getting lost

Alfred Wainwright was a British fellwalker.” Instantly, I am jealous. Before clicking on the explanatory Wikipedia link, before I am actually clear about what this moniker implies, I am jealous. Because I suspect that such a title indicates a life whose purpose is found in walking. This seems to be a theme with me these days: being drawn to the walkabout tales of others.

Wainwright, according to a program on British television called “Wainwright’s Walks” in which the host, Julia Bradbury, and occasional companions make their way through the hundreds of miles of Lake District landscape about which he wrote, covered large expanses of Northern England hills and mountains on foot. And he detailed these journeys in numerous publications and filled with his own illustrations. Wainwright walked in the hopes that others would walk, too.

Walking feels like a luxury. Not the kind of bipedal transportation from one point to another, but the sort where the objective is to get lost. In which the getting lost brings about a sense of becoming found and founding oneself. In Patience (After Sebald), a film by Grant Gee that was inspired W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, Robert Macfarlane, a writer who has also pursued inquiry through walkabout, distinguishes the English and European tradition of walking as recovery from the American practice of walking as discovery. Is it so simple, I wonder; are the boundaries so clear, between recovery and discovery? Could we achieve discovery through recovery, and vice versa? And do we have or take the time for either, let alone both?

Gee’s Patience, like Sebald’s oeuvre, has stayed with me and I am returning for a second viewing later this week. The very name of the essay-dream-like film invites in the viewer a different posture. (As I sat in the Renoir theater this weekend, I was slumped low in my seat and my neck rested on the well placed backrest. But more on that another time.) Patience. Do we have time for patience? I laugh to myself as I write those words. Time has been the main character in several recent exchanges. If so many of us miss time, as it were, can we agree as a whole – as a society, as people desperate to have more hours in a day, that we might just strive to do less? For some reason the metaphor of a limited, but thoughtfully curated, wardrobe as superior to an overly full one comes to mind. The rewards, it seems, of allowing yourself the patience to get lost are plentiful. Or perhaps these are just the musings of a blissfully clueless wanderer.

For the sake of argument, I offer the spoils of today’s amblings:

I started walking west toward Regent’s Park. The sky looked dull and backlit, like the color of well worn silly putty. I passed Bedford Square, crossed Tottenham Court Road – feeling quite clever that I could discern it from Tottenham Street, which runs perpendicular – and made my way through a few Mews, Passages, and Courts before finding myself suddenly in front of All Souls Church.

All Souls Church, Langham Square

I’ve visited London almost a dozen times in my life and I couldn’t recall ever laying eyes on this structure before. It almost resembled Lady Liberty’s torch turned upside down. I didn’t go inside this time, opting instead to take the path around the Langham Hotel to Queen Anne Mews and onward westward on Queen Anne Street. The facades looked familiar suggesting I had been in this neighborhood before, and the sign for Harley Street confirmed my suspicions.

Queen Anne Street

Like this the meandering continued, one gut instinct leading the next, until the site of a dress pulled me into an unassuming boutique. I wasn’t expecting the loud chime that sounded as the door opened. I had a few seconds alone in the small space before a voice sounded from below, and I heard the shopkeeper before I saw her blond head come up the stairs from the floor underneath. In those few moments, I was once again taken by the clean lines on the designs that were displayed in an almost storylike manner, some on mannequins and others evoking narrative simply by their arrangement on hangers, on shelves, in how they laid next to one another. But the real story was ignited when the shopkeeper, after doing her due diligence to exchange pleasantries with me and to answer my brief inquiry with ample information about the store and its founders, inquired about the goings-on that had led me to “here.” This followed from my assuming New Yorker status during an exchange about simultaneous and competing Fashion Weeks in both London and New York. So influential is New York’s that this small design house with a commitment to ethical sustainability opted to increase their carbon footprint in order to show their collection in the Big Apple instead of in their backyard. New York self-importance, I said jokingly, with a well-timed follow-up comment that I say that as a New Yorker; it was easier to explain than Philadelphian. Or at least that’s what I told myself.

She asked me what I was doing in London – was I just visiting?

In this instance, my outsider status brought me in, and today’s version of “what I do” opened up an even broader discursive space than before in which she shared her thoughts on last summer’s riots and suggested that this moment in which we, citizens of the world, find ourselves might be a tipping point. Much like the other shopkeeper last week, the fate of youth as tied with broader social notions of education and society were at the forefront of her mind. She spoke as a mother of two young children, as a neighbor, as a citizen.  However, unlike my encounter from last week, this one held fast to a hopeful tenor of urgency. And then she mentioned a friend of friend who founded a program for youth in a nearby section of town, one that is among those that have been heavily impacted by financial constraints and budget cuts that seem to eliminate first and foremost those public spaces in which youth and other community members gather: libraries, community centers, parks. I learn that this friend of a friend has also begun to rise in the local political landscape and is, by virtue of circumstance, being placed on the pulse of fast emerging proposals for social reforms related to education and youth development. In England, like the United States, the social and economic challenges are taking an especially large toll on youth, who are the canaries of our societal coalmines.

At this moment, when the shopkeeper walked to the small desk in the back of the store to write down as much of the contact information as she could remember for this youth development/politician type on a beautiful, indigo business card, I found myself having another out of body experience—is this what I said I would do? Walk aimlessly and hope for serendipity to strike? This was not guilt. No, this was evidence of gears working, as in “how can we build in time to meander more?” – “we” as in we faculty colleagues, we students and teachers, we community members. Can we have patience to see what happens? (Seriously, someone please call me out when I undoubtedly relapse and give in to the madness once I return to the grind as we know it!)

To sum up: I went outside to breathe in some much needed fresh air. I returned with an injection of insight, social context, and a potential connection to further my ongoing inquiry. Not bad for getting lost.

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