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Friday, February 17, 2012

Walkin' the walk

I don't quite know why it is, but every time we go on our walk around the streets of Armidale, we meet someone we know.

  Well, I do have a fair idea really, given that Armidale has a population of about 25,000 or so and I've been here over 35 years. The mathematics of probability on that count combined with the fact that I've been heavily involved with more facets of life here than the Hope Diamond has cut into its surface will readily explain this.

  We'd barely left the house and were about to cross the street when we saw a car approaching, about 100 metres away. At my velocity that's probably equivalent to about 10 metres in your case.

  It was the only car within sight, so we crossed to the middle of the street as the car approached, waiting for it to go by so that we could complete the three metre trek to the other side of the roadway.

  The car slowed to a crawl as it approached us.

  'What the hell?' I said to Tracey, 'why doesn't he just go on? Is he wanting us to cross in front of him?'

  He didn't. Instead, the car drew level with us and stopped as the window rolled down. He must want directions, I thought, remembering vividly our experience giving directions about a fortnight before.

  There was a face at the window I dimly recognised as one from a distant past; twenty years or so at least.

  'Hello,' he said, as if we meet like this every day. 'I thought it was you. I live in the flats about four doors down from your house. I've been there since 1984.'

  'Really? I thought you were working in Queensland.'

  'On and off.'

  Amazingly, and I want this recorded for posterity, I remembered his name, and introduced him to Tracey. She was standing near enough to the rear of the vehicle to inhale the exhaust gases emitted by his car's idling motor, so wasn't too keen on an extended conversation. We were on our walk, after all. Sadly, no car was coming up behind to assist in this process of moving him on.

  Don't get me wrong now; it was nice to be able to say hello after all that time, and he's a good chap who wishes me nothing more than the best.

  'I hear you're in a bad way,' he grinned breezily.

  'I've been better.'

  'So what do you do?'

  I study advanced calculus. I ride racehorses and win buckjumping competitions in Gunnedah, cut down virgin forests with a very large chainsaw, teach street fighting and mountaineering, and practise tantric yoga when it's raining. I am guru to a flock of animists.

  No, that's what I would have said if I had my brain in gear for proto-witticism, not focused on putting one foot after the other.

  'I read and write a bit. And I walk. Matter of fact, we better keep moving on.'

  'OK. Good to see you. We might meet again!'

  He revved the engine and was gone.

  In a bad way. No-one had put it quite like that to me before, not that I minded. It's not inaccurate. He'd been in Queensland long enough to be blunt about such things.

  We set off.

  From the point of view of walking, the early part of the walk is comparatively easy.

  What people with motor-neurone disease, brain injury or stroke recovery will understand, as well as those whose brain motor centre doesn't work properly because of interference by a brain tumour, is that something as simple as walking - which we all take for granted till we can't do it - has to become a conscious process.

  That means you have to think about each part of the operation as you do it.

  As I walk up the hill, the right foot might drag once or twice. I adjust.

  More angle in the knee.

  Then, as the muscles tire, more thought has to go into other joints.

  The hip.

  Now, adjust the direction and height of ankle movement.

  Now the ball of the foot. Push harder with the toes and the foot muscles. And bend the knee in the middle of the step. Not quite that much.

  All these actions aren't simultaneous. They're microseconds apart, and need thinking about - in the right order!

  Each step. Always each and every step. Lose concentration and the limp is pronounced. Or the foot drags.

  Arm movement. You wouldn't imagine it would matter, but without thinking about it as well, it can lose synchronicity with the legs, with implications for balance. Without it, I may veer to the left or right.

  I watch for humps and bumps in the road. Half a centimetre vertically makes a difference. Don't allow for it, and we're back to dragging the foot or doing the drunk impression.

  We're at the top of the hill and the path is horizontal. All the angles for the foot now change, just enough to feel unsteady after the climb. Adjust. Focus.

  Now we're going downhill. In some ways, this is harder than going up, especially as the hill gets slightly steeper. All the muscular and tendon relationships change. I feel unsteady.

  At the kerb to cross the street, I take Tracey's arm.

  This is very steadying, but it also fosters dependence. It gives me a false sense of balance. As soon as we get to the other side, I let go of her arm.

  She walks just slightly ahead, always on the left. She knows that if she's on the other side, if I trip and start to fall, my right arm won't respond fast enough to catch hers, and doesn't have the strength to help save a fall.

  Don't think for a moment of walking on the grass. It has more traps than you can imagine.

  As the walk comes to the last half, there's a new element aimed at defeating me. The muscles down the right side of my torso start to tire.

  The effect of that is similar to aiming a large heater at the right side of a snowman. I begin to list badly to starboard. I have to think about forcing my body straight, as there's really nothing physically weaker about the side; mainly the problem gets to be the slowing of or interference to the signals from the brain.

  Now, in order to maintain balance unassisted, I have to think about staying upright continuously, as well as my arm movement, the hip, the knee angle and direction, ankle lift and strength, to push off the toes; and the spot where the foot will land.

  Little wonder that when we reach home, I can barely lift the leg to plough through the thick carpet of kikuyu lawn, and make it up the stairs. Just three of them. Standing still at the door is quite unsteadying. I'm glad to sit down. Tracey brings me a glass of water.

  That's today's walk. Tomorrow's may be easier or it may not. Each day is unpredictable that way.

  One thing's for sure. If I have a seizure before the next walk, it will be back to the drawing board for the mechanics of walking, and next time, the whole walking process will need re-adjusting.


  1. Thank you for writing this. When we have our health functioning well, everything is taken for granted. Then we whinge about every little thing (see my India posts:)). That man who spoke to you has no clue what it means to face the reality that is life's frightening precariousness. It's a warm, sunny day - wishing you all the enjoyment of its loveliness on your walk.


    1. I think it looks a bit mean of me to put it as I did, speaking to someone whose only concern was to wish me well. If he sees it I hope he enjoys the comedy in it. What is life if we've lost our sense of humour?

      When I do take Tracey's arm I can at least look around a little and enjoy that scenery.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Julie. I should have made it clearer that I didn't mind being greeted by an old acquaintance and he wouldn't have been able to do anything other than he did to wish me well. I think it's just that a walk has its rhythm and momentum, and breaking it always changes things. And yes - it looks a perfect day for walking!

    1. Oh, look at that. This is what I mean about S/T memory loss. I didn't even know I'd answered this when I wrote that other reply this morning.... I'd forgotten that it should have been in the Reply section.

  3. Denis, you are a wonder. I feel so privileged to know you.

    1. You ain't so bad yourself, EM. I know some days life is difficult for you, but you always pull yourself out of the doldrums and find your sense of humour again. Thanks for the praise I feel is pretty much unearned.

  4. Geez, Denis, you've got that meditation walking down pat. What a wonderful description of what is supposed to happen during the ten minutes of meditation walking between sitting meditation periods.

    When I was very young, about 11 or 12, I once had an odd experience while walking to the corner store to buy my mother a package of cigarettes. Yes, I know, she should have walked herself, but why do that when you have a child you can send on errands.

    When I began the 2 block round trip, I found myself very unexpectedly setting my foot on the ground slowly. Then I raised the next foot slowly and placed it carefully on the ground in front of the first foot. Very carefuly, deliberately, and with full concentration, my mind on every movement and sensation as each foot rested on and then raised itself from the path, I walked this way all the way to the store and back, sensing a curious inner peace. Of course when I returned, I was greeted with "Where the hell were you!!??" Unbeknownst to me, my mother was in a state of nicotine withdrawal. But I was in a state of grace.

    I forgot about this childish experiment until about 45 years later when I did meditation walking at the Rocky River Gompa for the very first time. I could only conclude that I must have been a Buddhist monk/nun in my past life and never quite got the hang of the walking bit, so was still practising at age 11 in this life.

    And now when I do the walking, I often nearly fall over when going around a corner. I think the slow speed makes walking precarious. There's no centrifugal force to keep one upright. so Denis, you'd better speed it up and start running if you don't want to fall over.

    When I read about your acquaintance, I felt myself cringe. That could have been me, sticking my foot in my mouth again. We grow up in a world that hides illness and mortality in hospitals and dark rooms and then we wonder why we don't know what to do when faced with our own or someone else's. I think, like meditation walking, it all takes practice.

    Today is another spectacular walking day, Denis. Enjoy your walk.

    1. Joan: a fascinating reply, as usual! I have watched one Sri Lankan Buddhist monk in particular performing a walking meditation - even to watch it is almost hypnotic; a meditation in itself. I do understand what you mean.

      And you are so right about movement helping balance - it's a bit like riding a bike; the slower you go, the less balance you have. But a 100 m. dash is not quite a meditation!

      It's always the Middle Way that works best, as the Buddha wisely concluded after nearly starving himself to death trying the path of austerity.

      My problem with walking is that I have to use double the effort with the right foot to achieve the same movement as the left. This is very unnatural. To me it feels like I am lifting the foot twice as high as the other one. Try walking like that for a while and you'll see how the meditative quality is impaired!

      That having been said, it is possible to get into what feels like a more natural, non-thinking rhythm, with practice. A dip in the path can easily jolt you out of that, though.

      This is what makes the walks so essential. It's all about the mind working with the body, and not fighting it.

  5. I'm grateful that you haven't portrayed him as a giant ass. Whenever I hear that someone I know is sick or getting divorced, I usually preface our first conversation following the news with a blanket apology for whatever dumbass, thoughtless, insulting thing I might say mistakenly over the next months. It is so hard to know what to say, but unless you want to cut off contact from anyone you know who gets cancer or loses someone close or has any kind of difficulty, you have to motor through. I hope your walk tomorrow is easier.

    1. Since all this happened, I've not yet met one person with the least trace of ill-will. I've had some odd responses and somehow they've never bothered me. More often than not the blurted out response you could have bitten your tongue out for is just that one intended to pass on the opposite sentiment. In a weird way some have made me laugh (later, out of their sight) at their faux pas: a piece of unintended black humour.

      In fact, what you said about some people cutting themselves off from contact because they can't handle it is quite true. I've learned to take that also as a sign of their concern, if I know them well enough to know that they do care but can't cope.


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