Tuesday, June 30, 2009

who. what. when. where. and why.


"Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls."
- Joseph Campbell

Starting on August 31st, I will be walking from my hometown of West Hebron, NY to New Orleans over the course of about four months. You might be wondering what motivates me to undertake a sojourn like this. Oddly enough, it is not the physical challenge of covering 1,500 miles on foot. That will just kind of happen, one step at a time. What motivates me is the chance to experience the kindness and hospitality of both friends and strangers as I ask over 100 different people and families to be a part of this journey by sharing dinner with me and giving me shelter for one night as I make my way to New Orleans.

I have mapped out my route and identified places where I already know people who I hope to spend time with on this trip. But there are many other towns and cities along the way where I don’t know anyone (yet). These places offer the exciting chance to experience the serendipitous beauty of how previous strangers can be connected in an expression of human kindness and love.

An updated list of those places below are on the right. Most of these towns you have probably never heard of. I doubt if some of them have a functioning streetlight (I know West Hebron doesn’t). But if by chance you have a friend or family member who lives close by I would be immensely grateful if you could let me know or forward this note to them. Even if they don't live right on my route, chances are they might know someone who does who might be willing to provide some respite and friendship to a physically weary but joyful traveler.

This journey is a spiritual exercise for me. It is about following my bliss. It is not about making money or generating publicity. Its genesis was a simple idea I had five years ago to take a walk that would allow me to actively seek out the side of life I have found to be most joyous and spiritually fulfilling - the friendship and fellowship shared between people in the expression of hospitality and shared meals. To have a chance to experience all this as I travel through the country and appreciate its beauty day in and day out for over four months is immensely exciting.

Any help you can give in connecting me with those I might meet along the way is greatly appreciated. Barring that, your thoughts and prayers are also appreciated. You can always reach me at garth.poorman@gmail.com - my iPhone and its robust 3G network will see to that.

Monday, June 29, 2009

walk in love.

Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue,
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.

I noticed “walk in love.” on a t-shirt this Saturday as I walked through Media, PA after seeing Lisa Mathews in concert. I thought it so adeptly captured what I am trying to do with my upcoming journey. We all have such varied interests. I like walking. Some enjoy cooking (although I'm partial to eating). Others play sports or read or hike or sing or sew. What unites all pursuits is that they can be done in a conscious spirit of love. In doing so, its becomes more than just an action that brings pleasure to the person doing it. It becomes an agent of change for others who come in contact with you - sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly. But it carries a power that is far greater than we often imagine.

I saw a video clip on Washington Post this past week of a short interview with cook Carla Hall which illustrates this point perfectly.

Maybe noticing this t-shirt as I walked back to my car from the concert wasn’t a mere coincidence. Lisa Mathews clearly loves to sing and performs in that spirit. This joy was evident to me in the audience and it put me in a great mood. I know when I’m in a great mood because I am fully Present and filled with a sense of gratitude and awe for life. My favorite songs of the concert were the last two because they were ones I was familiar with. The second to last was the duet "All I Ask of You" from The Phantom of the Opera. The last song, which was an encore, was "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz. I’ve heard that song countless times, but hearing it live, sung in a spirit of love was just … well, mesmerizing.

It isn’t the first time I’ve been affected this way by Lisa’s voice. I remember her singing Jesu Bambino one Christmas Eve at Phoenixville Church and being absolutely transfixed. During moments like that I often close my eyes and block out everything but the music and let it fill me up. I have experienced other memorable moments when music suddenly became a spiritual experience. One was listening to a baritone sing “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho” at Woodland Presbyterian. Another was listening to the NY Philharmonic perform Dvor├ík's Symphony for a New World. I have experienced it when song is coupled with movement, once at an Alvin Ailey dance choreographed to Donny Hathaway’s “A Song for You” and another time outdoors in LA where a Hawaiian dance company performed to - coincidentally - “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. There have been others certainly. But those are what come to mind. They all had the wonderful effect of bringing me fully Present to enjoy the Beauty, Power and Awe of those moments. Wait, I just thought of another one - the first time I heard “On My Own” sung by the character of Eponine in Les Miserables. That was sublimely beautiful.

I hope that if I continue to walk in love, my journey will be an agent of change for more than just me. Love is a mysterious power which works in a myriad of ways I’ll never fully understand. Luckily, I don't need to understand it. I’ll just keep walking and I’ll see where it takes me.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My Town, Our Town & Harper Lee's Town

So—people a thousand years from now—this is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century.—This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.
-"Our Town" Thornton Wilder

Day by day I am beginning to be more fascinated by the small, seemingly routine moments of my everyday life. I've come to believe that obsessively looking forward to those "big moments" we often measure our life by - the birthdays, graduations, vacations we have planned, adventures we are counting down to - is often the primary thing that keeps us from enjoying the only thing we can every truly enjoy - The Present Moment. In my own life I have experienced this paradox first hand. If I get into the mode of constantly looking forward to that next "big" event, I start to take everything that is happening right now for granted - it takes on a secondary importance. Like anything else, living in the moment is like a muscle. If you don't exercise it, it will atrophy. So when the day or the moment of that much-anticipated event happens, the catch-22 is that I can't truly enjoy it because my mind is off looking into the future and wanting to anticipate the next big event.

Never has this subtle but powerful point been so beautifully captured for me as in the staging of "Our Town" at the Barrow Street Theater. I walked away from this play with an intense awareness that I must find beauty and joy and wonder and excitement in the life that surrounds me everyday. I need to look on my life anew each morning, even if holds for me familiar locations and people and tasks. The way director David Stromer crafted the third act was as enduring a reminder of that simple truth as any I have seen on stage.

Speaking of simple truths, I finished re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird some time ago and have not yet put my thoughts to paper. Harper Lee's fictional town of Maycomb, Mississippi is much like the town of Grover's Corner in Wilder's play. It is an unassuming town full of seemingly unremarkable characters. Both towns are products of their time and their geographical location. Depression era South in the case of Maycomb and Turn of the Century New England in the case of Grover's Corner. In many ways, these are two unremarkable towns. Yet two deeply reflective artists managed to write about them and capture something enduring and essential about what it is to be human. Thornton Wilder challenged me to try and truly realize and appreciate life as I live it - not only in the rear view mirror or miles ahead off in the distance. Harper Lee reminded me that one can never judge another person unless they have truly walked a mile in their shoes. That metaphor has particular resonance with me now, as I prepare to walk many miles in a few different pairs of (hopefully comfortable) shoes. But it is true. And given that it is so exceedingly rare that we can ever truly know or experience exactly what another person has had to go through or endure, it seems as though the writer of the Gospel of Matthew cut right to the core of it when he quoted Jesus as saying "Don't condemn others, and God won't condemn you. God will be as hard on you as you are on others!"

There is something instinctual in us that wants to judge others. Maybe it is born out of elaborate need to protect our own fragile egos and convince ourselves that we are smarter or more moral or more worthy in the sight of God or of others. Yet our prophets - both religious and literary - are clearly saying something quite different. They are saying don't judge. Try your best to understand and empathize, but don't judge. Let your love and your kindness speak for you. Those human qualities have the melody of a song. Condemnation is more like the sound of nails against a blackboard. Which do you want to be the soundtrack of your life?

Which leads me finally to my town. New York City. I love this town. Its vibrance. Its diversity. Its sheer craziness at times. Beautiful buildings coexist next to run down ones. Poor people rub shoulders in the subway with very rich. Happy people walk the same streets as those who are sad. Hundreds of languages are spoken and listened to and argued in. Life is buzzing around me and all I need to do is appreciate it as much as I can in the Present moment. That way, everyday can be an adventure. Not just the ones that mark the big events of my life.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Rhythm of the Road

You know, this old world just,
Keeps on spinning around and around and around
And sometimes it just spins too fast
And you, you not only lose your balance
But you lose your rhythm and
It's at times like these that you just need to stop
And not only find your way again but find your own rhythm
Because life has a rhythm . . .
And mother nature has a rhythm . . .
And love . . . oh yes, love has a rhythm.
- Anita Baker, "Rhythm of Love"

Anita Baker sings about love. I write about walking. Both, undoubtedly, have a rhythm. Probably the most useful lesson I learned from my four days on the road over Memorial Day was that I enjoy the rhythm of the road. It is not always comfortable or soothing, but each day is a microcosm of the qualities I want to reconstruct my life around. For instance ....

PEACE

At heart, I'm a morning person. There is nothing like the peace of the early morning hours, right after waking up. The world is still. My mind is clear. If I wake up early enough I don't have to be in a rush. I can listen to my breathing. I can meditate. I could even do yoga (if I teach myself some poses). Regardless, I found that each morning of my walk I woke up with an overwhelming sense of peace and purpose. My ideal would be to wake up at six, do some meditation, maybe 30 minutes of yoga and then take a luxurious shower. I'd pack my bag, grab some breakfast with my hosts and hit the road at 8am.

AWE & WONDER

Seeing the world come alive from the shoulder of the road never fails to be awe-inspiring. Granted, I had four beautiful days over Memorial Day weekend. But there is clearly something transcendent about walking in the morning. The body is rested and well fed. The mind is sharp. The challenge of that day's walk is still fresh and spread out before me. I found that the first two hours of my walk - the first 7 miles I cover between 8-10am - are always the most memorable. It reminds my why I chose to walk rather than to ride or hitchhike or travel by any other means. The act of walking is deliberate and meditative and each morning I found myself looking at the world again with new eyes and feeling a deep sense of awe and wonderment. It is a much better state of mind to live in than fear and cynicism.

SUPPORTING THE COMMUNITY

Each day I'm faced with a choice of where to eat lunch. Many times I didn't have that wide a selection. But I have committed myself to avoiding fast food chains as much as is humanely possible. On Friday I ate at a local pizza place called Mario's where I was the only one in the restaurant for most of my meal. On Saturday I got food from a local diner that I ate further down the road. On Sunday I had a short walk so I was able to eat with my hosts before leaving. Then on Monday I treated myself to a meal at a independently owned hoagie shop on Lancaster Ave. in Wayne. None of these eateries started with the letters "Mc" or ended with the word "King". On the road lunch is my primary time to rest and recharge for the afternoon. I try to make myself rest for an entire hour. One thing I would like to be able to do is eat lunch WITH people, but I'm not sure how I would do that. I guess it would take a little bravado on my part to approach people wherever I am eating, explain what I am doing and ask if I could eat with them. It has occurred to me that it would be nice to try and do that each day and pay for their lunch, as a bit of a karmic nod to giving back what I am so freely receiving each night from my hosts along the way.

STRUGGLE

No one over the age of 12 needs to be told that life includes its share of struggles. As much as we would like to surf through life experiencing only pleasant emotions, it isn't meant to be. Likewise with walking. Whereas the morning walks are meditative and peaceful, the afternoons often seem like a chore. Between 2pm and 4pm I have usually already covered anywhere from 11-14 miles and my mind is running out in front of me, wishing to reach its destination. That part of the afternoon is also the hottest, and on my Memorial weekend walk I had a couple of days where the thermometer bumped its head against 90. Because of the time of year I will be walking to New Orleans I won't have to face many of those days. But I learned that the rhythm of the road is not without its uncomfortable stretches. Those are the times I am reminded that sometimes life is about doing things that aren't pleasant and that it is useful practice to force myself past where I am comfortable and content in any given situation. Those feelings of deep fatigue, the pains in my feet or in my joints are always only temporary. And they give way before long to the best feelings of all.

JOY & GRATITUDE

Arriving at my destination each day was always a time of joy. Not only was it wonderful to see the people who were hosting me, but it was also a real feeling of accomplishment. I never failed to be humbled by the fact that my hosts (The Ryans, The Dzodzormes, Lisa & Diego, my parents) were so amazingly hospitable and welcoming to me. Walking into their houses, putting down my heavy load, sitting down and having a tall glass of water is a simple pleasure that could not be more enjoyable than when experienced after walking 20 miles underneath a hot sun. And the shower. Oh, sweet Jesus, the shower. Taking a long, cool shower and washing all the sweat and grime out of my pours and letting the water cascade down my back was a little slice of heaven. It occurs to me that during my journey these small things - a glass of water, a shower, being welcomed into a house - all became so much more significant and enjoyable. That spirit of appreciation and gratitude is one that I want to live in constantly.

LOVE & COMMUNION

In ancient times, one of the keystones of the act of hospitality was sharing a meal together. It is a beautiful and wonderful ritual. It is, hands down, what I enjoyed most about my 4-day walk and what I look forward to the most about my 4 1/2 month journey to come. After a long day to sit around a table and to be able to talk and commune with those who have been kind enough to take me in for the night is a privilege and a joy I will never take for granted. Meals are a wonderful opportunity to talk and get to know one another. It is a deliberate place of sharing and listening and showing love both through words and food. It is the place where the human bonds which connect us can be reinforced and strengthened. Each dinner I had - with the Ryans and their friends, with Del, Keli, David, Abby, with Ed, Ellen, Lisa and Diego and with my parents - was the perfect end to a full day. Not only was the food delicious, but the company of people who showed me love by taking me in and preparing a meal for me to share was overwhelming. This generosity and sharing is, quite simply, the side of people I could never tire of experiencing. It will be what sustains me, both physically and emotionally, from West Hebron to New Orleans. Those dinners will hopefully color my trip in a way that the simple act of walking by itself could never do in and of itself. This walk is about the people I meet and the love I experience through them.

REST

I love sleep. But nights haven't always been my finest moments. The good thing about the rhythm of the road is that sleep comes easily. Very easily, in fact. Each night I would find myself yawning around 9pm. If I made it to 10pm I was lucky. I welcomed sleep and I rested wonderfully each night, knowing that the peace of another morning awaited me.

I know this all sounds rather idyllic and Utopian, but the fact remains that I couldn't have been happier with the experience of my 4-day road test. I know four days is a lot different than four months and, among other things, I didn't have to experience walking in inclement weather, but this preview showed me that this trip will provide a rhythm that I can live with and thrive in. Hopefully when it is all said and done I will be able to build a more conventional, stationary life back in NYC that draws heavily on each of these qualities. Time will tell.

Pictures from Memorial Day Walk

Memorial Day Weekend Walk