I have always been amazed at how much more I notice when I slow down. A street that I have driven down looks so different by bike, and even more detail emerges when I am walking. Walking meditatively brings the details to a whole new level, especially when done intentionally with someone else.
I am a person who tends to move through the world fairly quickly. I generally have a destination in mind, and my thoughts often gravitate toward what is coming up, what I am doing next, and what I need to prepare for. Walking for the sole purpose of noticing is new to me.
The invitation to take “Contemplative Walks” in the “Practicing Democracy in your Neighborhood” guide has encouraged me to do this. I have appreciated the suggestion that I not only notice but also consider why things might be as they are. If democracy is about expressing a connection to a place, this is a way to practice it.
Is the dry grass in someone’s yard a sign that they have been away traveling, have a commitment to using less water, might not be able to do yard work, or something else? Is the chair sitting out on the curb with a sign that says “free” an indication that someone has purchased something new or needs to divest of possessions because they have been priced out of the neighborhood? Perhaps the chair has just been in the way?
These questions are good to ask, but sometimes the diverse possibilities and the uncertainty mean that it is hard to know what, if anything, to conclude, not to mention to do. I am realizing that often one “sign” is not enough — but sometimes multiple “signs” can begin to paint a picture of what is really going on. Observing over time is helpful — is one sign a trend? A pattern? An anomaly? Are there changes occurring that are building toward something?
Sometimes I go for walks with my four-year-old neighbor. He has been a good teacher to me about walking itself as an activity, not a path toward an activity. He notices details, especially low-down, that I miss — or would not even think of as notable. He ventures onto other people’s yards in ways that make me uncomfortable (I worry that people will be upset that we are trespassing). He asks to pet every dog we see — often leading to conversations with owners I would never otherwise have.
Walking with him is very different than walking on my own, and I am grateful for it. He comes up with explanations for what we see that are very creative and expand my imagination. He is not afraid to ask questions of the people we meet — and, being four, generally gets away with it. He hasn’t yet learned what people don’t mention in polite company; in many ways, I think that is a good thing.
For me, I am still figuring out what to do with what I notice: what to say, how to say it, when to respond it ways other than words. How to challenge my level of comfort, but not so much that this becomes an activity that I can’t convince myself to do. It’s all part of the practice.