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On “Walking to Listen”

I caught an old This American Life titled “Hit the Road” about a young guy, Andrew Forsthoefel, who walked across America interviewing folks under the auspices of a self-made project to listen. Just listen to whomever he encountered on a totally random journey from Pennsylvania to California by means of the south and out the ass side of Death Valley in August. A feat that would kill some folks and make many an Appalachian Through Hiker tip his hat in admiration. His book “Walking to Listen” has been my companion for the past three weeks and well worth it.

He starts out talking about things from a young man’s perspective. Well, honestly, he ends the book that way too, only a changed young man. Things that used to occupy his mind like abandonment issues with his father who had divorced his mother after becoming involved with another woman. College. Studies, Girls. Jobs, or the desire for an entry point into the workforce. Things I remember from my distant past.

He cites Whitman a great deal. This was one of my favorites, that he used early on, after having completed a bank of tattoo research on Henry David Thoreau, whom if I remember right from his journals, was not altogether fond of, however, they shared a reverence for the experience of the body.

“Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from; The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer, This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.” There was also a bit from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr saying “appalling silence of the good people.” Andrew had just finished walking with an evangelist. Walking through an overly racist region of the Country and was questioning people’s convictions and why they feel the need to sell exclusion and segregation so hard. Like salesmen.

That, of course, reminds me of growing up in Marion Ohio and the near snake oil salespeople I was encouraged to hang out with as a boy. Charming and effective but, as I grew up, I realized it was not a life that was meant for me. My definition of God is that it does not exist as an entity but is evident simply in the fantastically complex set of biochemical and physical manifestations of all the elements that comprise the universe at large. I love and hold tight to, the idea that my atoms were once burning inside a star in some other form somewhere a very long time ago and may end up feeding some lifeforms in the near future. At least my ashes post-cremation that is.

Much later in the book, Andrew walks through the Navajo Nation. He meets up with a couple of guys who introduce him tot he idea of Hózhó.

Hózhó is a term that refers to a concept found in Navajo Native American culture that refers to the interconnectedness between beauty, harmony, and goodness in all things physical and spiritual that results in health and well-being for all things and beings.

This later fuels his thought about not being too quick to judge others for the old adage of “not knowing what they are going through.” Or simply put, who they are in that moment. It’s a great big old echo, from another man’s experience, of the kinds of things I’ve been gravitating toward for some time now. I used to be an asshole. Well, I probably still am on a good day. But I’m trying to reserve my judgment more and more these days as I get older. I think it’s part of my own defense mechanisms. Some vestigial mental organ lodged in my brain from childhood. Learning to accept people for who they are is one of the best lessons of my life. Of course, lot’s of personal failures kind of help to see the flaw in that old train of thought. Experience does count for something after all.

Andrew continues in one of his interviews with a Laguna Ceremonial Dancer in New Mexico who had lost his wife. He was telling the story of despair. Something I see from time to time on the AHA Support Network and am not equipped to deal with personally. They just have us alert the moderators when we see it. But I get it as a heart attack survivor. This Laguna guy wanted to die. I thought I was going to die in the near future from another heart attack. And while that may be true, this interview really hit home. This guy’s brother took him aside and said instead of saying “One day closer to death” use this “One day closer to healing.” Just as my partner once turned statistics upside down for me by saying “yeah, so you have a 25% chance of having another one, but you know what? You have a 75% chance of not having another one.” It’s perspective that I see, or force myself to see when hiking in the backcountry. You either focus on the anxiety or you choose to embrace the beauty around you today.

This thread continues to weave itself when he talks about a mass murderer whose journal he’d read online in public record. Andrew was relating to this guy asking the same types of questions he was at very close to the same age but coming up with radically different answers. He settles into the nature of questions though. “’Do you guess I have some intricate purpose?’ the Universe asks us through the poet. What if its presence is its purpose? What if it’s enough that it all just is?” I found that statement ringing some internal bells for me while reading it. And while I am not spiritual, I’d adopt that as an idea that loosely resembles spirituality in my own day to day understanding of how I fit into the handful of milliseconds I’ve been alive in universal terms.

Finally, in closing, Andrew makes it to the Ocean and has a crowd of friends from near and far. Some whom he met along the trek and others from his life before. He let’s loose with an interview with an LGBTQIA, he tags her, advocate. That discourse lives in the moment when we realize that there are no “Others”. Those who are not us. We are all us. That’s the engine love fires and moves humanity a little closer into the light of harmony.

Yeah, so I totally recommend this book. I have to admit, I was surprised at how well written and beautifully thought out the whole thing was. From topics of coming of age, loneliness, hate, love, death and even mystery. The author hits every topic with the clarity of mind you see only rarely.

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