Occasionally on one of these fine, hot summer days I like to follow a
road out towards the country instead of taking my usual walk over to the
cemetery. Since I live right at the edge of town, the countryside's
not far away. In just a few minutes the houses begin to space out,
yards turning into open fields and eventually, if I go far enough, into
acres of corn, for that's what the farmers around here mostly plant.
Sometimes when I go out walking along these country roads I take a plastic
bag with me, just as I do when I go into the woods over by the cemetery,
so that I might pick up some of the trash I find lying by the roadside.
I have to admit I rather enjoy thinking of the spectacle I must present
at such moments to passing motorists; they probably imagine me to be some
sort of scavenger, looking for treasure amongst other people's garbage.
Other times I find that I'm a little embarrassed to be seen doing this,
and I want to yell out at the people I see driving by in their cars:
"Stop trashing up the world! It's your garbage I'm picking
up!" But of course to do that really would embarrass me even
more. And so I'm taught something about humility through the process;
also I'm taught something about pride.
Sometimes the objects I find seem to me very curious. Once
I found a perfectly good child's toy, a small plastic dinosaur, half-buried
in the mud. This struck me as being very suggestive in a symbolic
sort of way, and I was reminded of a comedian I'd once seen who had joked
that for all we know nature's whole intention in producing the human
race was to bring about the creation of plastic. And it's true,
really: we don't any of us know why the things that happen in the
world happen as they do; we only pretend to. Certainly there exists
a feeling these days that all the changes we have wrought upon this
earth are carrying us forward like some giant tidal wave we cannot
control, and whether it destroys us or delivers us safely to some
farther shore we will not know until it happens. But each day
when I walk, I find that I grow more and more curious about these
things. Where are we going, I wonder? Where am I
going – and what will I find when I get there?
Well, today I found a fresh and almost full pack of cigarettes,
tossed most likely from a passing car. I know this trick, having
tried it myself: someone who was trying to give up the tobacco
habit gave in and bought a pack, smoked one or two cigarettes from
it and then, angry at having given in yet again to such an unhealthy
addiction, threw the rest of the pack out the window. But today
I felt a scavenger's sense of good fortune and picked the cigarettes
up, tucking them into my shirt pocket to save for later. A little
farther along the road I found a single playing card – the king
of hearts. This too I picked up and stuck into my pocket, thinking
that perhaps it would prove a lucky omen for me. Perhaps it
foretold of a new love in my future!
Sometimes when I'm out walking I'm reminded of the childhood
dream I'd once had of becoming a tramp. This dream was inspired
by the work I'd read of poets and other writers too who'd made long
journeys across their countries and written about what they experienced
along the way. Also by stories of more average folk who, displaced
from society through circumstance or by choice, set out to destinations
unknown, traveling with nothing more than the clothes on their backs
and whatever they could carry in their hands. Consumed by wanderlust,
forced by misfortune or driven by a sense that their lives had become
restricted to an intolerable degree by circumstances over which they
had no control, they simply picked up and left. This sounds both
liberating and romantic; but it must be, I imagine, a very difficult
thing to accomplish in fact – not only physically but psychologically
and emotionally as well. As for me, it was always a matter of
certain practical considerations that made the adventure seem too
problematic to undertake. How did such people eat, I wondered?
Where did they get the money they needed once that which they'd
brought with them was spent? How did they wash their clothes,
or themselves – or did they just not bother? How did they
avoid falling prey to someone else's malicious intentions; what
to do, where to go, if they got sick or were injured? I simply did
What's required to make a success of such a life is, I suppose, some
capacity for self-reliance, some degree of inner fortitude, that I
have never seemed to possess. For although I am capable, eager,
even dogmatical in my insistence upon intellectual independence,
I have found such independence to come with a rather nasty sting
in its tail: it makes one aware of just how futile the concept
of freedom really is. I suppose that what I speak of is the
realization that it's impossible, no matter how far you travel, to
ever escape yourself. This self, qualified as it is
by the burdens of past memories and of future expectations, by the
tetherings of guilt and the straining after pleasure, by the ongoing
battle between fatuous desire and genuine need, is something whose
care requires so much attention that I cannot seem to find the
necessary resources within me to simply lay it aside, no matter what
the enticements of my wanderlust might be.
This self is, after all, the only thing of value I really
possess. In a sense it is my jailer – but, as such, I
must also assume that it holds the key that will eventually set me
free. If I have any goal in life, the pursuit of that key is
the only one which appears to suit me.
And so, despite my sense of restlessness, I find that I am slowly
approaching middle-age without my ever having spent any real length of
time away from this one small town. My restlessness remains
bottled up inside me, and I seem to have no other recourse but to
explore whatever territory I may discover within the boundaries of
my own heart and mind. I find myself with no other choice,
really, but to explore that territory which is known, for lack of
a better phrase, as the realm of the imagination – of the
spirit. And, given that I have no other choice, I find that
I must simply trust that this is the way it was always meant to be.
WALKING NO PLACE SPECIAL
Walking barefoot down the roadside
Just outside of town,
Walking no place special –
Just towards the horizon, let's say
Or until I get tired.
A sudden jab, a sharp pain, arrests me:
I stop, examining the underside of my foot.
There, up between the toes,
The skin is cut –
A little blood oozes.
And, looking down at where I'd stepped,
I find a piece of broken glass:
Green, a small, jagged triangle
Shaped like a tooth.
A tooth such as some very strange
Animal might have lost, there in the dust.
I will not walk barefoot anymore.
I shall ask one of my relatives or my friends
To give me a pair of sandals
For my birthday, or for X-Mas perhaps.
Till then – I trace my feet on cardboard,
Cut the tracings out,
Thread them with pieces of soft twine,
Tie the twine around my ankles and across my toes.
And now, safe from sharp stones, hot blacktop
And broken glass,
I can go walking again
Down the roadside, just outside of town –
Walking no place special,
Just towards the horizon, let's say
Or until I grow tired
And turn back home again.