Rebecca Solnit’s Serenade to the City & the Solitary Stroller

“What is the great attraction in cities?” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal in 1845, “It is universally admitted that human beings invariably degenerate there and do not propagate their kind.”  As the Industrial Revolution alienated laborers from their labor and gobbled up countrysides, transcendentalists lamented we lost a deep connection both with ourselves and with nature.  For Thoreau, it was only amid the autumn quietude of the New England woods, the soothing sounds of a tranquil brook, the idyllic charm of a French countryside that man could finally be free of the corrupting influence of civilization.  To him, the modern metropolis was a Dante’s inferno of debauchery and decadence, a netherworld where— as James Shergold Boone so poetically said— “the appetites, the passions, the carnal corruptions of man are forced, as in a hotbed, into a rank and foul luxuriance.”  

This strict dichotomy between city and country has almost always existed.  Since Shakespeare, artists have romanticized the rural as a paradise of purity and goodness and condemned the urban as an inescapable cesspit.  In transcendentalist thought, the city stomped out individuality, transforming human beings into an automated assembly line of soulless factory workers.  Displaced and alienated, the solitary city stroller was just another cog in the capitalist machine, another stranger in a sea of anonymity.

But for our era’s poet of politics Rebecca Solnit, whose prose is both lyrical and luminous, the city is neither a gutter of vice nor the slaughterer of the human spirit— it’s an inspirer of wonderment.  In her endlessly edifying Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Solnit contemplates cities as much as she contemplates transporting herself by two feet.  In the chapter “The Solitary Stroller and the City,” she recalls returning home to San Francisco and rediscovering her love for the city.  With exquisite elegance and understated poetry, she portrays urban life as a multitude of experience.  A leisurely stroll through Golden Gate Park, an hour of window-shopping along Haight Street: each person she passes is a potential friend, each doorway, a portal of possibility: 

“Every building, every storefront, seemed to open onto a different world, compressing all variety of human life into a jumble of possibilities made all the richer by the conjunctions.  Just as a bookshelf can jam together Japanese poetry, Mexican history, and Russian novels, so the buildings of my city contained Zen centers, Pentecostal churches, tattoo parlors, produce stores, burrito places, movie palaces, dim sum shops.  Even the most ordinary things struck me with wonder, and the people on the street offered a thousand glimpses of lives like and utterly unlike mine.”  

vintage san francisco

I’ve always been entranced by the excitement of the city: the art galleries, the plays, the museums, the concerts, the cafes, the exhilarating sense that there was always something going on no matter the time of day.  When I lived in Berkeley, the ordinary act of walking down the street to the corner store took on the grand dimensions of a Homeric odyssey.  Wandering down Telegraph Ave, past Amoeba Music and Moe’s Books, the exotic smells of Burmese food and incense mingling with the scent of salt water from the bay, I was a hero on a quest who had to navigate the many obstacles in my way (mostly one too many runaway hippie kids pestering me for a cigarette or spare change).  Strolling through the city was always eventful.  If I didn’t discover a delightful gem of a coffee shop hidden along a side street or a charming second-hand bookstore, I almost always witnessed something entertaining: a rapper free-styling on the corner of Telegraph and Channing, a dapper young man in horn-rimmed glasses and loafers charging 25 cents for a poem, an anarchist shouting his manifesto into a megaphone while standing on a milk crate.

For Solnit, the charm of urban life is this novelty and variety, the thrill of not knowing what’s going happen when you leave your apartment and step onto the street.  In a city, there’s still room for surprise and spontaneity— unlike in a suburb, where the rhythm of life is as predictable as a song playing on repeat.  To stroll through a city is to be enchanted by a sense of endless possibility: you never know what you’re going to see or who you’re going to meet.  For my fellow Bay Area native Ms. Solnit, San Francisco remains the quintessential city.  Unlike in many modern metropolises, which have become larger-scale suburbs where residents are cordoned off in their own private vehicles and rarely interact in public space, in San Francisco, it’s still possible to socialize with strangers on the street:

“Cities have always offered anonymity, variety, and conjunction, qualities best basked in while walking: one does not have to go into the bakery or fortune-teller’s, only to know that one might.  A city always contains more than any inhabitant can know, and a great city always makes the unknown and the possible spurs to the imagination.  San Francisco has long been called the most European of American cities, a comment more often made than explained.  What I think its speakers mean is that San Francisco, in its scale and street life, keeps alive the idea of the city as a place of unmediated encounters, while most American cities are becoming more and more like enlarged suburbs, scrupulously controlled and segregated, designed for non-interactions of motorists shuttling between private places rather than the interactions of pedestrians in public ones.” 

Grant Avenue, Chinatown, San Francisco, California

For more from Wanderlust: A History of Walking, delight in Solnit on the power of walking to reinvigorate the mind and replenish the soul.  Or if you want to see Solnit bring her perceptive intellect to sauntering, cities and politics, visit walking as a political act and the streets as the realm of radical change, revolution & democracy.

Rebecca Solnit on Walking as a Political Act & the Streets as the Realm of Radical Change, Revolution & Democracy

love not warFor most of us, the “streets” connote inner-city squalor and moral decay.  The toughest streets of San Francisco represent humanity at its bleakest: homeless people mumbling to themselves in the piss-scented Tenderloin district; dilapidated slums littered with broken glass, used needles, and garbage; gun shots and switchblades.  But for poet of politics Rebecca Solnit, author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking, the streets are less a cesspit of danger and destitution than an amphitheater where the drama of democracy is staged.  Parades, protests, rebellions, revolutions, riots: the seed of every history-making social movement begins, Margaret Mead reassured us, with “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens.”  For Ms. Solnit, the streets are the birthing place for these movements.  In her lexicon, the “street” carries a more hopeful connotation: democratic in the purest sense, streets are where organizations of common citizens can directly participate in their own governance and make their voices heard simply through their physical presence.  Walking, then, can be a political act, a profound way of making a real, lasting difference:

“This is the highest ideal of democracy— that everyone can participate in making their own life and the life of the community— and the street is democracy’s greatest arena, the place where ordinary people can speak, unsegregated by walls, unmediated by those with more power.  It’s not a coincidence that media and mediate have the same root; direct political action in real public space may be the only way to engage in unmediated communication with strangers, as well as a way to reach media audiences by literally making news…Parades, demonstrations, protests, uprisings, and urban revolutions are all about the members of the public moving through public space for expressive and political rather than purely practical reasons.  In this, they are a part of the cultural history of walking.”  

Though we usually understand walking in the most literal terms and commonplace definitions, walking in many ways is a figure of speech.  When we walk as a form of protest, we’re giving expression to our beliefs.  The civil rights activists who marched on Washington on August 28, 1963, the hundreds of thousands who banded together against the Trump administration on January 21, 2017: they weren’t just mechanically putting one foot in front of the other— they were using one of the most powerful words in the political dictionary, their bodies, to write history.  In both cases, they composed the poetry of history with the stanzas of their feet:

“On ordinary days we each walk alone or with a companion or two on the sidewalks, and the streets are used for transit and for commerce.  On extraordinary days—on the holidays that are anniversaries of historic and religious events and on the days we make history ourselves— we walk together, and the whole street is stamping out the meaning of the day.  Walking, which can be prayer, sex, communion with the land, or musing, becomes speech in the these demonstrations and uprisings, and a lot of history has been written with the feet of citizens walking through their cities.  Such walking is a bodily demonstration of political or cultural conditions and one of the most universally available forms of public expression.  It could be called marching, in that it is common movement toward a common goal, but the participants have not surrendered their individuality as have those soldiers whose lockstep signifies that they have become interchangeable units under an absolute authority.  Instead they signify the possibility of common ground between people who have not ceased to be different from each other, people who have at last become the public.  When bodily movement becomes a form of speech then the distinctions between words and deeds, between representations and actions, begin to blur, and so marches can themselves be liminal, another form of walking into the realm of the representational and symbolic— and sometimes, into history.”  

march on washington

But in order for the public to peacefully assemble and effectively protest, it must have public space.  As chain restaurants and strip malls steamroll our cities into suburban wastelands of cookie-cutter conformity, our cities lose more than just their distinctive character— they lose crucial civic space.  Without streets to march on, without squares where we can gather, we can’t directly participate in our democracy.  For the ever-eloqent Solnit, a city’s design can either promote civic engagement or make it impossible for citizens to meaningfully demonstrate:

“Only citizens familiar with their city as both symbolic and practical territory, able to come together on foot and accustomed to walking about their city, can revolt.  Few remember that “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” is listed in the First Amendement of the U.S. Constitution, along with the freedom of the press, of speech and of religion, as critical to democracy.  While the other rights are easily recognized, the elimination of the possibility of such assemblies through urban design, automotive dependence, and other factors is hard to trace and seldom framed as a civil rights issue.  But when public spaces are eliminated, so ultimately is the public; the individual has ceased to be a citizen capable of experiencing and acting in common with fellow citizens.  Citizenship is predicated on the sense of having something in common with strangers, just as democracy is built upon trust in strangers.  And public space is the space we share with strangers, the unsegregated zone.  In these communal events, that abstraction the public becomes real and tangible.  Los Angeles has had tremendous riots— Watts in 1965 and the Rodney King uprising in 1992— but little effective history of protest.  It is so diffuse, so centerless, that it possesses neither symbolic space in which to act, nor a pedestrian scale in which to participate as the public…San Francisco, on the other hand, has functioned like the “Paris of the West” it was once called, breeding a regular menu of parades, processions, protests, demonstrations, marches and other public activities in its central spaces.”

Solnit’s Wanderlust will transform the way you look at walking.  For more poetic and soul-expanding meditations on sauntering, read Solnit on the power of walking to reinvigorate the mind and replenish the soul.

Mary Oliver’s Humble Prayer

mary oliverWhat is prayer?  For most of us, the word evokes a dutiful disciple in church.  Hands folded, head bowed in reverent silence, the praying man asks for guidance as glorious light streams through stained glass and illuminates the pews.  The daybreak strikes him as a benediction, cleansing his spirit of yesterday’s sorrows so today can begin anew.  Through prayer, he makes contact with a an endlessly wise, boundlessly benevolent source.  And when he opens his eyes, he and his world appear reborn.

Men have been praying for millennia.  Some pray for forgiveness; others pray for help.  Some pray to express awe and wonderment; others to simply give thanks for the bountiful blessings bestowed upon us.  Some pray to sanctify a part of their ordinary day-to-day routine— as Christians say grace before every meal or Muslims pray five times a day— while others reserve prayer for the out-of-the-ordinary.  A panicked middle of the night phone call from the E.R.  A devastating natural disaster.  A terminal diagnosis.  Even the most skeptical atheists among us have found ourselves humbled by calamity and crisiskneeling on the ground and begging a god we didn’t quite believe in for mercy and guidance.  

For Mary Oliver, large-hearted lover of books and devout disciple in the denomination of paying attention, prayer is a way not to manifest her own yearnings but to align herself with her highest principles and values.  In recent years, Oprah’s endorsement of New Age notions of manifestation like the “secret” has popularized the idea of prayer as a magical means of wish-fulfillment: rub the magic lamp and unleash an all-powerful being whose one purpose is to make manifest your every desire.  Prayer has become a transaction, the Universe, our endless mail order catalog— all we have to do is step up to the register and submit our order.  More often than not, our nightly prayers are a demanding list of “I want’s” rather than an appreciative inventory of wonder-struck “thank you’s.” 

But for Oliver, prayer is not where we commune with a higher being to get something it’s where we commune with our higher selves.  In her form of prayer, she asks one thing: how can I best contribute my own small portion of beauty to my broken world?  At the heart of her prayers is not “what’s in it for me?” but “how can I serve?”  Enchanted by the grandeur of the natural world, she worships in the temple of Provincetown, breathing in the intoxicating smell of violets and standing in awe at how the pristine landscape eternally renews itself:

Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness.  Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity.” 

And in a moment of delightful humility, she utters a prayer we should all adopt as a personal mantra:

“May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful.” 

In this endearing excerpt from her altogether lovely essay collection Upstream, Oliver reminds us sacredness isn’t confined to church.  The most ordinary act— a summer stroll through a dew-drenched morning, a New England sunrise— can become an occasion for contemplation and prayer.  Oliver argues we pray any time we act with intention and whole-hearted presence, any time we make a deliberate effort to reconnect with our best selves.  Perhaps the world would be better, she suggests, if we prayed not for things but for the ability to embody our highest values.

Mary Oliver on Love, Work & the Power of Books to Save Lives

mary oliver

For British philosopher Alain De Botton, “Books are friends waiting for us any time we want them, and they will always speak honestly to us about what really matters.  They are the perfect cure for loneliness.  They can be our very closest friends.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson shared the belief that books could console and offer companionship.  For him, a library was “a company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world” who could miraculously make “the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us.”  Whereas for esteemed literary critic Matthew Arnold, a well-stocked library was an invaluable collection of “the best that’s been thought and said.”

For Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver— our era’s luminous, large-hearted champion of silence, solitude, and devoted attention— books are a way to disappear into the life of someone else.  In her spirit-consoling essay collection Upstream, Oliver recalls that in her lonely childhood, she found solace in two parallel worlds: nature and books.  In nature, she uncovered a gateway to God, an entry to the sublime and sacred; in books, the profound relief that comes from sloughing off the skin of the self. 

Because a novel is a map tracing the topography of another person’s consciousness, reading is a masterclass in being someone else, a kind of magic portal to another realm.  Between the wrinkled pages of a book, we can be suburban housewives, glamorous debutantes, poor 19th century factory girls.  Though these characters lead vastly different lives from our own, immersed in their stories— their loves, their longings, their plights, their predicaments, their nightmares, their hells— we realize, in the lovely words of Ms. Oliver, there’s an “unbreakable cord” that unites us all; in other words, we find a powerful remedy to “it’s just me” syndrome.  By reminding us of our common humanity, books not only alleviate our loneliness— they widen our circle of empathy and enlarge our hearts:

“The second world— the world of literature— offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy (the first step of what Keats called negative capability) and I ran for it.  I relaxed in it.  I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything— other people, trees, clouds.  And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness— the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books— can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.” 

In the same way a crush often begins with slight intrigue but ends in infatuation, Oliver’s interest in books began as a passing preoccupation but became an all-absorbing obsession.  For her, reading wasn’t a mere past time— it was a matter of life or death.  In the storm-tossed sea of her dysfunctional childhood, books were an indispensable life raft:

“I learned to build bookshelves and brought books to my room, gathering them around me thickly.  I read by day and into the night.  I thought about perfectibility, and deism, and adjectives, and clouds, and the foxes.  I locked my door, from the inside, and leaped from the roof and went to the woods, by day or darkness.

[…]

I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty.  I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life.  I wrote that way too.” 

Why does Oliver love language?  Much like Rebecca Solnit, a staunch advocate of calling things by their true names in our post-truth world, Oliver loves language because it’s an empowering way to make life mean.  To compose a graceful sentence where— as T.S. Eliot once said— “every word is at home,” to be able to sort airy abstractions into solid semantic compartments of comprehensible meaning is a power unparalleled.  In his compelling argument against cliche, endlessly erudite Alain De Botton wrote that “how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.”  Indeed, when we possess the words to more fully name things, we can more fully participate in our experience:  

“I did not think of language as the means to self-description.  I thought of it as the door— a thousand opening doors!— past myself.  I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power.”

In his groundbreaking Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi claimed work is essential to happiness.  Though as a culture we view work as the antithesis of play, work— when it’s a calling, a vocation— can be a labor of love.  Because Oliver loved writing and wasn’t simply writing to attain some result, her long hours at the typewriter were bliss rather than an interminable hell.  And because she took such delight in composing beautiful arrangements of words, she was able to commit the endless years needed to become a master:

“I saw what skill was needed, and persistence— how one must bend one’s spine, like a hoop, over the page— the long labor.  I saw the difference between doing nothing, or doing a little, and the redemptive act of true effort.  Reading, then writing, then desiring to write well, shaped in me that most joyful of circumstances — a passion for work.”  

In a lovely line, Oliver outlines the life-affirming commandments of her own personal credo:

You must not ever stop being whimsical.  

And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.”

What makes a life worthwhile?  Poets and philosophers have pondered this existential puzzle for millennia.  But for Oliver, the answer is simple: love and work.

I don’t mean it’s easy or assured; there are the stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet.  But there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness and, because more interesting, more alleviating.  And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe — that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.”  

Mary Oliver on Attention, the Artist’s Many Selves & the Mysterious Love Affair of the Creative Life

mary beach

In a wonderful moment of serendipity, I chanced upon the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver the other day at my local library (how I’ve never read her, I do not know).  Intrigued after reading a few poems, I checked out both Devotions, a colossal volume spanning her prestigious sixty year career, and Upstream, a collection of essays.  Both her poetry and prose radiate with an exuberant love of life.  What I love most about Oliver is her ability to find holiness in the humdrum, sacredness in the profane: she worships the little things— the New England woods at dawn, a rose, a spider.  But though her work preoccupies itself with the small moments, it interrogates larger themes of love, the search for the sublime, and nature.  

In Upstream, she writes about two major themes: nature and the writing life.  In one of the collection’s best essays “Of Power and Time,” Oliver contemplates the importance of uninterrupted solitude to the creative life.  She writes: 

It is a silver morning like any other.  I am at my desk.  Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door.  I am deep in the machinery of my wits.  Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door.  And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone.  Creative work needs solitude.  It needs concentration, without interruptions.  It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once.  Privacy, then.  A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.”

Nearly one hundred years after the publication of Virginia Woolf’s landmark essay, Oliver asserts writers still need rooms of their own.  Ideally, a writer’s desk is a sacred space, a sort of sanctuary from the pandemonium of the world.  But though writers crave nothing more than a string of unbroken hours, we’re often interrupted: by a nagging mother, by a ring at the door bell, by yet another phone call.  In our hyper-connected era, each of us is distracted by a never-ending dinging demon: our cell phones.  Though the ease of texting and email makes it more convenient to stay in touch, these technologies have had the unfortunate effect of scattering our attention and limiting our capacity to sustain deep thought.  In many ways, our rooms are no longer our own: we don’t completely shut the door and safeguard the silence and solitude so essential to creative work— we leave our entryways unlocked so the petty demands of the world can incessantly intrude.

Even more distracting than the exterior world is the interior.  “What am I going to wear today?”  “I need to pick up the laundry!”  “Oh crap, I forgot to buy toilet paper!”  From the time we rise from bed to the time our heads hit the pillow twelve hours later, our minds restlessly swing from one branch of thought to another.  Fearful and fretful, we exist in a living-dead purgatory torturously suspended between past and future.  But to be artists, we have to be attentive to make out inspiration’s barely audible whisper:

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation.  And what does it have to say?  That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence.  You react, of course.  Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.”

In a wise moment recalling both Faulkner’s conviction that “the past is never really past” and Whitman’s affirming belief that the individual is large and contains “multitudes,” Oliver recognizes she’s still the child she once was:

I am, myself, three selves at least.  To begin with, there is the child I was.  Certainly I am not that child anymore!  Yet, distantly, or sometimes not so distantly, I can hear that child’s voice—I can feel its hope, or its distress.  It has not vanished.  Powerful, egotistical, insinuating—its presence rises, in memory, or from the steamy river of dreams.  It is not gone, not by a long shot.  It is with me in the present hour.  It will be with me in the grave.” 

According to Oliver, we not only possess a “child self” but an “attentive, social self” who is concerned with life’s practical day-to-day matters:

 And there is the attentive, social self.  This is the smiler and the doorkeeper.  This is the portion that winds the clock, that steers through the dailiness of life, that keeps in mind appointments that must be made, and then met.  It is fettered to a thousand notions of obligation.  It moves across the hours of the day as though the movement itself were the whole task.  Whether it gathers as it goes some branch of wisdom or delight, or nothing at all, is a matter with which it is hardly concerned.  What this self hears night and day, what it loves beyond all other songs, is the endless springing forward of the clock, those measures strict and vivacious, and full of certainty.  

The clock!  That twelve-figured moon skull, that white spider belly!  How serenely the hands move with their filigree pointers, and how steadily!  Twelve hours, and twelve hours, and begin again!  Eat, speak, sleep, cross a street, wash a dish!  The clock is still ticking.  All its vistas are just so broad—are regular.  (Notice that word.)  Every day, twelve little bins in which to order disorderly life, and even more disorderly thought.  The town’s clock cries out, and the face on every wrist hums or shines; the world keeps pace with itself.  Another day is passing, a regular and ordinary day.  (Notice that word also.)”

Throughout history, it’s been thought that artists contain many selves.  In her much beloved Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande maintained there were two dimensions of the writer’s personality: the prosaic and artist self.  Whereas the prosaic self was rational, discriminating, and preoccupied with the mundane and ordinary, the artist self was irrational, intuitive and free-associating.  For Brande, both the critical and creative spheres were essential to the writer’s psyche. 

Much like Brande, Oliver imagines the writer is split into an “attentive social self” and a “third self.”  While the attentive social self is a joyless, sensible adult obsessed with time and shackled by responsibility, the third self is dreamy, romantic, not governed by the inhuman tick tock of the clock but enamored of eternity.  This exalted part of the writer’s self prefers the transcendent to the worldly, the extraordinary to the ordinary: 

In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward.  Which is something altogether different from the ordinary.  Such work does not refute the ordinary.  It is, simply, something else.  Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.  Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither child, nor a servant of the hours.  It is a third self, occasional in some ways, tyrant in others.  This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of live with time.  It has a hunger for eternity. 

Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always — these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit.  Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life.  Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown.  In truth, the work itself is the adventure.  And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration.  The extraordinary is what art is about.”

In a spirit-nourishing conversation with Krista Tippet on “On Being,” Oliver depicts writing as a love affair: to write, we must court the muse.  Only when we demonstrate our devotion and show up at the page day after day, doubt after doubt, dispiriting hour after dispiriting hour, will the elusive muse also commit to the relationship and learn to trust us. 

But no matter how determined or diligent, we can never will the muse to appear.  To some degree, the creative process will always be outside our control: the solution to a problem often materializes seemingly out of thin air.  Indeed, it is when we stop trying that ideas reveal themselves: when we leave our desks, when we wander the streets, when we turn the keys in our ignition and drive nowhere in particular.  To be an artist, then, we must relinquish our desire for control, embrace uncertainty and have faith that the maddening, mercurial muse will show up: 

Neither is it possible to control, or regulate, the machinery of creativity.  One must work with the creative powers— for not to work with is to work against; in art as in spiritual life there is no neutral place.  Especially at the beginning, there is a need of discipline as well as solitude and concentration.  A writing schedule is a good suggestion to make to young writers, for example.  Also, it is enough to tell them.  Would one tell them so soon the whole truth, that one must be ready at all hours, and always, that the ideas in their shimmering forms, in spite of all conscious discipline, will come when they will, and on the swift upheaval of their wings— disorderly; reckless; as unmanageable, sometimes, as passion?

No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not.  Still, there are indications.  Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen.  It likes the out-of-doors.  It likes the concentrating mind.  It likes solitude.  It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker.  It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place.  Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.” 

Later Oliver asserts an artist’s commitment is to the timeless, not the timely:

Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity.  A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost.  He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home.  Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist.  Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only.  Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.” 

Oliver concludes by returning to the image of her at her desk on a cold, gray morning.  Like all artists, she’s “absentminded, reckless” but this— she attests— is “as it should be.”  With an intoxicatingly independent spirit and defiant distaste for social responsibility, Oliver reaffirms an artist’s obligation is to the work, not the mundane and ordinary:

The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard.  The poem gets written.  I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame.  Neither do I have guilt.  My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely.  It does not include mustard, or teeth.  It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot.  My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive.  If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late.  Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.”  

Rebecca Solnit on the Power of Walking to Reinvigorate the Mind & Replenish the Soul

wanderlustIs there any occupation as prosaic as walking?  We walk from our bed to the kitchen to make our morning coffee, out the front door to go to work, to the corner store to grab groceries.  Sometimes we stride along the beach joined hand-in-hand with our partner, the coastline melting into a pink-orange sunset; other times, we amble through our local park going nowhere in particular; still other times, we trek through groves of redwoods and Douglas fir to witness breathtaking panoramic views from the top of a bluff.  Ever since we evolved from the quadruped crawling of our toddler years, we’ve been putting one foot in front of the other.  But though walking serves the practical function of getting us from one point to another, it also possesses a profounder power to reinvigorate the mind and replenish the soul.  Thinkers throughout time have been avid walkers, from William Wordsworth (“The act of walking is indivisible from the act of making poetry: one begets the other,” he argued) to Henry David Thoreau (“The moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,” he wrote in a journal entry dated August 19, 1851).  Something about the mechanical motion of lifting one foot and extending it front of the other makes it easier to hear the divine whisperings of inspiration.  After all, how many artists have met the muse on a meandering walk?  Beethoven took long, leisurely strolls with a pen and sheet music handy (excursions his biographer Anton Schindler believed “resembled the swarming of the bee to gather honey”) whereas Mozart noted that is was during promenades in the park that his ideas flowed most “abundantly.”  Throughout time, it seems, quiet country roads have been the site of revelation and epiphany.

A writer who can find holiness and exquisite beauty in the most overlooked, ordinary activities, Rebecca Solnit explores the creative, intellectual and spiritual benefits of walking in her 2000 masterpiece Wanderlust.  She begins by describing the mechanics of marching:  

“Where does it start?  Muscles tense.  One leg a pillar, holding the body upright between the earth and sky.  The other a pendulum, swinging from behind.  Heel touches down.  The whole weight of the body rolls forward onto the ball of the foot.  The big toe pushes off, and the delicately balanced weight of the body shifts again.  The legs reverse position.  It starts with a step and then another step and then another that add up like taps on a drum to a rhythm, the rhythm of walking.  The most obvious and the most obscure thing in the world, this walking that wanders so readily into religion, philosophy, landscape, urban policy, anatomy, allegory, and heartbreak.”

Though in our practicality-preoccupied world, we measure a thing’s worth by its ability to perform a certain function (a coffee mug is only valuable, for instance, if it successfully fulfills its purpose of holding our bold black coffee— not if it delights us aesthetically), walking is valuable for reasons other than the purely practical.  While walking is useful in that it permits us to travel from point a to point b, it can take on more poetic, philosophical connotations if we sanctify our midnight strolls and saunter mindfully:

“Most of the time walking is merely practical, the unconsidered locomotive means between two sites. To make walking into an investigation, a ritual, a meditation, is a special subset of walking, physiologically like and philosophically unlike the way the mail carrier brings the mail and the office worker reaches the train.  Which is to say that the subject of walking is, in some sense, about how we invest universal acts with particular meanings.  Like eating or breathing, it can be invested with wildly different cultural meanings, from the erotic to the spiritual, from the revolutionary to the artistic.  Here this history begins to become part of the history of the imagination and the culture, of what kind of pleasure, freedom, and meaning are pursued at different times by different kinds of walks and walkers.”

“As one’s body wanders, so does one’s mind,” naturalist Walt McLaughlin once wrote, “The wilderness of the mind and the wilderness of oceans, forests, mountains, and deserts are inextricably entwined.”  Solnit agrees the landscape is less a literal place than a reflection of our own minds.  Strolling in the sultry heat of a summer twilight, we may traverse the exterior world, but we traverse our interior world as well.  As we walk away from the everyday familiarity of home, we walk into the uncharted, the unknown.  In strange lands, our thoughts take on strange new forms (even when this “strange” land is just around the block).  Suddenly we can abandon the linear route of rationality and follow the more winding path of instinct and free associative thought:  

“Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord.  Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them.  It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.

[…]

The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts.  This creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it.  A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as though thinking were traveling rather than making.  And so one aspect of the history of walking is the history of thinking made concrete — for the motions of the mind cannot be traced, but those of the feet can.  Walking can also be imagined as a visual activity, every walk a tour leisurely enough both to see and think over the sights, to assimilate the new into the known.  Perhaps this is where walking’s peculiar utility for thinkers comes from.  The surprises, liberations, and clarifications of travel can sometimes be garnered by going around the block as well as going around the world, and walking travels both near and far.  Or perhaps walking should be called movement, not travel, for one can walk in circles or travel around the world immobilized in a seat, and a certain kind of wanderlust can only be assuaged by the acts of the body itself in motion, not the motion of the car, boat, or plane.  It is the movement as well as the sights going by that seems to make things happen in the mind, and this is what makes walking ambiguous and endlessly fertile: it is both means and end, travel and destination.”

rebecca solnit

Later in Wanderlust, Solnit’s friend Sono’s truck is stolen from outside her West Oakland studio.  Though most people would call losing your car a catastrophe of the highest order, Sono views it as a blessing: forced to rely on her own two feet for transportation, she develops a more intimate relationship with her surroundings.  No longer alienated in the sterile leather interiors of an automobile, she feels connected to her vibrant Bay Area neighborhood like never before: 

“There was a joy, she said, to finding that her body was adequate to get her where she was going, and it was a gift to develop a more tangible, concrete relationship to her neighborhood and its residents.  We talked about the more stately sense of time one has afoot and on public transit, where things must be planned and scheduled beforehand, rather than rushed through at the last minute, and about the sense of place that can only be gained on foot.  Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors — home, car, gym, office, shops — disconnected from each other.  On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors.  One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.”

We live in an era obsessed with speed and efficiency.  Blockbuster bestsellers have titles such as “The One Minute Manager” and “The Checklist Manifesto”; magazine covers shout with headlines like “21 Tips to Become the Most Productive Person You Know!” and “Get More Done in 2 Days Than Most People Get Done in 2 Weeks!”; hundreds of apps offer systems for streamlining our schedules and monitoring every aspect of our lives from our diet to our sleep.  Ours is an age of life hacks and get-rich-quick schemes.  The worth of our days, we believe, is directly proportional to how much we achieve.  Time is money and an hour well spent is an hour in which we maximize our output to input.

The result?  We dart through our days at speeds that would shock men a mere century ago.  But why does it matter if we hurry at an accelerated pace?  Don’t we at least get more work done?  The problem with the hurried rate of modern life is we sacrifice idle moments for introspection.  “Good ideas come slowly,” Brenda Ueland reminds us in her soul-enlarging classic If You Want to Write.  Hyper-efficient, we’re so concerned with crossing items off our to-do lists that we leave virtually no time for good ideas to gestate and form:

“The multiplication of technologies in the name of efficiency is actually eradicating free time by making it possible to maximize the time and place for production and minimize the unstructured travel time in between.  New timesaving technologies make most workers more productive, not more free, in a world that seems to be accelerating around them.  Too, the rhetoric of efficiency around these technologies suggests that what cannot be quantified cannot be valued — that that vast array of pleasures which fall into the category of doing nothing in particular, of woolgathering, cloud-gazing, wandering, window-shopping, are nothing but voids to be filled by something more definite, more productive, or faster paced.  Even on this headland route going nowhere useful, this route that could only be walked for pleasure, people had trodden shortcuts between the switchbacks as though efficiency was a habit they couldn’t shake.  The indeterminacy of a ramble, on which much may be discovered, is being replaced by the determinate shortest distance to be traversed with all possible speed, as well as by the electronic transmissions that make real travel less necessary.  As a member of the self-employed whose time saved by technology can be lavished on daydreams and meanders, I know these things have their uses, and use them — a truck, a computer, a modem — myself, but I fear their false urgency, their call to speed, their insistence that travel is less important than arrival.  I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour.  If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.”

In an endearing moment of optimism and understated poetry, Solnit refutes the common misconception that city streets are grimy cesspools of violence and moral decay.  Instead of fish-netted prostitutes and switch blades, walking the streets of San Francisco, she most often meets old friends, amiable neighbors, and a magical white moon over the bay.  To walk a city street is to encounter many lovely little serendipities: you might chance upon a poster for an underground punk band you’ve been meaning to see or be handed a flier for a panel discussion on prison reform at U.C. Berkeley.  In our increasingly regimented lives, we become stagnant pools— suffocated by our regular schedule’s dull monotony.  Walking helps us rejoin the flow of life, the exhilarating stream of the unplanned and unpredictable:

“I have been threatened and mugged on the street, long ago, but I have a thousand times more encountered friends passing by, a sought-for book in a store window, compliments and greetings from my loquacious neighbors, architectural delights, posters for music and ironic political commentary on walls and telephone polls, fortune-tellers, the moon coming up between buildings, glimpses of other lives and other homes, and streets noisy with songbirds.  The random, the unscreened, allows you to find what you don’t know you are looking for, and you don’t know a place until it surprises you.  Walking is one way of maintaining a bulwark against this erosion of the mind, the body, the landscape, and the city, and every walker is a guard on patrol to protect the ineffable.”

vintage sf street

Solnit ends the introduction by returning to an earlier description of her own walk along a Sausalito hiking trail.  Much like Beethoven and Mozart, she finds the answers she seeks on long solitary strolls.  In this way, walking is both a pilgrimage of the body and a pilgrimage of the soul:

Suddenly I came out of my thoughts to notice everything around me again-the catkins on the willows, the lapping of the water, the leafy patterns of the shadows across the path.  And then myself, walking with the alignment that only comes after miles, the loose diagonal rhythm of arms swinging in synchronization with legs in a body that felt long and stretched out, almost as sinuous as a snake.  My circuit was almost finished, and at the end of it I knew what my subject was and how to address it in a way I had not six miles before.  It had not come in a sudden epiphany but with a gradual sureness, a sense of meaning like a sense of place.  When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities.  Exploring the world is one the best ways to explore the mind, and walking travels both terrains.” 

Proust on the Benefits & Limitations of Reading

It is a truth universally acknowledged that reading contributes to the public good.  As any librarian or public service announcement will tell you, the benefits of reading are too many to count.  libraryNot only does reading magnify our capacity for empathy and strengthen our ability to be open-minded, it fortifies the foundations of democracy itself.  On the societal level, literacy reduces crime, fosters freer, more stable governments, and promotes social activism.  Books empower us with the tools to be strong critical thinkers and bestow us with the gift of words to depict our world.  Books are museums, ways of preserving the wisdom of our collective past, and crystal balls that grant us insight into our possible futures.  Books are medicines that can cure almost any ailment, from the most life-threatening bouts of existential angst to more common cases of hard-to-place melancholy.  Books are lamps and life rafts, friends and teachers, time machines and time capsules.  “We read to remember.  We read to forget.  We read to make ourselves and remake ourselves and save ourselves,” Maria Popova once said.

British philosopher Alain De Botton insists reading has yet another benefit: it sensitizes us.  In our hyper-exposed era where we’re relentlessly besieged by sexualized images, disturbing portrayals of violence, and tasteless profanity, books offer a bastion against the inhumane forces working to desensitize us.  Rather than blunt our ability to feel distress at scenes of cruelty or anesthetize us to brutality, books make us feel: love, empathy.  And because they describe what we usually neglect— the wrinkled topography of someone’s face, the sky on a frost-bitten December morning— they can stir us from our semi-conscious stupor and remind us life is endlessly fascinating if we only pause to look. 

In his charming self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, the same trove of Proustian wisdom that taught us how to be happy in lovereawaken to the beauty of ordinary things, and avoid the enticing lure of platitude and cliche, Botton argues Proust’s adoration for British art critic John Ruskin is an example of the power of books to transform us.  Proust first discovered Ruskin when he was one thousand pages into writing his first novel Jean Santeuil.  “The universe suddenly regained infinite value in my eyes,” he said of reading the great Victorian author.  Proust was so taken with Ruskin that he abandoned his novel and spent the next three years translating his idol’s prolific body of work into French. 

So why did Ruskin have such a tremendous impact on the budding author?  Botton hypothesizes in Ruskin “he found experiences that he had never been more than semiconscious of raised and beautifully assembled in language.”  Though at some level Proust surely recognized the grandeur of northern France’s great cathedrals before reading Ruskin, Ruskin helped him more keenly experience their beauty and, in so doing, restored to him a bit of the world.  In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, the influential critic minutely described one particular statue in Rouen Cathedral, a figure of a little man carved into one of the structure’s magnificent portals.  Proust had never noticed the statue before.  But by writing with the same heartfelt attention a portrait painter pays to his subject, Ruskin showed Proust that the statue was worthwhile and that, perhaps, life was as well:  

“For Proust, Ruskin’s concern for the little man had effected a kind of resurrection, one characteristic of great art.  He had known how to look at this figure, and had hence brought it back to life for succeeding generations.  Ever polite, Proust offered a playful apology to the little figure for that would have been his own inability to notice him without Ruskin as a guide (“I would not have been clever enough to find you, amongst the thousands of stones in our towns, to pick out your figure, to rediscover your personality, to summon you, to make you live again”).  It was a symbol for what Ruskin had done for Proust, and what all books might do for their readers— namely, bring back to life, from the deadness caused by habit and inattention, valuable yet neglected aspects of experience.”

monet's cathedrals

But though books possess the conscious-raising power to reinvigorate our senses and revive us from the numbing effects of over-exposure and habit, they have their limitations.  Yes, reading writers we admire can be inspiring (what a joy to revel in the inexplicable pleasure of a graceful sentence, a delight to discover a beautifully-crafted arrangement of words!).  And yes, a brilliant book can sometimes be an effective antidote for writer’s block: a prescription of Proust, for example, can inspire us to more deeply delve in our own characters’ psychology; a pill of Plath can rouse us to write with raw emotional ferocity; a spoonful of Anais Nin can rekindle our passion for the poetic aspects of language, leading us to play with figures of speech and write with more elegance and delicacy.  

But when we worship an author too fervently, he becomes the cruel yardstick with which we measure our own efforts.  “Why can’t we write with Didion’s understated restraint?” we wonder, unable to scribble a single sentence since reading her landmark essay “Why I Write.”  “Why can’t my sentences sing with the lyrical simplicity of Solnit’s?  Or mesmerize with the exquisite beauty and intricacy of Fitch?”  It is often we bookish writers who find ourselves most debilitated by self-hatred and self-doubt.  Because we’re so well-versed in the canon— or, as Matthew Arnold once termed, “the best that’s been thought and said”— we possess a centuries-old library in the shelves of our heads, hundreds upon hundreds of volumes with which to compare ourselves.  When we craft a sharp bit of wordplay, we might momentarily delight in our own cleverness only to glance backward and see the towering presence of Shakespeare himself.  Our attempts at double entendre are god-awful compared to his.  Certainly our wit will never be a match for the bard’s! 

So though reading is invaluable to a writer’s formation, too much reading can discourage us from writing at all.  After all, why put pen to page if x, y and z author has already said what you wanted to say and said it better?  Even the most talented writers have opened the pages of their favorite novels and felt a terrible sense of their own inadequacy.  Take titan of modernism Virginia Woolf.  Despite her indisputable genius, she— too— suffered agonizing periods of self-doubt after encountering what she thought was the work of a superior writer.  In a 1922 letter to English painter and fellow member of the Bloomsbury Group, Roger Fry, she raved about In Search of Lost Time, the magnum opus of Mr. Marcel Proust:

“Well – what remains to be written after that?  I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes.  How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped – and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance?  One has to put the book down and gasp.”

Virginia Woolf

Reading Proust, Woolf felt nothing short of wonderstruck.  She was astounded by his facility with language, his ability to weave a story with both the “utmost sensitivity” and “utmost tenacity.”  So in awe was she of his talents that she came to question her own.  She wanted desperately to write like Proust but her attempts at imitation revealed— much to her dismay— that she could only write like herself.  Later she told Fry:

“Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out a sentence.  Oh if I could write like that!  I cry.  And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures— there’s something sexual in it— that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can’t.”  

Even after writing Mrs. Dalloway, a masterpiece of never-before-seen stream-of-consciousness that would come to be regarded as one of the most important works of the 20th century, Woolf still felt herself lacking.  “I wonder if this time I have achieved something?” she confessed in her diary, “Well, nothing anyhow compared to Proust…he will I suppose both influence me and make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.” 

Thankfully, Woolf didn’t let her admiration for Proust discourage her too much: she continued to write and would go on to publish such groundbreaking novels and essays as Orlando and A Room of One’s Own.  But hers is still a cautionary tale: we shouldn’t exalt human beings to the status of idols.  If our admiration for an author slips into adulation, if we glorify books as if they were bibles, we’ll eventually discount our own talent.  The result?  The Virginia Woolfs of the world will try to write the next In Search of Lost Time instead of To the Lighthouse.