Walking Thoughts: Why Bother Writing?

While Pearl was at her piano lesson, I went for a walk on the country roads around her teacher’s house. I’d been holed up all day against a wild wind, and although the temperature has swung a full fifty degrees since this time last week, it felt good to move my body.

After five minutes or so on Station Road, I turned onto a small side street with a view of the mountains that are really more like hills. The sun was getting low in the sky and my ears burned with cold. It was right about then that I heard it. The tinny voice of doubt. The swimming thoughts, so familiar, old and worn:

There are so many voices. What do I have to add? Why bother writing? 

If you look very closely and the light is just so, you can see the faintest blush of red in the treetops this time of year. It’s not even a blush yet, more like a tease. Easy to miss, and easy to doubt what you think you just saw: Color. As I walked, bare hands stuffed in coat pockets along with my wallet, keys, and phone, these lines came to me:

Oh, just love your restless heart. Love it the way the wind whips the craggy apple tree and the solemn birch. Love it like the light lowers before snapping you back to attention.

And it was then that I said hi to God.

(Some folks will stop reading now at the mention of God. That’s ok; it’s none of my business what “God” evokes for you. If it smacks of white patriarchy, I can assure you that’s not it for me. I could not describe God if you asked me to. All I know is that in that moment on my walk, I realized God and I have not been hanging out as much lately, and that’s exactly what I said. Out loud.)

“Hi, God. It’s me. We need to get together more often. Want to walk together?”

In the next part of the walk, a new series of thoughts came rolling in like waves. I looked at the still-bare trees, the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t hint of spring color, and got super existential all of a sudden. (Sometimes talking to God gets me way down in the microcosms, but today was the opposite.)

The sky I was looking up at, the ground where each footfall landed — none of this will be here forever. The word “forever” echoing into infinitude, impossible to grasp.

I took out my phone and sent myself a text.
Whirlpools in a vast ocean. The radical suggestion of not having to hurry. The suggestion of loneliness. A pull to stillness and movement and the paradox of these together. And the question of “why bother” now subsumed by wind, the kind that swallows even silence whole, like prey.

Earlier in the day, I had written a poem after Wind, Water, Stone by Octavio Paz:

WIND, SKY, SILENCE

Wind swallows silence,
sky lashes wind,
silence scolds the sky.
Wind, sky, silence.

Sky conspires with silence,
silence is a bowl of wind,
wind shapeshifts to sky.
Silence, sky, wind.

Sky keeps its distance,
wind moves carelessly,
sharp silence, deep slice.
Sky, wind, silence.

These refuse to be contained:
always becoming each other
and changing form.
Wind, silence, sky.

There really is nothing to figure out. In fact, as a phrase, “figure out” is a dicey one-two punch guaranteed to tumble me deeper into tiny whirlpools of even smaller thoughts. I could stir them with a stick from the woods all day long and discover nothing; all the really exciting stuff is happening out in the open waters where I live and love and work every day.

I’ve always gone through cycles with my writing, as well as with just about everything else in my life. I imagine we all do, in our own ways.

Clarity feels fantastic. It feels like power and momentum. Depression is a weighted blanket that makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning. The smell of thawing earth and warm rain makes my whole body want to run, like a dog in an open field. I favor periods when I’m focused, when ideas are flowing, and when I feel confident and loved. I’m still learning how to relax into and during times of relative quiet and calm. It’s easy to get addicted to emergencies or reliant on periods of prolific, if inexplicable, creative urges.

Here’s the thing: The internal landscape changes. The external landscape changes. The writing is sometimes an anchor, other times a buoy. It’s both a constant variable in my days and an ever-changing one. Kind of like God. Like love.

As a kid, one of my favorite books was Amos & Boris by William Steig. Amos is a mouse and Boris is a whale. They become the best of friends during an ocean crossing. They experience times both peaceful perilous. In the end, each saves the other’s life, and though one must live on land and the other at sea, they remain dear friends for all time. It is truly a love story.

What stays? Why bother writing?

Our time here is so short. Your voice — that singular vehicle for the stories only you can share and the thoughts only you can reveal — ripples like so many waves in this vast impermanent ocean of love.

I am sometimes Amos and sometimes Boris. Boat and water. God and walker. Silence and wind. Ocean and ground. When I’m starting to get swirled into questions about purpose and meaning, it’s usually a good time to just walk. To just talk to God. To not know. To settle into that, letting the questions rest and the answers come and go as easily as the wind, the light around the bend.

No One Gets Out Alive

Prayer Flag

Prayer flag, birch bark

Sometimes, when I’m walking, I write in my head. Actually, this happens a lot. Sometimes, I wish I could transcribe the words from inside my head. Sometimes, I repeat them, find a rhythm, kind of like when you really have to pee on a walk but hold it until you get home. Ha.

Sometimes.

This morning, I went for a walk after Pearl got on the bus. Her face was such a fresh sight. She is not thinking about bombings or terrorism. She is thinking about her birthday party and she wanted to know if I thought this was offensive: “All poets are fools, but not all fools are poets.”

I told her no, I didn’t think so — though it may well be true.

Step over step — I thought about Tikki Tikki Tembo and the way the Old Man With the Ladder saves first Chang, and then his brother with that dreadfully long, nearly fatal name.

Step after step. Breath after breath. Enter, exit, enter, exit. The one exit we all have in common is obvious to me as I walk, and later, I find myself wondering what price I’d pay for life, and whose. It’s odd, how my thoughts today come to this, to these. It seems extreme, but what I am thinking is: “I’d give my life for her, for them.”

There is a rhythm to walking. I stop and start once I’m down on the farm, less than a mile from my house. I look at the tiny buds in the sunlight. The hawk soaring over and away. I picture the tattoo I want on my right upper arm, a colorful hawk feather. Mani is the hawk.

There’s a birch tree in someone’s front yard, across from the Mormon church. The light behind it is beautiful. I feel that aliveness of cold air and the way walking is medicine and prayer without those words becoming meaningless.

I made Pearl two pieces of french toast. I thought about Brussels and how I’ve been to that airport. I was 14. That was almost 30 years ago. No one gets out alive, and yet this isn’t upsetting to me today, more fact the way seasons changing is fact or the way sun rising is fact or the way we need milk is fact.

Sometimes, I want to lie down on the ground and stay there a while, like a fawn. Quiet. Receiving sun and air and hawk overhead and nothingness but still very much alive. I want to twirl in the hills that are alive with music. I want to walk through alleyways so narrow you have to turn your body sideways just to pass through, a needle in time.

Sometimes, the moments and months and decades and centuries fall on top of each other like stones. There is a toppling. I look for a way in, and then I look for a way out, and it is the same opening.

Step, step, breath, breath.