I’ve lived in Oak Park for almost 36 years. My children went to school here. A substantial amount of my work took place here too. I’ve made friends, been involved in religious and social groups, and city government, but my relationship with Oak Park changed with the onset of the pandemic.

I was recently retired and ready for new adventures when my world suddenly shrunk. There was no more traveling, I quit my gym, and stopped seeing friends in-person. Restaurants were limited to carry-outs. Connections took place on Zoom. It was not the same.

Previously, when I would run outdoors, I concentrated on the terrain and my pace, not what was all around me. When I switched to walking, the previously invisible scenery became real, and immensely interesting and personal. A Zen moment. I became one with Oak Park.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve walked about 1,300 miles, most of it within several miles of my south Oak Park home. I’m interested in architecture and I began to look at the details, original and renovated, of the 100-plus-year-old homes and buildings in my neighborhood. I discovered the hidden treasures of trees, landscaping, children’s sidewalk art, and the birds, squirrels, rabbits and, most recently, ducks and chickens that make up our wildlife.

I’ve said, ‘Hi, good morning, or good afternoon’ to most everyone I’ve passed. Many answered, or at least smiled, pleased someone was paying attention to them. I’ve had conversations with strangers about the pandemic, the weather, shoveling, dandelion removal, and so much more. I cheered for the runners. I made nice to dogs on leashes. I walked the high school track, and the concrete paths around and through our parks. Out of necessity, I discovered where the public and commercial bathrooms were located.

Two and a half years ago, the pandemic shut our world down. To my surprise, my response to COVID was to open my eyes and appreciate what was around me all along, in my home, my Oak Park.

Gary Mark Belenke
Oak Park

Join the discussion on social media!