SaltSpring

Talking the walking: one foot in front of the other & health

I guess I come by my love of walking honestly.

Infamously, I once took my father, who was in his 90th year at the time, on a walk around the Stanley Park seawall and we made it from my apartment at the bottom of Robson Street to a good chunk of the wall (about 6K) and finally dropping into our seats for lunch at the classic old Sylvia Hotel on English Bay.

After that day, every time I suggested he come downtown from Surrey for a visit, he’d immediately inquire with palpable consternation, “We’re not going to walk around the park, are we?” I may have traumatized him for life.  To set the record straight, I had given him more than one opportunity to do a shorter route, my concern present right from the start, but being the stubborn Scot he was, he had declined and past a certain point, there’s no turning back, no quick exit, no hailing a taxi.

Most of my father’s walking took place in the army during World War II and then later on, I gather, he did a lot of walking as part of his job as an electrician on the Rayonier site in New Westminster where, as an aside, in the 1960s, a huge fire broke out on August 20, 1966 in the grasses between the Scott Paper Company and Rayonier. That enormous blaze eventually ended up requiring the Mars Bomber to be deployed with that massive aircraft gathering tons of water from Sproat Lake near Port Alberni to drop on the fire in New West. I was five years old then, and I vaguely recall my brother and I being taken by my mother to watch the spectacle from a safe distance, awed by that huge aircraft flying so low overhead and dropping a veritable waterfall on the site.

In fact, it was my father’s good health and his Forrest Gump style of walks that eventually led to his decline. One day, he miscalculated the steepness of a hill, having taken a detour on some construction site, and ended up in Emergency thanks to whomever, some construction workers possibly, who found him.  In spite of his advanced age and having to stitch up gashes on his head, the ER folks never bothered to do a cat scan which then required, a second trip to Emergency later that day, a proper diagnosis of two hematomas and a six week hospital stay. This is a warning against walking down steep inclines, especially should you make it into your nineties. He was more fragile and cautious after his recovery, having to finally resort to using a dreaded walker on future outings.

Some of my favourite walks have taken place on B.C.’s Southern Gulf Islands. I loved my almost daily meandering jaunts down Walker Hook Road in the North End when I lived there. I’d leave the old cottage I’d rented off Hedger and take my time heading towards the Fernwood Dock admiring the view towards Trincomali Channel and the arbutus trees canvassing above the road, the wild flowers in the ditches. Surely, I thought, heaven must look and feel like the peace on that stretch of geography.

I’ve walked a fair amount on Mayne Island as well. From Miner’s Bay to the Lighthouse and back again and then down to Bennett Bay and I really believe that everyone should experience the absolute freedom and ability to be alone with their thoughts, as the breeze blows their hair, noting scents and scenes that would have been missed while riding in a car as their own two legs provide the only mobility.

I think about a long walk I did on the Isle of Mull in Scotland passing those hairy Highland cattle and inhaling the whiff of the salt off the Firth of Forth with Duart Castle being the daytrip’s destination.

I remember the beautiful city of Bath  and walking back to an Italianate mansion turned hostel on a hill through grassy fields that allowed an expansive view of the town and the weir below as the sun was setting.

Closer to home, my friend Dave Brent organized his friends to do some major walks and I recall the last steps of one of those that started near Value Village in Coquitlam, passed the Boulevard Casino, onto the area under the Port Mann Bridge, carrying on, and on the homestretch over the Pitt River Bridge where some cars had been parked to take the overheated back to the Gillnetter Pub on the Mary Hill Bypass because the pub at the end was always the point really. Two bridges in a single walk is one bridge too many for me.  He’s since ditched the walks for mega hikes all over the North Shore mountains and beyond.

When I saw this article posted by a friend on Facebook about an Irish neuroscientist named Shane O’ Mara, who has proven how good walking is, not just for the body but for the brain, he put into words, what every walker already knows and can now feel a little bit smug about.

Making time for the benefits of doing nothing

This will sound strange to anyone who is currently raising children but when I reflect back on my childhood, in spite of being surrounded by adults, very few of those people consistently intersected in my daily reality in a way that felt as instructive or as memorable in the same positive way as the kids I interacted with back then.

Now that might be directly related to my own personal experience or it might actually be related to all children’s degree of freedom back in the 1960s.

Because of my birth order, later than the rest of my siblings, by more than a decade, what I recall most about my childhood has to do with my own time: how I spent that time, the time I spent with other kids and especially the time I spent with my best friend then. We were like a world unto ourselves, the most important humans in each others lives. That realization surprises me as I write it down and I question myself. Is my memory accurate? I think a little harder about important people: my parents, my twin brother, my older sisters, and yes, I think my memory is painting the hierarchy of their priority accurately.  

I remember having a lot of time to myself, especially in the summer, to do whatever I wanted. We made our own decisions when to come and go, when to play tennis across the street or go to the playground at the other end of the park, or to peer into our empty classroom windows across the park. We would go to Woodward’s a few blocks away, to the library a few blocks over, to the vacant lot where big kids would tease us about the mythical spotting of Big Foot. Our circumference of exploring in a city the size of New Westminster was relatively small but still allowed for ample freedom.

Other than eating meals with my family, the occasional special outing, and camping in Osoyoos for a few weeks in August, I was a free agent. I could and was expected to amuse myself. To read. To play the piano away from the rest of the family in our basement “rumpus room.” It felt in some way like there was an understanding that adults were not to be bothered because they were too busy with their own lives and had no time to waste, or at least that’s how it seemed to me as a child.

As a result, I seemed, like all kids then, to spend a lot of time in my own company or the company of other kids.  We’d explore their basements. We’d climb backyard willow trees. We’d play tag with all the neighborhood kids spreading out like the enemy across yards. We often played board games or sat and did nothing on the couch, to daydream, to negotiate what to do next, to think of ways to amuse ourselves in those endless stretches of summer days.

When we took off from the house in the morning there was no consideration of adult interventions due to cellphones or any of the compelling feelings of urgency we now have around checking e-mail. Technology’s advancement had been paused in our lives and was stuck then at the good old rotary dial phone or the Walkie Talkies we got for Christmas that only really worked between very short distances.

I’ve been reading this book, Solitude, In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World, by Michael Harris. The author refers to UBC researcher, Kalina Christoff, Ph.D., who studies spontaneous thought and mind wandering.

“Given enough solitude and enough time, the mind shifts into default mode and begins to pan through connections that at first seem wholly random,” she says, adding that the “randomness is crucial.” “The power lies in the fact that in this state the brain censors nothing. And it then makes connections that it would never otherwise make. Mind wandering is managing much more than personal memories and a sense of self. The wandering mind is also solving problems in the real world.”

Think of how little time, if any, most of now spend just sitting and staring out the window or being without our cell phones in hand or very nearby. We have no time in our day for mind wandering as a health conscious, creativity-boosting decision.

And certainly, it seems that most children have almost no down time. Every minute is filled with video games, scheduled activities, organized playdates, parents checking in on their whereabouts or directly by their sides.

When I compare my childhood experience to that new reality, it brings me such feelings of absolute claustrophobia on behalf of today’s children. Luckily, they don’t know what they’re missing.

On my recent trip to Quebec, I sat on the plane, a seat apart from a little girl from Salt Spring Island who was traveling on her own. Her relatives would be waiting for her in Toronto.

She was such a self-assured child. Calm. Confident. Able to meet a stranger and engage. Able to use her time and remain okay. In chatting with her, I learned she is a young student at a special school on Salt Spring called Wolfkids an outdoor education school. At her young age, she said she’d even participated in an overnight in the woods, as part of the school’s experiential learning.

I wondered if that is what made the difference in her maturity levels and independence or if it was just related to her own family? I was sure she had spent time daydreaming for extended periods of time even though she was mostly glued to her IPad during the flight.

Christoff speaks to daydreaming as an inherently creative process because the daydreamer is then open to bizarre new thoughts and options. The book refers to some of the greatest inventors: Einstein, Isaac Newton and how retreat and solitude can and have led to intellectual advancement.

It made me wonder how such lack of downtime might be impacting the creative thinking of today’s children. Or has the advancement of technologies merely shaped it in more sophisticated ways? More importantly, how has the lack of solitude, away from the influence of adults, impacted their ability to shape a truly unique self, to create boundaries that prevent some pathological merging of parent and child to such a degree that the child might take even longer to define a unique sense of self.

When was the last time you allowed yourself to just sit and observe, to notice the scents in the air, to pay attention to your random thoughts, cumulus cloud ideas, that inevitably drift by, the occasional one stopping you in your mental tracks with that feeling of an epiphany found?

And then I wondered, would it be philosophically wrong to add such unproductive time use to a weekly To-Do list?

Just being should be enough

MarjorieOn a quick trip to Salt Spring this past weekend, I visited my friend Marjorie. She will turn 93 on April 16th.

She is as mentally sharp, if not sharper, than anyone you’d ever hope to meet. Give her a once over and she looks fantastic, years younger than she is.

Most people, however, will not discover her humour or how quick she truly is, mentally, if they didn’t already know it, because her greatest challenge is that she has lost her hearing. The result is difficulty communicating with others and a great sense of isolation. Even with a hearing aid which, apparently, brings its own problems.

It doesn’t help that she is in fact isolated because she lives on a rural property. One of her sons lives on the grounds. It’s a property that was owned by her parents and that she moved to upon her late husband’s retirement in the 1970’s. I can’t say for sure, but I sense that she wouldn’t have wanted to move elsewhere, even on island. Her home is her home. Nature is her company. Until recently, so was her cat Duchess. She has a cleaner who has become a friend who comes once a week. Another son visits from Victoria often. Her daughter comes when she can from Alberta as well as grandsons and great grandchildren.

I have always been around older people. My parents were 39 and 43 years older than me when I was born. My sisters were 11 and 14 years older. In my forties, I watched my parents’ aging and then, and it seemed to happen quickly, they were gone. But, in fact, it didn’t happen that quickly because, relatively speaking, they lived long lives. My mother lived to 84, my father to 93.  Somehow, especially with my father who remained healthy for so long, long never seems long enough.

Aging is challenging in so many ways. Hearing loss is just one of them. But what isn’t always apparent is that when you lose your hearing, even if you’re wearing hearing aids, it’s challenging to participate in conversations. People can’t be bothered. They have to repeat themselves. They hate repeating themselves. They don’t want to yell. Maybe they feel embarrassed.MarjorieatHarbourHouse

In the car driving home, Marjorie claimed that it may actually be easier to be blind than deaf because if you’re blind, people will know it, they’ll help you, they’ll feel sorry for you. Not that THAT’S a piece of cake. I’m sure she wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

I saw for myself what happens when she tried to explain that she was hard of hearing. Having to say it immediately shuts down conversation with most people who don’t know how to respond. They’re embarrassed to shout back. They’re shy to take the time to find a way to communicate. They can’t be bothered.

If you’re deaf, there are no signs. You look perfectly fine. Nobody knows you’re deaf until they try to speak to you.

On Sunday, we went to two galleries and when I engaged in conversation, she couldn’t hear what was being said between me and the other person that I was speaking with so she just kept looking.  She was on the outside. And in our society, getting old and being on the outside is the norm. I was guilty, I suppose, of not trying to ensure that she was included to a greater extent.

In a world where productivity and materialism are the Holy Grail, people who are not producing or consuming in large quantities are no longer seen as valuable. It no longer seems enough just to be. But actually it is.  Because your being is your only authentic wealth, your legacy.

It’s not necessarily easy to be the kind of person who recognizes this and looks for it – in the wonder of children, in the other of homelessness, in the wisdom of the elderly, in animals, in plants and flowers and in natural beauty and sounds.

The Island as Elephant in the Room

Finding my way back to enthusiasm for writing these days and writing whatever comes…Here’s a tidbit.

darkdockThat island was the elephant in every single room she occupied.  Every minute of every day it hovered the way a small sloop might float silently off one of its evergreen-grey tips. At the same time, it pushed her away so strongly that she feared she might never find her way back to its story – her story – again.

She closed her eyes and wandered as if in a dream. Rolling green hills. Crumbling waterside roadways. The ocean-side route she’d survey on that walk she’d take almost every single day of every season.

She could feel the breeze slipping in from the rock-pocked beaches. Inhale the scent from the grassy roadside ditches. She’d visit disintegrating cabins, mice traps lying in wait. She’d wonder about the multimillion dollar spectacles, invisible from the narrow windy roads, that very busy people, people who knew how to make real money, flew into a couple times a year.

Then, without any explanation that made sense to her,  she pictured it imploding. All of it. Cracking, twisting and sliding like the vegetable flotsam and jetsam at the bottom of the sink after she’d done the dishes by hand.  Is she the only one who still does dishes by hand?

How many years before climate change, geological shifts, maybe The Big One, would trash the place leaving only a rolling wave as explanation?

Consumerism consumed. Garden sheds, baby grand pianos, pitchforks, farm equipment, handmade pottery, hand blown glass and paintings, wooden fencing, lava lamps, tarot cards, all that jewelry, rusted out island cars and thousands upon thousands of rubber boots – alphaboot soup –  sucked into the beyond and beneath.

She imagined the urgent swirl. Down, down, down towards the rumoured crystal beds that the Dalai Lama had supposedly seen from a plane; crystal beds that surrounded the green and golden relief.  All of it.

Magnificent accumulation to dust.

Until recently, she hadn’t even thought about the shape of her beloved place. Hadn’t committed its outline to memory. Knowing suddenly seemed urgent. Just the other day, looking at a hand drawn map, she spotted a geographic Rorschach, its shape a prehistoric being swooping down from more than 220 million years ago. A Pterodactyl.

Had it always been there?  What created it, geologically, that is?  Her curiosity dormant until now.

She needed, as well, to find a way to incorporate references to all those seekers who’d washed up on its shores, intentionally, or not. To. From.  In search of. Fleeing.  Personal resurrection. Just like her. Different in all their own ways.

First Nations. Chuan. Tuam. African American slaves from Missouri, free at last. Disappointed and nervous about Californian laws, they kept moving north. Pre-empted land. 1859. Four of the first 29 pre-emptors hoping beyond hope.

Sandwich islanders. Portuguese. English. Scots. Farmers. Prospectors. Draft dodgers. Hippies. Modern day Renaissance mavericks. Outsiders.

The brave. The cowards. The hopeful. The hopeless. Incurable individualists. Dreamers.

Human history marked through oral history the way faded pencil marks tick off children’s growth on that kitchen wall on a long gone farmhouse.

Why had the natives considered it such a special place? Had it really been reserved for celebrations, feasts, burials? Was that the truth or rural myth?

Wandering to the end of that road she won’t name, intentionally, won’t share with tourists who flock there each summer, she felt what Indians must have felt a thousand times stronger back then: magnificence. Had their hearts stilled with the same quiet reverence at the waves pulsing against its beaches and thick Auburn stumped poked out from rocky land striving harder than the human inhabitants.

She wanted to capture it all. The emotion, the landscape, and the relief she felt every time her tires made that sharp cracking sound as the car’s weight traversed the metal ferry ramp deposited her; a homecoming, stillness reborn, telling her what she’d always known.

Vancouver had never been the right place. Not her best place. Not really. She never quite fit here in the city and she needed a place to help bury her grass-is-greener ways and to be as content as she might ever hope to be.