Golden glow

Yesterday afternoon, before driving to a Thanksgiving potluck with friends, J and I took a walk around his golden-leafy neighborhood. “Everyone goes walking on Thanksgiving,” J noted, “even if they don’t walk any other day in the year.” He was right. On a typical day in Newton, you’ll see people walking dogs, people jogging singly or in pairs, and an occasional couple, walking. But yesterday it was balmy and beautiful–warm enough for several convertible-owners to drive with their tops down–and we saw several loose clusters of people walking the streets without dogs or exercise togs: just walking. Apparently Thanksgiving is a day when you gather with family, eat inordinate amounts of food, and then spend time engaging in the simple activities (such as walking) you wish you took the time for the rest of the year.

Japanese maple leaves on ground cover

J and I spend much of our time together walking, even when it’s not Thanksgiving. Yesterday J mapped a two-mile afternoon walk for us to take; last weekend, we walked four miles on Sunday and a total of twelve miles between Thursday night and Monday morning. Some people spend Thanksgiving watching the Macy’s parade on TV; others watch football games. On Thanksgiving like other days, J and I walk because it’s something we enjoy: it’s good for you, it costs nothing, and it’s a leisurely way to spend time together, with or without dogs or cameras. If you live in a golden-leafy neighborhood with plenty of pretty, safe streets to stroll, why wouldn’t you spend as much time as you are able ambling?

Falling and fallen

And yet, not everyone lives to walk: walking, after all, is slow-paced and lacks the thrills and chills of, say, drag-racing. Why walk when you can run, roller-blade, bike, or skateboard? Why walk when you can sleep, watch TV, or shop? Every time I visit my parents in Ohio, my mom and I go walking together; my dad prefers bench-sitting to walking, and “walking the dog” always provides my mom and me with ample excuse to escape. “Why aren’t there more people out here,” my mom will ask, gesturing toward almost-empty paths in the close-to-home suburban parks we explore whenever I go home. “They put in all these nice walking trails, and people are too busy watching TV, playing video games, or going to movies to find time for a walk.”

I never know how to answer my mom’s rhetorical question since it demands I speak for the “they” who do not walk, and how can I understand “their” motives? “Why do people spend good money,” my mom will ask, “to sit inside watching some stupid movie when they can be out walking?” At this point in the conversation, Reggie is typically tugging his leash and I’m pulled in two directions, part of me following the path of conversation and another part of me paying attention to the literal path ahead of me. “I don’t know,” I’ll admit. “Some people like movies, and some people like walking. To each his own, you know?”

Old man's beard

This morning, I went to Zen practice in Lexington for the first time in months. Fall semester has been a busy time: I’m teaching what amounts to a double course-load at several schools, in October there were the late nights and lost sleep of a Red Sox championship run, and by November a teaching overload necessarily results in grading gridlock. At some point you begin to cut yourself slack by replacing things you’d like to do with the things you must do. “In December, after the semester is over,” you tell yourself, “I’ll start writing, practicing, and working out again.” Next semester, you tell yourself, your teaching load will be lighter, and there will be more time for everything you’ve been postponing…if only you can get to the end of this hectic time.

Confused flower

If it weren’t for Reggie and J, I suppose I’d have postponed walking these past months, too, figuring I didn’t have time. And if it weren’t from an email last week from Zen Master Bon Haeng (aka Mark Houghton) asking someone to lead practice today, I suppose I’d have slept in this morning. But knowing that ZM Mark is in Korea and needed someone to lead practice–knowing that it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to drag myself out of bed, drive the 15 minutes or so from Newton to Lexington, and have the satisfaction of knowing I’d both practiced and helped Mark out by covering practice for him–I responded to the email. “No problem: I’ll be there. Have a good, safe trip!”

Japanese maple leaves & samara

And so this morning, I got up at 5:30 to crawl into meditation clothes, drive the 15 minutes or so from Newton to Lexington, and make sure the lights were on when other folks arrived for practice. About 95 percent of Zen practice is simply showing up, and the other 5 percent is simply staying. On Black Friday, when other folks dragged themselves out of bed to drive to malls and stores offering door-buster bargains, I tried to find no better deal than my own breath, attentively watched. There will be time in December to catch up with writing, practicing, and working out; there will be time, come Cyber Monday, to shop. But this morning, thoughts of all those classes headed into their final weeks were shoved to the back-burner, just as they are when J and I stroll the streets in our golden-leafy neighborhood. Some people like to watch movies, and others like to walk. Some people like to shop for door-buster bargains; others choose to spend the morning after Thanksgiving meditating. To each his own, you know?