“Walk This Way” by Andrea Greenwood – September 23, 2007
Story: Henry Hikes to Fitchburg by Don Johnson
One summer day, Henry and his friend decided to go to Fitchburg to see the country. “Ill walk” said Henry. It is the fastest way to travel.
I’ll work, said Henry’s friend, until I have the money to buy a ticket to ride the train to Fitchburg. We’ll see who gets there first!
His friend waved. Enjoy your walk!
Henry walked down the road to Fitchburg. Enjoy your work, he called back.
Henry’s friend filled the woodbox in Mrs. Alcott’s kitchen. 10 cents
Henry hopped from rock to rock on the Sudbury river.
His friend swept out the post office. 5 cents
Henry carved a walking stick. 25 miles to Fitchburg
Henry’d friend pulled all the weeds in Mr Hawthorne’s garden. 15 cents
Henry put ferns and flowers in a book and pressed them
His friend painted the fence in front of the court house. 10 cents
Henry walked on stne walls
Henry’s friend moved the bookcases in Mr Emerson’s study. 15 cents
Henry climbed a tree. 18 miles to Fitchb urg
His friend carried water to cows grazing in the grass in town. 5 cents
Henry made a raft and paddled up the Nashua River
Henry’s friend cleaned out Mrs Thoreau’s chicken house. 10 cents
Henry crossed a swamp and found a birds nest in the grass. 12 miles to Fitchburg
His friend carried flour from the mill to the village baker. 20 cents
Henry found a honey tree
Henry’s friend ran to the train station to buy his ticket to Fitchburg. 90 cents
Henry jumped into a pond. 7 miles to Fitchburg
His friend sat on the train in a tangle of people
Henry ate his way through a blackberry patch
Henry’s friend got off the train at Fitchburg station just as the sun was setting
Henry took a shortcut. 1 mile to Fitchburg
His friend was sitting in the moonlight when Henry arrived. The train was faster, he said.
Henry took a small pail from his pack. I know, he smiled. I stopped for blackberries.
Reading from Into the Silent Land, Paul Broks
… I’m on the train. I have a beer in one hand, and in the other, the paperback I have just bought, It’s about cosmology and I am trying to get some imaginative purchase on the immensity of it all. It’s the kind of thing I sometimes read as way of winding down. The grandiloquent prose (the velvet mantle of the night… cosmic symphony of the night…) and the big, round numbers (four hundred billion galaxies) have a soothing effect.
Cosmology and neuropsychology have absurdity in common. The raw facts are strange beyond imagination.
It sets me thinking about how the physical forces that twist the galaxies and roll the train along the track connect with the social and psychological forces that animate the passengers. The recalcitrant child and his weary mother, the old couple sitting in silence, the woman opposite who catches my eye, displays a micromomentory flicker of an eyebrow and smiles as the young man with an obscene message printed on his t-shirt takes the seat beside her. Fleetingly, she and I were complicit. I entered her mind and she entered mine. We can plot the motions of the planets, but how do you measure the force of a glance, or the weight of a smile?
Thinking these thoughts and looking at the people around me I entertain my self by seeing them for what, at one level of description, they certainy are: complex biological machines. Physical objects. I take a little thought journey behind their eyes, and all I see is darkness; then, looking to the window, against the dark, I see myself looking back at me, lost in a confusion of first and third person. The image in the window resembles a machine like the others on the train, but with an involuntary flip from third person to first, I’m back on this side of the reflection.
—From The Spirited Walker , Carolyn Scott Kortge
Early in my enthusiasm for walking, I strode to workouts with the eagerness of an infatuated suitor. I couldn’t wait to explore every aspect of this new relationship that made me feel so alive. I bought a black plastic sports watch to time my walks. Next came a portable tape player and a recording of up-tempo jazz to lift my mood on foot-dragging days. Before long, I’d found a group of walkers who worked out weekly with a coach. With a newcomer’s passion for adventure, I entered track meets for senior athletes and discovered a physical outlet for my love of challenge. Along the way I discovered that physical pursuits succeed or fail on the fitness of mental skills.
On a hot August weekend, (..I) paced nervously at the starting line of a 10K race and fretted about the heat. …. But I had a strategy in mind.
Among the walkers gathered for the event, I’d spotted a woman I recognized. Two days before, this woman had passed me in a shorter walk, moving easily ahead when I began to tire in the final minutes. … My goal was to let her guide me toward a better racing style. .. She was ten years my senior, a national champion in her age division. My footsteps fell into rhythm with hers. Our arms swung like pendulums in synch, creating a momentum that carried me. …Then slowly, the rhythm shifted. My feet lost the beat. My arms fumbled with the pattern. She began to pull ahead. In a flash, despair filled my head: I can’t keep up. It’s too hot. What am I doing here? A mental battle erupted.
For the next mile, I dodged the attacks of an internal ambush. I felt defeated — unable to meet my own goal. What’s the use? my mind chided. Disappointment blinded me and I stopped in the middle of the street. .. Why continue? For me, the race was over. My ego raged at humiliation… Stubbornly, I leaned into a head wind of self-criticism and regained my footing on the route.
Later, I approached the woman who’d walked away from me. “How did you do that?” I asked? I wanted to know how she stayed so steady. I wanted to know how she avoided the complaints and resistance that buffet me when I begin to tire. What does she do at that two-thirds point where I always want to stop? What magic keeps her moving?
“Oh,” she laughed. “There’s no magic. I just start singing ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ to myself.” I stared in stunned amazement. I couldn’t believe it. While I fought a frantic battle with resistance, she stuck a feather in her hat and rode away on the rhythms of a song. Abracadabra. Something flipped in my head. No magic. No mystery. No athletic wizardry. Her secret was nothing more than distraction–
I expected to grow up to be a mail carrier. For someone who liked to walk, but can’t really imagine doing anything just because I like it, it seemed the perfect job. Accomplishment, exercise, pleasure, steady pay…. and something I seemed to have a knack for. I still remember, with childish pride, my grandmother complimenting me on my speed and endurance as a four year old– she had left her car to be repaired, and I walked the several mile trip with her to go retrieve it, and did not slow her down. I enjoy being able to get someplace without relying on anything but my feet. It’s part challenge, and maybe part scale: I can see how big my universe can get, what the boundaries are, without opening myself up to overwhelming choice. Walking gives a perimeter for a life that I can actually be in; be present in.
There is something about walking, too, that is about connection. The summer I was twelve, I got up each day and set off to see how far I could walk on the beach. I wanted to get to the mouth of a river one town over without using any roads; but I also wanted to see how far I could get in a day. Of course, the changing tide made each attempt a different challenge, but what really happened that summer was that I got to know that shore intimately. I knew the shape of the rocks and where it was slick; I knew the hidden beaches and tide pools; where there were thorn bushes and abandoned logging roads. It was not just observation; a detached inventory of my surroundings. It was about inhabiting that space, and also being inhabited by it. I noticed every minute change — what was lost to erosion, what the tide brought in, what was brought to life in different weather. Inhabiting a landscape like that helps us develop a sense of home. Children are often like this in church buildings, I have found. They know every oddity and detail; every hidden corner and unused relic. Physical knowledge can give us the area within the circumference, too — a center to live out of that is truly whole.
There was, for me, in walking both a boundedness and a sense of freedom that derived from the very concrete knowledge of my world. There were no abstractions; just sensory information to be absorbed by the “complex biological machine” that was me. This did not happen in isolation. My rule was to set out using only the shore, but to return on the road, so I continually met the same people who were either driving or out working. They would inquire about my progress, or share their stories. This is the root of the inner life; the interior corresponding to an external world that may be evocative, but is not abstract. Rory Stewart’s travelogue about walking across Afghanistan, The Places Between, alludes to this indirectly. Stewart is something of a prodigy who moved rapidly through the British school system and then through the foreign services, and then quit in order to walk around the world. He writes: “I felt quite detached from the landscape. I wondered how I might connect my Afghan walk to my walks in Iran and Pakistan….
“I thought about evolutionary historians who argued that walking was a central part of what it means to be human. Our two legged motion was what first differentiated us from the apes. It freed our hands for tools and carried us on the long marches out of Africa. As a species, we colonized the world on foot. Most of human history was created through contacts conducted at a walking pace, even when some rode horses. I thought of the pilgrimages to Compostela in Spain; to Mecca; to the source of the Ganges; and of wandering dervishes, sadhus, and friars who approached God on foot. The Buddha meditated by walking and Wordsworth composed sonnets while striding beside the lakes.” Stewart is looking for peace; trying to end the restlessness in his soul; says that he hopes he will become more rooted in one place if he just keeps moving; starts counting his breaths to help him push away thought, and just be. He manages to achieve at most an hour of internal calm a day — not what he was looking for, but, he says, it was a serenity he had not felt before.
Perhaps you are familiar with the African story about some explorer making a long trek, and using coolies to carry the loads. The explorer was quite pleased because on the first day the laborers were compliant, and marched very quickly, and had gone a great distance. Naturally, the explorer recalculated his expectations, and wanted them to go at least that fast and that far on day two. But the second morning these jungle tribesmen refused to move. No matter the threat or the enticement, they just sat and rested. Finally the explorer asked why they would not move, and was informed that they had gone too fast the first day, and that they were now waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.
I like this image because it implies a natural unity while describing a dualism that we actually take for granted: That the mind and the body are separate. This story is far more complicated than it may first appear — we may take it as instructive; a zen lesson of connecting to our own bodies, something those simple, primitive people do instinctively, but that we cannot do without years of disciplined meditation classes; or without trekking across the middle east. But this story reveals our own inability to start from the point of inhabiting the physical machine that does, in fact, define us. Rory Stewart’s story — although not a typical one — is something we probably identify with. It is a version of living that is not quite direct. Everything is filtered for meaning even before it is experienced. The body is not fully inhabited as it walks or stretches or strives to live. Instead we think about walking, we think about exercise, about breathing, about meaning. We wonder when our souls will appear in our bodies, and how we will know; and if our bodies fail us we wonder why, and what we did. I wonder how many of us do this to ourselves, and why. When do we switch from marking physical milestones to mental ones? With children, we obsess over first teeth; over height and weight and even head circumference. If someone measured the bumps on your head as an adult, you would think him terribly anachronistic, racist, and a few other things. But we happily let pediatricians take out the tape measures, and faithfully record the numbers in our baby books. We really believe in the physical nature of life; in the bundle of cells that sleeps and eats and eliminates and grows. For me, I know that it is in part a belief that the exterior act reflects some inner meaning — for example, I was enormously excited that one of my children took his first steps right into Martin Luther King’s house in Atlanta; and it felt hugely significant to me that another first walked on the porch in my great grandmother’s cottage the day after my father’s funeral. Somehow these steps make — in my mind, at least — justice and family connection a more real inheritance. They make visible that which is not.
Maybe that gets at the real issue. We use the physical world as a hunting ground; a place to look for proof that we are good people; to collect evidence that we are not defined by the mistakes we have made or the failed attempts that nag at us. We scan the world to find that we fit in somewhere; to see that it all coheres, and adds up to something. To see how wrong this is, all we need to do is think about those who use wheelchairs, or canes. The reading from the Spirited Walker makes race walking into a moral judgment, and advises us to distract ourselves in order to achieve. But shouldn’t the goal be the opposite? To NOT be distracted; to not make our lives into a series of tasks to do each day in order to be a good person? The author seems to believe that in order to win, she has to trick her mind into mastering her body. I think she has it backwards. Changing a behavior; changing a habit, can actually change your brain — can make you encounter different things, which lead you in new directions, but can also change how you feel. I was talking to a family about the whole issue of sports with kids who don’t do their school work. There are a lot of angles on this one — involving words like “allow” “force” “achieve” etc. Underneath it all, naturally, is a desire that the child become competent, find pleasure, contribute to the world. But we don’t always agree on how best to help that happen, and we do tend to return to the list of failures as a set of worry beads, certain that past problems will grow; that each new effort will add another bead to the chain, until we can hardly lift our heads from the weight of it all. As we were talking, suddenly the dad in this family burst out, “Oh my God, my brother! He was a horrible student, all the way through. Then in ninth grade, he started playing sports, and it was so weird! He was on the honor roll every term after that.” Since the child in this family is entering ninth grade, this was a very helpful memory; but so is the information that the body may be a source of brain growth; that the visual spatial skills acquired in fielding a ball can carry over to writing and geometry; or that the endorphins released while running work better than antidepressants. The brain responds to the body’s discipline just as much as the body is effected by mental effort.
I started this sermon because of a conversation Mary Schilvek and I had last spring. Some of you know Mary; she is a member here. Mary was raised Christian Scientist and we were talking about the problem she has had motivating herself to use her body as a legacy of that faith. She said she was raised to believe in the mind’s ability to control the body, but that now that she is in her 90s, she no longer truly trusts her mind. It keeps telling her to relax and to rest, but if she does that, her body will fail. She needs to not give in. The problem is, she has no muscle memory of pleasure or excitement, and her cognitive memory is no longer reliable. What is there left to go on? Like the story from the Spirited Walker, it seems that she needs to distract herself into continuing — but it is a more interesting problem, too, because her mind is not beating her up and calling her a failure! Her body and her mind are both telling her to relax — yet she does not feel unified. There is still the disquiet we associate with inner conflict, which raises the question of its source. She wants to live; to be physically alive — but having always used her mind to keep active, is not sure what to do. What do you trust? When everything we are taught has us relying on our own self, controlling ourselves, how do we suddenly learn to trust the universe; to identify with something outside?
I think we respond to the story about the African workers resting; taking time, because it captures some of the tension that pervades discussion about nature and nurture. There is no self consciousness in the story; just a simple refusal to let the body be overworked; an insistence on bringing their souls along; and all done in the face of an authority figure. Each of us is born with certain dispositions and tendencies; we exist in conditions that shape us in one way or another; that encourage sets of skills or behaviors, and perhaps what we really need is to learn how to embrace ambiguity; or to accept the idea that wholeness comes from all truth, not the truth. Even though we spend a lot of time looking for affirmation, what we really want goes deeper than that. It isn’t just that we’re good; it is that life is good; that it is interesting and meaningful and moving. Recently I was reading a book by the psychology professor Jerome Kagan called An Argument For Mind, in which he writes about himself as a twelve year old, finding a dead squirrel, wrapping it up and sneaking it up to his bedroom, where, with a kitchen knife, he slices open its belly and probes its life giving organs. When I read the sentence, “the glistening intestines evoked a feeling that may have resembled the state of a future cosmologist staring at the Milky Way at two in the morning”, I thought of two things: Paul Broks, whose book on neuropsychology I read from earlier; and my own Sunday school experience, which was in the 60s and was based in science. We hatched baby chicks and had the ascent of man marching around the walls of our classroom. It seems odd that science can be the home of these debates over truth residing in mind or body; or of character being contingent upon nature or nurture. Science seems to be where we can find unity; where we can be filled with wonder, and reverence, and we can be literally surrounded with examples of why. Life is miraculous. Kagan — the psychologist; the believer in the mind — cannot describe his feeling, but he invokes cosmology — the sense of finding meaning in the universe. Broks, the neurologist; the believer in chemistry, too, soothes himself by thinking about the physical forces that twist the galaxies into shape.
We are raised to believe that meaning is personal; invisible, created from memories and dreams and aspiration; is not so much of the physical world as above it. But the connection between mind and body cannot really exist on a purely individualistic level. Once we give status to the physical world as equal to the metaphysical, we have to talk communally; we have to include the body of the world. Genuine awe and reverence move us beyond the completely personal — they are both deeply interior, and wonderfully exterior. Being at home is cosmological — both desperately specific and unspeakably evanescent. But they are connected, as Mary demonstrated for me in our conversation. Mary and I like to talk about words, and these are ones she brought to the table. The Greek noun for “house” and the verb “to dwell” have as their root another word, which means clan. It is the social unit above the house, and it points to a definition of home as something a little more than just the place where you take to your bed, or where you eat your breakfast. The place where we dwell is about the people with whom we spend our days; and the land upon which we live. It is all related — even when we might wish it were not so. The word parish also has this root; it literally means “beside the house” (as opposed to in it) — but is translated to mean neighbor, sojourner, stranger. All three. Doesn’t that complexity capture the truth of our relationships;? the wariness and the closeness; the edge to our welcoming; our clannishness; or desire to reach out and to include; and our simultaneous need to hold something precious for ourselves? Don’t these common roots tell us to travel the distance between self and home; between my home and yours; to travel the roads of the village and bind all into one; to see the universe as belonging to all life? Take a walk through woods and across streams to reach the town, and stop for berries; make eye contact with the stranger across from you; notice the mystery before your feet. And also, fight for accessibility so that everyone else, regardless of circumstance, can be in those woods; can cross that stream; can be in and of the town as equal neighbors. When I say “taking walks” what I really mean is, be in the world with your senses, which are not really in your head or in your body, but are what keep you tethered to the world.
Thoreau once wrote that he had met only one or two persons who understood the art 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 pretence of going à la sainte terre — to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, ‘There goes a saunterer ‘— a holy-lander. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without home, which, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.” Either meaning works; walking to connect; to find a path to what has been sacred; or walking because we have no home but the bone house that is our shelter. We walk to know our world, and bring it home.
Closing Words from Walking, HD Thoreau
The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours — as the swinging of dumb-bells or chairs; but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day….
you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking.
When we walk we naturally go to the fields and woods….I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. … it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is; I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses.