This past June, on my mini-book tour in the UK, I was fortunate enough to enjoy some good hours of walking every day during the week I spent on the Isle of Wight. The Isle is known for its walking festival, and I understand why, with its varied landscape, dramatic views, and plethora of footpaths! The reading I gave at the Quay Arts Centre was the last event in a month-long series focussed on walking. What great timing for me! In addition to doing a book reading, a shared a short essay I wrote especially for the occasion, and I’d like to share with you:
Walking, as I am sure you all know, has played a part in this culture probably forever. There are scores of English writers, poets and thinkers from Dickens to Darwin to whom walking was not just their method of travel, but their muse. Europe and America too boast writers like Goethe and Thoreau, but I have to say that North American society as a whole no longer values or supports walking very highly. Since the invention of the automobile, new communities have been built that offer no pedestrian footpaths, and no shopping centres or conveniences within walking distance. There is a certain type of sporty outdoor enthusiast in any North American town who goes “hiking”, but only a small percentage of people routinely walk for pleasure, or to get from A to B. Walking, something that each able-bodied person does almost from birth, something so natural, has become relegated to the fringe. It does look like the tides are changing though, with the younger generation thinking ahead towards more sustainable, walkable, communities. And this makes me very happy!
You probably also know about the physical health benefits of walking for our heart and lungs and muscles and bones, or even the fact that walking can be a mood booster, and increase our serotonin levels and even give us the same endorphin rush as running if we walk briskly enough. But I’d like to address the other benefits—and for me, those are: INNER—and—OUTER—peace.
By inner peace, I mean when our mind can return to a place that is a kind of calm awakeness. When we interact with our surroundings, stop to smell that rose, hear a bird’s call, notice even the cracks in the pavement, we are giving ourselves a break from the movies we create IN HERE—the thought patterns that take up permanent residence. We can choose to be MINDLESS in our thoughts and behaviour, or MINDFUL. It’s all too easy to fall into habitual thought patterns. Am I too fat? Do I have enough money? Do people like me? How do I get ahead in life? What’s going to happen to me tomorrow? Gotta clean the house, gotta fix the car, gotta gotta gotta. It’s worry, speculation, fantasy, NOT what’s happening HERE AND NOW. Focusing on the present calms the mind and allows truly creative, effective and transformative thoughts to arise. The ones that cannot be forced but start to flow when they are given room to. And this happens naturally, I find, when walking.
A friend remarked a while ago that he was enjoying reading Walking to Japan slowly, reading just a few pages at a time to savour it, to experience it a walking pace. That was flattering, but also really thought provoking. It got me wondering about life in this modern age, the Information Age. We are so accustomed to having what we want at our fingertips, any time of day or night. We don’t think twice about getting from A to B— across the world even —in a flash. We take for granted that we can be anywhere or talk to anyone virtually at the click of the button. We have forgotten how to enjoy life at a walking pace, taking one step at a time, to drink the nectar of life in small sips. We’re gluttons for MORE, faster, bigger. We don’t trust the process of working slowly towards our goals and dreams. We find ourselves bored, because in effect we have forgotten how to pay attention.
When our main mode of travel is a speeding car, and our main way of viewing the world and communicating is through a tiny device, we miss the details in our surroundings—the petals of a flower, the brushstrokes in a painting—and— we can fail to grasp the highly nuanced emotional content and salience that face-to-face communication offers. We are now seeing the world shrunken and funneled through a tiny screen. We are reducing our experience of life from THIS—to—THIS. (I spread my arms wide, like I was telling a big fish story, and then small, like holding a cell phone.)
As we become used to virtual experience, we are becoming starved of REAL EXPERIENCE, and this can have dire consequences. As infants, it is critical that we interact with our physical surroundings and with our caretakers for our brains to grow and function properly. Babies that experience emotional and sensory deprivation will undergo delayed, impaired—or even stunted— intellectual, physical, and emotional development. And, it is not just the five senses that need to be stimulated—sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, but there are others, and MOVEMENT is one of the most critical.
Scientists have determined that a lack of tactile stimulation in infancy, coupled with lack of movement, can lead to dysfunctional traits and behaviors including depression, hyperactivity, violence, impaired pain threshold, addiction, and even psychopathy. At the most primitive level, our brain recognizes that movement means we’re ALIVE. In the womb, we’re always beings sloshed around. After we’re born, we’re constantly lugged around by our mothers or caretakers—at least this is what still happens in most traditional cultures, in primate societies, and with some other mammals as well. If we’re moving, we’re alive. If our brain senses that we’re not moving, other than when we’re asleep or briefly at rest, then there is something very wrong. We need to move. And— walking is our most basic form of movement!
Our nervous systems are programmed to fight, fright, or freeze when presented with danger. A whole cascade of neurochemicals, of which adrenaline is one, is set into action. Our heart starts to beat faster, our blood vessels and pupils dilate, our production of saliva and tears shuts down, and our field of vision narrows. Our response as “modern” homo sapiens is no different from that of prehistoric humans facing down a sabre-toothed tiger. So even when we see images of violence or are surprised by a sudden loud noise in traffic or even think about some tragedy we’ve seen on TV, our brains can set off a chain reaction. We don’t realize that we are constantly subjecting ourselves to anxiety-provoking stimuli when doing even seemingly normal activities like driving a car.
However, the brain is programmed to relax the body when we detect signs of safety in our surroundings. This is what neuropsychologists call the “rest and digest” mechanism. The body resumes producing saliva, tears & digestive enzymes; circulation returns to normal and our focus broadens again. Just liked being rocked in the womb, surrounded by waves of sloshing amniotic fluid, we are calmed in a rocking chair, or relaxed by the sound of the ocean. Some music can have the same effect. Other sounds of nature like birdsong, a babbling brook, wind in the trees—are cues that tell our brains we are safe. SO, although of course it’s wonderful to get exercise in any way, and that includes the gym, there is no substitute for walking outdoors, and this includes rainy days. I know Brits are tough, and this is not news for you, but there are a lot of North Americans who would call me crazy. We are also calmed by the touch of skin on skin, as we would been as infants. The neurochemical oxytocin is implicated here. So as much as I love to walk alone, and can do it for hours a day, walking hand in hand with a friend gives us that oxytocin kick too, which is a great mood booster!
These very basic needs for movement, and cognitive stimulation, and social contact continue as we age. Getting out there, walking through our communities, talking with our neighbours, is good for our health and well-being. It has been shown that elders who have the opportunity to get about as independently as possible and socialize and exercise, live longer and more fulfilling lives. But, I notice, when I spend time in big cities, what I notice right away is the lack of eye contact between people in the street. When I lived in London for half a year, the only people who talked to me in the street were other foreigners and mentally handicapped people. Perhaps they were the only ones who weren’t either indifferent or afraid.
I know—we don’t want to intrude on other people’s space, we don’t want to attract unwanted attention. But do you remember the days when we’d simply nod and smile or tip a hat at passersby? I DO. And perhaps you still do this here on the IOW. It’s not just a simple pleasantry that we’re missing out on, but that little smile is actually a way of signaling to others: all is well. We are safe. As social animals we are very cued by these little things.
Derek was walking through the world before there was such a thing as the internet or cellphones. He wanted real experience. He was in countries where he didn’t speak the language, didn’t understand the culture, and was getting around on the power of his own feet and his own wits. SO—what was he to do but talk to strangers, make connections, and approach the people he met with openness, kindness, tolerance, and humility? Most of the time this came easily for him, because that’s the type of person he was, but his beliefs and limits were sometimes tested. Certainly there are some places where we do not feel safe. There are places where people experience violence, hunger, and lack of natural and social resources. There are terrorists, whose acts are designed to frighten and divide us. But I think this, more than ever, makes it critical that we get out there and make contact with our fellow human beings when we can. In these days of building walls and creating separation what we really need to do is just the opposite—create unity. And this can only happen when we get closer to what, and whom, we fear. We cannot and should not, be frightened into creating smaller and smaller comfort zones. We need to have the courage to keep going forward and connecting with others.
THIS how to make PEACE.
This summer’s “mini book tour” in the UK filled me with confidence and connection.
Public speaking has been something I’ve had to continually push myself to do. I was one of those “shy” kids in school, sitting as close to the back as I could, hoping I’d get overlooked when it came to reading aloud. But my teachers didn’t let me get away with it. In fact, during 6th grade I was picked out of hundreds of kids to read aloud at the school’s Remembrance Day assembly. I was scared silly but didn’t let myself back out. I rose to the occasion and shared my essay in front of hundreds of other children and got a standing ovation. You’d think that would might have hooked me, but it’s been a long, slow learning curve, coming out of my shell. I’ve talked about how choral singing has helped with that, and probably also having had parents in the theatre.
I was simultaneously flattered and taken aback when my old friend on the Isle of Wight said, after my presentation there this June, “I’ve never seen you look and sound so natural, ever!” Wow, I thought, does that mean I seem awkward in real life? But it feels good knowing that I am conveying the messages in Walking to Japan with flair, and just enough gravitas, and humour! How rewarding to see smiles—and even tears—from members of the audience. How gratifying to feel I have made a connection to folks through this book.
I gave three book readings and two speeches this summer. My first event was in a proper theatre with spotlight and sound system and big screen. At first, the size of the space was daunting, but I then found that being in the spotlight was somehow reassuring. I know folks could see me and I didn’t fret about not seeing them. I settled into the warm light and the familiar rhythm of the book.
Two days later I entered what seemed like a fairy cottage and met a small group lovely women gathered for my reading. Now, being in such close proximity to my audience made me aware of my every little “um” and “er” and nuance in my delivery. I felt more exposed here than I had on the large stage. But soon, their smiles and attentiveness settled my nerves and I relaxed. It was like story time at the library! The following week’s event was also on a more intimate level, and fun, with several families joining in for peace-crane making at the end.
My events were not the only fun I had in the UK. I went fossil hunting on the beaches of Dorset, and hunting for the best cream across England. (I am very picky about my scones and clotted cream and strawberry jam!) I attended organ recitals and puppet shows, and visited with friends and family who made me feel incredibly welcome. I am so thankful to all my hosts!
Perhaps the most fun I had during my time in the UK, though, was walking. The country is literally crisscrossed by pedestrian footpaths, and it’s a common pastime for folks to walk through the countryside, stopping in villages to rest and dine. I love it! But my favourite place to walk is London.
The city has worked its spell on me ever since I first visited there a few decades ago and especially since living there for six months in 2013. In London, I feel at my best. The city offers me the opportunity every day to walk out the door and see/ hear/feel/learn something new. How exciting to me, all the layers of history and architecture and culture, all there for me to peel away. I can be an adventurer without worrying too much about the impact I make. I don’t have to drive, I am not disturbing some indigenous settlement, or trampling pristine wilderness. I can quietly seek the places that even many locals don’t know about, finding hidden gardens, hilltop vistas, stretches along the Thames where I can hunt for urban relics. I make my way along canal towpaths, old rail beds, narrow neighbourhood lanes, and through old cemeteries where wild creatures live and wild berries grow. Something in me wakes up when I’m in London. And every night I go to bed happily exhausted.
At home in Victoria now, it’s quieter. It’s peaceful. Incredibly beautiful. I have work to do, and there’s no shortage of activities to take part in. But, somehow, I can’t quite connect to that part of myself that I do when I’m away.
So—I’ll be back, London. I’ll be back.
As some readers may know, I am not a huge fan of wind. (There’s a pun in there somewhere!)
I understand that the wind brings in new energy, it refreshes, it cleanses, but there’s something still so unsettling about it for me as a highly sensitive person. I don’t sleep well on windy nights and I am reluctant to step outside the house on windy days. However, after finding a hat that covers my ears and doesn’t look too goofy, I now can walk and hike comfortably in the wind.
Recently on a blustery day I headed out on my hike up the steep hill near my home. I do this almost daily, and often I shed my jacket at exactly the same location on the ascent as I warm up, but this time I kept bundled. At the top, I wrapped my scarf around my ears and stood for a while admiring the view, feeling grateful for the beauty, grateful for where I live.
The rocky peak wears a skirt of green that fans out down the slopes, its frayed edges bleeding into a patchwork of fields, rooftops and roads that meet the sea, which meets the mountains, which meet the sky. Even from here I can see the ocean is frothing with whitecaps.
The wind soon begins to chill my bones so I turn to head back down the trail, but my eye is drawn to something in the air below. A small something hovers several meters above the treetops. Is it a kite? An aerial drone? It’s motionless. I realize in delight that it’s a small raptor, maybe a sharp-shinned hawk. I am accustomed to the sight of a number of huge bald eagles, turkey vultures and ravens swooping around the mountain, circling lazily on thermal updrafts. But I’ve not quite seen anything like this. The hawk is perfectly still in the air, wings outstretched.
I watch in amazement for what seems like a couple of minutes. The bird’s hovering seems entirely effortless. I see no slight adjustments of its wings at all. It seems to have found the perfect spot to rest, where the air pressure and flow are just enough to suspend it. And then, suddenly the bird drops from the air, diving swiftly into the trees. It doesn’t reappear any time soon, so I presume it caught its prey. Well done!
Once again I feel gratitude. What a moment in time to witness. How swiftly the hawk sliced through the air just by folding its wings into its body in one quick move! I am filled with sheer joy, and no words yet to describe the experience. As I make my way home though, I begin to think about it in metaphorical terms.
The whole business of publishing Walking to Japan, and now publicizing and marketing it, has been an uneven and uncertain journey for me. Although I have wonderful mentors and helpers, I am largely on my own. The whole process has been an unconventional one since Derek began; neither of us enjoy playing by the rules. But sometimes when I listen to others’ experiences, or read articles about the publishing world, I feel anxious, guilty, like I’m not doing enough, like I should be “getting out there and SELLING!” But selling the book is only important to me in that it means that more people are exposed to Derek’s message. To hurry along with that would be utterly contrary to the message itself.
I am shortly embarking on a mini book-tour in the UK. It’s paced just right, with lots of time to walk and spend time in silence, and also visit with friends. Four events in 6 weeks is more than manageable!
Reflecting on the hawk, what it demonstrated was the elegance of stillness. The solo bird seemed to be in no hurry, and when the time was right it simply dropped from the sky with its eye on the target. I am not saying that I need to swoop in on unwary prey and promote my book in some kind of canny calculated way. No, it’s not that exact an analogy. The WAITING part is more what speaks to me. It’s really OK to hang out and enjoy that feeling of floating for a while. I have done a lot to get where I am so why not allow myself some rest? And I will know when the time is right to move. It will come as naturally, I hope, as changing the angle of my wings.
Walking to Japan has been launched! Twice, in fact, with two or three more on the calendar. Oops! Is it possible to launch more than once?
Both events (Victoria and Sechelt, BC) were well attended by friends, and even some complete strangers. Feedback from the audience was overwhelmingly positive and I really had fun. I don’t know why I should be surprised, but despite having some public speaking and solo singing experience, I think of myself as uncomfortable in the spotlight. But since reflecting on those evenings, I have realized that I’ve been influenced by three great storytellers in my life and must have learned something!
The first two were my parents. They met while acting in local theatre productions in Vancouver, and they were both teachers as well. So my bedtime stories, read from books or made up on the spot, were always brought to life with a colourful toolkit of accents and gestures.
Derek was a master storyteller. He wasn’t someone who would entertain a group of friends with anecdotes at the drop of a hat. That wasn’t his style at all. His stories were more like fables or parables and each had a spirit. Only when the time was right would he begin. He’d paint a vivid setting to capture your imagination, and then just enough detail to keep it flowing, pacing it just right, not too fast or slow. His intention was never to impress you but that the heart of the story would touch something in yours. There was always a lesson, but that would be for you to resonate with in your own way.
I hope that as I continue sharing Walking to Japan at readings, I’ll get better and better at bringing the book to life for an audience, and do both Derek and my parents proud.
For 25 years, Derek Youngs was a peace pilgrim, walking the world, often not knowing where he would sleep that night, or if he would eat. But he had faith in himself and the universe, and trusted in the goodness of the people he met. Although he faced challenges and struggles in his journeys, he was met more often with support and love.
As he continued his journey, his experiences and personal lessons became teaching stories, and after a few years of walking and sharing his tales, friends and strangers alike asked, “So are you going to write a book?” That question planted a seed, and he began to write. When my husband died in 2010, his memoir was unfinished. It has taken me over five years—sometimes working daily, sometimes not at all for months at a time—but finally, Walking to Japan is published! I know that Derek would be thrilled that it can now find its way into the hearts and minds of readers across the world!
With all the violence and injustice going on in the world, I am angered and saddened, yet I remember what Derek often said: “I shall not create an enemy. I choose not to live in fear.” This is not always easy.
Since Derek’s death in 2011, I have been coping with fear in my own small ways, particularly in the process of completing his memoir, Walking to Japan. In striving to do justice to his voice, to capture his loving presence and preserve his memories from the road, I’ve had fearful thoughts. What if I fail? What if nobody reads the book? What if they don’t care?” What after all the editing is done there’s still a spelling mistake—or two, or—? Or what if I die in an accident before I finish it?
To face my fears, I have needed to take to heart some of the lessons Derek shares in the book, and letting go is one of the biggest. I need to let go of ego, my need for control, my perfectionism. As paradoxical as it might seem, as much as I believe in this book with my heart and soul, I have to let go of my hopes for its popularity, and for Derek’s legacy. I must remember what Derek himself would tell me: “No matter what, it’s still a success, because we both did our best.”
It’s time now to let go of the book itself, and let it fly.
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