It is an odd thing, a woman and a man walking, not side-by-side, but apart, together but separately. He in front, marching at a particular pace, her some 8-10 steps behind, hunched and scuttling a bit, as if she is trying to catch up, but not enough to reach him, for it appears she must keep her distance. This is the second time I’ve seen this couple. The first was from my window at dinner two nights before. Now, it’s Sam and me, and we are nearly crossing their path on a sunny Sunday.
“It’s so strange,” I whisper to Sam. “What’s with that?”
Sam and I had made our usual walk around the neighborhood this late morning. Few people are out; the lawn chairs sit empty. But the early day and the walk have been good, Sam and I quite aware of our strides, our pace, a peaceful manner, neither quick nor slow. And now Sam watches this couple along with me, this twosome, this odd pair, walking in some offbeat ritual of obedience.
Or maybe this is simply too judgmental of me. What do I know of them? Maybe he is simply a faster walker. Maybe he takes longer steps. Maybe her legs are shorter. Maybe she has a bad knee. Maybe he was once a jogger, a track star in his younger days and can’t help his speed.
“They’re like Morons,” I whisper to Sam as the couple takes the crosswalk at the corner. I don’t even know if that’s a proper comparison. I’m simply thinking about cultures, religions where men take the superior role, where the woman is dutiful, submissive. To be fair, that’s not true of all denominations within the Mormon Church, only the ultra-patriarchal systems of the fundamentalists. Still, this is what comes to mind.
The man is dressed in jeans and a red golf shirt. He wears sneakers. White. She has long hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her shorts are navy blue; her top is sleeveless and loose fitting. She, too, wears white sneakers. Neither would ever stand out for any other reason than this strange straight-in-line, purposeful, almost ceremonial walk. They speak no words. They do not acknowledge one another. We’ve been watching them, following them, if you will, for over two blocks and there has not been a hint of a smile, a communicative gesture, or deviation from the steady pace. It is not a walk for pleasure. It can’t be. This is a walk for another reason, a walk to prove something, to gain something, to feel accomplished, worthy, to feel better about each other.
The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn speaks of meditative walking, pilgrim meditation and how in travel of this kind we are always arriving, our home is in the present moment. I like to think, although it is not easy, that my walks with Sam are in this tradition. The goal in this style of movement is be keenly cognizant of your strides, and to smile, even if it is forced, as you will be happy if you act happy. I try to do that in some fashion most days. Sam? Well, if she can truly smile, I’m sure she is. By traveling this way, you are honoring the earth, the monk tells us, for it is what balances your steps. Enjoy yourself, he tutors, use the time to reacquaint yourself with yourself.
My guess this couple has never considered any of this.
There’s a quote I love from the writer and teacher, Paul Coelho, the author of The Pilgrimage, his account of his walk along the road to Santiago. This comes from a subsequent book, but it could have easily been taken from text of The Pilgrimage. “Walk neither faster nor slower than your own soul. Because it is your soul that will teach you the usefulness of each step you take.”
This couple, I’m sure, knows nothing of Paulo Coelho.
But I’m too harsh. I do not know them, only this strange stroll of theirs. Just like them, Sam, too, knows nothing about what the Buddhist monk has to say. Sam has never read Coelho. Why should I judge these people? Let them walk whatever way they wish. At least they are outside and moving. Should I then judge Sam? Judge me?
Sam and I stand at the corner where the couple had crossed and we see them now march up the slightly elevated sidewalk. He remains in the lead. She stays behind. And it is here that it occurs to me that I, presumably like them, do not truly recognize the purity of a good walk. That knowledge, I believe, is Sam’s alone.
The couple appears to be on some sort of mission, a militaristic hike with a less than mystical goal. Theirs is not a pilgrimage. When I walk—with or without Sam—I am only occasionally successful in meeting the mindfulness I set out to find. It comes only in spurts, little moments. But Sam, she is always in the present, always paws to the pavement, honoring the earth, enjoying herself. Her sniffs, her prance, her total awareness are in her every step. She is better at this than I, than any of us, and yes, better than the couple we’ve been observing. Sam is a natural. Like it must have been for our ancestors before cars, before trains, planes, and buses, Sam knows how to walk. And although much of those earlier human walks may have been utilitarian—a reason to move from point A to point B with a focus on destination—walking was also considered a pastime, a way to socialize, to unwind, to rediscover the unhurried world. Sam does this every day. She does not need to get from point A to B to find food, to catch a commuter train, or pickup the mail at the end of along driveway. Why do I walk Sam? It’s simple. She makes me happy. I think the walk makes her happy, too.
Sam and I step south from the corner as the couple treks over the crest of the hill and disappears. Sam is no longer interested in their detached, unchanging gait, for she is now pulling on her leash toward the large elm tree in the parkway where she can catch a sniff at its base and return to her pilgrim’s walk, the one the Buddhist monk talks about, the monk about which Sam knows nothing, the monk whose philosophies Sam will never study, for on this day, Sam is beyond all that, she is the most mindful monk I know, the one teaching me the perfect way to move in the world.