The last time I was in the UK, I had the good fortune to be interviewed for the podcast “Talking Walking”, by the very personable Andrew Stuck, Founding Director of the Museum of Walking, and design consultant at Rethinking Cities. One of his main concerns is the walkability of urban environments, but his podcast show features people from a spectrum of disciplines talking about all aspects of walking. As we meandered through the streets of busy Bermondsey, I talked mostly about “Walking to Japan”. In retrospect I wish I’d mentioned my early-mid 2000s project of walking all the streets of Vancouver, Canada, but being in London at the time, I enthused about one of my favourite walks there. Do check out the interview and the large catalogue of podcasts!
…and love to friends and family at home and far afield, and to those who are lonely, hungry, grieving or in pain. May we give all we can and receive all we need.
May all our wishes for peace come true.
A bit of irony… On the day after Remembrance Day I am in a ferry lineup. Ahead in an adjacent lane, I see a gentleman get out of his car and go up to the window of the car behind. In this smallish community folks do this with friends and not infrequently with strangers, if there’s local news to share. As he nears the other car, I see that he’s sporting a white peace poppy, and my heart swells as I realize it was likely from the batch I’d recently handed out to friends to give away. What happened next gave me a jolt, though. He began yelling, accusing the man inside the other car of cutting him off in traffic. The second fellow, I was relieved to witness, didn’t resort to shouting, and attempted to explain himself rationally. But, the encounter escalated, with a flurry of one-sided insults and door-slamming, which upset the woman in the neighbouring car. Clearly the man was uninterested in hearing anyone else’s voice, and unable in that moment to do the work of peace. Alone and furious, pent up in his car, he drove onto the ferry. This event reminded me that despite how we might see ourselves or advertise ourselves, we must be continually mindful of our energy, intentions, and actions, if we want to be peaceful people. I wish this encounter could have ended with a hug, as the discussion did between Charles Eisenstein and Guy Dauncey a few weeks ago, at the talk on climate change at OUR Ecovillage on Vancouver Island. They shared different viewpoints, sometimes passionately, but always mindfully, and hugged afterwards. So inspiring. I sat in the car sending love and light to the white poppy-wearing man, wishing him peace.
I wrote this piece just 6 months after my first Camino pilgrimage with Derek Youngs. I had no idea what a journey we’d go on together after this, and how our paths would continue to weave together…
It’s one of those rare sun-drenched days in November. T-shirt weather! I’m walking through my East-Vancouver neighbourhood, reveling in the warmth, open to whatever surprises I encounter. Ripe autumn raspberries offer themselves between slats of a rickety fence; violin music wafts through an open window; a flock of tiny bushtits whooshes by, chirping excitedly. After last night’s rainstorm everything still glistens. The reddest of vibrant red maple leaves coat the sidewalk, turning it into something like a fresh oil-painting: beautiful but slippery!
As I reach the corner of Renfrew and Kitchener, I look down and notice some recent graffiti in the concrete. I take out my camera and snap a photo. Someone has scrawled PEACE, and next to it, there’s a footprint. I doubt these were juxtaposed intentionally, but it couldn’t be more perfect, because – I’m a peace walker. Being a peace walker doesn’t mean I carry a placard or fight for a cause. It’s more about what I carry inside me when I walk. It’s an intention; a way of being. I didn’t fully understand this until now.
Continuing my walk, the blur of the last six weeks is starting to make sense. I’ve been home for a few days now from a trip across the country. A lot of ground was covered, by foot and by motor, and I’m swirling with images, memories and feelings. I need to ground myself, and walking is my first priority. When my body is occupied and my senses are busy taking in the world around me, my mind has a chance to sift through its contents.
When did I begin to walk? The first walks I can remember (which are some of my first memories at all) were taken with my father when I was a toddler. Up the steep hill outside our house we would climb, heading for the small park two blocks hence. Along the way I would savour every detail of our excursion. I stuck out my tiny hand, brushing it along every thing I passed as each surface created its impression in my kinetic memory. To this day, I recall the texture of each fence: the rough rusty iron railing, the thick rough flaking paint on a wooden fence, the mossy rock wall that became slick in the rain. Each garden had some feature that was a landmark along the way – a scratchy juniper hedge with its aromatic berries, a weeping cherry tree with its sweet pink blossoms and secret hiding spot underneath, a birdbath with mysterious dancing angels.
As a child, walking was a regular feature in my life. At eight or nine, in a spate of vigilantism, I made rounds through the neighbourhood carrying a large trash bag, as a one-girl recycling team. An incredibly shy kid, somehow my purposefulness enabled me to unselfconsciously scour the back alleys, bagging useful cast-offs from garbage cans and the roadside. I loved the feeling that I was caring for my neighbourhood, even if just in my own small way.
My social phobia was debilitating at times, but I worked around it. I just couldn’t bring myself to step through the doors of the public bus into a crowd of strangers, so I walked an hour a day to school and back. I deepened my intimacy with the environment, and broadened my sense of the world. Soon, I took on an early-morning paper route. I rose eagerly before daybreak, enjoying the chance to walk in peace and quiet, getting to know short-cuts through the back yards and learning to expertly fold and throw the newspapers. My customers’ appreciation did wonders to ease my fear of people.
The weekend paper would almost double in size with the addition of comics and wad of advertising supplements. On some occasions my newspaper satchel was too heavy to lift, and my father would assist, driving along side me with the papers as I dashed from car to house up and down the steep hills.
The last walk I remember taking with my father was from my car to the oncologist’s office. After his course of chemotherapy, my dad’s feet were so swollen they could no longer fit into; he shuffled along in his bedroom slippers, bent over as I supported him on my arm. Despite his obvious decline in faculties, he didn’t speak of suffering indignities; he possessed a mild disregard for appearances that stood him in good stead. We learned from the doctor that the chemo had accomplished nothing; the tumor was the size of a grapefruit. Although he fully hoped to live another year, he was in hospital a few days later, and passed on the following week. The day he died, I took a walk outside the hospital grounds. I could feel his spirit, alive in the sky and trees. The world glowed in full colour.
This year, after months of grieving, sorting through mountains of paperwork and cleaning out my dad’s house, I felt lost. The Camino came as a real gift, renewing my sense of purpose and allowing me to find myself again. Along this ancient 800-km trail I also found that walking soothed my sadness, calmed my anxiety, cleared room in my head for fresh insights and ideas, and reawakened a sense of adventure. I began to experience my world anew: to see, smell, touch, and hear with fresh awareness the beauty that is around us, all the time and everywhere. I learned that my companions were on a similar journey of self- discovery – releasing pain and fear, embracing joy, love, and peace.
My feet have now taken me many miles. Where will they take me next?
I am so touched by friends who are still asking me how “Walking to Japan” is doing. I usually tell them it’s going well, but honestly, over the past year I have not looked at numbers at all. At every event, it’s rare that someone will go home empty-handed, and folks have written me to tell me how the book has inspired them, entertained them, enlightened them. I am truly humbled and honoured by the outpouring of gratitude and good feelings that have come my way. But I’ve had to look at numbers recently, when filing my taxes. I could very easily now say “humiliated” instead of “humbled”. Numbers are still in the hundreds, and I’m still in debt. But does this really matter? No.
I’ve never been all that keen on measuring myself against anyone else’s standards. Still, with the barrage of “successful” creative ventures that abound on the Internet (if you measure success by “like”s), I’m disheartened, especially when some of these things seem so bereft of meaningful content. I must admit I can be judgmental sometimes. I also must admit I have been disappointed when friends’ words of support and congratulations don’t translate into interest in the book. When it comes to supporting my own friends, I always try and purchase a buddy’s CD even when it’s “not my style of music”, or go to their opening season baseball game when I’m not the least interested in sports. Derek was always so gracious with me this way. He didn’t know a thing about choral music, and it wasn’t his favourite, but he came to my concerts because he wanted to know me better.
Taking a deeper look at my friends’ passions and creative efforts has broadened my understanding of them, and enriched my own life. My best friend Una, who died two years ago, was a prolific painter. I didn’t like everything she did. But I could always say something positive, and true, about her creative process. Another friend is an academic writer. I proceeeded as far as I could in his book until it seemed I was reading the dictionary more. But I was so impressed at what he had created. And, delving into his treatise gave me so much more insight into his life, his character, his values. However, I also love my friend far and beyond anything in the material realm, and this includes his book, as brilliant as it is.
A friend recently told me she hadn’t bought my book because:
A) she never reads memoirs, and B) she was afraid of what she would say to me if she didn’t like it. But she took a chance. And hugged me the other day, with tears in her eyes, to thank me. Thank you, Katharina. And thanks to all my friends, whether you’ve read the book or not. I understand that there are reasons. And I trust that you love and support me beyond anything I have done or said or created.
This time of year in northern climes we attune to the elements. The chilly air is sharp, the earth hard, and water frozen. In the dark, we hunker around the fire. IIt’s sometimes hard to trust that the light will return, that goodness will prevail amongst all this turmoil in the world.
Nature has never failed us. Solstice comes—the longest night—and then the sun will linger for just another minute each day, with the promise of more. Is it really true? The Earth continues to turn and the sun to shine, just as we each have the capacity to shine.
This has been quite a year. For me it was busy. It has been incredibly surreal to see “Walking to Japan” in print, and I still sometimes can’t quite believe that I’ve done it, fulfilled Derek’s dream to write a memoir, which is now taking me to places I never thought I’d go. The book is about making the impossible possible, one step at a time. And in this way I continue on in my own life, not always knowing where I’m going, but saying “yes” and walking through open doors.
Sometimes I have moments when I question if what I do in life has any value in terms of making the world a better place. But every so often I’m reminded, when someone comes up to me after a reading and tells me how moved or inspired they are. When I honour my talents, and share the wisdom and beauty and love and compassion that comes through me, I am contributing to something bigger.
I hope you have time this season to celebrate the return of the light outdoors in nature, as well enjoying the warmth of your own home. And may your own light radiate into the world.
It’s Remembrance Day tomorrow. On this day on at 11:00 (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month) we observe the end of what was called the “War to End all Wars”.
My mother’s father, a keen amateur photographer, fought in the First World War, was wounded in the trenches, and returned home disabled, which was bad enough, but he was also shell-shocked. The far-ranging symptoms and affects of PTSD on individuals, families, and entire communities are much better understood now, but then it was seen as a weakness. To me, it shows he was human. Who takes part in war and come out unscathed?
My grandfather also came home with an album full of photos from the front. I look at them and can hardly believe they’re real. But he was there. Though he never talked about his war experiences with his family, the album is chilling proof. I honour him and all those who have fought and died for fighting for our freedom. But I dearly wish they hadn’t had to.
Of course the WW1 did not live up to its headline; we’re still battling it out, country against country, neighbour against neighbour: the macrocosm and microcosm. Has anything really changed? As the song says, When will we ever learn?
We humans seem to fall prey to a kind of amnesia— which seems viral these days. I feel bombarded by consumerist messages in the media and in the streets, and find myself worrying if I need to buy a teeth-whitening kit, when I could be spending my thoughts creatively and my money philanthropically. I must inoculate myself by refocusing on what’s truly important.
I think we will be at war until we recognize ourselves in each other with compassion and love and then act from that place. It’s the most simple principle, but can be ever so difficult to live out. But if we each do just one thing a day, even just sending our thoughts in the right direction, I believe we can make a difference.
Some years I choose to attend the Remembrance Day ceremony wherever I’m living. This year, I’m putting out a call to friends to join me in a peace walk at 11:00 am. It need not be a solemn affair. But it’s important for me to do something on this day in the name of peace.
Last Saturday: It is two days before Thanksgiving. I am scheduled to give another reading from Walking to Japan, and as always, that morning, I get a little nervous, unsure, ungrounded. Obviously a walk would help, but I haven’t allowed myself enough time. Why am even I doing this? I ask myself. I’m an introvert! The energy it takes to publicize and organize and travel and prepare sometimes makes me feel that giving readings is more effort than it’s worth. But then I remember that scene in the book….
Derek is walking for peace through farming country in the middle of summer, nothing around him but fields of corn and the smell of pig manure, and he is tired and sweaty and the blisters on his feet are agonizing. Why am I even doing this? he says to himself. Who even cares? And then he remembers. I care.
Later that afternoon, as I welcome guests into the event room at the public library, I start feeling more excited. Oh, people are here! But then I begin to worry. Will they like it? Will they “get” it? Do Shakespearean actors worry about their audience ‘getting” it? I suspect they give it their all but realize that not everyone clicks with Shakespeare. I close my eyes and offer a silent prayer. May I just do my best today.
I start reading. The passages I’m reciting are familiar but not rote. Every time I read them they come alive again. I feel energized, and at the same time I feel my body relax. Perhaps it’s because I am, in essence, invoking Derek in these words. I feel closer to him, his love, support, and wisdom. And, the very words he speaks in the book are always relevant to the situation I’m in at that very moment.
These days, with all the big scary stuff that’s going on in the world, I’ve been wondering if I’ve been doing enough for peace, to combat climate change, shift systemic racism and sexism, and on and on and on….. I tire myself out each day, but it’s hard to see the effects of my actions sometimes.
Walking to Japan is the story of how one man made a difference. He didn’t stop the nuclear arms race, but he connected with people, one at a time, and shared his wisdom and love. I am reminded that we can’t singlehandedly save the world. But if we all do a little each day, we ARE making a difference. We have to trust that. I have to trust that.
Back in the library, I’m reading to my audience about Derek’s first attempt to make a peace crane. “It wasn’t perfect, but my whole heart was in it. When I finally swallowed my pride and let go of my fear, I forgot to care about what others may think and enjoyed [myself].” Ahem. Yes. I have to smile. I am quite enjoying myself now. And, I feel a sweet and precious connection with my audience. This is why I do this.
After the reading, people made it clear that they were touched and inspired. On this Thanksgiving Day, I voice my gratitude for having Derek in my life, and for being given the opportunities and the courage to stand up and share his words with the world.
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.
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