By Jim Miller
For better or worse, I have always favored sacrificing money for owning as much of my time as possible, stealing it from those who would suppose my life was better spent doing their business or serving some purpose that someone has deemed to be more important than my petty little existence. Because of this, I love to walk. Walking is free and fundamentally grounded in the world. When you walk unencumbered you are present and open. With each step you take, you are more alive.
Of course this is a Romantic notion with a capital “R,” but as I enter middle age, I find that nursing the part of myself that still knows how to dream is neither impractical nor immature. It is, in fact, crucial to staying alive rather than dying while I’m still breathing.
So I childishly insist that going for a walk is more important than most of what I am supposed to be doing. As the protagonist in Swiss writer Robert Walser’s seminal novella, The Walk, muses about seeing children by the roadside, “Children are heavenly because they are always in a kind of heaven. When they grow older, their heaven vanishes. Then they fall out of their childishness into the dry, tedious, calculating manner and the utilitarian, highly respectable perceptions of adults.”
This is not to suggest that one can escape the trials of the world. Indeed, I can scarcely even leave my “room of phantoms,” as Walser’ calls his study, without encountering some poor soul camped out on the steps of the lawyer’s office across the street, begging on the corner, or lying desolate and depraved in the alley near by.
The world is cruel and as Walser muses on his stroll, “Where did there live a man who was never in his life without sustenance? What human being has ever seen as the years pass his hopes, plans, and dreams completely undestroyed? When was there ever a soul that never had to deduct a discount from the sum total of its bold longings, its lofty, sweet imaginings of happiness?” There are everywhere those “miserable desires” that “spread danger of war, death, misery, hate, and vilification over the earth” and put upon “all that exists an abominable mask of malice and abhorrent egoism.”
But if we keep walking, we will find, depending on the direction we take, the compellingly intelligent face of a beautiful woman lost in thought, the lovely anarchy of a humble, unkempt garden, the surprising figure of an elegant white egret pausing by the riverside, the gorgeous façade of a forgotten old building.
Yes, underneath or alongside the malice on the roads of our lives there is an unspeakable grandeur and a myriad of people and things to spark our Romantic natures and speak to our affection for the world. As Walser observes at one point on his journey, “Across the middle of the road, which I found as a matter of fact quite beautiful and loved, lay a dog. In fact almost everything I saw as I proceeded filled me with a fiery love.”
Every day I aspire to a few moments of the kind of walking that fills me with a fiery love, really. Then I know I am still alive and happy to be here despite all the bullshit along the way. Give up on that and you’re in trouble, in jeopardy of joining the walking dead.
As for Walser, he ended up in a sanitarium where he died while out on a stroll on Christmas Day. I hope that the last thing he saw was something he loved.