Walkers and joggers emerge onto the walkways of my neighborhood in the early morning, turning the silent district into a hive of motion. Our enclave of shade trees, tall pines and waving cholla bustles with the primary colors of my fellow exercisers wearing colorful outfits and headbands.
These fitness folk are thinner than I am and a good deal faster. I differ from their urgent plunge into the morning because I have a different way of starting the day. On my walks, I look down at the path instead of up and ahead, perhaps because I’m a tall woman who is used to stumbling on rocks and sticks and minor hillocks. I take time to check out the roads and sidewalks so I won’t twist an ankle. You could call me a down-looker, as opposed to the other half of humanity, the up-lookers.
I like to watch every step and note every item, weed, and trinket left on the byways. The advantages are huge. I notice the tiny things —the wild violets growing insanely between the cracks in the tarmac, the scuttling lizard, the colors of pebbles, the mysterious droppings of animals. I’ll resist waxing romantic here about the variegated leaves of fall and the memories they evoke, but they are wonderful.
Maybe I don’t care about what’s ahead in the distant landscape, and that says something about my character. Either I’m a citizen of the universe, attuned to the unseen realities, the music of the spheres, or I’m afraid I’ll get lost if I look up. My attention to the inner life and the narrow path tell you I’m a book-lover with philosophical friends.
Even the snowy winter streets are intriguing, and I walk carefully in the cold, glad to be wearing my warm boots. This is a new kind of pleasure. The frosty black-and-white world evokes a kinship with the Arctic, with the high Sierra, with the freezing dangers wild creatures must endure in winter. These sensations are new to me; I’m from California, where one sweater was enough against the temperate outdoor world. Now I’m exposed to actual weather, and I feel the excitement of a new season.
On my reflective days I like to think I can see the whole world, maybe the infinite too, by looking down on my walks. William Blake agrees:
To see the world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wildflower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
While I scrutinize the earth, I can ignore the larger, more frightful, threats to my safety, like global warming, drought, and surging Covid cases here. I’m too busy looking down at the small things to worry about those catastrophic dangers. My down-looking is a respite from the terrors of guns and the miseries of the homeless. I can see only the present displayed at my feet. Isn’t that what the wise gurus teach us, to live in the moment?
I’m not a dreamy romantic. The lower world is not all beautiful. Discouraging evidence is in the sorry litter. Careless folk discard wrappers and cans in the gutters. Weary moms drop dirty diapers. I see vomit and condoms, too. Once I saw a colored chalk message: “Bring our troops home!” scrawled in pastel letters. It seems the torn shoes of the mumbling man sitting on a curb are all we need to know.
Occasionally I find names carved on the path, some with old dates: “Suzy loves Brad, 1961.”My mind goes back to 1961, when I was a beginning teacher. I can feel my anxiety, see the faces of a pretty cheerleader with brown eyes and the chubby kid who got tangled in the blind cord sat the window.
I know I miss a lot, looking down — the sky at different times of day, the sense of where I’m heading and even where I am. I may miss an appealing garden, walking as I do with my head down, and I don’t see people’s faces before I see their feet. Yet, once I discovered a perfectly good drinking glass, and another time I found a sapphire ring. I probably missed a passing parade.
You’ll agree we can’t change certain basic things about ourselves. I’ll probably choose to poke around at the shells on the beach and miss the sweeping waves for the rest of my life. I’ve stopped trying so hard to work at things that don’t fit me.
And I’ve stopped paying attention to my mother’s voice: “Look up! Watch where you’re going!”
Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.