“As a general rule . . . people ask for advice only in order not to follow it; or if they do follow it, in order to have someone to blame for giving it.” Alexander Dumas
I have always been more inclined to give advice than to take it, a character flaw which has only mellowed slightly with age. I feel compelled to learn things first hand. I can’t just take your word for it. Sorry.
I consider this independence of thought to be one of my best qualities (I will never get sucked into a cult) and one of my worst. Listening to other people could have saved me making a variety of mistakes ranging from dating people I should not have (and not dating some I perhaps should have given a chance) to only starting to write in my late thirties instead of in my early twenties when my mother first said I should. And then there was that hideous Duran Duran-inspired haircut I got when I was fourteen, not to mention all those perms. But mistakes aside, it seems to me that the best thing to do with advice, always, is to test it, to taste before you swallow someone else’s idea whole.
What was the first advice anyone ever gave me? I was barely toddling without the aid of an adult finger to cling to when my mother favoured me with her cure-all remedy for every problem under the sun. Throughout my childhood, whether I had a headache or a hangnail or a broken heart, a raging fever or a brain-exploding migraine, her comfortingly (and annoyingly) consistent advice was: “Go for a walk.”
I grew up when kids still walked to and from school (though not uphill both ways, as kids did in my parents’ day) so I was frequently forced to take my mother’s advice. Apparently I wasn’t doing it right because walking didn’t fix boy problems or bully girl problems. It didn’t help with pimples or how bored and lonely I was in school. Walking was just something I had to do. I didn’t have to like it.
And then I went to Europe for the first time, just my over-loaded backpack and me, and I began to understand. With the minor assistance of a few trains and busses and ferries, I walked from Crete in the south to Orkney in the north. I got drenched and over-heated and lost (which required me to ask for directions, a.k.a. advice) and developed callouses on my hips where my backpack had rubbed the metal rivets in my pants against my skin. In four months I walked off 20 lbs and the soles of my boots and my bad attitude about both walking and asking for advice. When I returned home I pronounced those magical words to any mother’s ears, “Mom, you were right.”
Mom’s Walking Remedy is the backbone of my daily life. Walking is my exercise, my transportation, my meditation. I walk to work through problems and overcome foul moods and set my soul to rights when life has thrown it off-kilter. It turns out that walking is also an especially fine remedy for the sorts of ills that plague writers. Not only is it the most effective kick-starter of new ideas I’ve ever encountered, but it’s a brilliant way of knocking loose the logjam of a story that refuses to budge when I’m staring at a page or a screen. Most people think stories come from the head and/or the heart. I give credit to my feet. Walk therapy beats the heck out of talk therapy, at least for me. Plus, it’s free!
I’ve just finished reading Bruce Chatwin’s wonderful book The Songlines for the fifth or sixth time. The Songlines is an ode to walking and to the nomadic life, which Chatwin asserts is the natural state of human beings. The Notebooks sections are a meandering collection of quotes, conversations and ponderings on man and how he was meant to migrate, to wander. Here are a few of my favourites:
Our nature lies in movement: complete calm is death. Pascal
He who does not travel does not know the value of men. A Moorish proverb
When I rest my feet my mind also ceases to function. J. G. Hamann
They say that sharks must continually swim to live. Chatwin suggests that we humans must walk and that the root of so many of our problems, personal and societal, lies in our sedentary lives, that staying in one place sentences us to stagnation. He may be right. He may be wrong. It’s worth testing, don’t you think?
Lately I’ve been feeling frustrated with the same boring houses, the same boring trees, the same annoying traffic my daily walks have to offer. Apparently my dissatisfaction has been showing. My mother’s advice?
“Go for a walk. A long walk. A faraway walk.”
Sometimes Mother does know best and if she’s wrong, at least I’ll know who to blame. Tomorrow I set off on a long distance walk. You’re welcome to join me if you like. But first, we have to get on a plane . . .
P.S. What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?