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Posted in Adventures With Humans

John Muir

Decades ago, while working in downtown Toronto, I took transit to and from work, at least when I didn’t ride my bike. Anyone who has used the subway will be familiar with the large crowds of people that emerge from the depths after a train has unloaded. There really isn’t a good analogy that explains this; it is its own thing. During rush hour, when the crowds are more intense, denser, it’s best to continue with the flow and not try to move in a different direction. Oh, there’s the salmon analogy I suppose. Alright, fine. And I guess, herds of sheep, or cattle, but I was trying to come up with something that would hint at the physicality of the subway train and how people come and go from all of the sections of its body. All I came up with was corn, so why don’t we stick with the salmon analogy. One day, I was in a crowd, swimming its way up onto the street when I saw, over to my right, like maybe five salmon-rows over, a woman crying. She wasn’t just a bit sad; she was all-out crying as if she had baled on trying to make any attempt to downplay or hide her suffering. She was taller than others in the crowd, so more conspicuous. I could see that she was carrying a briefcase, and a couple other bags that made me wonder if she had been fired from her job. The reason for her overwhelm could have been anything: a concerning diagnosis, a cheating spouse, the death of a loved one. I kept walking without making any attempt to acknowledge her, or make my way over to ask if she was okay, and I regret it to this day; I let her swim off, suffering so horribly, and what kind of human did that make me? I am only 5 foot 4 inches tall, so it was easy for me to blend in with the others and pretend I did not see her. She likely did not notice me, or others exhibiting the same, reprehensible indifference. Her eyes were too full of tears.
It’s good that I remembered her–that witnessing her upset had such an impact on me. I would think of her through the years, and vowed that I would not let my walking past–my failure of compassion happen again. Decades later, and just before covid, I drove to a nearby town, keen to catch a Buddhist meditation class. I had arrived much earlier than the start time, as I had come directly from an appointment in another town along the way and did not want to drive home, and then all of the way back here. I had brought a book with me in anticipation of the time I would have to kill, and since it was sunny out, and this town was on a large bay, I figured that I would walk around and maybe read down by the water. I bought a coffee, and meandered.

I tend to walk hunched over a bit, like a share cropper on the way to check the fences. Every once in a while, when I’m out, I make an effort to not look like a share cropper, and instead, intentionally walk upright like a normal human with a little time on her hands, and this was one of those times. Join me on this tangent: I had watched a documentary about John Muir, the man behind Yosemite becoming a National Park, and a quote of his stuck with me. It was in regard to the word, ‘hike’ and he said: “I don’t like the word, or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains, not hike!” That was the part that stuck with me, but here, in looking it up again, the rest of his quote seems pertinent. He continues: “Do you know the origin of that word? It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the middle ages, people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going they would reply, ‘A la sainte-terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers, or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land,” Muir said, “and we ought to saunter through them reverentially, not ‘hike’ through them.” Funny the things you remember; crying women, pro-sauntering men.

Eventually I made it, sauntering around the block, taking it all in, and ready to cross the road back to where my van was parked. I stood waiting for the crosswalk lights to change and noticed, on the far side, a young woman sitting on the sidewalk with her back leaning against the light standard. She was well-dressed, and I likely would not have noticed her if she had not been sitting where she was. As I watched, she let her head drop and began crying. I remembered my salmon lady and the vow. There was no way I was going to just pass by this woman as if she was of no concern. I walked across the road in neither a saunter, nor a share cropper scurry, but something thoughtful in between. I crouched down beside her, so we were both looking in the same direction–I didn’t want to be at all confrontational. “What’s going on?” I said. She began talking, never looking at me, but described her troubles, that she had been to the hospital for pain, but was refused any medication. It became clear through her description of her recent experiences, and those of her boyfriend that she also shared, that they were both addicted to opioids. She looked like a student, and maybe she was, but I didn’t pry. I really didn’t ask her anything; I just listened. I have no impressive, relevant credentials so I was careful about not getting in over my head. When it felt right, I offered some encouraging words, hoped that things would work out better for her. I stood up to go and realized that there were addicts all around me, a whole crowd. I wasn’t afraid. Instead I felt moved, oddly present. It sounds flakey as hell, but I kind of loved them all. I wanted to sit with each one and ask them about how they got there– what was going on in their lives. Instead, I walked to my van in whatever mode it is when you’re walking, after having been moved by something profound, and drove home.
I can’t recall the author, but I remember someone saying that our culture was outstripping our humanity. The first concrete evidence I have for this was when Wayne Gretsky left the Edmonton Oilers to go to Los Angeles; the almighty dollar won out over the love of the game. I stopped watching hockey after that. Deeper in, we have been moving about in bodies descended from 500 generations of farming, and 50,000 generations when we were part of nature. Our evolution through that happened slowly, almost glacially, but then, after the invention of the lightbulb in 1878, we’ve been on such a rapid technological ride that it’s a wonder we’re not in a constant state of nausea. The technology is fantastic, but the fracture comes as we pretend to navigate without allowing ourselves the time to come on-line; we have ancient impulses that knock for our attention and when we don’t or can’t acknowledge them, we suffer. Our western, ‘conquer everything,’ devouring civilization has been peppered with mental illness throughout. By contrast, tribes in the Amazon experienced none, entwined as they continue to be with their environment, not in competition with it. Addiction scenarios are rooted largely in childhood trauma, as per the research of Gabor Maté, renown addiction and trauma expert. Nobody chooses to become an addict. Nobody lists it along with fireman, lawyer, or doctor. Everyone, professional or not, has their breaking point and craves relief from the relentless presence of their wound, there becoming hooked into substances that take over, but in light of the severity of the wound, the addiction makes perfect sense. The woman out of the subway could no longer contain herself, and how lonely must that experience have been for her. I am not assuming that she was an addict, but she was clearly a person in pain who needed refuge at least, and better, some safe, loving arms around her. What was the story with the young woman leaning against the light standard? Where were her parents? I can’t imagine either of my boys being in that position, but I do know some kids with ridiculously broken families where I could. I’ve been shocked as I have witnessed the lack of meaningful communication by someone’s parent or both, who seemed oblivious to the responsibility they have toward healing the break, passed down as it was from ancestors. Instead of being helpful, they seem almost combative with their children–innocent offspring who did not ask for such difficulty; here failures and addictions are considered as funny little weaknesses, the backdrop for so many stories of bonkers situations, instead of held as the screams for help, for love and acknowledgment that they are. It’s been difficult to witness this instead of simply having read about it in a text book– I was speechless, on occasion, when I realized that I was privy to the process of the gradual implosion of a family in real time. This was the mother dropping the ball, just as mine did, but I’ve spent that last two decades studying, trying to figure things out. I see it. I know what to look for, and I see it.
 This is a bit of a ramble–from salmon, to addiction. Turns out, a ‘ramble,’ is a walk without a definite route, so we’re adding to our list, yes? Terence McKenna, the late American ethnobotanist and authority on the use of psychadelics for healing and growth, mentioned in one lecture that “culture is not your friend.” I get that. Culture is exhausting. It keeps you at odds with your instinctual self, smothering it in stuff to buy, ways to work yourself to death, and celebrating sleepwalking versus being present. Another McKenna phrase that I like is, “the felt moment of immediate experience,” something we now find ourselves having to work towards instead of enjoying it as our default mechanism, the way it used to be. There never has been anything more important than the present. You won’t believe it, but while writing this, I overheard two people trying to have a conversation. Neither one was listening to the other. I wish I had recorded it because it was comical, except that it also wasn’t. To be honest, in my search for presence, I found it heartbreaking, as if the interaction represented a virus, a weakness attacking the overall consciousness around our planet. It was as if both people had stopped using language in the way it was meant in order to communicate, and were here just making sounds at each other. They might as well have taken to quacking like ducks, because that would have been just as effective. If I had recorded it, I could have sat them down and played it back to them. Of course upon hearing the recording, they might have asked, “What kinds of ducks are those?”
It was good to be there in the moment with the light standard woman. I felt my heart open as if it was connecting with an ‘other.’ I drove home instead of attending that evening’s Buddhist event because I wanted to sit with what I was feeling, to explore it on my own. If we were intent on caring for each other, I think sauntering would be the norm, and I’m not implying any religious definition, but instead that very meaningful, energetic thing that is our unconscious connection with each other. We are connected, or we’re supposed to be connected, and where this breaks blooms disease and floundering. We know that trees are connected through their root systems. Birds are connected, really all of the natural world–that one we think we are not a part of which is bonkers. And so here we are. Oh, and fish are connected too, but to be clear, fish don’t have a lot of empathy. One salmon doesn’t notice another one struggling up the river bank and navigate its’ way over to have a little one-on-one time: “How ya feeling, Sal? I noticed you don’t seem to have your heart in it today, like the rest of us, making our way up this river to our death.” We’re complicated. And it’s so easy to forget about it and just watch TV and swipe left, and not make any effort at all, but you lose out. There is nothing like the feeling of having worked through some difficult wounds and having learned things about yourself in the process. You are better able to withstand various challenges thrown your way, sometimes more equipped to be able to see the bigger picture and therefore not take all things so personally–like Gretsky leaving the Oilers; no, that was lousy–but still be aware of ‘the other,’ to notice the struggle. In my opinion, humanity can’t exist without empathy, without compassion and the nurturing of our connectedness. “Hike if you must. Saunter if you can.”
In further consideration of “ancient impulses” knocking for our attention, there’s another scenario that I remember: I was between three and five in age. I was sitting out behind the farmhouse, by myself, enjoying the green grass near a small copse of maple trees. I remember my father coming out of the farmhouse and walking past me on his way to the barn. He did not greet me, or reach down to tousle my curls, but simply walked past as if I didn’t exist. I watched him walk all the way to the barn. My father wasn’t demonstrative to us kids; my brother and sister, seven and eight years older than I was. I have no memory of him playfully tossing me in the air as a kid, and there are no photos of any such playing around. People tell me that such distance was “that generation,” and, well, I don’t buy it. I think it was a decision made from a place of struggle. Even there on the grass I felt that ancient need to be acknowledged, for some indication that everything was okay. I know now that it wasn’t. It was then, maybe in that moment where a part of me began to grok that I was there to caretake; this was not going to be a childhood where I was supported towards thriving. If my father had been sauntering to the barn, he would have stopped to check in with me, but he wasn’t sauntering. He was walking while off in his head somewhere. Yes, it’s funny, the things you remember.