Laura Barton reflects on the paths we choose...
For a long time I worked in an office. Ten years, in fact, in a faded high rise in central London. For many of those years I would walk to work each morning - first from the South of the city, over the river and up past the meat market, along a main road heavy with dirt and heat and fumes, so that I would turn up at my desk each day dusty-calved.
And then for many years from the East: through squares and quiet backstreets, past gardens giving up the scent of blossom and wet branches, and houses spilling forth piano practice, breakfast bickering, and gusts of warm, laundried air.
Each morning seemed filled with the small, secret treasures you find as you go: the sound of bicycle wheels and birdsong, the huff of breath. The pleasing broadness of Elizabeth Avenue. The bright sudden roar of morning traffic. And the sense of a landscape in constant, hopeful renewal: the building work that began with the end of each winter; the first tight-knuckled buds, the first blazing leaves, and one particular spring when for weeks my route seemed speckled with violets.
In 1917 the Swiss writer Robert Walser published a short story called The Walk, in which the narrator leaves his writing desk and heads out to the street, walking on through the town and the countryside to invigorate and maintain contact with the living world as he put it. It was, he explained, both a way to flee the phantoms and despair that circled his mind, and to feed his creativity with detail and fresh stimulus. With the utmost love and attention the man who walks must study and observe every smallest living thing, be it a child, a dog, a fly, a butterfly, a sparrow, a worm, a flower, a man, a house, a tree, a hedge, a snail, a mouse, a cloud, a hill, a leaf, or no more than a poor discarded scrap of paper on which, perhaps, a dear good child at school has written his first clumsy letters
On my morning walks I found that such study and observation gave new perspective to my own well-worn thoughts. I was at that time quite unsure of my life's direction, and I came to use those walks to think. There was something redeeming in the rhythm of my step, in the music I often listened to as I strode, in the experience of moving through the landscape. How nice it was to be out in the world; how it enlivened and delighted my mind.
Perhaps my body knew something was changing before I did. One spring I found that I had begun to alter my route - a left turn here one day, a sharp right there the next. I began to look up - to the chimneypots and the crests of rooftops and the greening of the topmost branches, at a sky that for weeks carried a fierce and determined blue.
These new routes still led me to the same destination of course, but something seemed different, as if the day had become charged with the threshing of new possibilities. When I reached the door of my office I noticed now that I was filled with the desire not to head in to my desk but to keep on walking.
A path is a prior interpretation of the best way to traverse a landscape, Rebecca Solnit wrote in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and I suppose on those morning walks what I came to question was the path that had been set out for me. I had been a diligent and well-behaved child, a good student, a capable employee. But I had never quite found my own path, never chosen the best way for me to traverse a landscape.
When I left my job in the high rise office many people were surprised. It was a good job, one that offered stability and prospects and success. It was not the type of job you walk away from, well-meaning colleagues told me. And yet walk I did. I chose a path that I have never regretted, a path that made my heart sing.
Still I walk - like Walser I leave my writing desk and head out along the lanes near my home, through new cities, familiar streets. Each path brings inspiration, life, observation, a place for thought to bud and flourish.
And as I go I think often of the poet Wallace Stevens, who would famously walk through Hartford, Connecticut, from his white clapperboard house to his dayjob at the insurance company office. I think of how he used that walk to compose poetry of such wild and vibrating colour; a besuited businessman matching his lines to his gait, filling the two New England miles with thoughts of tigers and watermelon pavilions and emperors of ice cream.
You can, Stevens reminds me, traverse a landscape however you want - with your eye upon a butterfly, a sparrow, a worm, or in the deep folds of your imagination. Go out and walk, as the illustrator Maira Kalman once said. That is the glory of life.
Words by Laura Barton
Laura is the presenter of the TOAST Podcast. Listen to our newest series.
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