churches, you name it - they are popping up everywhere. Entire developments go up in a matter of weeks. I will say this: folks down here do a pretty good job with building things. Many homes are made of beautiful brick and stone. Office buildings are very well done, at least they look really good. Not much aluminum siding going up in my neck of the woods. I like that. But anyway, as I walked along that busy road, my attention was drawn to the acres of undeveloped land that still grace that busy stretch of road. For as far back as I could see at some points, there were trees. Most were standing tall, strong, and serene. Some had lost the battle against wind, rain, and Carolina clay, and had fallen over. Fallen leaves and pine needles made the floor of those mini-forests look soft enough to wander through barefoot. I could hear squirrels scampering around and I could imagine all sorts of other small beasts looking at me and wondering what I was doing so close to the edge of their property. The sky overhead was cloudy, so there were none of those magnificent shafts of light piercing the darkness, but it look inviting nonetheless. As I peered through the pines, I sent up a quick prayer that those woods would remain undeveloped. The animals need someplace for refuge. The people need someplace to help them remember that this area was once nothing but Carolina woodlands - until we decided to bulldoze, flatten, and grow concrete. The wildness of those woods both frightened me (being the indoor person that I am) and excited me (being the hopelessly romantic geek that I am). I wondered what great adventures the kids and I could have wandering through there on a nature hike. What animals live in there? What kinds of trees are in there? Do many people explore this undeveloped land? Who has designs on owning it, parceling it and domesticating it? I kept walking. I kept thinking. I thought about the undeveloped places in my mind, the corners where wild things still grow. It’s so easy nowadays to get caught up in being sophisticated. To know the right clothes to wear, the right wine to order, the right places to go on vacation. To list the books I’ve read, the movies I’ve seen, and the artist’s works I know well. To tell stories of the cities I’ve visited, the achievements of my children, and drop names of famous people I’ve had brushes with. But what about the wild stuff? The stories I make up for my kids when we are in the car, the fantasies I have about giving all this up and living in a breezy apartment overlooking a quiet plaza in Spain, and the dreams I’ve had since I was a child. Dreams of days without any agenda at all. No homework – no housework. What about just taking days off from school to do nothing at all? What about getting up enough courage to wander through the undeveloped land I saw this morning? I must learn to resist the urge to always be so proper, so well-mannered, so erudite. So I laugh out loud at good jokes. I sing for no reason. I stare at my children at home and at strangers in the street. When they notice me, I just smile and tell them what it was about them that caught my attention: a scarf, a great smile, a wonderful scent, a great piece of jewelry. I take chances that other people are as interested as I am in making connections. Why not? I am so well-developed, so well organized, and so well insulated from the warmth and life that emanate from others. Why not be undeveloped at times? What if I gave a stranger a compliment everyday? What if I thanked the cashier or the toll booth attendant and really meant it? What if I left an extra four dollars at the counter at Starbucks and told the barista to serve up the next drink for free? Then I could sit and watch the reaction of the next customer. (Two times in my life I have paid someone else's tab at a shop. The people ahead of me on line didn't have all the money they needed, so when they left after promising to return with the money, I paid what they owed. My only request was that when they returned to find the bill paid that they would promise to do the same for someone else at some future time. "Pay it forward." Which is a great movie...) What if I stopped demanding so much from Steve and the kids all the time, and just let them be wild and undeveloped for a day or a weekend? What if? Yes, being undeveloped can be frightening. What if they take advantage of me? What if the stranger I greet gets a little too friendly? Why not take the chance? What I cannot forget is that being undeveloped can be exciting, as well. In fact, some of the dearest friends I now have were met under just such circumstances. There’s the friend whose two children are almost exactly the age as my two: older girl, younger boy just like me. Our children hit it off right from the start, and we became great friends. There’s another who is married to the brother of one of my husband’s work colleagues. I met her at a dinner party when I sat next to her and struck up a conversation about her recent marriage. We have been buddies ever since. In fact, she wants me to visit her family in India with her someday. I met one friend in a library while on vacation and books have been a mainstay of our relationship for years. No one I know has ever been offended by a smile or a compliment or a casual conversation. I don’t think I’ve ever been rebuffed in my wild moments. Anyway there I was on my walk this morning, hoping to avoid death by armored vehicle with a petite Southern belle behind the wheel who was putting on mascara, chatting with a girlfriend on the phone, and handing a juice box to her toddler all at the same time. And I was thinking about a lot of stuff. I got home energized, stared at my kids for a while, drank an awesome cup of coffee made from the private recipe of a Mexican friend, read for a while as I sipped my cafĂ©, and the day has been uphill ever since. I think I’ll take more morning walks. Being outside isn’t so bad after all.

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