Idle time

It’s spring in Montreal right now, and the city is slowly waking up and stepping hesitantly out into its still-unwashed streets with a cup of coffee in hand and thinking maybe, just maybe, today is a day for flip-flops. There is probably some space for a meditation on the costs vs benefits of closed-toe-footwear before the season’s inaugural street cleaning — but I drove to work today with the windows all the way down and here is what I thought about instead:

Idleness.

My new office is down by the canal, so to get there I can either take the 15 south (one of my favourite stretches of highway for the light alone plus a really nice curve) or I can take side streets through Westmount that wind down through an ancient stone tunnel, and then under the train tracks through another tunnel, and under the canal through yet another tunnel, and I end up in an industrial neighbourhood with a mishmash of warehouses, giant spray-painted concrete towers, tiny houses with vinyl siding, and a smattering of business with truly lovely 60s-vintage signs hung in places where almost no one will ever see them.

Today I took the tunnels and drove slowly, watching out the open window while I let the breeze dry my hair, and I started thinking about a walk I took down that street some time ago — around 7 years ago, now. It was the same kind of weather as it was today and as it happens, it was also the first time of that year that I wore flip-flops, and I remember that well because over the course of the very long and very spontaneous walk, my flip-flops bothered my feet almost continuously. But that’s not the point of this story.

The point of this story, at least so far, is that I remember the way I was feeling on that day, on that walk, so well I can almost summarize it, and driving to work today and looking out my driver’s side window at the weather I was almost expecting to see the backs of myself and my friend, heading down St-Remi toward the canal, talking and walking, or not talking, just walking down the hill.

I came unstuck in time a bit, maybe.

I had almost nothing on my mind that day except the moment to moment of what we were doing, and that, for me, is pretty rare.

Some context: I was in love with my friend, it was not going well, and I had a considerable and constant volume of hope invested in the matter that made most moments quite fraught with self-doubt and confusion, but that day he showed up out of nowhere and asked me to go for a walk and I said yes, and we walked all the way to Verdun for no reason at all. I was happy with the spring weather and excited by the company and the fact that it was his idea, and romantically buoyed because he wanted to do something with me other than, well, the usual.

Some very questionable romantic decisions were made around that time in my life (and yes that is the passive voice), but it was a really lovely walk.

But all of that — all the young stupid love and the flip-flops and the everything that came with it and after — was not what I was thinking about while driving past the ghost of my young self in my car today.

What I was thinking was how did I ever have time to take an unscheduled walk to Verdun in the middle of the day?

My kids were in daycare at that time, and I guess I was a student then, so I guess there are many reasons that my schedule was so different then than it is now.

If I’m being honest, I don’t miss that unstructured time. But I do get a little wistful for it sometimes. It’s a complicated nostalgia because the nostalgia is for a feeling that’s born out of moments and circumstances that are often unpredictable and never controlled, and nothing about the circumstances themselves invites me to relive them — it’s just the feeling. How the light was that day. How we walked and walked and walked. How calm it all was.

There’s a great phrase with a great Wikipedia entry attached to it: solvitur ambulando — “it is solved by walking.” The phrase is not an exact fit for what I was getting wistful about this morning, but it does come with an interesting story. Apparently St. Augustine — that old theologian who had the thing with the pears — was confronted with Zeno’s paradox about the infinite divisibility of time and space — that is, that because they are infinitely divisible, we can never actually arrive at a destination — and Augustine’s concise (and possibly tongue in cheek) solution (that admittedly does have a certain gravitas) was “it is solved by walking.”

Interesting side note, another dude apparently replied to Zeno’s paradox about the unreality of motion by getting up and walking away, so I’m thinking that Zeno either had a really great ancient sense of humour, or he thought his friends were all jerks who just don’t understand.

But, walking.

Many very smart people have written many smart things about walking. There have been enough lists compiled of writers who wrote about walking, or swore by it, or some variation on that that. It’s a thing, as they say. Walking.

When I was in France a year or so ago, I rented a car in Nice and drove to the medieval village of Eze, which is a tiny, sardine-crammed village so small I drove through it twice before realizing it’s actually mostly a parking lot. It was on my wish list of things to do in France, and in fact the only reason I had for going to the south of France at all, because I wanted to walk Nietzsche’s footpath.

I’m not so big into Nietzsche. At times I have completely hated him and I think the most joy I ever took from a Nietzsche novel was the time I went to a party at Sasha Manoli’s house and found a copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra on the back of the toilet tank. (I was later assured that it was, in fact, a hilarious joke, not that there was ever any real doubt in my mind.) But I still wanted to go to Eze and walk Nietzsche’s footpath, which is a meandering and very steep path leading from the top of a rocky mountain down to the Mediterranean Sea. When I say steep, I mean that it is a 427-metre (1400-foot) drop.

So I showed up in Eze, parked the rental car in the only parking lot, and walked a path that ended 427 metres below where it started, and then I turned around and walked up it again.

As I was doing so, I was thinking that Nietzsche must have been in way better shape than my liberal arts imagination had previously assumed. The story goes that he would walk down to the beach during the day, and at the end of the day walk back up, and that on his walks he would think about his writing.

I didn’t think much about writing, but I was wearing flip-flops, so.

It was easy to come unstuck in time on the side of a cliff between a medieval village and the sea while the sun beat down and the cliffs were so steep it was impossible to capture them in photos, and the sea really quite impossibly blue — a very different blue than blue Atlantic. The rocks were white and not worth collecting. Almost nothing was even worth noting in an individual sense — it only mattered as a great big giant whole. It didn’t ask anything more of me than to walk. There was a massive sense of peace, somehow, in walking a path on a massive cliff next to a sea.

I don’t do a lot of walking nowadays. There was a point a couple of years ago, in fact, that I tried to go for a walk and my feet got inexplicably sore and I realized that I hadn’t walked more than a block or two in nearly a year — it was the year I biked through the winter and in all forms of weather. I biked so much the muscles in my feet got lazy. It was something that took me rather by surprise.

I have since given up winter and all-weather biking in favour of being dry and appropriately dressed at the appropriate times and places, and with that my feet seem better adjusted. But I still have a terrible time with walking. Pointless walking, I call it.

It is a ridiculous intellectual struggle with myself to get myself to walk anywhere without a clear goal or purpose in mind.

It wasn’t always this way. I used to walk all the time.

When I was in high school, it was common practice to walk to friends’ houses who lived on the outskirts of town — to North River via the train tracks, or to Truro Heights via the Cobequid trail and the highway, or to Bible Hill (yes that is its real name) out past the Ultramar… it was a lot of walking. Often it was done with friends, but just as often it was done alone, quietly, in sun, probably in Birkenstocks, not flip-flops, and I enjoyed it. It was not urgent. It was very slow and it took up a lot of time, and the vistas were pedestrian and I did not engage with them. I just passed through — and it was a pleasant thing to do.

There have been some very good walks.

There was a walk I took a year and a half ago that changed the trajectory of my life, or so it seems to me. My step-sister and I got lost in the forest in Castlereigh and I picked up shotgun shells in my sweater pockets and we walked a fair distance apart and I figured out that I want to be part of the real world — enough of this imagined, hypothetical, thoughtful, considered, idea of a world. I want to be IN the world. Engage with it! Throw stuff at it! Connect with people in it.

That’s not to say I wasn’t existing in the world until that point — I certainly was — but there was a mental shift in the woods that day and the only way I can describe it is the feeling of the top of my head opening up. That’s a feeling I’ve been lucky enough to experience a few times, and although two of the times were when learning math, it can happen for much more subjective “aha”s as well. The only way I can think of to describe it is a feeling of ohhhhhhhhh/aahhhhhhh/I seeeeeeeee it, followed by the feeling that suddenly there’s a lot more space up there to work with because this giant mass of not-knowing has just been swept out and you’re left with gleaming circuits of Know.

It was a pretty great walk.

And yet in all this glory — with this track record of walking having brought about great mental shifts and feelings of massive peace and this and that, I still rail against doing it in favour of almost anything else.

I’ve made jokes before about being not so well-versed in the art of mindfulness. I have figured out a few hacks, though.

First, I am going to share the thing that inspired/informs my (recent) approach to mindfulness. It is from another great and storied tome — The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. These are its instructions on how to fly.

There is an art to flying, or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. … Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, that presents the difficulties.”

It names a few of the difficulties…

One problem is that you have to miss the ground accidentally. It’s no good deliberately intending to miss the ground because you won’t. You have to have your attention suddenly distracted by something else then you’re halfway there, so that you are no longer thinking about falling, or about the ground, or about how much it’s going to hurt if you fail to miss it.
It is notoriously difficult to prise your attention away from these three things during the split second you have at your disposal. Hence most people’s failure, and their eventual disillusionment with this exhilarating and spectacular sport.

So, difficulties. While not an exact corollary, my attempts at “being in the moment” are so infrequently successful that I’ve devised strategies to ever get to a state of mental calm something along the lines of throwing myself at the ground and missing. Those strategies all involve activities that propel me forward in space at a fairly rapid rate of speed, such that I am not able to to any other things at the same time.

The two favourites, at present, are running on a treadmill and driving.

And so it happened that while I was driving today, I was taking the tunnel route because I had just come from the gym, where I had just run 3km on the treadmill while staring at nothing and every time a thought came I told it “I can’t deal with you right now” (I was being a little testy with my thoughts today — I got kinder with them later) — and I was in the car on the way to the office with the window down and the sun and my wet hair and the wind coming in and warmth all around me I came unstuck in time again and walked with myself to Verdun in the midst of a relationship I’ve mostly forgotten, and walked the railroad tracks in North River and the forest in Castlereigh and the mountainside in Èze and the side of the 104 Highway in summer, and I felt overwhelmingly, beautifully, at peace.

Maybe, then, there is something to slowing down. To idleness.

Maybe I need to schedule some idle time.

Maaaaaaybe there’s something to this thing you call walking.

And now kids, I’m getting on an airplane, and I cannot wait for the forced calm and quiet and stillness that is about to surround me like pressure-stabilized air. And maybe — maybe — when I land I will go walking.

At the very least, I will take a cab.