In my room, the world is beyond my understanding;
But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four
hills and a cloud.
-Wallace Stevens, “Of the Surface of Things”
Somewhere in my late twenties, I forgot how to walk. It may have happened earlier, though I wouldn’t have noticed, as I was still going through the motions.
I had walked a lot as a kid, rambling mostly through the suburban woods that surrounded our suburban home. My route invariably took me across backyard borderlands where the neighbors’ lawns were left untended, and fences went unrepaired. There were trails of flattened grass that led the way, and rank smells where the dribbling creeks broadened out into swamps, and clouds of gnats that swarmed in front of me like buzzing atoms. Two deepwater ponds lay within easy reach, providing undersized pickerel and perch in the Summer and risky skating in Winter. I also knew how to find the mires and eddying pools where frogs and newts and water striders lived, and the ramshackle log fort where my classmates stashed their dirty magazines and pilfered cigarettes.
For the most part, however, I wasn’t really looking for any of that. In fact, I wasn’t really looking for anything at all. I was more often happy enough just to be off on my own, away from the stony lot where my friends were playing tag or roughhouse football, or from the over heated living rooms where they lay on their stomachs, watching TV. Moving cautiously and quietly, I haunted the woods like a ghost, dressed in jeans, an old pair of work boots, and a dark plaid Pendleton shirt I had lifted from my father’s bottom dresser drawer. I imagine that in this dreamy wandering, I was acting out a kind of introspection, the way my father was apt to take to his car on weekends, enlisting my siblings and me for some seemingly errandless excursion. My walks were aimless and unanticipated, and they made the purposeful times more bearable. That, I suppose, is the first thing about walking I forgot.
The older I grew, the less time I spent in the woods. Real estate developers had found their own use for them, and like some newly discovered tribesman, I was caught between the push of a shrinking habitat and the pull of a larger social life. I got a job and, eventually, a car of my own. By the end of high school, walking had become a largely practical matter: the solution to a dead battery or a missed ride; the quickest route to my best friend’s house; a sedative exercise after some heated argument with my parents; or, when my courage allowed, a sly means of seduction in the midst of a Saturday dance at the YMCA.
When I moved to New York after college, I fell naturally into the habit of subways and buses and cabs. If I traveled around at all on two legs, I did so at a culturally correct near-jog, busily going to or coming from, and outpacing nearly everyone else on the sidewalk. There were a few years when, working in midtown, I took to strolling home on mild nights. But there was usually some shopping to be done along the way, or some other secondary purpose, and because my destination was set, the trip was never more than a reacquaintance with the familiar, a retracing of steps I’d taken a few days before. In any event, I soon took a job farther downtown, beyond the limits of my stamina and patience. And so gradually I lost sight of what it felt like to move about in the world under my own power. This was the second thing I forgot.
Strange to say, it was only recently that I recognized the extent of what I’d lost. I was in central Massachusetts, at the end of an unthinkably warm February day, pacing deliberately back and forth in the basement of the Insight Meditation Society. I could hear the muffled chitter of birds on the feeder outside, the creak of the wooden flooring upstairs, and the faint breathing of the other retreatants pacing alongside me. I could see through the windows that the sun was burying itself in a bank of yellow clouds, and I could smell the kitchen getting ready for evening tea. But more vivid than any of that was the simple sensation of walking: the gentle lift of my hamstrings, the delicate wobble of each foot as I pressed it down into the textured carpet, the roller-coaster rise and fall of my center of balance as I moved forward.
I had done walking meditation before, as kinhin on several Zen retreats, and had thought it nothing more than a few minutes of meager relief for my zafu-crippled knees. This was something different, though. Free to follow my own direction and take my own time, I felt as if I had slowly returned to my senses. It was, in some small way, a revelation.
Shortly after I returned from Massachusetts, still softened up from all the sitting and still enthralled by the reclaimed wonder of my own two feet, I stumbled upon an essay by Thoreau that my English Lit. professors had somehow overlooked. It clarified for me what had happened on retreat. One of the last pieces he committed to writing, it has the valedictory air of someone looking toward a place of final rewards, and the urgency of someone wanting to explicate a few important matters for those left behind. The essay is, Thoreau warns, “an extreme statement” and “an emphatic one.” Oddly enough, his subject is walking.
“I have met,” he tells us, “with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived ‘from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going ‘à la sainte terre’—to the holy land.”
Thoreau’s own writerly progress through his argument is, indeed, extreme at times: “We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return …. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.”
But this extremity hints at the deeper point he’s making—a point as radical, perhaps, as the Buddha’s—and in preaching his “gospel according to this moment,” Thoreau is not very far from preaching the dharma: “So we saunter toward the Holy Land; till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, so warm and serene and golden as on a bank-side in autumn.”
It’s a compelling reminder of not only how to walk but also why.
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