Ever since I moved to New England over 15 years ago, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. Whenever I travel to some lovely vacation spot, I realize upon coming back home that I live in a lovely vacation spot. Although I enjoy visiting and exploring the wonders in other folks’ backyards, the “Here” I find when I come back home is equally alluring and interesting.
The last time I was in San Francisco, I was unhappily married, stuck in the midst of a mired dissertation, and emotionally numb. Like Mary Austin, who walked in the deserts of southern California seeking to be “sobered and healed at last by the large soundness of nature,” I spent as much of that week as possible walking, alone. Staying by night as an invisible guest at the San Francisco Zen Center, I woke each morning before practice, slipped out to my car while other folks made their sleepy way to the meditation hall, and made my escape north of the city, where I did miles of solitary walking meditation in Marin County, the hypnotic regularity of “one foot in front of the other” being exactly what I needed at the time to return to my senses.
I later wrote about that week I spent sneaking out of the San Francisco Zen Center, consistently choosing walking over sitting:
Over the course of five days in Marin County, I walked over 50 miles in day-trip long segments, walking each day until my legs ached and my sandal-clad feet were as brown as the earth. Every evening I’d return to the city to eat, shower, then sleep like a rock until morning when I’d repeat the process all over again. There’s nothing like a day’s worth of walking to tire your body and soul into deep, restful sleep; there’s nothing like a day’s worth of walking to bring you out of your academia-addled brain and back into your body, rooted to the earth down to your dust-covered toes.
This weekend, instead of staying at the San Francisco Zen Center, I was an almost-invisible participant at a literary conference where I presented part of the opening chapter of that once-mired, now four-years-completed dissertation, popping into a handful of sessions each day but otherwise sneaking off elsewhere. Five years ago, I used walking as an escape from the academic writing I’d grown sick of; this time around, I used walking (and the ever-present demands of my online classes) as an escape from the academic presentations that still seem so foreign to me.
How is it that professors no different from me can content themselves sitting inside all day reading papers to one another when their legs still work and the world outside beckons? In “Walking,” one of the texts I considered in the opening chapter of my dissertation, Henry David Thoreau marveled that his neighbors didn’t kill themselves from the monotony of having to sit in shops all day, “as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon.” This weekend I found myself wondering something similar. I can’t speak for other academics, but this much I’ve discovered about myself: I can’t think sitting down, much less sitting down being read to. If there’s anything of interest in the opening chapter of my dissertation or elsewhere, it’s insight I came to while walking, the sedentary writing of those insights being something that happened after-the-fact.
So given the fact that I live in a place just as lovely as San Francisco or other conference destinations, and given the fact that I seem constitutionally averse to the kind of mingling and intellectualizing that academic conferences deal in, I wonder whether I’ll ever find myself attending another one. One of the things I realized while walking in Marin County five years ago was that I didn’t want to live my live analyzing Thoreau: I wanted to be Thoreau, and it occurs to me that Thoreau wasn’t much for literary conferences. “You could be living in a place where people dream of vacationing,” a San Francisco real estate sign reminds passersby; “you could be living, rather than presenting and being presented-to,” I had to stifle myself from saying as I sat through the handful of academic sessions I attended each day, counting the minutes until I could escape to walk again.