Saturday, June 14, 2014

Whispering Angels: The Quiet Solitude of a Lonely Walk

The beauty is in the walking; we are betrayed by destinations. – Gwyn Thomas
In the fall of 1989, a year or so after I had become a federal prosecutor in Washington, DC, I discovered the beauty and power of a mid-day walk. One day at lunch, I wandered from my office at 5th and E Streets, N.W., and ventured past the National Gallery of Art onto the grand expanse of the National Mall. As I walked past the long avenue of green grass beside the museums and monuments, the sun’s rays shined brightly on the Capitol dome behind me and reflecting pool ahead of me; I felt a sense of freedom in the openness and length of the two mile stretch of land connecting the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol building. On some days, I walked toward Union Station and continued towards the Supreme Court, past the Library of Congress and onto the Capitol grounds; other days led me to the flowers and natural beauty of the U.S. Botanic Garden before continuing onto the Hirshhorn and its outdoor sculpture garden. Over time, I became intimately familiar with every inch of ground I covered on these walks, in touch with the cadence and rhythms of the city. Whatever the chosen path, it was always a chance to walk, observe, and reflect before returning to work refreshed and energized.

It was not long before such walks became an important moment of quiet contemplation; for thirty or forty minutes, a chance for renewal, to clear my head, to relieve the stress and pressures of work before returning to face the urgency of court deadlines, case intake, and other afternoon duties. Often, my walks took a backseat to jury trials and appellate briefs. But as the years advanced and my schedule permitted, I came to need these walks, to depend on them, to provide a mid-day demarcation from the demands of life and a chance to refresh the soul. I have been walking now for 25 years.

“Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk,” wrote the poet Raymond Myers. For me, walking is more than just exercise; it is a spiritual awakening, a natural way to think and reflect on life, past and present; my children; my work; my writing; or nothing at all. On some days, I soak in the sun’s reflections and absorb the blueness of the sky as I admire the miracle of flight bestowed on the Canadian geese in perfect formation above. Walking along the Schuylkill River near my office in center-city Philadelphia, I can feel and smell and almost taste the water flowing at high tide ten feet to my left. I sense the river’s flow, observe its activity and better appreciate the delicate nature of its ecology. The sun beats down on my face and penetrates my clothes on summer afternoons; I sweat in the mugginess of a humid day. I watch and quietly share the experience with dozens of other city dwellers as they bike and jog, walk their dogs, and sun bathe on the banks of the river; together, we share a small slice of Earth collectively inhabited for a forty-minute stint in the noonday air.

My thoughts run deeper as I walk. The history of walking is full of writers, poets, and artists liberating their creative energies. “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking,” said Friedrich Nietzsche. There is a long association between walking and philosophizing. Walking increases productivity.  Steve Jobs is said to have formulated, refined, and shared many great ideas during long walks in the California sun. Novels have been written and inventions hatched with the aid of a long, free flowing walk in a daylight sky.

Walking helps puts me in touch more directly with the world around me, with the natural elements, the environment and wildlife, the burdens of weather and, in the city, with people and life in all its dimensions. City walks are filled with the hurriedness of urban life, the soot of exhaust fumes and the sights and smells of street vendors and delivery trucks. I observe up close hurried people in suits and skirts talking on cell phones oblivious to their surroundings; a woman pushing a stroller past a street-corner musician delicately playing Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in D Minor as his violin case lies open beside his feet, willing the occasional dollar bill from the hands of passers-by.

The city is a place of great productivity and of loneliness and desperation, which I see in the eyes of the homeless man I pass on 19th Street and the elderly disabled woman being placed into an ambulance on JFK Boulevard, looking confused and alone. It is real life unfiltered, the world in which we live as viewed through street-level lenses and not from a distant window on the 29th floor or from the sterile confines of a passing car.

I have wondered lately whether the architecture of our cities, a myriad assortment of concrete and stucco boxes on squares, is a testament to soulless efficiency, the result of a culture that seldom engages with the world on foot. The lives of most people are lived in a series of interior spaces disconnected from each other, in houses, apartment buildings, and office complexes. The automobile and other modes of transportation have further separated us from the environment, as speed and efficiency trump the benefits of a slow and solitary walk. On foot I can fill the spaces between those interiors with the fresh and polluted air, the sky, the sun and clouds, the trees and grass, dirt and wind, birds and squirrels. Walking allows me to see into the life of things.

The other day, I paused for a moment to admire a family of geese picnicking along the river bed; it is something I would have missed had I not taken this path on that day, a moment of quiet joy and satisfaction that, for a few minutes on Wednesday afternoon, enriched my existence.

“If you go to a place on anything but your own feet,” wrote the author Elizabeth von Arnim, “you are taken there too fast, and miss a thousand delicate joys that were waiting for you by the wayside.” We have become a society of automation and technological precision, with everyone so attached to their iPhones and computers, reflexively reacting to the loudest and latest stimuli, that we have forgotten how to think and reflect. I do not suggest we completely unplug, but contemporary society could use a moment or two of quiet contemplation. Take a walk, read a book, have an engaging conversation of substance with another human being.

It is perhaps no coincidence that with increasing technological efficiency comes greater polarization in our politics, separation in our religious lives, more specialization, a de-valuing of the humanities and the very things which make life worth living. A long solitary walk amidst the busy demands of life may be considered by some a wasteful indulgence, a frivolous luxury for those with too much time on their hands. Is it really thus? Imagine an American political leader in today’s world reading a book a day, as did Teddy Roosevelt, or spending precious time in quiet solitude to think and reflect, as did Abraham Lincoln. With all of our electronic toys and gadgets, have we really become so advanced?

I will continue to take long walks, think and reflect, work things out in my own time and my own way. It is the only thing that works for me, and it has worked well for many years now. It is a constant battle, but I refuse to give-in to the conformist pressures of a noisy and technologically-driven culture. There is a place for technology, and I embrace it in many aspects of my life, at home and at work. But there must always remain some time for a long walk in the mid-day sun, a moment of hushed contemplation in the hurried business of life. Put down the iPhone. Read. Reflect. Think. Live. Breathe. Take a long walk. “There’s a whole world out there,” wrote Charlotte Eriksson, “right outside your window. You’d be a fool to miss it.”


  1. Beautiful, Mark. Walking does help us focus, doesn't it?

  2. This is so true. Wether I have lived in a busy productive city, or out on a country road. A walk has always been just the inspiration I've needed to move ahead. Excellent post Mark.