Why walk? – Every time, it’s time away.

What is walking good for?

Losing myself in thought and sometimes in space
Getting where I need to go
Carrying on good conversations with friends old and new
Doing errands and learning how many things I can carry at once
Taking a stand in marches with friends and strangers
Grieving the loss of a friend or family member
Letting my mind go into itself and into the walk, often with unexpected results
Exploring new places – in small towns, wild & wide open spaces, and tightly-packed cities
Enjoying the familiarity of the same path over and over again
Mulling over next steps, thinking ahead through tricky situations
Whatever the weather, feeling it through skin and bones and ears
Getting away from my desk and out of the house
Putting muscles, bones, and joints to use, temporarily getting rid of the occasional arthritic pain in my right hip

In May this year, I decided to keep track of a month of my walks, mapping them after the fact, describing them briefly, noting what took me outside, and seeing where and how far I went.

What more is walking good for?

Timing my arrival at doctors appointments and work dates with careful precision
Smelling the wind, the trees, and of course the blossoms
Chatting with friends and strangers I meet along the way
Talking with nearby birds and small critters – squirrels, cats, dogs, a rabbit, and a raccoon
Feeling the satisfaction of my feet solidly hitting the ground
Finding new ways to get to familiar places
Allowing time for aimlessness
Listening to all the sounds I walk through
Getting unstuck and centered
Discovering new staircases, vistas, and untraveled short cuts
Following alleyways, water edges, railroad tracks, and back roads
Trying to come to terms with civic crises and figure out what I can do
Letting off steam
Simply enjoying the parallel motion of mind and feet

To make up for the fact that I didn’t have a map for every day in May – some days I either forgot to make notes or didn’t get out much – I made a record of a few good walks in June. In fact, it was hard to stop the recordkeeping, though I’m glad I did. I didn’t use a “fitness tracker.” It’s been clear, after listening to friends who use them, how easy it is get hooked on those electronic devices. It’s an obsession I don’t want.

Looking back at these records, I notice that, in this particular month, many of the walks I think of as favorites are missing – in towns and landscapes outside Seattle, political marches and rallies, through industrial areas or along railroad tracks, around the arboretum, along the waterfront, through Interbay and over the locks, and anywhere with grandkids. It’s definitely time to get outdoors and walk, right now.

What took me outside?  Where and how far did I go?


Time away . . . calm, solitary, and uninterrupted?

Or maybe wild, accompanied, and interrupted?

Last month I spent two weeks on an island, in a beautiful home tucked in the forest, with a view looking south over the water. The evening sunset on the first night, after Heather and Greg – my friends and the home’s owners – left for Mexico, looked like this:

And the woods were lush and green with moss and ferns and trees on top of trees.

Pretty idyllic, right?

I was working on a gnarly question I’d posed to myself and had imagined that a stretch of calm, solitary, uninterrupted time was just what I needed to tackle it.

I was wrong.

First, I was wrong to assume I’d have two calm, serene weeks. The beauty remained, and I wouldn’t want to have missed all the forms it took while I was there. But after that first sunset, the wind and storms picked up and the beauty took a wildly different form. I’d been warned that the island could be windy, but it kicked into the extreme . . . gusts up to 50 miles an hour, I heard later. Big branches landed in the roads, a door in the house blew open, and things outside got tossed around. In early morning, the power went out across the island, only briefly, but the outage may have triggered the string of other little interruptions over the next few days – the geothermal heat pump stopped working, I couldn’t figure out how to turn the stove top back on, and one night the smoke alarm over my bed began chirping.

All this meant I also got to know islanders, like the folks at the island hardware store (where I bought space heaters and then smoke alarm batteries) and the neighbor up the road who helped me install the batteries when the chirping started in the middle of the night.

Even after the weather and surprise home tasks calmed down, I had one of those crazy-making, computer-based meltdowns that consumes a day in a minute.

Then, I was wrong about the benefits of being solitary. After all, Fergie came with the house and was my companion for the two weeks. Sharing my life with a dog was new to me.

She and I took walks twice a day, up Buck Mountain in the morning and somewhere farther away for a longer adventure in the afternoon.

I learned that living with Fergie came with both costs and benefits, with responsibilities and interruptions but also with the joy and comfort of companionship. I’m not ready to find a dog of my own, but I would not have traded those two weeks with Fergie for something closer to complete solitude.

I was also wrong to anticipate that being out of my normal routine would provide a long stretch of internal focus and calm. One afternoon early in my stay as I was still learning my new routine, I began to prepare for venturing out in the rain to do a few errands and take a walk with Fergie. Did I have the leash, the doggie treats in my pocket, the car keys, my umbrella and scarf, the flash drive for printing at the library, the grocery list, my driver’s license, the doggie poop bag? What had I forgotten? And while figuring it out, Fergie, with her extrasensory powers, tried to be patient (sort of), circling me by the door, chomping at me in her friendly way, waiting for this slow human to get her act together. Putting my shoes on (I’d left a couple of pairs right by the door to make it easy) was the final step before going out. Our flurried departure was hardly calm.

After a short drive to the town library, I stepped out of the car and noticed my feet. I paused a moment to consider how ready I was to show off my new fashion statement, and then I went inside to print.

Most of all, I learned I was wrong about needing serenity and no interruptions in order to tackle the work I’d brought along. Sometimes I need extended stretches of quiet time. But for this “time away” that wasn’t what I needed. I needed a wildness and a companion and all those interruptions. I didn’t answer my question. I didn’t “solve” my problem. Instead I learned that, like other puzzles in real life, it doesn’t have an easy or a simple solution. Living with my gnarly question, which itself involves a mix of dark and light, anxiety and hopefulness, was well matched to my time away on the island.

Those two weeks were a gift that will grow in value over time.


Time away at home, addendum

Yesterday was a perfect time-away day at home.

After spending the first hour of the day letting friends know about new pieces added to my blog (a task that gives me a satisfying sense of completion), I put some notes, my laptop, and an umbrella in a small pack and, with my pack on my back, headed out for a long walk. Despite a weather forecast of clouds and rain with a possible thunderstorm and hail, I planned to be out much of the day on a course I would determine as I went.

I walked a few blocks before stopping for breakfast at a neighborhood coffeeshop, where I also read through past notes for a complicated piece I’m trying to write. Part-way through the longer next leg of my walk, the sun began to prove the forecast wrong. What a gift! After a couple of miles of steep, winding streets and views of the Cascades,  I stopped  for coffee at a tiny coffeeshop where I struggled to find a path through the ideas in the writing. I didn’t actually pull out my computer, but I found at least a preliminary place to begin and started out again. The sun had taken over completely as I headed down the hill attracted by a set of stairs I hadn’t walked before and then headed straight east toward the Aboretum.

A map of my walk made after the fact

Just before reaching the park, I stopped at a cafe/coffeeshop for lunch. I fiddled with my notes as I ate, but forced myself to actually begin before I left. By the time I walked out, clouds covered the sky and the rain had begun. Umbrella up, I headed into the Arboretum and followed a trail along the west edge that I hadn’t walked before, with pines at the start and hollies toward the end. The treat at the end of the trail was a bakery/cafe just outside the park entrance. Over another cup of coffee and a treat, I made pretty good progress in my writing, at least getting a few thoughts into a document on my computer. Sheets of rain came down while I worked.

A bit later, bright sun pulled me outside again, this time to walk an almost straight line home. The straight line I’d walked before reaching the park was level, this one definitely was not. My quick estimate of the elevation gain on one specific block – a short one, at that – was about 65 feet, though it felt like a 45 degree angle. After I got home, the energy of the walk continued and I worked for another hour or so.

The piece I’m writing is far from done, but the day convinced me that interesting places to walk and let my mind wander are another requirement of a satisfying time away.


Ah . . . for time away!

Lately I’ve been longing for a time away but haven’t managed to pull one off for way too many months. So, inspired by my friend Mary, I’m trying to create a short one right here, where I live.

Mary and I go a long way back. In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, she and I each headed up an artist-centered organization, she in New York City, I in Seattle. From time to time we’d threaten to exchange jobs, each convinced that it must be easier in the other’s city. Today she’s an artist in her own right, a writer of poetry and librettos who often collaborates with composers, video artists, and others.1 Once, when we were talking about my need for retreats and times away, she declared, “What I want is a retreat right here on Montague Street!”

Montague Street

Today, my calendar opened up with at least three, maybe four, absolutely blank days. With no time to plan a trip out of town, it was finally time to take up Mary’s challenge.

Reflecting on what makes a rewarding time away brought back memories of the one I consider to be my first. In early 1989, I had just finished two large projects that ran consecutively, each of which alone could have been all-consuming. “I deserve a reward,” I thought to myself. After events involving many smart but strong-willed people, project deadlines, and financial pressures – the gift I gave myself was a retreat, a chance to get away, to be quiet and alone for a while, to think and walk and read. My partner of the time thought I was a little nuts, wanting to go off and spend time by myself.

Madame Marie’s Suite (from Palace Hotel website today, it’s a little fancier than in 1989)

I didn’t go far. I got a room for a week at the Palace Hotel in Port Townsend. Built in 1889, the Capt. H.L. Tibbals Building housed the hotel, which, according to the hotel’s literature, operated as a brothel from 1925-33. I spent the week in “Marie’s Suite,” named for the Madame of the house. From her corner room on the second floor I had a nice view down to the intersection of Tyler and Water Street, Port Townsend’s main downtown drag. I moved the furniture around to put a table in front of the window. Natural light and some sort of view, I now know, is an important aspect of my times away.

Palace Hotel with Marie’s suite on the corner behind a tree that wasn’t as big in 1989

Among the essentials I packed up to take along was the first computer I ever owned, a Mac 512 acquired in 1985. Weighing 16.5 pounds, it was fondly called “the luggable” back then, as “portable” was not yet an adjective used to describe computers.

Other essential materials for a time away are a few books, paper and pens, and good walking shoes. Without having to pack them in, I have all these things, albeit slightly updated, here at home.

What I don’t have here is the focusing isolation offered by being in a different space and a less familiar community, away from the many daily little tasks that are always present at home. My will power will be tested.2

««««««•»»»»»»

1 Mary Griffin and “Blue” Gene Tyranny, “Recollections: Songs from Aphasia,” presented at Roulette last year.

2 Of course, now I’ve used up most of one of my days making this. Is this how I meant to spend my time away? Or am I procrastinating?  Hard to say.


Time away 4, the Headlands 1991

Rodeo Lagoon with Headlands Center for the Arts, photo by Andria Lo
Rodeo Lagoon with Headlands Center for the Arts, photo by Andria Lo

Notes from the Headlands, Artists and Economics

In August 1991, the Headlands Center for the Arts1 gave me a room, a food stipend, and most importantly about a week and a half away from the constant demands of my office.

I arrived with the intention of mulling over questions of artists and economics that had been on my mind for several years. Many of my thoughts on the subject had been prompted by specific writers, and at the Headlands I took time to re-introduce myself to their work. I carried a pile of books with me and used a computer that was considered “portable” in its day. I lived and worked in one room of a big house full of other artists on their own journeys.

Headlands residency housing

Every day I took at least one long walk, to Rodeo Lagoon and the ocean beach on the other side of the sand bar, or up and over the low windswept hills, past cliffs and coves, decommissioned officers’ quarters and sites of former military installations, to views of San Francisco across the bay. I especially loved the smell of the head-high wild fennel.

about_place crop

But except for the walks and time out to prepare my meals, I buried myself in the books, mostly resisting the temptation to join the other artists in community-oriented activities. Every day of reading and writing was precious.

The books I took with me examined economics from a range of perspectives. They included: Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1985) by Jane Jacobs, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1983) by Lewis Hyde; Redesigning the American Dream: The Future of Housing, Work, and Family Life (1984) by Dolores Hayden; If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics (1988) by Marilyn Waring; an anthology edited by Paul Ekins, The Living Economy: A New Economics in the Making (1986); a short book, Behind the Veil of Economics: Essays in the Worldly Philosophy (1989) by Robert L. Heilbroner; and Economics in Perspective: A Critical History (1987) by John Kenneth Galbraith. Because I was intent on exploring ideas about artists and economics not just by writing but also by finding ways to take action in my own life, I also used a few experiences from my own life.

Stack books, economics 1 crop

I recorded my engagement with these writers’ ideas in a paper, Artists and Economics: Notes from the Headlands, that contains short excerpts from their writing, paraphrases of their ideas, and some of my own thoughts, especially about artists and economics, that the writers provoked. The first book I considered was Cities and the Wealth of Nations by Jane Jacobs. That section is posted on this site as “Jane Jacobs ­– Economics and messy inefficiencies.

The paper remained open-ended and, for 10 days’ work, it felt finished enough. At the end of my time there, I made a few copies and presented them to a small group of artists and others at a gathering organized by the Center.

All in all, it was a very satisfying time away.

««««««•»»»»»»

1 Headlands Center for the Arts offers residencies and other programs to artists in all disciplines to support independent and collaborative work. The Center took over the property in the early 1980s and since then has rehabilitated its historic buildings through artists’ commissions. Much has happened since I was there.

About the photos. In 1991 I didn’t carry a camera in my pocket as I do now (that is, my phone), so I have no images of the Headlands that I took myself. I’m grateful to the website of the Headlands Center for the Arts for the photos here. Even though taken several decades later, they bring back the spirit of the place I experienced.


9099 Logo-red_D, nick squared

Time away 3, a rolling retreat

Amtrak ticket jacket crop, text onlyMy ticket jacket expressed my ambition, even though I didn’t actually notice its message until a few days before leaving.

Amtrak ticket jacket crop 2

Too many years had passed since I’d visited good friends and family in California. It was time to go – I missed them. When I realized the trip could also include four rolling days of time away to write and read and daydream, the decision was made.

working in roomette 1 color adjI splurged on my Amtrak ticket and got a “roomette” that comes with wide seats that make into a bed, a little table, meals, “room service” if desired, and a power outlet to keep my “devices” charged. It’s a quiet, private place with a constantly changing scene out the window.

river through a passing freight

Scittery skySanta Barbara wall 2Sunset by bay 2

From Seattle, my first stop was Oakland, the Bay area station, one full day and night on the train. My second stop was the Los Angeles area, another full day farther down the tracks. My assigned room wasn’t on the “scenic” west side of the train in either direction, though on the way down I talked my way into a spot on that side for the most classically beautiful stretch right along the California coast from Pismo Beach almost all the way into Los Angeles.

Calif coast at distance 2The train was full. I liked being able to move back and forth between my own quiet little cubbyhole and lively spaces shared with others – the “parlour” car, dining car, observation car.

I spread out my papers and books and computer in my roomette or took my computer and a few papers to a table in the parlour car or propped my notebook on my knees in the observation car. I didn’t write as much as I’d fantasized I would, but that’s almost always true of my “times away.” The reading and especially the daydreaming filled hours.

working in roomette 2 color adj

working in parlour car 2 color adj

I woke early on the last morning of my trip and intended to roll over for a few extra minutes of sleep, but thought I’d take a quick peak out the curtains first. And there was Mt. Shasta, high above us just before sunrise. Sleep vanished as an option.

Mt Shasta 1

 


9099 Logo-red_D, nick squared

Time away 2, “a pair of eyes walking”

I look and look.
Looking’s a way of being: one becomes,

sometimes, a pair of eyes walking.
Walking wherever looking takes one.1

excerpt from “Looking, Walking, Being,”
by Denise Levertov

Long, meandering walks are one of the great joys of time away. Time for exploring with my eyes and ears, letting thoughts drift and ricochet against what I see, losing myself in the weather and the sounds of whatever’s around.

Walk 4-16-16 aerial 3.5 mi crop

Two walks, April 2016, drawn as remembered after the fact
Two walks, April 2016, drawn as remembered

When the itch to escape for a week struck this spring, Kathy and Mark offered their home in Port Townsend at a time they’d be away. My daily walks began there.

North Beach

Fort Worden2 is an easy walk from their home, and the park’s proximity was irresistible.

Path from beach to fort

Fort Worden battlements-1

In a recent New York Times piece, Teddy Wayne worries that we’re losing opportunities to be alone with our thoughts, both physically and mentally.3 We’re so distractible, and electronic devices that provide immediate gratification are so often close at hand. He provided data about our increasing use of these devices and brain science suggesting that they interfere with our capacity for introspection. He quoted Nicholas Carr contrasting a state of mind that values speed and quick answers with an “open-ended way of thinking where you’re not always trying to answer a question. You’re trying to go where that thought leads you.”

Path in trees next to Chinese Gardens

As I head out to walk, with my phone safely in my pocket, I leave my questions behind for a while and settle into simply looking and walking and being.

««««««•»»»»»»

References

1  Excerpt from “Looking, Walking, Being,” by Denise Levertov, published in 1996 by New Directions Books. I return to the whole poem frequently, and the book itself is a well-worn volume in my library.
2  I introduced Fort Worden in an earlier post, “Home – a confabulation.”
3  Teddy Wayne, “The End of Reflection,” The New York Times, June 11, 2016.


cropped-9099-Logo-red_D-nick-squared.jpg

Time away 1, a gift I give myself

The garden at Tieton Lofts 2/21/16
Tieton, February 21, 2016

Lofts garden

Every now and then, since at least 1985, I’ve given myself the gift of time away. I leave Seattle with a few books, lots of notes, a computer, and plans to rearrange my molecules by walking, reading, writing, thinking, maybe meeting new folks or visiting with old friends and maybe not seeing anyone, surrounded by new scenery and a different context. I’ve rented cabins and hotel rooms, stayed in friends’ second homes, shared rentals with a friend, traded work for a little house, and a few times, even stayed in actual, official artists’ residencies. I always set my expectations way too high for what I’ll get done, but I’ve never been disappointed.

This past week I’ve been in Tieton, Washington, home of Mighty Tieton, in the highlands west of Yakima.

  Mighty Tieton Warehouse

Here’s where I’ve been working.

Loft #13, where I worked

Facing the other direction, in the evening I see a wonderful large wood screen…

Loft #13, at night 3

and in the morning, I throw the doors open to the street, and the light pours in.

Loft #13, daytime 2

 

I’ve chosen to do this. I want to be here, writing/thinking/planning, but the work is difficult and slow, no one’s paying me to do it, and I have no guarantee the result will be any good. But I claim it as real work, work all mixed up with play but work nonetheless. I wish everyone’s work felt like this. Following Jonas Mekas‘s advice in my own way, it keeps me dancing and singing and doing what needs to be done.


9099 Logo-red_D, nick squared