And we’re walking…

Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time. -Steven Wright

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In late summer I hurt my knee in what some might call a misguided attempt to take up running. They might call it that because I have made such attempts before, always ending in injury to one knee or the other.

I experienced pain and difficulty walking for weeks, though bike riding seemed to help and didn’t exacerbate the injury. But I reached a point at which my knee wasn’t improving and it was hampering my mobility to a degree that I found frustrating. And, truth be told, I still harbor a desire to take up running – perhaps not marathoning, but I’d love to be able, one day, to say I’ve run a 5k. So, I decided that cycling needed to share time with weight-bearing exercise, and I started walking. On my first walk (around Lake Calhoun, a perfect 3.1 mile – or 5k – circuit) I clocked in at around 1.5 hours and could barely self-ambulate to my bike, much less pedal, for the ride home.

I’m not going to lie: after a summer of cycling, walking seemed tedious. Plus, let’s face it, “I went for a walk” doesn’t have the same cachet as “I just got back from a run”. At first, I stuck with walking because it was the only thing I could think to do that would, eventually, lead to normal functioning AND the opportunity to try running again (after all, my friend and award-winning running coach Ryan Scheckel has assured me that running is, in fact, possible for me).

But a funny thing happened as I committed to walking daily. I discovered that the act of walking opened me up in ways I never anticipated.

First, it opened my eyes. I began to understand the layout of the city, especially my neighborhood (Whittier) and those surrounding it. The pieces of this urban puzzle began to come together for me. Then, I found myself noticing details I had missed in riding or driving through the neighborhoods. Occasionally, I would take a picture with my phone and show it to Mike. He’d say, “Where is that? How come I’ve never seen it?!” This led to the Instagram project in which I post a daily photo of Minneapolis. While it may seem like a silly thing, the daily photo project has been a way of connecting, albeit tenuously, with like-minded people in this vast city. And the sheer fun of discovering new things each day has added to the measure of joy in my life. In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit writes, “Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors… disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.” This is especially true for city dwellers, and I love occupying these “in-between” spaces.

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A second thing that walking daily has done is opened my heart to the strangers around me. It isn’t unusual to have short, pleasant and quite interesting interactions and conversations with people on the street – when I stop to take a photo or we’re waiting at the crosswalk. On the next block is a center for the blind, and I often meet folks coming or going on the sidewalk, using their walking sticks expertly. We exchange greetings and shy smiles. As I walk, I try not to avert my eyes from signs of suffering, or to look past the individuals who ask me for a handout. I agreed to buy breakfast for one young man, who then surprised me by asking the server what the least expensive item on the menu was, and ordering that. I saw a woman walking down the sidewalk crying and in obvious misery. We made eye contact, and she shook her head slightly as she passed, as if to say, “No, you can’t help this.” I like to think she knew I wanted to. As in any city, the mix of affluence and poverty, of hope and despair, of insiders and outsiders is apparent daily. As I walk, my heart tries to embrace them all.

Perhaps the most important kind of opening walking has brought to my days is a spiritual one. It doesn’t matter how worried or anxious I am when I step out the door, walking brings me calm. With that calmness comes the ability to to relax into a prayerful state that I find difficult to achieve in other circumstances. Praise, gratitude, supplication, even a kind of meditative trance all flow with ease. “Walking is the great adventure, the first meditation, a practice of heartiness and soul primary to humankind. Walking is the exact balance between spirit and humility”, says the poet Gary Snyder. Finding the balance between spirit and humility is, I find, a necessary prerequisite for open communication with God. It is too often the case that my daily worries loom overly large in my mind. There is no perspective available when your sense of self is overinflated to the point of panic – instead of communion, what occurs is melodramatic monologue. And really, who among us wouldn’t benefit from a reduction in that?!

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. -Soren Kierkegaard

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Becoming One With the Light: The Candle of Joy

Note: I have been writing, in December, on the themes of the Advent wreath. This week’s theme: The Candle of Joy. I out-ran a blizzard last night in order not to miss one day of my holiday time with my family – causing my departure from home early, with many things undone – including my weekly weigh-in and this week’s photo of the Candle of Joy. In a few hours, I will be with my parents and this candle will be burning brightly in my heart. I hope you don’t mind this trade-off!

It should be easy to write about joy. At least, that is what one immediately thinks. After all, we know what brings us joy: family, love, laughter, right livelihood.  And we can certainly write about those things. However, joy, the thing itself, is a bit slippery as writing topics go. At least, as this week has progressed I have found it difficult to write anything true or meaningful about joy. Why is that?

First, it seems that everything I’ve tried to say has been impossible to express without sounding hokey (at best) or insincere (at worst). It is much easier to write believable prose about despair or death or darkness, in part because we often feel the impetus to express these difficult extremes carefully, so that others can understand the exact shade or quality of our emotion. When it comes to joy, we assume everyone experiences it similarly. It is like the Tolstoy quote: “All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Our darkness is unique, our light is universal – or so it can feel when we try to capture it in words.

Second, joy is not the same as mere happiness (not to dis happiness, which is awesome!). Joy is something at once deeper and more profound than happiness, it seems to me. One of my all-time favorite movie scenes captures this beautifully. In “Immortal Beloved“, a deaf Beethoven (played by Gary Oldman) stands on stage during a performance of his “Ode to Joy”. As he watches the orchestra play, hearing the music he wrote only in his imagination, Beethoven thinks back to the night which inspired this particular musical masterpiece. He is a boy who has escaped, for one night, his abusive father. He has run into the woods, and come to a pond. The boy gets into the water and begins to float on his back, staring up at the milkyway, which is reflected in the water around him. The boy, the water, the stars: they merge into one. The boy becomes one more shining point of light within the night sky; one tiny but essential part of the cosmos. And in this moment of union and communion with all of creation – JOY.

That, friends, is what I have been unable to express this week. Joy, as opposed to happiness or love or other good-to-great feelings, is experienced in such moments of one-ness with all of creation. There is much written about making deep joy sustainable through spiritual practice. Who am I to claim whether that is possible or not? I only know that I haven’t achieved that level of dharma or mystic union or Godliness in my own life. I have had moments, crystalline in their beauty and etched eternally on my heart, when joy has surprised and humbled me. The promise of Advent is that such joy is available to us all – as a gift. We have only to open our hearts and allow ourselves to receive it.