Tuesday, January 05, 2021

We're Here on this Earth to Saunter


The last item on my "to do" list yesterday involved running an errand to a place a couple miles from my home so despite the 
damp day I decided to make it into a leisurely afternoon walk. We live in downtown Seattle and the sidewalks have been relatively empty since March, but yesterday they were even more bereft of people than normal. Those who were out were hunched against the drizzle, hands pocketed, moving briskly with their masked faces bent toward the ground. I was prepared with my best rain gear, however, so with all that extra room, nothing I had to be doing, and plenty of time to do it in, I was sauntering.

It's been awhile since I've properly sauntered. Being an urban dog owner, I'm out walking every day, but even when I don't have any particular cause to rush, I rarely saunter. It's the habit of hurry, I suppose, based on Puritanical notions of efficiency or productivity or whatever. It takes a conscious effort to saunter.


I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks -- who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived "from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre," to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, "There goes a Sainte-Terrer," a Holy Lander . . . Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. 

Maybe it was the influence of people like Thoreau that claimed the word saunter as something above the usual pejorative synonyms like dawdle, drift, idle, or meander, but its roots are in moral judgements closely wedded to being inefficient and unproductive. Those earliest saunterers were apparently viewed as lying, lazy, homeless beggars and to be called a Sainte-Terrer was to be mocked. And that's at least part of why sauntering in the city is so difficult. After all, we upstanding citizens have places to go and things to do. We don't have time for sauntering. And even when we do, heaven forbid we reveal ourselves otherwise so we clip along at pace, buzzing along like busy bees.

It was against this that I sauntered yesterday, making myself slow down by force of will, claiming this sinner's pace as my own. By sauntering I made the traffic lights my friends. There was no standing on the street corner, taping my foot in impatience. I wasn't tempted to cross against the lights. Indeed, it seemed that an extraordinary number of the lights turned to green as I approached, permitting me to continue my saunter without a hitch. Such a change from the usually annoying stop-and-go staccato of my non-saunterings. I sauntered for two hours, going no where and getting there by no particular time.

Something like 25 percent of us report to researchers that we feel rushed "most of the time" (if you are a working woman, mother, or both, that number goes way up) and a roughly equal number who report that they are "almost never rushed." The rest of us are in the middle, hurrying at any given moment, hunched forward, head down, devoted to getting "there" and "doing that thing." Thoreau writes of sauntering as "being free from all earthly engagements." It was apparently difficult to achieve in 1862 and it is even more so now. Our pockets and wrists and ears are populated with devices that shackle us to our earthly engagements, allowing both friend and foe to assail us with their claims upon us, laying obligations upon our backs even as we try to saunter, reminding us continually that there is more to be done, and that there is never, ever going to be a "last item" on the "to do" list. 

In contrast, young children are rarely in a hurry. They inspire me with their capacity to "saunter," to be free of earthly engagements other than those directly before them, without "to do" lists or rush. Oh, they may do things quickly or with an urgency, but without the knot in the gut that characterizes hurry. But that is exactly what they want to inflict on our children with all this talk of "falling behind." We already know that this generation of young children is more anxious and stressed out than any that came before, and then to attempt pull this efficiency and productivity crap on them -- it's cruelty. It's not just now. Headlines have been full of this kind of fear mongering for decades, but with the end of the pandemic in sight, the testing companies are gearing up for their best year ever. The curriculum suppliers are doubling down. Our politicians are breathlessly insisting that we must catch up . . . To what? 

No, no, no! Stop it! Our children are not behind. If this pandemic has taught us anything it should be that sauntering is okay. It's healthy to be free from all earthly entanglements and to engage the life before us, at a saunter. It's call living and we've forgotten how to do it. The children can teach us, but we have to slow down long enough to actually learn the lesson. It's not an accident that we have largely relegated children to the fringes of society, packing them off to their under-resourced schools, getting them out of the way so that the rest of us can hurry about being efficient and productive. We've forgotten that caring for children is the central project of every civilization and as such it should stand at the center of our lives, not impeding us, but reminding us that we're here on this earth to saunter. 

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