Walking and Reading

For most of my young life I figured I had to exercise vigorously every day in order to be fit. I did sports, I jogged, I hiked, I biked, I did just about everything except boring myself at a gym. Then one day I made the connection that one of the fittest people I knew was an acquaintance of mine who walked briskly for one hour, every single day. She looked like she did all kinds of things to hone her physique. I asked her about it. Every day? Without fail. Brisk? Yes. That’s all? Yes.

Gee. Walking? Every day? Boring was my first thought. But then again it could be done anytime, anywhere, with just a pair of shoes. No lugging around the unwieldy kayak or windsurf gear that weighed me down and thereby housed spiders. No waiting until my stomach was empty so I wouldn’t get cramps. No psyching myself up to kick it into high gear on the trails. No limitation whatsoever, come to think of it.

I’ve been following in her footsteps ever since, except for one caveat. Walk for an hour each day and you begin to need some mental stimulation. Not long after I began, my former college aerobics instructor ran past me while reading a book. She was the one reading the book. While running. Ding! My lightbulb lit.

I’ve been following in her footsteps ever since too, just at a much slower pace. I’ve read gobs of books while walking over the last 15 years. Had it not been for reading, I wouldn’t have kept walking. And thanks to my husband’s love of routines and exercise, he made sure that every day, at the exact same time, he’d be home for an hour to cuddle the baby or laugh with the toddler so that I could go out walking. Every day without fail. He still does, actually.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this post-collegiate education. I told our older son I wouldn’t give up this contemplative walking time of mine in order to homeschool him last year, so he agreed to walk with me every single day, regardless of rain, sleet, or snow. And read. I read books aloud to us throughout the entire year as we walked the streets of Orcas together for over an hour each day. Without fail. It was awesome.

My mom is in the local library book club that meets each month. She reads voraciously and I pick through her favorites to take on the road with me. Some of my recent reads are The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Linda (Harriet) Jacobs, I’m Not Leaving: Rwanda Through the Eyes of the Only American to Remain in the Country Through the 1994 Genocide by Carl Wilkens, Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health by Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers, and The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. I’ve switched them out now and then with a brick of a book, The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise.

Reading psychologically heavy material is daunting while walking the peaceful, idyllic roads on the island. It’s a juxtaposition that instills gratefulness in me. I often have to stop while reading a passage and bend over just to take it in and deal with it internally. Here are some excerpts from The Underground Railroad that I marked while walking along the road that I feel the need to pass on, so that no one guesses at the treatment of innocent, stolen people during the birth of our “free” nation:

On the second day a band of visitors arrived {at the plantation} in a carriage, august souls from Atlanta and Georgia. Swell ladies and gentlemen that Terrance had met on his travels, as well as a newspaperman from London come to report on the American scene. They ate at a table set up on the lawn, savoring Alice’s turtle soup and mutton and devising compliments for the cook, who would never receive them. Big Anthony was whipped for the duration of their meal, and they ate slow… On the third day, just after lunch, the hands were recalled from the fields, the washwomen and cooks and stable hands interrupted from their tasks, the house staff diverted from its maintenance. They gathered on the front lawn. Randall’s visitors sipped spiced rum as Big Anthony was doused with oil and roasted. The witnesses were spared his screams, as his manhood had been cut off on the first day, stuffed in his mouth, and sewn in. Page 47

…nobody wanted to speak on the true disposition of the world… The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others. Cora had heard Michael recite the Declaration of Independence back on the Randall plantation many times… She didn’t understand the words…but created equal was not lost on her. The white men who wrote it didn’t understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom. The land she tilled and worked had been Indian land. She knew the white men bragged about the efficiency of the massacres, where they killed women and babies, and strangled their futures in the crib. Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood. Page 119

Two night riders dragged a colored girl onstage… Her gray tunic was torn and smeared with blood and filth, and her head had been crudely shaved… ‘Luisa…absconded from her plantation…and hid in the woods these many months. Believing she had escaped the logic of our system… For this separate nation we have forged, free from northern interference and the contamination of a lesser race. The black horde has been beaten back, correcting the mistake made years ago at this nation’s nativity. Some, like our brothers just over the state line, have embraced the absurd notion of nigger uplift. Easier to teach a donkey arithmetic… When we find the odd rascal, our duty is clear.’ The crowd separated, tutored by routine. With Jamison leading the procession, the night riders dragged the girl to the great oak in the middle of the park. Cora had seen the wheeled platform in the corner of the park that day; children climbed and jumped on it all afternoon. At some point in the evening it had been pushed beneath the oak tree. Jamison called for volunteers, and people of all ages rushed to their places on either side of the platform. The noose lowered around Louisa’s neck and she was led up the stairs… One of those who had gathered to push the ramp away was ejected – he’d already taken his turn at a previous festival. A young brunette in a pink polka-dot dress rushed to take his place. Cora turned away before the girl swung… The town hushed. Jamison gave the word. Pages 162-163

Trading off between a book about the Rwandan genocide has been no less wrenching.

All this swirling in my mind, then come to hear that our president wishes to separate parents and their young children to teach Mexicans and Central Americans an immigration lesson.

Last year, while walking serene Orcas roads with my son, we read Unbroken, the story of American bombardier Louie Zamperini, who endured unimaginable torture in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps during World War II. At night, we read The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, about a Dutch family that hid Jews in their house. At the end of the year, we toured an exhibit of Anne Frank’s life at Seattle’s Holocaust Center, and that night we watched a man speak at the Stroum Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island about his real experiences hiding in a barn loft, watching his mother give birth to her beloved baby and then helping to suffocate it so that its cries wouldn’t give away their secret spot.

So the quote by Martin Niemoller pulsing in my mind over these recent days is this; may we all remember this:

They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.

The books that have most recently come my way, while I continue to switch off with Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, are reminders of the beauty and intelligence of animals. Animals as overlooked and unappreciated as snails.

Reading the intimate observations of a snail’s beautiful daily rhythms awakened a desire in my mom to get closer to the species. (I have found the same thing as I read the book.) She’s been wanting a companion snail for months now, and today on my walk I barely missed stepping on one closed in its shell on my path. Snails are ubiquitous here in the Northwest. I swooped it up and presented it as her morning wake-up surprise. In her giddy excitement over this new gentle friend, I picked various plant leaves for its breakfast and it awakened to its new surroundings in her hand. It gracefully stretched out of its shell and swayed back and forth, surveying the air with its curious antennae. I left my mom in her state of elation and have wondered how their day of mutual intrigue has unfolded. A sudden crush underfoot would kill the joy of it, so I’m hoping the idyllic serenity prevails. If you have never imagined that you could feel deep respect and beauty for a snail, I dare you to read this book. Hold on, my mom’s on the line. Would I like to have her snail, she asks; “I’ve enjoyed it as long as I could possibly enjoy a snail.” How funny! Right as I’m inserting these snail photos. No thanks, I say. They’re everywhere.

For now, it’s time for me to head back out on the road. Time to see the world for my coveted hour or so and continue my education.

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