When I was in Dublin, my house between Cabra and Stoneybatter was about a ten minute walk from Phoenix Park, the largest park in the city and one of the largest (walled, urban) parks in Europe. My first excursion there, shortly after I moved into our house, was less than ideal; autumn had turned the trees into sticks, the leaves were brown and half crackling, half stewed with rain, and the steely grey light from an unforgiving sky illuminated the park with a half-light that failed to obscure as much as I might have wished. (This is how it was in my memory, this is not how it was.)
I did not return for several months.
When at last I did, however, I saw things differently indeed. I do not recall exactly when I decided to go back, only that it was a lovely day, lovely and warm, earlier than later in the spring. I took a book and decided to do a little more exploring than I had before, knowing that the first impression had, perhaps, been just as bad on my part as it had been on the park’s and wishing us to give each other another chance. First of all, it was green. The grass was lush and lovely, the trees were new and alive, and the flower beds were awaking with the strange combination of hesitance and gusto particular to new life. Secondly, the sun cast a yellow glow across the scene whose radiance lent the park a much cheerier air than previously. Of course, it was still early, and in Dublin the spring comes perhaps later than elsewhere, so the air retained a certain chill and the earth still clung to a cooler winter, yet the atmosphere of the place was warm and inviting. The breeze was a constant irritation, cooling me when I was not in want of cooling, and ruffling that which did not want to be ruffled, but even the wind could not detract from the transformation, and I knew that I would make the journey many more times.
And so I did. Seeing as classes finished the first week of April, I had plenty of time to spend lounging in the park. I continued to explore and read and simply enjoy myself. There is a herd of wild deer that lives within the walls, naming field and grove as equal abodes, and we became if not well acquainted, at least passingly familiar. It did not take me long to find a favored reading place and it did not take long for that place to become mine. There is an old armory and fort on a hill overlooking the Liffey, now decrepit and closed for renovations (whose completion does not keep me in suspense). However, a few steps beyond it, there is a collection of benches facing the water, right across from the War Memorial Garden on the south side.
The spot was not perfect. There is a busy road that follows the river and the scent and sound of passing vehicles did not add particularly to the atmosphere. The view of the river was largely obscured by a straggly stand of trees clustered on the hill coming up from the road and they, too, were not overly cosmetic. And, of course, the wind was a constant companion, rarely fierce but always blowing on one side and then the other, seemingly irresolute on everything other than being as large an annoyance as possible.
All the same, it was a spot of extraordinary beauty. You could catch glimpses of rowers on the river in front of you, deer in the trees behind, the sun glinting off spires and windows across the city, and the old fort sitting quietly to the side, as much a ruin as a construction site. There are few joys like reading in the sun, even reading a bad book, and that joy covers over a multitude of complaints. I read long and well on those benches, not always the same one, but always with the same feeling. I would at times snap at the wind, as if it would heed my rebuke, and at others grumble about the state of the trees or road or city at large. But I always retained an immeasurable gratitude for the great gift of those mornings and afternoons with hardly a care in the world, or at least none worth dwelling on.
So I return there, sometimes, in my memory, to realize gifts that I perhaps have taken for granted, or disdained, or allowed to become stale. In those long, sunny hours, caught whenever possible, I remind myself of the great skill of recognizing a gift when we have it. In this way, I am teaching myself to be thankful for simple gifts.