I woke up this morning with a stiff left shoulder and clavicle, stretching all the way to a stiff neck, especially on the left side. This is something that happens off and on, and I deal with it in several different ways. Today I decided to take a long walk, my favorite meditative way to deal with physical imbalances. So I got up early, threw on some clothes, and headed out the door for a 45-minute circuit walk through the neighborhood.
I’ve been taking this walk ever since we moved to Sebastopol over 16 years ago. Back then, with a 1-year-old and 3-year-old, it was the only time I really took for myself. It helped me clear my mind and heart from the relentless work of mothering, and more importantly, it helped me get acquainted with my new home. We had just moved up from San Francisco, and I missed it terribly. All my friends, my community, my favorite haunts, the things I relied on to stay centered while raising children, we had left behind in the City. Here, just outside of town on a semi-rural piece of land, I knew I needed to get rooted somehow in my new home and I knew it would take some time. So I figured out a way to walk through our neighborhood, down a connecting street, and back along Occidental Road, which borders the Laguna de Santa Rosa. Then walking up a private road and cutting briefly across a neighbor’s back field, I made it back to our house.
I took this walk as much as I could, all year round (except for when the back field got too wet during the winter). I watched the berries ripen in the summer, I picked rosehips in the winter and made them into tea, I noted when the willows bloomed in the early spring and where to find the best oak galls in the fall for the kids to make little creatures out of. It took me about a year and a half of taking this walk before I felt rooted in this land, and it taught me a lot about what it takes to be at home somewhere.
This morning I couldn’t take the dog with me on my walk, because to straighten out the kinks in my shoulder I had to let both arms swing free. For being in reasonably good shape, I sure felt stiff and sluggish walking. I felt like I was packed in about 6 inches of jelly-like invisible substance that made freedom of movement just an artifact of memory. It was early enough that the big noisy machinery our neighbors are using to build their new house wasn’t in full swing yet, nor were our other neighbors’ dogs with their barking. Eventually, I perked up enough to notice some beautiful red roses blooming along a neighbor’s fence, and how another neighbor really needs to do some weeding along the curb.
My body loves walking uphill, and this walk has a nice hill to climb early on. By the top of the hill, my heart felt like it was humming along and my lungs had cleared out all the whatever-it-is from sleep that makes me so sluggish in the morning. I was still feeling a lot of stiffness in my shoulder, but at least it was now a localized stiffness. With every step, I imagined my shoulder carriage hanging relaxed from my spine, swinging effortlessly with the steady rhythm of my gait.
By the time I turned down the hill toward the laguna, I started feeling that sense of skeletal clarity and muscle coordination that I love the most about walking. It’s as though I have internal x-ray vision, and I can see my bones all working together the way they’re supposed to. My head could swing from side to side easily, and I started noticing plants: pearly everlasting, Queen Anne’s lace, chickory, fennel, dandelion, scarlet pimpernel, star thistle. Juniper, willow, Himalayan blackberry, Scotch broom, wild rose. Fir, eucalyptus, valley oak, live oak, cedar, redwood.
Humans are meant to walk. When my body gets really warmed up, I can imagine feeling like this walking across the savannah tens of thousands of years ago. I imagine that the penchant for identifying roadside plants is a remnant of gatherer’s mentality, and the simple act of pausing to eat ripe berries becomes infused with ancestral awareness.
So there I was, enjoying this delicious split awareness as I walked alongside the beautiful, lazy laguna. The local herd of cows was grazing on the grassland there, and a few turkey vultures made their rounds among the trees by the waterway. By this time, all the stiffness had left my shoulders, and I just had a few sore muscles left there as reminder. My walk felt powered by that mysterious force of locomotion that is centered in the pelvis. Like a great, subtle gyroscope, its figure-8 movement is enough to kick our legs out for the next step forward, and send a slight weaving motion up our spine, which like some ancient plant stem just knows how to move and sway to keep us perfectly balanced as we walk.
Thus aligned, I braved the increasing traffic speeding down the road (note to self: get started a little earlier next time to avoid commuters) till I got to the oddly named private road which leads me back home. The apple rancher who lives there was busy loading up a huge flatbed trailer with empty apple-picking boxes, stacked three high. Though the apples don’t look so good this year—late rains this spring made them kind of scaly and gnarled-looking—they still make great juice, and he and his crew must be starting the harvest through Sebastopol’s remaining Gravenstein orchards.
Across our little shared seasonal wetland, through the berry brambles and towering valley oaks of the laguna uplands where we live, and up the slight rise to our house. I’m not sure I have words adequate to describe the feeling of gratitude, centeredness and belonging that comes to me with taking this walk. This afternoon I have to drive to Sacramento and back, a hellish errand, which will I’m sure reinstate my neck and shoulder tension with full force. But then, looking on the bright side, maybe tomorrow morning I can get up early and take another walk in paradise.