Sunday, September 19, 2010



Like most of us who live in Chicago’s real architectural gift to the world—the three flat apartment, I have the requisite wooden back porch.
These extensions of our four-walled world serve various purposes—recycling bin, smokers club, storage closet, barbecue kitchen, and retreat center.

For me, a refugee from small town America who grew up with a real backyard that bordered the open land of farms, rivers and woods, my porch is, especially in summer, my corner of wilderness.

My wooden oasis is no more than 6 feet wide, maybe 13 feet long, and, being the top floor, 12 feet tall. Not much. And though I can hear Lake Michigan roaring in the winter between the digital bells of the doors closing from the Morse El Stop, it has a view of my neighbors (so close I can lean over and steal salmon from their grill) and of course the beauty of a Chicago alley.

When I first moved in a few years ago after traveling for 2 years, I had an idea I’d put some plants out there, but then they spent the better part of a year gutting the apartments all around me, condoizing and driving me literally out of my mind and apartment.

Last year, in a rage and in a spirit of rebellion, I found by the end of the summer I had covered nearly the entire floor save for a little square in the middle to sit and maybe spread out my yoga mat. I had pots, flower boxes found in the alley, milk cartons, bowls, and my special creation, Mexican glass candles emptied of wax, all filled with whatever I could drag back from Jewels or get from my parents yard.

This year, I decided to porchscape a bit. I added more flower boxes, covering the rails, added more pots, and in a another stroke of genius looked up and realized I had a whole space above my head which was empty. Determined to maintain the “organic” nature of my plot, I found wicker baskets of all sizes at the Good Will, filled them with plants, drilled hooks, and suddenly those wave petunias had some space to wave.

I found an ugly big candelabra from a thrift store. Collected beach stones from Lake Michigan. Put down cheap bamboo mats. Mounted my Mexican candles (some sprouting plants, some flickering with flames).

Something happened when I set the candelabra down among my plants and beach stones. It was dark. I’d spent all afternoon and evening out there, planting, hanging, arranging, painting, collecting odd things scattered around my apartment in a kind of playful frenzy. I lit a candle and stuck a stick of incense in a geranium pot.

I’d made a shrine, a little grotto out of a back porch.

We can make anything sacred. All we have to do is name it and use our imagination to see into its source.

Sitting out there surrounded by the green and color and flickering candlelit, it felt strangely as if what was before me was not something I’d created but something I had recovered, something that had always been there.

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