I walk to walk: the act has its own value, and the words, if they happen to arrive, are in the nature of a gift . . .
—Michael Dennis Browne, “Poetry and Walking”
My students do not walk to school. Most take the schoolbus or arrive in their parents’ cars, always plugged into their phones. A few ride bikes or skateboards, and Adam sometimes rode his unicycle; but Adam also kept juggling balls in his locker, and he never complained that he had nothing to write, as students often do. He had lived several novels and documentary films by the time he entered my sixth grade classroom, having been born in Burundi and raised in a Tanzanian refugee camp.
Adam emerged from his difficult history with joy and grace, and stories to write. I wonder if I would have survived as well. There is no way to know, and as I tell my students, we all have to find our own way to words. Like so many walking poets, Basho and Wordsworth and his countryman Michael Dennis Browne among many others, I find my way on my feet, walking through city parks and along Lake Michigan. I see cyclists, runners, dogwalkers, skateboarders, young mothers staring at their phones while their children nap in strollers, but very few people who walk to walk. Even those who appear to be fellow explorers do not always pay attention: once when a great blue heron rose over an abandoned railroad bridge in LaBagh Woods, I had to call out before a couple standing on the bridge looked up to watch its immense slow-moving wings.
A frequent walk is along the Chicago River, though it smells like a sewer in the summer heat. The park district has planted black-eyed susan, purple bee balm and prairie grasses that turn mauve when they go to seed. I greet familiar trees along the way: some with twisty trunks like the diagrams of human muscles under the skin, others with knobs like goiters, a venerable willow that needs regular haircuts so cyclists can pass under without being blinded.
My mother can no longer walk outside except with a walker that points her attention down to her own feet. She hopes to graduate to a cane. She lives above a lovely strip of park in downtown Seattle and misses the falling water and the flowering trees. On days when I feel rooted to my desk and my laptop, I think about what it might be to lose the ability to pocket my keys and walk out the door.
We writers need to abandon that Romantic cliché of the wild-eyed writer in his garret, drinking Starbucks or absinthe and writing wildly beautiful pages. Writers like all humans are travelers, and it is the traveling that generates the words, not the arrival. The first Adam must have walked in the garden to name all the plants and animals that had been made. Often my first steps toward a poem are to look for the name of what I just saw, like the all-black “duck” I saw this week in Montrose Harbor, which turns out to have been a coot. What a wonderful name, a pleasure in the mouth. Maybe it will bring me a poem. If not the coot, then some other wonder—could be a boat in the harbor or the arc of train tracks over the street—so long as we walk out the door and fully inhabit our world as we have found it and as we have made it. We are not complete by ourselves.
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