“Shore is a perspective, the safe place from where I view the turbulence around me, both the beautiful and the tragic, and quite literally, many of the poems in ‘Shore’ were written while walking along the lake. The keepers, the fragments of language that wash up on the shore like sea glass, are the building blocks of the poems I create back at my desk.”
This was my answer, at a recent literary event, to the most common question I’ve been asked during the book tour for my new poetry collection, “Shore.” What does the title mean? This book, like much of my writing, is born out of the interplay of two passions—walking and writing.
During the past many summers, I’ve explored the relationship between walking and writing, with my students at the University of Chicago Writer’s Studio, in a course called “Walking and Writing in Memoir and Essay.” This summer, rather than teaching, I am walking my way into my next book and gathering material for the fall when I will once again teach “Walking and Writing,” but this time for poets as well. As Kathleen Rooney, our flâneuse laureate of Chicago wrote in her essay, “Don’t Forget the Flâneur,” “A walk is almost never the fastest way to get somewhere. But both walks and poems can afford a more textured and deep experience of space and time.” My students and I walk toward this deepening of time and space that is reflected in the new layers of meaning we bring to our writing.
The last time I taught this course, during the second summer of the pandemic, in 2021, it had moved to Zoom. As a result, we didn’t have the luxury of walking together along the Chicago River, writing in our notebooks and listening to how each one of us took in the shadows of sun on water, glistening gold and metal of our city’s architecture, people passing on the Michigan Avenue Bridge, and the terror of the oversized Trump sign on the building nearby. Instead, from the beginning of the pandemic onward, this course has become more global. From my desk in Evanston, I hear my students’ stories of horses in Utah, rivers in Chile, the Blue Ridge Mountains, Vermont lakes, beach walks in Santa Cruz, the narrow streets of Brooklyn, and Chicago landmarks I’ve never managed to visit, like the boyhood home of Walt Disney.
During the first few weeks of this virtual class, we leave our computers and walk in our separate neighborhoods, first checking in on the weather. It’s hot in the Midwest and on the East Coast, so most of us wear hats and bring water; Carlos in Santiago dons a winter coat. Although we no longer walk together, we are not exactly alone. There is always the chorus of other walking writers and a prompt. One day we emulate poet and essayist Linda Hogan who, in her lyric essay “Walking,” focuses on a sunflower. My students return from this walk, where I ask them to focus on one object, with images of zinnias, stones, fences and windows. Back at our desks, we listen to what these objects say.
We also pay attention to the shift in our writing and thinking brought on by the physical act of walking. Journalist Ferris Jabr reflects on this in his New Yorker article, “Why Walking Helps Us Think.” He cites experiments that prove that after a walk, we perform better on thinking tasks and that we can change the pace of our thoughts by changing the pace of our steps. Sometimes slowing down can lead to an epiphany. My students leave our first class with a deepened sense of how walking can transform their writing and with the beginnings of new essays. Some of their sentences grow longer. For others the rhythm of walking shortens their sentences and sharpens their imagery.
Walking homework includes urban walks and rural walks on both familiar and unfamiliar terrain, strolls along water be it puddle, lake or ocean, and walks during transitional times: the blue hour, sunrise, the calm before an approaching storm. Even on these solo walks, my students are joined in their imaginations by the likes of Virginia Woolf, who in her 1930 essay “Street Haunting,” writes about how she left the familiar objects in her home to explore the winter streets of London at dusk. She shifts from the memory of the self reflected in these objects, to the world where she sees and is seen by others, where she imagines other lives and encounters different selves. We are joined by Lauren Elkin who in her book, “Women Who Walk the City,” advocates for the flâneuse who has always faced the dangers that come with the territory of a woman walking alone. Our urban walks include Philip Lopate, strolling the streets of Brooklyn and the waterfronts of New York. Of course, Thoreau is with us on our rural walks, the poet, philosopher and essayist who urges his readers to say a final goodbye to their belongings and family members before a lengthy sojourn, in case they decide not to return. We bring Rebecca Solnit, who reminds us to align body, mind and spirit. Some of the essays we read each week span hours, others days or decades, like Garnette Cadogan, who in his essay, “Walking While Black,” moves from Jamaica to New Orleans and finally lands in Brooklyn.
I urge my students to bring along actual bits of language when they walk. One week I recommend a quote from Rachel Cohen, who in her essay, “On Jane Austen’s Politics of Walking,” writes how while walking, we draw our worlds and ourselves together. In one way or another, all walking writers strive for this integration of self, experience and world.
I ask my students to discover the questions that propel them, that they hope to walk into and unravel. We begin the process in class. I type into the Zoom chat box a quote by Cadogan that reads, “So I walk caught between memory and forgetting, between memory and forgiveness.” They write with the prompt “So I walk caught between…” and delve into the tensions in their walks, their writing, their lives.
I try to follow the assignments I give them. Sometimes I’m successful and other times not. But suddenly Cadogan’s voice becomes the one that follows me on my daily walk along Lake Michigan and I write, beginning with his phrase, and explore the tensions inherent in my walks, my life.
So I walk caught between wanting to get somewhere and wanting to return home, to my thoughts—wanting to have walked 15,000 steps to get my body back to where it is at home with itself, and resting on my late poet friend Richard’s memorial bench along our Evanston Lakefront. Caught between watching out for the red-winged bird that attacks passersby, especially those with hair that resembles a nest, and breathing in the water, the perfume of lilac and crabtree. Caught between moving away from my “self” and finding myself, moving toward myself and abandoning the world, abandoning myself and finding the world.
In Cadogan’s Jamaica he was always moving into what his family called the dangerous streets of Kingston. When he came to America and walked into new territory, what others considered forbidden territory, he realized that at one time he had blended into the streets of Kingston, feeling safe everywhere, but as a Black man in New Orleans, he had become the danger. Cadogan’s story takes my breath away, reminds me of my freedom, my immunity. It reminds me again of Kathleen Rooney who wrote, also in her essay “Don’t Forget the Flâneur” “poems on walking in the city can evoke not only internal anxieties and anguishes but also external injustices.”
In the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, Jamaican-born women sit on the steps watching the world go by, watching us drag furniture from our green Subaru with Illinois license plates, up the stone steps of our daughter Sarina’s new apartment. We are surrounded by aromas of jalapeno, rhythms of reggae—sounds of home for the women on the steps, the men in their double-parked cars, and for Cadogan, as he describes at the end of his essay, when he returns for a visit. For Sarina, my Evanston-raised daughter, these are the flavors of new territory.
I walk caught between being white and looking Jewish. Only Sarina, who inherited my curls, understands what I mean when I say I feel like I blend in more in Brooklyn than I do in our suburban Evanston—the oddity of it. During the pandemic, even while masked and sometimes with wool winter hat or sunglasses, people recognized me: along the Lake, in rarely frequented neighborhoods, in the frozen food aisle of Trader Joe’s. I’d hear the voice of some masked, unrecognizable person call my name; I’d say hello back, apologetically, asking them to lift their mask for just a moment so I could greet them appropriately. I recognized you immediately, they’d respond to my bewildered look, it’s your hair. One or two said, it’s your walk. My hair is curly—with gold brown and gray strands. Especially after walking near the lake, it can be frizzy, wild. But my walk? What is my walk? A stroll? A saunter? Sometimes a limp? One or two have described it as a don’t mess with me walk, especially in urban streets.
When I walk in Brooklyn my pace quickens, to keep up with everyone else, to get somewhere I’m not familiar with, to blend in. Like I do. It’s my hair. Even as white-skinned as I am, I feel like one of the crowd in Sarina’s neighborhood, which is not too far from the Jewish section of Crown Heights where the hair that isn’t covered for modesty is often curly and wild like our Jewish hair. In Crown Heights, Jewish hair and Dominican hair, curls and frizz are pervasive. Sarina can get her hair products at the corner store instead of online.
In line at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, my husband and I hear a familiar voice behind us asking the cashier a question about exits and entrances. Neither one of us needs to turn around. Masked, we exchange knowing glances: it’s the voice of someone we know from home, someone we’d like to avoid. If we were in Evanston he’d recognize us immediately, even from the back. But we are in Brooklyn where my hair does not single me out, allowing us to escape an awkward encounter.
When Cadogan later moved to Crown Heights, he had absorbed the fact that his skin color signaled danger to white walkers, not just his Caribbean hair. Sometimes he forgot for a moment, like when he ran to the train station to catch up with friends and was randomly stopped and then detained by cops. And for others with Black complexions, sometimes it is not safe to walk down one’s own street, or onto the wrong driveway. Mistaken identity can bring a barrage of bullets. And there have been too many times lately when a random bullet tragically killed children who should have been safe in their own homes.
I am privileged to be stopped by less-threatening intrusions: a familiar voice, a wrong turn. Sometimes I’m unmoored by being out at the wrong hour in forbidden territory. In New York I absorb my surroundings, but I lose my words and write nothing. In Evanston, danger can be as simple as the swoop of nesting birds. Of course there are other times and places where it wasn’t and isn’t safe to walk as a Jew or a woman. My body carries those memories, that knowledge. You can see it in my posture, my walk.
Why do I want to be anonymous, invisible? Part of the crowd? This is one of the tensions I walk into. Yet the questions I take along on my walks, especially in Evanston, are more about protecting my privacy than my safety. I am a curly haired walking-writer with a green notebook who has the privilege of deciding when I want to be seen taking in the world, and when I have the luxury to abandon it.
I think back to our first class, when one student, who coincidentally lives a block away from me, mentioned how conspicuous she feels writing in public while running into people she knows. I encouraged her to stand in front of one of the little libraries that populate our neighborhood and act like she’s looking at books when she wants to stop to write. Now, I’d give her a different answer.
My thoughts shift with the questions I walk into. This is not London, 1927, where Virginia Woolf had to create the excuse of going to buy a pencil to validate her walk at dusk. Instead of encouraging my student to disguise herself as a viewer of books, I’d advise her to take up her space as a walking writer. To stop on a park bench in our local Rose Garden and write to her heart’s delight. To boldly proclaim her most noble task of walking to write. My younger students seem to already know this. Sometimes they invite friends and spouses to join them. One woman mentioned how her conversation with her husband took on a different tone when they walked among others, in a forest, a contrast to their usual urban walks.
With each walk we take, each question we ask, each voice we take along with us, we are delving deeper into ourselves, and the experiences of these writers: the vulnerability of Woolf, the bold, exquisite voices of Solnit, Lopate and Elkin. And most tragically, the real danger Garnette Cadogan faces when walking while Black in America. Yet the power of his language and the rawness of his truth allows me to enter not only his world, but my own.
We are also witnessing, through the drafts of each other’s essays we critique in workshop, how our own walks have turned into full narratives. Sometimes what we read in each other’s pages reflects the context of our weekly sojourns; sometimes we recognize the musings of something that began as a free-write, or fragments gathered during a walk. Sometimes all we find in each other’s pages is the rhythms of a walk that led to the memory of a distant landscape, a never-before-told story. Stanley Kunitz’s poem that we read during our final week says it best:
I have walked through many lives,
Some of them my own,
And I am not who I was
After weeks of reading, walking and writing together, we are more than who we were. Our writing is deeper than it was. What a privilege it is to carry each other along the shores we’ll continue to walk along, the safe places that allow us to view the different worlds we inhabit.