The Selected Walks

The Selected Walks

We know now that a walk is not a line of steps releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning...but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of walks, none of them original, blend and clash. 

                                                      —after Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”


                  There’s an intimacy to walking with my dog at night. The dark surrounds us and limits the infinity of space. At night, you can see the shape of the sky as if you were in a vast room, a bell jar bounded by the spangle of stars. 

                  And unlike with the sun, that blazing brazen Klieg-light, you can have a connection, a one-on-one relationship with the moon. You can look at it. It follows you. It changes shape and colour. Pearl. Silver. Opal. Pus. Semen. Bone. Bloodshot eye, strangely lambent, glowing, translucent. The moon feels personal.

                  It’s often said that poets have an obsession with the moon. “I am convinced,” Mary Ruefle writes in Madness, Rack, and Honey, “that the first lyric poem was written at night, and that the moon was witness to the event and that the event was witness to the moon.”

                  The moon’s mooniness is numinous. Luminescent. It seems to comment, a celestial Greek chorus, an outer space familiar, yet it is all negative capability, even its bright side seems as unknowable as its dark side. And it has a dark side, always in shadow, lonely, facing into the beyond. “Beautiful, beautiful. Magnificent desolation,” Buzz Aldrin said as he stepped onto its surface, again according to Mary Ruefle. The moon is the Other, emotional yet silent. Melancholy. We moon around, become looney. It pulls the ocean onto shore, as if it were a blanket and it was time to sleep, to enter the cave of dream, like a ready O, our open mouth an O, our endless ouroboros dreams, lunar, O-shaped or crescent. But the moon reaches not only tides, but those who menstruate feel its phases or at least share its connection to the month, in poetry anyway. See? I begin thinking about the moon and get carried away.

                  We do this a lot, my dog Happy and me, out after midnight, driving into the country to walk through fields or closed conservation areas. The other day, I was struck by the absurd beauty of the scene: Happy sticking his head out the car window, me blasting Mozart’s Requiem as we sped along Highway 5, past the gravel pit, the tractor dealer, the place to buy rocks, the various garden centres and churches along the way. We went for a long walk around the lake as it rained. I put on some Bach.

                  I thought, Here I am, just another Jew wandering through the rainy woods in Hamilton Ontario listening to the B minor Mass, feeling frankly glad to live on Planet Earth. I think my mind might explode if I had the additional surprising beauty of another planet to experience.  


                  Two nerdy walking moments. A few summers ago, walking in the woods, I broke my big toe on a tree root as I listened on headphones to a lecture on by the “Tolkien professor” while wearing Birkenstocks. Though nerdy, perhaps this wasn’t as nerdy as when I was as a teenager, and I’d skip down the trail playing tin whistle and imagining I was an elf.


                  A few weeks ago, I was listening to Norwegian folk music and the buzzer on the dryer went off at the exact pitch of the song. Hmm, I thought. That means something. A transcultural time-weaving synchronicity. But it must be that the Sami shaman knew about Maytag, the boxy white-painted ghost roiling my clothes in its hot-Yoga Twister insides.


                  I can’t help but relate this conjunction-in-the-world to the entanglement of human relations, that judo of interactions over time. So many points of connection—thoughts, actions, correspondences. A complex ecosystem of feelings, observations, reflections, responses. I’m sitting here in the backyard sun with my dad. He’s reading and nodding off, a pleasant afternoon and so I think of our lifelong entanglement, how we have made so many parts of each other. As has happened with all those I love. 


                  My therapist wonders if it’s safe for me to walk alone at night. He jokes that, “No, it’s ok, Happy, the sheepadoodle is there to protect you.” Maybe the slight possibility of danger is part of it. I’m reminded of that idea in The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy where, since all humanity’s problems have been solved, there’s a process simulating danger (for example, being chased by wild lions) just to motivate you to do basic things, like getting to the bus on time. Sometimes, walking, I’m entirely relaxed, open to the meander of my thoughts and the night, sometimes, there is a frisson of fear which sends alertness to the edges of my body. There’s an energizing vigilance. I’m intensely aware of my privilege in this activity. A white able-bodied man presenting normatively. Also, if I think I hear something, I put on a deep voice and call my dog—with that voice, it’s got to be a pitbull—“Rex.” Happy knows how to use his privilege and present normatively too. There’d be little I could do, in truth, if I were accosted in this closed conservation area out in the country. Happy’s only tool to deal with the unexpected is enthusiasm.

                  I have seen only one person out here. Someone in the trees, illicitly camping by a fire. I was once assaulted, however, but it was in the mostly closed part of the mall downtown. Two tall teenagers, one of them skateboarding. It was unusual and I thought it was kind of cool, so I watched the guy riding. I wonder if he thought I was judging him—me, a middle-aged white guy looking at a black kid doing something vaguely forbidden. As he went by, he elbowed me hard into the store window of a Victoria’s Secret. I remember my face in slow motion skidding down the fifteen-foot-tall décolletage of a bra model. I didn’t call the security or the police. Hmm, I thought. It’s like this. Complicated. My ribs were bruised for weeks. I was struck by how much stronger he was than me, that had he chosen to do more, I wouldn’t have been able to resist. Like when my son got jacked as a teenager and would pick me up and move me around the house just because he could and I couldn’t.

                  Everywhere I go, I have my phone, an ostensible lifeline. Once I walked through an Icelandic forest (i.e. trees about thirty centimetres tall) in order to climb an inactive volcano. For two or three hours, I was aware that I was out in the wide world without a phone service and that if something happened to me, I wouldn’t be able to call for help and no one knew where I was. I was by myself in the world. Me and the world, making our own unmediated connection. I had a direct line to my environment, my signal didn’t have to travel into space to bounce off a satellite. 

                  Walking with a dog is another kind of connection. I’m aware of what the dog finds interesting—what they look at, smell, chase. And a man walking alone at night might be creepy or threatening, but a man walking a dog is a man walking a dog and there’s a non-worrisome explanation to his actions. Once I was navigating my way through a blizzard with my dog, no one else out in the storm. An empty bus drove by, stopped and the bus driver offered me and my dog a ride in their container of golden light. Though the absurdity of it appealed to me, the reason we were out walking was…to walk, and so I declined. I was a man walking a dog and so we kept walking.


                  I often listen to music or audiobooks while I walk, especially at night if there aren’t any engaging nature sounds, for instance, if I’m wandering neighbourhood streets. There’s a particular intimacy to earphones. Someone is whispering into both your ears—actually, it feels like the sound is in the centre of your brain—your head turned into an amphitheatre—and you carry this secret conversation around with you, an immersive world, you’re under the bell jar of story and sound. And the sound leaves memories in the landscape and so I associate certain places with events in the music or story or a tactile sense of presence mediated through my experience of the sound. “Ah, that thing in that story happened here,” I think when I arrive at a particular bend in the road. “This is that story place.” Narrative and location, story and geography meet. And then, since I will likely listen to other recordings on the same route, sedimentary layers of story and music associated with the same place accrue. A conjunction of events, some real, some fictional, tangling together, my own idiosyncratic psychogeographic neural network. 



In post-Baroque Western classical music, many works were conceptualized as being narrative, particularly those in sonata form, the emblematic structure of the modern common-practice era, a form that reflects the rationalism of the Enlightenment, something of the Hegelian dialectic with an aspect of the classical syllogism about it, also.  The narrative metaphor intensified during the Romantic and late-Romantic era, often made explicit in program music which explicitly “told” stories, often a quest, a there-and-back again journey, beginning in the “home” key with defined melodies and then voyaging into new keys with explorations of melodic and rhythmic ideas, often only fleeting memories of the original material. Then, usually, the music returns home, restating the material in the original (“home”) key. It evokes the hero’s journey, oh we’ve travelled far and returned changed, having learned from the vicissitudes and shifting sands of the adventure. This is very appealing, going to seek one’s fortune, striding out into the world to accumulate wisdom (and wealth and power?) through adventure.  

                  But that’s not how we experience living—or walking. We move through time and the ostensible teleology of our lives, but memory and history accumulate, double back, break the normative boundaries like a Möbius strip. Mobius strip walks into a bar. Bartender: “What’s wrong?” M. Strip: “I don’t even know where to even begin?”

                  Of course, no matter where we go, we encounter the world through the epistemic frame of our own experience, as if we brought our own soundtrack to every knife fight. Walking while listening allows me to see through, let’s say, Bach, for example (or my own experience of Bach.) Each note a jeweler’s loupe, each melody a window, but the windows are double- or triple- glazed, stained glass with the accumulation of what else has been experienced there.     


It's December and I’m in Grade 7 playing 2nd alto saxophone in the Intermediate School Band. We’re playing “Silver Bells.” I can’t recall ever having heard the song, but I found the 2nd alto part very moving. We had the harmony to the “Children laughing, people passing” lyric and I remember the feeling of exquisite tenderness in the downward leap on “laughing,” which then repeated on “passing.” We humans, how vulnerable we are, but how infinitely touching. I also realized that my part gave me instructions on what to feel, what state to inhabit emotionally. Mezzo forte with a delicate little decrescendo to mezzo piano. My middle-school heart was called to experience this intimate human moment as if I were a method actor playing a role. I could merge with all those who felt these big feelings, could be free of my own teenage tube man of emotions, all that absurd gravitas-less twisting and perennial near deflation. From my 2nd alto chair, I could experience the wide range of what it was to be human, even experience emotions that I understood little about or that were outside the experience of a suburban Ottawa teen. Melancholy, joy, nobility, grief, compassion, insouciance, heroism, happiness, resilience, sexiness, courage. All in simplified band arrangements ranging from the theme to Hogan’s Heroes to Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances. And these feelings seemed embodied in the material of the music, the relationship between notes, timbre, dynamics, and tempo. By paying attention to what seemed inherent, to the semantic inner life of the music, by listening to what was there in the world, by inhabiting it fully, the walls of the middle school bandroom fell away and I was in a larger life.

                  I love the syncretic web of experience. Me, a Jewish man in 2023, born in Northern Ireland, listening on an iPhone in a conservation area outside Hamilton, Ontario, to Catholic mass music composed by a Lutheran composer in Leipzig in the mid-18th century and presented to the King of Poland and the Holy Roman Empire’s Elector of Saxony. I imagine trying to explain this to one of my medieval ancestors. But it reminds me of a poem that I once read where Fred and Wilma Flintstone go to the Grand Canyon and send Barney and Betty a postcard. Fred and Wilma don’t think the canyon is a big deal but are mightily impressed by the concept of a postcard.


                  1978. On a tour through Michigan with my high school jazz band, the second trumpeter showed us all this cool new thing he’d bought from a recent trip to New York City. A Sony Walkman. It was a portable audio cassette player with small headphones. I tried it. It astounded me. The sound was entirely inside your head and wherever you walked, you had a soundtrack. This was a revolutionary thing. I’d seen old men—my grandfather included—listen to the news or a ballgame in the park on a portable radio, sometimes using the single earbud provided. You could hear the broadcast but it wasn’t inside your head. But with the Walkman, inside and out were one. Your brain had music right inside it. It was a concert hall. It’s a paradigm shift that has become entirely normalized. Everyone has a phone and most people have earbuds. Audio is portable and we routinely carry around our own soundtrack wherever we go. We don’t need to whistle or sing, which is something external (though some still do, often humorously oblivious.) The sound is inside us and at the same time surrounds us like the dark.

                  I went walking with Happy last night. As it was dark and we were in a park, I thought of Charles’ Ives’ composition, Central Park in the Dark, a companion piece to his more famous The Unanswered Question. Ives’ orchestration captures the sound of darkness, the thickness, the sense that one is walking through not an absence but a tactile presence. And above the creeping dark of the strings, mysterious contemplative clarinet and other solo instruments ruminate. (At least until the moment where the unhinged jollity of “Hello, My Baby” intrudes, a moment of monkey mind amid introspection.)

                  My park is Churchill Park, a block away from my home. Because of its proximity to Cootes Paradise Marsh and Lake Ontario, the temperature is distinctly colder than the surrounding neighbourhood. The grass is often damp, and deer, having emerged from the adjoining forest, constellate silently in the soccer fields. My last dog, Dude, would sometimes accidently find himself only a meter or so away from a deer and then start in surprise. Happy, on the other hand, spies them from far away them and bolts to chase them and they spring up and dart back into the woods. I’ve been walking in this park for over thirty years, most often taking a circular route. I recall Charles Darwin’s path at the back of his property where he would walk round and round while thinking. The routine of the route apparently helped with his thinking. It was something of a ritual, the expectedness and lack of surprise combined with the steady rhythm of walking freed his mind to wander down other paths, to venture down new neural pathways and follow thoughts wherever they might go. I aspire to such satisfying reverie and sometimes it happens despite the Hello-My-Baby intrusions. 

                  Last night, I considered how solo walking, especially at night (again I’m aware of my positional privilege in this) is not like being in a bell jar but a diving bell, carrying your own environment with you yet having a connection to the outside—the air tube. It’s ultimately about the self and our connection and individuation from the world. Is it “I am because my little world knows me?” or “I know the world and so I know myself?” Mark Strand: “In a field/I am the absence/of field./…/ We all have reasons/for moving./I move/to keep things whole.” We send out feelers, signals. We echolocate. It’s psy(e)chogeography. We sense the shape of our inner landscape by travelling through the one surrounding us. 

                  Walking with my dog expands this landscape. I think about how he echolocates, what sense of the world and himself he might experience, how we experience each other—a kind of conceptual leash between us, a dog-human umbilical cord. At night, I walk Happy without a leash so our connection, like Philip Pullman’s daemons in The Golden Compass, is entirely relational, an invisible attractive force between us. We walk in parallel yet always with one eye on the other.  

                  I quoted Mary Ruefle’s line about the creation of the lyric poem, “the moon was witness to the event and…the event was witness to the moon.” That’s like my dog and me. The world and me. And, walking while wearing headphones, the beginning and end of a Möbius strip made of music, story and imagination. A strange loupe.