Finding Myself in the World

With Covid, we’ve been spending more time at home in the garden. Each year Anne creates a beautiful garden filling our postage stamp backyard with all kinds of flower and foliage and this year, with Covid, vegetables. However in other years than this year, she invites friends over in the spring to see the garden and that’s it for we’re working or away at cottages for the summer. The next time we seem to see the garden is for cleaning it up in the Fall. This year we have spent our time mostly at home. I sit in the garden every morning. I see blooms come and go. I see the potatoes incrementally expand their stalks and leaves, over time become full and vibrant. the garden gives me much pleasure.

Since I’m sitting there often enough and long enough, I see various birds come and go, see the bees and butterflies and ants and all kind of life in the garden, all of it making the garden alive and beautiful, a life going on all the time, in its way, without my intrusion.

The pleasure comes from time spent. It’s not stepping out one day, seeing the garden, and feeling its pleasure. That would be just a stimulation in the moment, a jolt, but nothing like the pleasure of being part of the garden each day. For me the difference is ownership of the moment. When I drop into the garden, the garden is serving my interest in that moment, catering to me, meeting some need for a nice view, for a nice place to have supper with friends, to be something I feel pride in, or even that I feel grateful for the calm it gives me. All of that is the garden catering to me, fitting into my world.

If instead, I visit the garden each day and am able to observe its process of growth, some hot days to see the leaves shrink and curl, in the evening to see them fill out again, on other days to see them wet with rain, over time to see them grow and change, petals of one fall away, as others bud. So as my experience is different in this way, my relationship to the garden is different. In this way the garden is living its life and I am a part of it as I observe it or as a gardener would tend to it. The garden in this case is in ownership, I along for the ride.

I am a particular person when I feel I own the garden, have it to service my whim, another person if I become part of the flow of the garden, its life. A different person. It’s a subtle thing but of no small matter I suggest for it means I am living a different quality of life. We carry on with either life and it’s all normal. Unfortunately, in our human construct made for ourselves, governed by our progress for more and more ease and comfort and by out insatiable life in the accumulation of things, well, we only know one world and don’t know the other. And so we don’t make a choice. The second life where we are participants rather than governors, where we are at the mercy of a flow of life where we are not the centre, this second life is hard to discover. It’s but a degree away from the other though the difference like night and day.

Anne and I got rid of our car. We live in a part of the city where the east-west street car lines converge. The subway is a 15 minute walk away. While we had the car, we also took transit often. I was shocked at how different taking transit was after we got rid of the car. It was subtle, barely noticeable, but yet another world of experience. With the car, the presence of the car whether being used or not was psychologically lodged in my mind, always a possibility. When the car was no longer an option, I saw my walk to the bus stop in a different way. Now I was entirely dependent on the arrival of the bus. I was more aware of the people at the stop because I shared the hope the bus was coming soon or I collaborated with them to figure out when the bus would come. If the weather was bad we wondered how much the bus would be delayed. We shared information such as how the bus negotiates a steep hill north of St. Clair that slows it up in winter ice. We had all seen the string of four and five buses going south, none coming north for the longest time. I passed that on to fellow travellers. It was a shared knowledge regulars on the line have. I had become a part of the life of relying on transit for all my travel.

Not having a car also made me more aware of the cars on the road. I no longer belonged to that number, the person driving by who had the luxury of their own transportation to go where and when they wanted. That’s the difference. I no longer have the option to be independent, to have the choice to drive. I am fully dependent on the public network and so with that dependence is a commitment to the community of travellers. I am one of them, not one who has decided to take transit as an option, comes to it as a peripheral exericise, one of convenience for me, and so not really immersed in the public transit system as do or die, this is it.

I would see cars pull up beside me turning into the main thoroughfare that I was try to cross to get to my bus stop. I saw how the people in the car didn’t even see me standing there, or care that I was standing there and was there before they arrived. They just pulled up to the corner and pulled out, made the turn as soon as they could indifferent to me. I didn’t exist. Sometimes a car will stop, the driver wave me on, but I know they are still in their little controlled environment of the car, happen to be a thoughtful person, but has no idea really what the weather feels like on their body, the noise in their ears, the risk of negotiating my little body among speeding vehicles. In the car, the adherents to that way of life, have full control of the climate, machine intelligence to guide them to their location, a selection of music and entertainment from millions of choices, warmed cushioned ergonomically designed seats, some even with heated steering wheel. Must seem quite ideal not to have to feel anything of the weather on their body or the hard pavement under their feet or the cold draft blowing through their clothes.

I remember coming home with Anne after a play we’d seen at an east end theatre. It was nearly an hour or so trip home on the streetcar. In our own car, it would have taken less than half that time. Walking up from Queen Street where the streetcar had let us off. What I remember as we took that addition 15 minute walk is that I was so grateful to feel the demand on my body of standing on the streetcar and walking along the sidewalk, the demand on my will to keep going, the experience of being outside in whatever weather it was, the experience of passing others in the darkness, others also outside feeling what we felt in the cold air, knowing they were feeling what we felt, going along their way in the dark as we were. We were in the rhythm of people, not in the flow of traffic, aware only of other cars lights on the road.

Again, the difference is who is in control. In one world, I am in control by living within an artificial world that shields me from whatever is going on outside of me. The car. An enclosed, controlled environment. In the other experience leaving the house in search of transit, I am in the flow of the city, the weather in the city, other people’s movement, accidents of time. Rather than sitting in a cocoon of comfort, I’m using my muscles and limbs to move about and among the built environment. In that way, I am fitting into the life of the city, the flow of the city, am a part of it, dependent on it, subject to it, acting on it physically, not passing through it untouched in my bubble.

It’s all a matter of degree of course. My raincoat is shielding me from the environment, exerting some kind of control. But the raincoat allows me to negotiate the world. A car that runs along paved pathways, given priority of place in the design of the city, the focus of urban design with everything else conforming to the car route, is alive experience where I am dominant, all caters to me; in fact, I expect it to cater to me. When I walk to the transit, I am dependent on the world, even when wearing my raincoat, and feel myself much more a part of the world, of its flow. It’s a matter of degree. How far do L go to isolate myself from the experience of the physical world? What is best for my well-being?

When the garden is a picture for me, a static experience I drop by to see at times, admire, consider as a gift to me to enhance my life, then how I see the world is the same, as something static, catering to me and my whims.

When I spend time in the garden and experience the garden living its life over time, spend enough time to see it grow and die, then I see myself not as a possessor of life but as a participant, as part of life, part of the flow of growth and decay and so know myself to grow and decay. My time matters much more in the garden because I know that beautiful experience of the flower will pass, and know too that my life will pass. For that, my life matters much more. It’s a life that is connected to and a part of everything else, not a life that is shielded from and apart from everything else.

Covid is teaching us this: we’re all in this together. That the voice crying out against racial injustice is being heard more clearly demands that we see we are all in this together.

Many are asking if we will come out of Covid a better world. I’m suggesting there are two ways of living in the world, yes a spectrum but also a clearly different experience between two poles: one of isolation, control, self indulgence, comfort and ease and separation from feeling the world out there. The other a life that is part of a much larger life, a flow we get caught up in, not in our full control, a shared experience with others, felt in our bodies, the wind in our face, the soreness in our feet, the exertion of our muscles. We feel life in ourselves, coursing away, not that we will be catered to in comfort, not something we buy to make ourselves feel better, something we put on to be someone, but that we feel in our inner being as we pass through the world and pass away and it’s for a moment, to feel ourselves a part of all that’s going on good and bad, ourselves alive in the moment, feeling it in our bones, feeling it against our skin, feeling in us, the breath of life.