January.

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Roses don’t really bloom in January, yet I keep finding myself in the garden. The infinite rows of bushes are normally crowded with tourists, elderly locals, and teenaged Instagram models. But on a winter morning in Portland, nobody is pretending there are flowers to be found here. It’s me, the wind, and a lone gardener who is faithfully trimming the bare branches that will fill with color in a few month’s time. Maybe I’m missing the point of a rose garden, but I enjoy it most on days like today.

I crave the irony of a naked bush shivering in a January breeze with the nametag SHEER ELEGANCE hovering beneath. MARILYN MONROE doesn’t look any different from MOONDANCE, save the colors of rotting petals left over from the summer. Then there’s me, also shivering. All of us, a little dried out from winter air, tentatively lift our questioning eyes to an unfamiliar sun.

These bushes are someone’s livelihood, or at the very least a passion project, but to me they are kindred travelers. We are all growing towards something.

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The word switchback has been stuck in my head for weeks. It’s a good one. Descriptive, creative. Switchback is a word that says exactly what it means without you even realizing it.

Even the most novice hiker knows that switchbacks are a genius trick to get you up a mountain with as little resistance as possible. By making sharp zigzags up a steep slope, the altitude change is subtler. Without so much as stopping to catch your breath, you gain hundreds of feet. The only sign of progress comes at those 180 turns, the moments you recognize a familiar view from a new angle.

It can feel like you’re going in circles, a deja vu of similar trees and rocks and that one distant landmark, a bright red barn or giant billboard to remind you of the world you’ve escaped. But then you reach the top.

From there, you see everything. The landmarks and then some. And sometimes, from the right angle, you catch a glimpse of the switchbacks. Those carved paths that turned the massive into the manageable. Your calves tell a different story, of course, feeling the ache of every mile, but it’s hard to believe. It’s mysterious, you know. How nothing seems to change until everything does.

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Yesterday I went to the store and purchased extra strength 3M adhesive, industrial metal screws, and a case of coconut LaCroix. These items were necessary for my next task: affixing Oregon plates to my dusty silver Altima. In the damp, crowded Fred Meyer parking garage, I set about my work.

No one around seemed to notice or care what I was doing; surely far stranger things happen in grocery store parking garages. But I wished they would have. I am one to ache for ceremony, for ritual, and it felt like someone should come along and light a candle, say a prayer. This girl, this car, they belong here now. Something as superficial as a license plate doesn’t evoke a lot of meaning in our world, but it did for me.

Yet I was frustrated with this banal task and with my constant dropping of screws and loss of grip. I leaned my forehead against the open trunk of my car. I sighed. Then, unceremoniously, I finished what I’d started. There is little fanfare when it comes to change. It’s the last turn of a screw, when you don’t realize the job is almost over until it already is.

Alexa JenkinsComment