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Philosophy Almost Like Dancing

For Alan and for Lucy, who loved horses

By Robin Goldfin

The beauty is in the walking; we are betrayed by destinations.
--Gwyn Thomas
Florence, Italy
Spring 2001

I am sitting here with my leg propped up because I twisted my ankle on a gravelly path or on one of the uneven sidewalks of this beautiful city. I am thinking about walking. I like to walk; more, I like walking—the very physical act of it. The simplicity, the lack of unnecessary paraphernalia: a good pair of shoes or sneakers and you’re off.

I live in New York. It has been said that New York is a walker’s city and it’s true—in New York I do walk a lot, and frequently when I walk I talk to myself. This draws little attention in a city where both the sane and insane talk to themselves freely (and now with cell phones and earpieces, it looks like half the street is lunatic), but I have to admit if I am caught by someone in mid-solo-conversation I feel slightly embarrassed. I try to make it look like I’ve just been singing. I don’t know why singing to yourself is more acceptable than talking, but it is. Singing gets you into less trouble—or so I thought.

Terrain matters. I’m not much of a hiker, but I like walking uphill (good for the legs, and nothing feels better than a pair of good, strong legs). I don’t like uneven sidewalks—my loose ankles, hence my leg propped up with ice, hence my walking a bit slowed down. But walking itself is a way of slowing down, of noticing things—except in the city. Here you can tell the foreigners by their pace and we New Yorkers like to go at a good clip, so we get annoyed by the leisurely strollers. “MOVE!” we have to restrain ourselves from yelling, as if anywhere worth getting is worth getting in a hurry.

I’ve tried running—it didn’t stick. It’s walking I always return to. Now, when I go back to visit my family in suburban New Jersey, I take a walk at least once a day. It’s gotten so my father will ask me, “Have you taken your walk yet?”

Often I walk alone, but I also like company. A few summers ago I went to visit my best friend in Florida, and we would take a walk almost every night, always the same route: along a long, curvy sidewalk to a big highway intersection to touch the traffic light pole, then turn around and walk back. This walk for its own sake felt easy and comfortable, and it was good for our friendship. We were living in close quarters in his father’s small apartment, and if either of us had indulged in too much hot chili or raw broccoli, the walk gave us a very necessary sense of space.

If you move your arms more when you walk, you can feel your heartbeat accelerate. Sex makes your heart beat faster, and people have sex in all kinds of ways in all kinds of places—I wonder if anyone has sex walking? I think some insects do. I once saw a public television special on rhinoceri that said the male rhino, after having intercourse, can only walk backwards. He’s low to the ground and rather well endowed, so a walk forward would be like a pole vault. The Greeks saw all of life as a process of walking or running backwards: we can’t see where we’re going, just where we’ve come from. The Greeks, of course, had their peripatetic philosophers, their walking thinkers.

Walking helps thinking and digestion.

Some people say that dancing is an extension of walking, and though I agree in part, they are also very different. I have walked and I have danced, and if I’m being honest I have to admit that dancing (for me) is very much about me trying to impress somebody. Either in class, on stage or on a crowded dance floor, I want to be so suave, so cool, so kick-ass incredible that I make people stop and take notice (my Saturday Night Fever fantasy—it has rarely happened). Walking, on the other hand, doesn’t seek to impress anyone; it doesn’t have to. (Unless, of course, you attempt to walk cross-country or some other stunt like that, which is another thing entirely). You walk for yourself.

Or a dog if you have one. (Here in Florence I walk cautiously, and not just because of the ankle-twisting sidewalks. The city of Galileo and Michelangelo doesn’t have the pooper-scooper laws that NYC finally adopted, so here I tread gingerly and often—unfortunately.)

I can’t say “I have walked for as long as I can remember.” I don’t really remember learning to walk. I do, though, have an early memory of walking and getting lost. I couldn’t have been more than 8 or 10 years old, maybe younger. My family and another family took a day trip to Wildwood, New Jersey. At some point I asked my mother if I could take a walk. Young as I was, my mother (who always indulged us) said “yes.” I can remember my anticipation: the pleasure of a purely private adventure. I walked from the house to the boardwalk and made note of a landmark—a tractor off to the side—kind of like a breadcrumb, so I’d remember where I got onto the boards and could later make my way back home.

When I got to the end of my walk, I turned around and walked and walked and walked and…my tractor was gone. It was as if the whole picture had suddenly been changed, rearranged. I remember thinking “I’m in the Twilight Zone.” I panicked. I didn’t know where I was. I left the boardwalk and started to wander the streets, crying. Finally, the adults had the sense to put out a search party and the mother of the family we were with came walking down the street, pushing her youngest son in a baby carriage. (He is only 4 years my junior—could I have been that young? What was my mother thinking, letting me go out walking alone?!) Anyway, I was found.

Sometimes even stranger things happen when I’m walking. Some years ago I was teaching dance at a summer camp in Lancaster, PA. The camp was situated in the oldest girls’ school in the country, Linden Hall, established in the mid 1600’s. It was an off day, a Sunday, I think, and I was alone, just walking around the grounds which were quiet and pretty. Now, I’m not much of a mystic. In the v’kuach between the Chassidim and the mitnagdim (the spiritualists and the rationalists in Jewish history), I usually hold with the latter. I like to keep my feet planted firmly on the ground—how else could you possibly walk? But as I was walking—please don’t think me weird—I heard the trees start talking. It was as if they began to shimmer—each with a particular (I’m really going to say this word) aura, each with a distinct personality. I felt that if I really listened I could hear them—not in words, but in the language of trees, whatever that is.

You can believe this or not, I’ve no interest in convincing anyone. And it has never happened again.

This camp also had a stable with horses, and I would go up and feed them apples or sugar. It takes a bit of courage to let a strange horse eat out of your hand—often I dropped the apple—but they are careful and their big, long tongues are warm and gentle. One day, I was wanting a bit of company, so I went up to visit a horse I had met and taken a liking to. He was in his stable and I walked over and started talking to him, stroking his nose. Then—I guess because I was lonely and supposed he was—I started to sing him a song. Something slow and melancholic, in a minor key—an old Yiddish lullaby that I know in English. I sang:

On a wagon bound for market,
There’s a calf with a mournful eye;
High above him there’s a swallow
Winging swiftly through the sky.

“Dona, Dona” is a song about bondage and freedom, about a calf that gets slaughtered and a bird that flies away. Maybe it was the wrong thing to sing to a horse that gets locked in a pen at night, but he seemed to appreciate it. And suddenly I noticed just how much he did appreciate. I looked down and saw that my—was it my singing? —had given the horse a rather huge (do horses have any other kind?) erection which he had no qualms (animals usually don’t) about displaying. Now, don’t get me wrong. My interest in this horse was purely platonic—he was completely misinterpreting my intentions. (Or was he? They say horses are very sensitive.) Anyway, I thanked him for the compliment, but—I mean, had he been human, it’s one thing—I do have my limits—I walked away. After a few days to let him cool off, I came back. I wasn’t going to let a little misunderstanding get in the way of our friendship. And was it my imagination or was he, for the rest of the summer, acting rather aloof?

Why do I walk? The same reason I talk and write, I suppose: to explore an idea, a feeling, a solitude; or to keep myself company when there’s no one else around. The heart beats and the body responds: right, left, right, left, right, left. Almost like dancing. Walking is something we learn to do at a young age, those of us lucky enough to have two working legs. And walking, simple as it is, is really an act of independence. Learning to walk is literally learning to stand on your own two feet, falls and all. A child learns to crawl then walk, run, ride a bike, drive a car, shtup and pretty soon he’s out the door. Walking, like all journeys, is about the movement—either toward something or away, sometimes both at once. And sometimes it’s just about the pleasure of the trip. It’s a toss up: I love having a destination, walking somewhere; but more, I like walking back home.