“The ordinary activities I find most compatible with contemplation are walking, baking bread, and doing laundry. ”
â€” Kathleen Norris
Like Kathleen Norris (and probably most of the planet), I can very easily get caught up in mundane tasks. Checking email, posting status updates to Facebook, mailing packages, checking email and Facebook again . . . if I’m not careful, an entire morning can pass without me having read, written or even thought about writing. This is entirely unacceptable to me. So I took Norris’ advice in The Quotidian Mysteries and headed out for a walk. First thing.
I wandered down the paved driveway, all the time thinking “I need to write the sponsorship letter.” “Oh, I must make sure I visit five blogs like Bryan Allain recommends so that my blog traffic will go up.” “Right – I need to get mushrooms at the grocery store, too.” My brain felt like one of those carpenter bees that are always bumping into the walls of the house here – busy but stupid; then, I remembered something else Norris said. She said that walking is the rhythm of poetry, quoting Donald Hall, I believe. So I started to pay attention to my pace . . . da duh, da duh . . . it worked. My brain slowed down.
For all of thirty seconds until I remembered that I needed to pack up a bunch of boxes . . . you know the drill, I expect. I really wanted to turn around and get to work. I had things to do.
But I kept walking. I climbed the fence to the Mill Pond Road and scooted down the hill. I reached the pond and stared at the still water then traipsed on past it. Annie Dillard came to mind – with her weasels and Tinker Creek. Then, I considered Madelin L’Engle and the big rock she used to claim in summer, the place where she did her best thinking.
Eventually, I stopped planning ahead and just disappeared into the rhythm of my own steps. A piliated woodpecker took off ahead of me down the trail. . . and I followed him for a while. Eventually, I walked my way right off the property, a hard feat on 3500 acres, and found a tiny family cemetery. Most of the stones were recent, but a few were the simple quartz markers that showed the resting places of those who died before most could carve stone easily, the same kind of markers used in the slave cemetery here on the farm. A precious find for sure.
At this point, I knew vaguely where I was and knew that this was not close to home, but it was okay. I had more contemplating to do. I walked back onto the farm and headed left. When I crossed out of the pines and into the hardwoods again, I found the railroad bed Dad had suggested I might follow. I turned left again and was just passing under the most fragrant yellow tree when I realized I was heading back off the property again (Let’s just say I would not win any orienteering matches with my directional skills.).
Yet, as these things go in life, the detour, the mistep, led me to just the right spot. As I came back along the railroad bed, I saw a red wing flash in the underbrush. I thought maybe I’d come on a brace of quail, so I slowed my gait and tried to be quiet. Of course, a human in windpants is not, by nature, silent, so I startled the bird, and he took off – a beautiful red-tailed hawk. He stopped just long enough for me to gaze at him and be reminded that God has got all of this.
You see, at times in my life when I have felt most lost, when it seems the path isn’t going anywhere near where I want to be, I always see red-tailed hawks. They are on the trails I hike, on the telephone poles by the roads I drive. They are my sign of promise.
So here I was tired but mellow, truly contemplative, and a promise flew up before me. A little more stamina for the way home.
I made it back to the pond and saw the largest box turtle in the universe (this is, of course, quantifiable fact) and another piliated woodpecker (or maybe the same one trying to get me out of his woods?) flew back down the trail before me.
I climbed back over the fence, returned to the road, and walked myself back home. My brain silent this time.
I once heard Ron Carlson say that your best writing will come if you keep writing when you want to get up to get that second cup of coffee. Apparently, this is true for walking as well. Stay through the second cup; walk your way out of the list of duties. Then, the words will come as promised, maybe on the wings of a red-tailed hawk.