To Wander

This week's blog has been written by Associate Chaplain, Geoffrey Baines.

Black and white doodle with the text: wander, wander,wander into everything

You have arrived. Seek the unknown. The Wanderers are everywhere.* (Keri Smith)

Walking really is a magic cure for people who want to think straight. “Solvitur ambulando,” said Diogenes the Cynic two millennia ago. “It is solved by walking.”** (Austin Kleon)

I am grateful to those who have encouraged me into dawdling and wandering and flanering into slowness and noticing more, including Keri Smith’s wonderful The Wander Society which she begins by telling of her own adventure into wandering started with a book:

I was browsing in a favourite dusty old bookshop, one that I frequent when I am in need of a random book find. On this particular day I found myself in the poetry section and picked up a worn hardback copy of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. As I began to flip through the pages I noticed some handwriting in the book. On the inside cover was written “WW will show you the way.” On the title page was scribbled “Solvitur ambulando,” and underneath that, “The Wander Society” with a small thunderbolt symbol.*

It was one of those precious moments that takes us by surprise and feels deeply significant, Smith sharing how ‘I left hurriedly, feeling like I had just received a secret message from the universe’.* More discoveries followed in the vicinity of the bookshop: the thunderbolt image, images of Walt Whitman and literature left for people to pick up and carrying the following message:

Wandering is not a mindless task, but instead the opposite, the gateway to enlightenment. A surrender to the great mystery.*

Smith managed to trace the Wander Society back to 2011, though it may be older. Certainly the list of wanderers includes older explorers: Gertrude Stein, Ludwig Wittgenstein, William Wordsworth, Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, Henry David Thoreau, Nassim Taleb, Virginia Woolf, John Muir, Friedrich Nieztsche, Thich Nhat Hanh, Rebecca Solnit, Robert Louis Stevenson, to name some wandering ancestors and contemporaries.

In her Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, Amy Krouse Rosenthal notes how adults, when asked how things are, reply they are busy, but:

As kids, our stock answer to most every question was nothing. What did you do at school today? Nothing. What’s new? Nothing. Then, somewhere on the way to adulthood, we each took a 180-degree turn. We cashed in our nothing for busy. I’m starting to think that, like youth, the word nothing is wasted on the young. May be we should try reintroducing it into our grown-up vernacular.  Nothing.^

We’re always busy with something. Walking, and more specifically wandering, becomes an antidote to our busyness, on one level it is to do nothing, but, on another, it is a way into everything as we put aside our rushedness and practice openness:

But what if wandering is the real work? In nourishing our bodies, giving space for our minds and hearts to breathe, caring for the soul, and letting the subconscious mind tackle problems, we are actually doing much more for ourselves and the world. This is the big work.*

We are seeking to open our minds, hearts and wills: to be attentive in order that we might be more present so that we might realise more – that is, bring more into being. Such openness is to be awake when it is too easy to sleep through life.

I discovered that flanering, from the Nordic flana, meaning “freedom to roam” was brought to life in the 19th century as Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur – a male, often well-to-do stroller observing modern life. Then a friend in the University of Edinburgh sent me an article about how a female observer is a flâneuse, a reimagining of the wanderer as a woman who roams where she is not supposed to. The tables are turning, the observed is becoming the observer, and anyone can be a flâneur or flâneuse.

Photograph of John Sargent’s painting A Street in Venice hanging in a gallery. In the painting there is a woman walking through the streets of Venice.

The article includes John Sargent’s painting A Street in Venice as illustration of what is changing, showing a woman being observed by a couple of men. I took the piece with me to read while in Washington D.C. for a conference. After the conference I was planning to delay my return so I might engage in a couple of days of flanery, at the end of which, I found myself in the National Gallery for Art. One of the final paintings I viewed was the very one in the article. I had no idea that was where it was on display. Wandering brings us to such moments, large and small; we wander into richness: 

The mind articulates newly where there is true coincidence, where roads parallel and roads contrary suddenly converge. The world is suffused with time and space, and therefore fresh speech is always appearing, always being invented. The world is teeming, so mind is teeming, There is no end to contingency, and so no end to language.^^

Lewis Hyde is here describing the world of the Trickster character found in the stories of many ancient cultures, but he could be describing the richness that exists in our world to be wandered into and expressed in many thoughts and ideas and images.

This is simply an invitation to do nothing … except make time to wander, becoming a flâneur or flâneuse roaming through the richness of the universe. For those who want to explore, I’m offering a weekly opportunity to come away and wander. 

Here are some other things to try.

Make half-an-hour and take a familiar walk at half your usual pace. The aim is not to get somewhere but to notice what you notice. That is, to take a closer look at whatever catches your eye. You can prime the walk if you wish – choose a colour and pay attention to whatever wears that shade.

Another thing you can do is toss a coin five times – tails for left and heads for right, then follow whatever route the combination of lefts and rights takes you.

Another is notice the people en route; wonder about where they have been, where they are going, what does their way of walking tell you about the kind of day they are having?

Be ready to reflect on what any of these things might be saying to you, lessons they may be offering, questions asked.

Don’t worry if there are none of these – just enjoy the walk.

What we are simply doing is noticing and connecting to the world we are part of and that we matter to as much as it matters to us.

You may also want to visit the mysterious website of The Wander Society. (*From Keri Smith’s The Wander Society.) (**From Austin Kleon’s Keep Going.) (^From Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.) (^^From Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World.)