For months–well, years, to be honest–I’ve been meaning to visit West 11th Street Park. I felt some kind of neighborly, good-citizen obligation to visit this park. Somehow my usual enthusiasm for urban parks became a compulsion in this case. I wanted to like it.
I have a strange passion for urban parks. I love the idea of connecting with nature in the midst of the city. Providing trees for a healthier atmosphere. Allowing just a little bit of nature to have its own space. The natural world was here a long time before we showed up to pave it over.
The reason I took so long to check out this park is that it looks predictable from the outside. It’s on a square bit of land, a few blocks in length on each side. You can see two sides from each street corner; it takes just a minute to drive around it.
I’ve heard about the park for years. It seems like a noble gesture on the part of a handful of citizens to preserve this land and prevent development when property values are skyrocketing.
From the outside it appears like a mostly undeveloped, densely wooded park, but it’s mowed along the perimeter, so there’s plenty of open space for throwing balls of various sorts, playing with dogs, having a picnic.
I must confess I’m often shy to walk by myself when people are around, even though my body craves exercise. I prefer nature hikes to speed walking, and I really love to walk and talk, especially with my husband, but he’s often not interested. Sometimes I feel self-conscious, and talk myself into staying in the car. I wonder if I’m somehow wrong, as I project onto imagined others their judgment of me: maybe the residents don’t like people parking along their street to visit the park. Or maybe I’m just easily, painfully embarrassed.
Earlier this week I walked into the park for the first time. Today was the second time. I was wrong. W. 11th Street Park is small on the outside, but it’s another world on the inside.
On the British TV series Doctor Who, the Doctor calls his time-traveling spaceship a TARDIS (short for Time And Relative Dimension in Space). You enter the spaceship by stepping into a British police box. A police box is not much larger than a phone booth, which we don’t see in Houston any more. Basically, it’s very small. Upon entering through the door of the police box, you discover the vast interior of a spaceship.
In that respect, I experienced W. 11th Street Park as a TARDIS. Entering it, you step into another world.
You can enter from any of several gravel trails and smaller grassy trails around the square of woods. Once you’re inside, the trails crisscross each other so often that when it’s cloudy, like today, I temporarily lost my sense of direction. It’s densely wooded, and the trails curve around so much that you can’t see what’s around the corner. The dead trees are allowed to stay and decompose, to a great extent, in order to maintain that circle of life thing. Wildflowers and native trees thrive.
The TARDIS park was active today. Because the sky was overcast, birds and small creatures came out of hiding. I startled a large pileated woodpecker–flashes of white when it spread its wings, and a vivid red head. (There are six species of woodpecker in the park.) I spotted two brown rabbits on opposite sides of the park who were surprised by my movement. (I didn’t expect brown rabbits. I’m sure readers will inform me they’re as common as possums in Houston, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen them in the city before. In the middle of the day, no less.)
I practiced a bit of aimless wandering–walking without a goal, choosing which path to take without much thought, noticing thoughts and feelings without being directed by them. Listening, just listening, I heard distant knocking that drew my eyes upward. Way up, probably a hundred feet up, another woodpecker hammered its beak into the side of a dead pine tree. Its tail feathers, firmly bracing the bird against the tree for balance, supported the concussing percussion.
It’s a shame that I thought I could predict the experience of this “small” park.
I think it’s a common human failing that we need to make things small. Perhaps ego feels more important or substantial, or more in control. We shrink the world with assumptions and categories, contain it with concepts, and turn it into something completely predictable. We’re so quick to pass up opportunities based on first impressions.
This is the old “can’t judge a book by its cover” phenomenon. Does ego reduce the significance of an experience by labeling it with a cliché?
When we relax ego’s habit of drawing conclusions and dismissing possibilities, and we replace that mental overactivity with relaxed, open curiosity–the world gets bigger. Much bigger.
(Warning: Objects in mirror are more interesting than they appear.)
I’ve heard adults boast that they tell their kids, “Life is fascinating. If you think things are boring, you’re boring.” That always sounded mean to me, but I think the intention is a good one: to inspire kids, teens, young adults, to wake up to life. But there’s something missing in the delivery that defeats its own purpose. It would be better to demonstrate what curiosity looks like. Show how you uniquely relish everything that life offers. Be what you would like them to become.
We often say that people are more interesting than they might first appear. We remind ourselves that, “Everyone is fighting a hard battle.” We say this referring to people we don’t know.
The funny thing is, we can also say this of the people we think we know best. I find it helpful to remind myself that my husband is greater than the sum of my conceptions about him.
Everyone is a TARDIS.
I can’t wait to get back to my park.