So define Punishment: an act of perception

Terra Cotta pots in water

I began whittling away at my 49 hours of community service today to atone for the atrocious crime of turning right at a red light slightly too quickly.  To review, that is, in the smirking, sunny state of California, an undeniably reckless offense resulting in a $490 fine and a point on the culprit’s license.

I felt very fortunate to have my penalty reduced to community service as not only am I morally against the particular legislation that makes this grossly overindulgent fine legal but also more than willing to spend my time in a beautiful place connecting with my surroundings rather than spinning in a stuffy gray office chair making money as my soul is slowly sucked out by the overhead fluorescent lights.  After a few weeks of calling obsolete or flaky organizations through Project 22, the court division for community service projects, I managed to set up my first few hours scrubbing pots at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden.  I was ecstatic.  The job itself is menial and laborious but I saw an opportunity.

The morning was rainy and dreary as I climbed the hill; the volunteer coordinator, Grace, called me early to see if I’d like to reschedule considering how miserably cold it would be.  But by the time I got my purple rubber gloves on the sun already started glistening across benches of tiny potted succulents.  I was set up in a corner overlooking the garden’s private nursery enclosed by fresh smelling trees and crisp damp air and taking in big breaths of cleansing punishment.

UC Berkeley Botanical Garden

It drizzled lightly on and off throughout the morning as I diligently turned each terra cotta pot in my hand, scouring with the other.  I took the chance to listen to last fall’s episodes of  Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac.  The first few episodes I barely heard.  I couldn’t focus on the words but after about ten of them, my attention pulled inward and started to catch a phrase here and there. I saw the terra cotta pots staring up at me with their sharp cyclops eyes, poking out of the dirty puddle in front of me just as I caught Keillor in mid-poem, “luminous angels.”  The smell of algae and dirt filled me with warmth and I knew the spell was cast; my mind managed to focus long enough to attain that highly tuned, conscious and often ungraspable place of creativity that it so loves to avoid and fall into at the same time.

So I dwelled in this place for a few hours, listening to Keillor’s recitations and quick intellectual blurbs mixed with my mind’s own inadvertent random recollections.  A woman on her way by to her cozy office, smiled, and “looks like you’re being punished out in the rain with your hands in cold water.”  I relished in the irony of her comment and I’m not sure why but my mind took me back to when I was a child; my dad tried to teach me how to read a compass and though he started the lesson over more than once, each time with slower phrasing, I still wasn’t able to understand.

My first thought was: I’m glad I’ve got that figured out now.  My ability to comprehend my own direction has grown enormously.  Secondly, I realized that I have so many vivid memories of these little lessons I had from dad, maybe because I didn’t see him as often so they seem like more isolated events.  So to balance out my mind in this moment, I tried to figure out what I had learned from my mom.  I’ve done this exercise a couple of times before to less vivid avail but this time I held it in my hands, enclosed in wet oversized rubber gloves.  My mom taught me how to scrub, to do it over and over until there isn’t a speck left of imperfection.

I felt good about what happened today.  I felt like I had won; that this experience is a very good glimpse of what I love about life.


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