Carolyn Affleck - How I Started to Walk

November 2004

It’s one of those rare sun-drenched days in November. T-shirt weather! I’m walking through my East-Vancouver neighbourhood, reveling in the warmth, open to whatever surprises I encounter. Ripe autumn raspberries offer themselves between slats of a rickety fence; violin music wafts through an open window; a flock of tiny bushtits whooshes by, chirping excitedly. After last night’s rainstorm everything still glistens. The reddest of vibrant red maple leaves coat the sidewalk, turning it into something like a fresh oil-painting: beautiful but slippery!

As I reach the corner of Renfrew and Kitchener, I look down and notice some recent graffiti in the concrete. I take out my camera and snap a photo. Someone has scrawled PEACE, and next to it, there’s a footprint. I doubt these were juxtaposed intentionally, but it couldn’t be more perfect, because - I’m a peace walker. Being a peace walker doesn’t mean I carry a placard or fight for a cause. It’s more about what I carry inside me when I walk. It’s an intention; a way of being. I didn’t fully understand this until now.

Continuing my walk, the blur of the last six weeks is starting to make sense. I’ve been home for a few days now from a trip across the country. A lot of ground was covered, by foot and by motor, and I’m swirling with images, memories and feelings. I need to ground myself, and walking is my first priority. When my body is occupied and my senses are busy taking in the world around me, my mind has a chance to sift through its contents.

When did I begin to walk? The first walks I can remember (which are some of my first memories at all) were taken with my father when I was a toddler. Up the steep hill outside our house we would climb, heading for the small park two blocks hence. Along the way I would savour every detail of our excursion. I stuck out my tiny hand, brushing it along every thing I passed as each surface created its impression in my kinetic memory. To this day, I recall the texture of each fence: the rough rusty iron railing, the thick rough flaking paint on a wooden fence, the mossy rock wall that became slick in the rain. Each garden had some feature that was a landmark along the way – a scratchy juniper hedge with its aromatic berries, a weeping cherry tree with its sweet pink blossoms and secret hiding spot underneath, a birdbath with mysterious dancing angels.

As a child, walking was a regular feature in my life. At eight or nine, in a spate of vigilantism, I made rounds through the neighbourhood carrying a large trash bag, as a one-girl recycling team. An incredibly shy kid, somehow my purposefulness enabled me to unselfconsciously scour the back alleys, bagging useful cast-offs from garbage cans and the roadside. I loved the feeling that I was caring for my neighbourhood, even if just in my own small way.

My social phobia was debilitating at times, but I worked around it. I just couldn't bring myself to step through the doors of the public bus into a crowd of strangers, so I walked an hour a day to school and back. I deepened my intimacy with the environment, and broadened my sense of the world. Soon, I took on an early-morning paper route. I rose eagerly before daybreak, enjoying the chance to walk in peace and quiet, getting to know short-cuts through the back yards and learning to expertly fold and throw the newspapers. My customers' appreciation did wonders to ease my fear of people.

The weekend paper would almost double in size with the addition of comics and wad of advertising supplements. On some occasions my newspaper satchel was too heavy to lift, and my father would assist, driving along side me with the papers as I dashed from car to house up and down the steep hills.

The last walk I remember taking with my father was from my car to the oncologist's office. After his course of chemotherapy, my dad's feet were so swollen they could no longer fit into; he shuffled along in his bedroom slippers, bent over as I supported him on my arm. Despite his obvious decline in faculties, he didn’t speak of suffering indignities; he possessed a mild disregard for appearances that stood him in good stead. We learned from the doctor that the chemo had accomplished nothing; the tumor was the size of a grapefruit. Although he fully hoped to live another year, he was in hospital a few days later, and passed on the following week. The day he died, I took a walk outside the hospital grounds. I could feel his spirit, alive in the sky and trees. The world glowed in full colour.

This year, after months of grieving, sorting through mountains of paperwork and cleaning out my dad's house, I felt lost. The Camino came as a real gift, renewing my sense of purpose and allowing me to find myself again. Along this ancient 800-km trail I also found that walking soothed my sadness, calmed my anxiety, cleared room in my head for fresh insights and ideas, and reawakened a sense of adventure. I began to experience my world anew: to see, smell, touch, and hear with fresh awareness the beauty that is around us, all the time and everywhere. I learned that my companions were on a similar journey of self- discovery - releasing pain and fear, embracing joy, love, and peace.

My feet have now taken me many miles. Where will they take me next?