Monday, September 23, 2013

Five Reasons I Go on Walks

I will work late tonight. Today, in the day, as I stared at my to-do list, churning lists in my head, and going over endless futures too-quickly truncated by virtue of an attention deficit memory, all I wanted to do was go for a walk.

So come evening, I graded papers, wrote letters, and then, a-walking I went. 
I was accosted by Aravanis, striking looking transsexual women, who demanded money that I did not give. The one with the fieriest eyes stood her ground. She stared into my eyes, I into hers. She left. I sidled away.

I espied mannequins in saris with the pleats tightly in place over cold flesh, columns and columns of boxes made of aluminium foil, stacked on the sunmica and oil stained counters of CRP hotel, cane boxes by the dozen, electronic stores full of employees with eyes glued to the television, a discrete corner of a rundown building announcing "The Immaculate Centre for English Education", and a scary plastic rabbit with a wastepaper basket emerging from its distended stomach, looking out seemingly unseeing from the threshold of the Coronet hotel.

I saw a store called Eden selling its plants. Trouble in paradise much? I noticed a shiny Waterworks store that was the opposite of E.L.Doctorow's book about New York City in 1871. As hopeful as Doctorow is cynical, as flush with the marvel of modernity, as its eponymous book is sharply critical. 

And now I'm back, trying to make sense of this walk and other walks, because after all, nothing exists in real life unless written about now, does it?

In this quest for sense-making, I made a list. I like lists. This one is called "Five Reasons I go on Walks". 

(a) It is perhaps not incidental that I am also reading two books about walking. Teju Cole's brilliant, meandering, and yet very difficult to read book (also in New York City), "Open City" and Christoph Simon's "Zbinden's Progress". Both books are in the first person, narrated by walking protagonists. Cole's hero walks and narrates the city. Simon's Zbinden talks about walking. I must confess that as much as I would mildly recommend both, I will also confess to a caveat. The romance of walking, to me, is much more embedded in writing about walking than in the act of walking. Or in other words, one of my primary reasons to go on a walk (and really, no irony, pathos maybe, but no irony), is to write about walking.

For those attracted to said romanticism, I would highly recommend W.G.Sebald's "The Rings of Saturn". A year or so ago, in a very quiet cinema theatre in Madison, Wisconsin, I saw a movie inspired by this book. It takes viewers on a walking tour of Suffolk in the English countryside along the very same routes that Sebald's protagonist (himself perhaps?) takes. The movie was marginally haunting. But it took so much away from the inwardness of Sebald's walk. Suddenly the projection of his world was out there and it was so less promising than its description and its timbre in the author's head. Instead of his living, breathing view of the countryside, the movie replaced it with a ghost walking through a post-apocalyptic landscape. 

(b) On a slightly related, but perhaps completely unrelated note, am also re-reading David Foster Wallace's, I must relucantantly admit, rather lucidly brilliant commencement speech delivered at Kenyon in 2006. Read it for yourself. But here are a couple of spoilers. This is what he says about a liberal arts education.

"It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience."

And another; " to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out."

"It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

"This is water."

"This is water."

Sometimes I walk, just to drag myself into consciousness, into the present. Sometimes I walk to remind myself that my head hurts because I live in it far too long to do anyone any good. I walk to be aware.

(c)  One of Lydia Davis' stories reads thus:

Often I think that his idea of what we should do is wrong, and my idea is right. Yet I know that he has often been right before, when I was wrong. And so I let him make his wrong decision, telling myself, though I can’t believe it, that his wrong decision may actually be right. And then later it turns out, as it often has before, that his decision was the right one, after all. Or, rather, his decision was still wrong, but wrong for circumstances different from the circumstances as they actually were, while it was right for circumstances I clearly did not understand.

That's the end of the story. Yes. I know. 

A walk is like a short story. Like one of Lydia Davis' stories. It is inward and it is outward; it is that strange lucid world formed at the cusp of our seeing, feeling body and our rapidly firing sense-making synapses. It is our deepening present, it is our self-filled world, closer than ever before and yet strangely self-less.

(d) We live in times when points of view are being corralled into one camp, and one side. Danger abounds. Our histories are being compacted and our futures prepared. In such times of dense, thickening ignorance, I walk to remember difference. To see the city in all its manifestations, its variedly colored, aesthetically dissenting facades, and in its differential pasts and ongoing fighting presents imprinted all over its peeling faces. 

(d) At day's end, the fury of all my unfulfilled worlds presses down upon me. It is a strange, tense, weight. This world is strange; its sins accumulate. Things reach howling, searing pitch by end of day. How can they not?How after all can one manage days of of searing loss, of scouring desire, of bottomless and savage cruelty day after day? It all happens around us, and in the happening we erode. So every now and then, when it all feels too much and the external pressure far outweighs my internal resistance (and yes, I've drawn borders between myself and the world. Lacan was right.), I go for a walk.