You’d think walking should be the simplest thing,’ she said at last. ‘ Just a question of putting one foot in front of the other. But it never ceases to amaze me how difficult the things that are supposed to be instinctive really are.’
She wet her lower lip with her tongue, waiting for more words.
‘Eating,’ she said at last. That’s another one. Some people have real difficulties with that one. Talking too. Even loving. They can all be difficult.’ (The Unlikely Journey of Harold Fry, p.52)
When I am upset, walking makes me feel better. During the three years I lived in Toronto I always lived downtown, and with the well-lit streets, the heavy pedestrian traffic, and the wide pavements, I always felt comfortable enough to walk. Toronto is a city meant for walking, and walking and public transit were how I moved about the city. Even in the evening when the temperatures were cold, when my thoughts felt knotted or I had had an argument, walking would help me feel sorted again. Joburg is not a very walkable city though, and while it is possible to go somewhere to walk (a field near the gym, or a specific spot to walk for instance) it is not the same as putting your shoes on and walking to where you need to go. I knew I missed it, but hadn’t realized how much until this week. I’m in the Western Cape and it has been glorious to walk for hours on the beach each morning and to be surrounded by ocean, mountains, greenery and white sand without a single soul about. Surrounded by such majesty, I have felt like a tiny speck in the universe, and the things that worry me and preoccupy my thoughts in Joburg have melted away.
Today when I got tired of walking, I sat on the beach, listened to the sound of churning, foaming waves and read a delightful book called “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”, about walking and marriage and heartbreak and being human. It was the perfect accompaniment to my morning of movement. The book is about a sixty-five year old man named Harold who has been married to his wife Maureen for the last forty-seven years, and begins with Harold and Maureen having breakfast and Maureen reprimanding Harold about jam. While eating his breakfast, Harold receives a letter from a woman named Queenie Hennessy who worked with Harold twenty years previously, and whom he hasn’t heard from since. She is dying from cancer and has written to say goodbye. Harold writes her a note in response, goes to the mailbox to post it, and passing the postbox, keeps on going. He doesn’t stop, and when he’s hungry he stops at a garage for a burger where he meets a girl who inspires him to walk to Queenie in Berwick – Upon – Tweed to help Queenie live. Despite the fact that that is not how cancer works, and that the distance is more than 500 miles, Harold keeps going. He isn’t fit, he doesn’t have the right shoes (he is wearing yachting shoes), or a change of clothes, or a mobile phone, or even a bag for that matter (he only has a plastic bag), but still, Harold presses on. His chances of success are unlikely and he should go home, but he doesn’t. His wife Maureen is startled, and then irritated, and then misses him dreadfully, and this book is about his journey and how it changes him, those closest to him and in turn changes the world. It is a marvellous, marvellous read, and after I was done I sat in silence, the book and characters still with me, and tried to absorb the lessons of the book into my being. Here are some of the things that I took away from the read.
Life is a Journey
“‘I admit it is an awfully long way to Berwick. I admit I am wearing the wrong clothes. And I also admit that I have not the training or the physique for my walk. I can’t explain why I think I can get there, when the odds are against it. But I do. Even when a big part of me is saying I should give up, I can’t. Even when i don’t want to keep going, I still do it.’ He faltered because what he was saying was difficult and caused him anguish.” (p.126, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry)
Harold is an unlikely hero. He does not have the fitness level, the equipment, the planning or the knowledge needed for his journey, and yet still, he sets out. He has intention. He isn’t cheerful all the time, his feet hurt a great deal throughout, he suffers injuries and pain and he is reluctant to move forward much of the time and yet still, he plugs on. He often doesn’t want to stop because he fears he just won’t start up again. Instead of skill and resources, he has insistence and stubbornness and faith that if he can just walk to Queenie Hennessy, she will live.
Though “life is a journey” is not a new metaphor, Harold’s journey holds lessons for our own lives. Whether it is dreams that we want to pursue, spiritual states we want to embody or spiritual destinations we want to reach, things we want to learn, people we want to become and characteristics we want to have, whatever it is, the point is starting. Beginning and making an intention and moving forward despite our weaknesses, despite our failings and lack of knowledge is a more likely approach to success than trying to achieve perfection before you start. The starting and the journey is what helps Harold to grow, and his tenacity and decision to begin is something we can all learn from.
And while starting is important, Harold learns along his way that self care is important. He needs to stop, to attend to his wounds, to treat his body gently, to eat when he needs to, to stretch his limbs. He cannot power through determination alone, his body is partnering with his mind to get him where he needs to go. He doesn’t obsess about food or sleep or exercise though, these things are simply means to help him arrive at his final destination. He is trying to get somewhere, and he needs to be in good health to get there. He doesn’t indulge in anything, he just takes what he needs. And as the book and journey progresses, he realizes just how little he needs to keep going, and realizes that the less he has, the easier it is to move. The lighter he is, the better the traveller, and this lesson holds truth for our own life journeys as well. He meets people, he hears their stories, he tries to help and give what he can, but he cannot stop for any one person. He must keep journeying, and they must keep journeying as well, but when his goals are seen as shared goals, his travelling is easier. At the same time though, he travels in the way that makes most sense to him (on roads for instance) and takes into account his own being when making his own travel plan. Some days he goes faster, some days he goes slower, some days he goes in the wrong direction and has to retrace his steps, but he never stops moving.
“Now without Harold, the endless passage of days flowed one into another and she watched them with apathy, not knowing how to fill them. She would decide to strip the beds only to realize that there was no point, since there was no one to witness her slamming down the washing basket, or complaining that she could manage perfectly well without help, thank you. She opened the road map on the kitchen table, but every time she looked at it, trying to picture Harold’s journey, she felt her loneliness more keenly. Inside her stretched such an emptiness, it was as if she were invisible.” (p.139, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry)
Maureen and Harold miss each other dreadfully while he is away but it feels impossible to bridge the distance between them. This gap wasn’t always there, but it has separated them for the past twenty years. Something happened twenty years ago to change their relationship, and though the characters make vague references throughout, for the majority of the novel, as a reader you have no idea what has happened to change the atmosphere of their relationship.Whatever it was, when it happened Maureen turned away from her husband and he has felt useless ever since. Since that time, Harold has lived in their bedroom and Maureen has lived and slept in the spare room. They do not speak warmly to each other (or really speak at all), they are not affectionate, and they do not tell each other that they love one another. They simply exchange small talk. And yet on the first day of Harold’s walk when he is not home by five o clock, Maureen is fidgety about where he has gone. The house is quiet without him. Each day that he is away, she misses him more and more, but she cannot find the words to tell him that he is missed. Instead, she tells him that “things are so busy that she barely notices that he is gone”, and she hides her feelings from herself and others. Even though the thing that they both want to hear most from each other is that they matter to one another and that they are missed and wanted by the other, it is difficult to express those words.
“Ending on such a blaze of righteousness, she had no alternative but to hang up. She instantly regretted it. She tried to ring him back but the number wasn’t available. Sometimes she said these things but she didn’t mean them, They had become the fabric of the way she talked. She tried to find something to distract her, but the only thing left to wash was the net curtains and she could face taking them down. Another evening came and went, and nothing happened.” (p.90, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry)
Their story is heartwarming and beautiful and quiet, and one of the loveliest love stories I’ve ever read. It is a story of love re-awakening, and is told with simplicity and grace and honesty and just so much beauty. Rather than flowers and roses, they lose their temper instead of telling each other they love one another, and this book reminds you that without realizing it, your spouse is often the person you are toughest and least forgiving towards, and that they are the person who sees the worst aspects of your personality. Perhaps this is an inevitable part of marriage, but this book was a self-reminder to strive to be softer and more merciful towards those you care about most.
Walking heals Harold. Since his retirement six months previously Harold has spent everyday sitting in his chair, and his walk brings him to life again. As he walks he realizes how much of his life has been spent sitting and at the edges of things, and that for too long, he has not done anything daring with his life. Walking enables Harold to see details of the sky, the plants and the country at the scale and perspective of a walker, and as he walks he remembers his life. He thinks about his childhood, about his relationship with his wife, about the times that they had that were good, how they fell madly in love, how things fell apart, He thinks about his son, about his working life. He thinks about his failures and disappointments, the sadness and heartbreaks of his childhood, the terrifying event of becoming a parent. His memories of the past merge with his present walk, and though he is is walking towards Queenie, his thoughts are focused on his wife, his childhood, his son and their lives together. Walking itself clarifies his thoughts in a way that a lifetime of sitting has not, and this book highlights the benefits of walking for our mental health. As he walks, Harold attracts others in need of healing, and it becomes a pilgrimage of more than just one person. Reading this book and being able to walk this week has reminded me how positive walking is for my own spirits and I’m hoping I can find ways to move more while I’m in Joburg again.
On Natural Space
“He lost a full day, simply wandering. Each time he resolved to leave, he saw something that distracted him, and another hour passed. He deliberated over purchases that he hadn’t realized he required. Should he send Maureen a new pair of gardening gloves? An assistant fetched five different types, and modelled them on her hands, before Harold remembered his wife had long since abandoned her vegetable beds. He stopped to eat and was presented with such an array of sandwiches that he forgot he was hungry, and left with nothing. (Did he prefer cheese or ham or would he like the filling of the day, seafood cocktail? Or would he like something else altogether? Sushi? Peking duck wraps? What had been so clear to him when he was alone, two feet on the ground, became lost in this abundance of choices and streets and glass-fronted shopping outlets. He longed to be back on the open road.
And now that he had an opportunity to buy walking equipment, he also faltered. After an hour with an enthusiastic young Australian man, who produced not only walking shoes but also a rucksack, a small tent and a talking pedometer, Harold apologized profusely and bought a wind-up torch. ” (p.83, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry)
Finally, this book is a reminder about how we need to spend time in nature for a healthy soul. Harold heals through spending time outside and travelling with few belongings. At the beginning, he plans to arrive in a city and get more equipped and prepared, but when he gets to Exeter he is overwhelmed by options and salespeople telling him about things he needs and requires to move forward. Instead of choosing new gear, he sticks with what he has, and repairs his shoes and his body as they need attention. As much as he can, Harold stays away from cities and he feels better for the distance. Though I love cities, this book and this week has been a reminder of how much green space and non commercial space is needed for one’s wellbeing.