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Feet on the Ground

I’m not a mere writer and walker. I am a “writer-walker”

Here I am, a writer and a walker too of some regularity, yet I simply had no notion of what a long history there is connecting the two. Only reading an essay entitled “The Unbearable Smugness of Walking” in the Atlantic has made me realize I’m not a mere writer and walker. I am… a “writer-walker,” and an heir, apparently, to a long tradition of the sort.

In the essay, Toronto-based writer Michael LaPointe reviews a recent work, Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking, which “gathers 36 testimonies to walking’s invigorating literary power in particular. Writers from Petrarch to Franz Kafka to Will Self have recorded their enthusiasm for, in [author Duncan] Minshull’s words, ‘ambling, rambling, tramping, trekking, stomping and striding.’ Higher-quality endorsements of the creative value of walking than these would be hard to find.”

The idea that walking can enrich one’s writing harks back, according to Minshull, at least to the Romantic period, when writers owed much of the inspiration for their “sublime visions of the natural world” to roaming about in the great outdoors. The essayist William Hazlitt, for example, enthused over Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s talent for “converting a landscape into a didactic poem or a Pindaric ode.”

Later writers exchanged the countryside for grimy, crowded city scenes that afforded a very different kind of inspiration, but “the Romantic conception of walking as the essential literary act persisted… walk, observe, write.” And not only urban sights and sounds, but smells too. Edward Hoagland’s reminiscences of New York, LaPointe writes, recall how he “stalked the streets of his hometown, first ‘to smell the yeasty redolence of the Nabisco factory’ and then ‘to West Twelfth Street to sniff the police stables.’ The author was inhaling the raw stuff that would fuel creativity: ‘I knew that every mile I walked, the better writer I’d be.’ ”

More recently, literary walking has taken on what LaPointe calls “a new political energy.” Taking that daily stroll is no longer seen merely as “good creative exercise [but] a form of protest against buying and selling, against goal-directed busyness. It’s an autonomous march in opposition to the stream of conformity.” The Norwegian writer and explorer Erling Kagge writes that “sitting is about the desire of those in power that we should participate in growing the GDP, as well as the corporate desire that we should consume as much as possible and rest whenever we aren’t doing so.”

As I mentioned, I walk too, and I also appreciate some nonconformity, but isn’t this more than a bit extreme? To walk, says Kagge, is to strike out against the culture, because “it is among the most radical things you can do.” I had no idea.

I can more readily agree with the writer Rebecca Solnit, who, in her contribution to Minshull’s anthology, says that “thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-orientated culture, and doing nothing is hard to do.” You’re telling me. Been there, not done that.

But, Ms. Solnit adds, “the something closest to doing nothing is walking.” My advice to those who’ve tried their hand unsuccessfully at the difficult work of doing absolutely nothing? Persist, my boy, persist, and over time it’ll get easier. And if the going really gets tough, opt for second best: Take a walk.

But LaPointe observes an irony:

The more conscious writers become of its creative benefits, the more walking takes on the quality of goal-driven labor, the very thing we are meant to be marching against. The hazard was always there. William Hazlitt gestures toward it in his entry in Beneath My Feet. “When I am in the country,” he writes, “I wish to vegetate like the country.” If he begins to feel that he has to produce a piece of writing from his walks, like “my old friend Coleridge,” then he’s “making a toil of a pleasure.”

Solnit champions something like Hazlitt’s vegetating when she writes that walking “produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.” And yet again and again in the literature of walking, a stroll is portrayed as a working method. Minshull tempts us with the possibility that while walking, “thoughts are stirred, which leads to creativity, to a verse or a paragraph,” so how can a writer ever walk for walking’s sake?

My own experience provides an easy way to avoid being impaled on the horns of LaPointe’s dilemma. Rather than walking as a way to experience Hazlitt’s “vegetating” or to stir the creative literary juices, I walk because my doctor told me I should. He advised that, coupled with eating properly, a vigorous 45-minute daily constitutional is the best thing I can do for my health.

So while I don’t subscribe to Kagge’s rather extreme view of people who just sit around as pawns of the political and corporate elites, neither do I concur with Winston Churchill, who, when asked for his personal secret for longevity, said: “I never stood when I could sit, and I never sat when I could lie down.”

Instead, I walk because in the natural order of things, it’s better for my longevity than either sitting or lying down. It feels good physically, and psychologically too, to do something, anything, consistently.

And should my perambulations around Far Rockaway yield insights or epiphanies, even an entire column’s worth of them, all the better. If we’re to believe Ms. Solnit, perhaps the literary bounty of one’s walks can be seen as an emulation of Creation itself: something from nothing.


A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE Writing in Education Next about the ongoing standoff between New York’s yeshivos and the state’s education department, freelance journalist Menachem Wecker tells of a visit he made earlier this year to two chassidic schools in Brooklyn, one of which was in the group targeted by YAFFED. Touring a dozen middle-school classes and speaking unrestrictedly with administrators, students, teachers, parents, and alumni, he came away with the impression that what he “heard and witnessed was genuine,” rather than a “charade for a journalist’s benefit”:

In a seventh-grade class, an infectiously enthusiastic teacher saw 25 hands shoot up when he sought two volunteers [for] an apparently impromptu competition, asking them to locate [on a world map] Sri Lanka; a place where the United States lost a war; the most populous nation in the world; and the Horn of Africa. The duo handled each task with ease — faster than I probably could have…. “When I see a class like this, and the kids are engaged, and I read an article to the contrary, it breaks my heart,” the secular studies coordinator said to me as we left the room.

In most ways, the classrooms and facilities I saw were no different from any of thousands of others one might visit across the nation. The halls had water fountains, and backpacks, school supplies, and colorful signage abounded…. I observed and heard nothing in my interviews suggesting anything but two communities striving to instruct young people as best they knew how, within the context of the religious values they hold dear. “We’re not in the business of wasting people’s time, and whether that is Judaic studies or secular studies, we absolutely believe that it needs to be done well,” a principal told me….

I talked to third graders writing essays in English about the upcoming Jewish holiday of Purim, and I found their writing to be clear and largely error-free. Students I selected at random happily answered my questions, and when I feigned ignorance about the holiday’s story, they explained to me what they were writing about. In a teachers’ lounge, an administrator talked me through an elaborate, color-coded computer program, which the school uses to track students’ progress in every subject on a highly granular level.

Wecker quotes Agudath Israel leader Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel as saying the current confrontation ought to prompt the educational establishment to reexamine the very purpose of education. To his mind, the focus ought to be on creating lifelong learners, at which yeshivos are generally quite successful, rather than on complying with a technical standard of “substantial equivalence.”

If there’s any value to a notion of substantial equivalency, Mr. Wecker concludes, it might be this: “If the state does revisit its education laws, maybe it should consider reversing them — requiring the public schools to be substantially equivalent to the religious ones rather than the other way around.”

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 770. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com


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