Sometimes, in the diffused light of dawn or dusk, or on foggy streets where almost indiscernible shapes begin to reveal themselves as a human being or two in motion, I will peer a little closer, catch a certain swing of arm, quickened cadence, bounce of head or forward bend and know instantly, “There’s Gene!” (Or Karen or Kate or Kelly.)
Our bodies in motion are akin to signatures, indelible gestures that mark and follow us throughout life. All our intimates (excepting the visually impaired) can spot us from the proverbial mile away.
But those signatures do share something profound in common: how badly, with what relentless intensity, our bodies seek to scrawl them across the firmament.
When he sold his camera equipment last summer, it was evident he was heading for a crossroads, the bitch of it being that none of those roads ahead had much of anything to offer him.
We commence this effort from the first months of infancy, a veritable maelstrom of movement, herking and jerking our way first to a modicum of head control, then the discovery that these curious implements at the end of our arms can behave according to our dictates, that we can test out leg muscles while perched on a friendly lap, then begin to grapple with the floor of our crib or living room in the first crude efforts to crawl (by any means possible!) from the “here” of the present time and place to the “there” of a future whose fantastical nature we will only slowly, after unimaginable struggle, manage to conceive.
Most all our lives will be marked by movement—of our bodies through space and time, whatever modes of transport we use to expedite that effort, and of the friends and loved ones who accompany us.
And amidst and marked by it all are the domiciles that host us, whether for visitation or habitation, as we answer the geographical calls and commands that will shape our lives in ways even the most dauntless soothsayer would find impossible to foretell.
My friend Bill was retired from a desk job at the University of North Carolina but was at heart a wilderness photographer. (He’s shown in one of his preferred “office” locales in the photo above, photographing his way through the swampier confines of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River.) The irony with that passion is that its practitioners often suffer hunger, thirst, mud, cold, heat, vipers, insects, sudden lightning storms and generally crappy or no pay at all in their pursuit of the sublime beauty intended to bring bliss and comfort to everyone else.
Bill was no different. Something of a curmudgeon and more proud of it than not, he regularly took off on solo photography excursions around the U.S., all manner of cameras and lenses in tow, rugged boots on his feet. He was a good man.
I say this in the past tense because early this year Bill finally got an answer for why he’d been feeling so awful for so long. Turned out it wasn’t an aging back or overactive imagination—it was ALS.
His decline was steady through the year. When he sold his camera equipment last summer amidst ever more restrictive movement, it was evident he was heading for a crossroads, the bitch of it being that none of those roads ahead had much of anything to offer him.
All of them promised but the barest scintilla of the motion so central to his life. To life itself, for all God’s creatures, actually.
So Bill decided to end that life via the limited motion still left to him a few weeks ago, the near-future prospect of becoming 100% inert, lying helplessly in a hospital bed unable to move a muscle or even form a word, holding zero interest for him.
What kind of life would that be, with what conceivable reward?
“So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn.”
That’s the concluding paragraph of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walking,” a 24-page reflection from 1851 on the pleasures of what he further elaborates as “sauntering,” which goes walking one better by incorporating into it a state of mind, a presence and habitation of our bodies while they are in motion, making of ourselves good animals, wholly at home with the world inside our skin as we move about in the world outside it.
Restless spirit that he was, Thoreau forsook many of what we think of as the pleasures and comforts of civilization in exchange for a more primitive experience of life in the slower, less well-trodden lane. More body, less mind.
Or perhaps more accurately given what a book-learned and eloquent man he also was: more body and thus a fuller and more supple mind.
Thoreau wrote with rather remarkable application to my friend Bill’s plight in this passage, especially given Bill’s far more oppressed condition than those Thoreau speaks of:
“When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.”
Yes, a kind of “credit” might be due there, but not of the type that will lead to any type of freedom for any of the debtors.
His lead in the next paragraph then begins: “I, who cannot stay in my chamber for a single day without acquiring some rust…”
Last spring I got a case of food poisoning that left me bed-bound and running to the bathroom for a couple of days as the sum total of my locomotion. For several days after that, my arms and back in particular ached as if I had been flung to the pavement by a horse and then stomped on a couple of times just so I’d remember it.
Not for the faint of heart, such sudden cessation of most all sentient activity.
Then last week, fresh off another kind of moving—from one house to another, requiring the old heave-ho of countless boxes and bins filled from shelves and closets and prepped for hauling—my back seized up with one hoist just enough to put me on notice that my joints needed some oiling, metaphorically speaking.
Then my computer happened to go kaput, too, for good measure. (“When it rains, it pours,” my late beloved mother would surely have observed, shaking her head in dismay.)
So I headed out to buy another, which of course resulted in countless data transfer snafus that had me on support lines with both the computer maker and my Internet service provider multiple times over a long and tortuous night, my shoulders hunched and bunched over the kitchen table, wholly at the mercy of the remorseless, unthinking gods of modern technology.
The problem still unresolved and my whole body aflame as the midnight hour struck, I closed the computer and headed out into the cold dark streets, trudging (decidedly not “sauntering”), my neck sitting atop my shoulders like immoveable steel, almost unable to feel my legs under me, my arms feeling constrained as with bungee cords.
Slowly, tentatively, I started to swing those arms, then feel for where my feet were actually striking terra firma.
Wider swings commenced, side to side, up and down, larger rotations of arms, legs, torso. Minutes later, still tentative, a few sideways stutter steps (an old man’s Steph Curry cartoon imitation), and finally, a break into a run, all my parts still moving any which way as best I could direct them.
Surely it was an aesthetic disaster for any neighbor who happened to glance out her window at that hour; perhaps I would have been advised to carry a sign stating, “I’m fine, no need to call 911,” but that would have required the use of my arms for some other than the divine purpose they were engaged in at the time.
I went on like this for some 15 more minutes, throwing in a few modest inclines on which I saw fit to temporarily resurrect my long forsaken running career by blasting (relative term, that…) up them, my arms and shoulders flailing to the heavens, looking no doubt mildly electrified.
Then home to experience the contrast from the leaden, aching, pinched and veritably dead-to-the-world body I had inhabited when I got up from that cursed chair and table to the invigorated, easeful occupancy it afforded me in my return home.
It was no less than astonishing, made all the more so by its continuance into the morning, when I woke feeling refreshed and fluid, ready to face what life had in store, though also sobered, chastened and still somewhat surprised, in the way we are as we struggle to comprehend and incorporate the knowledge of another person’s recent cessation of existence, that my friend Bill would no longer be here to marvel about it with me.
Well yes, quite a bit more pop music-y than the usual fare here, but Ms. Swift certainly has the right idea, and looks a might better than yours truly in elaborating on it…
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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Fog Walkers by Serge Costa, France https://www.flickr.com/photos/sergecos/
Bill Swindaman by Steve Uffman, all rights reserved, contact: https://photos.uffmannatureimages.net/
Fall canyon by Bill Swindaman, all rights reserved, see https://www.billswindamanphotography.com/
Tin man from the public domain