When I started having trouble with my knee a few months ago, a CAT scan showed that it was “only” a little arthritis. I asked my chiropractor if he could recommend any exercises, and he immediately suggested one I found quite surprising. “Walk backwards,” he said, “especially up hills.”
I’ve been following his advice, and I must say, my knee feels completely better. Now, I’m lucky to live in a rural area with a lot of hills, so following this counsel is easy for me. But it’s not the benefit of the exercise that I want to write about here; it’s the benefit of looking back where you came from.
Considering geographically where I’ve been as a clue to enlightenment is something I’ve actually been interested in for a long time. In an essay a couple of years ago, “You Are Now Entering the Environment,”I wrote this about kneeling in the back seat of the family car when I was a little girl:
It was fascinating to consider the meaning of always having just been someplace and being on the verge of entering someplace else. Passing through a small town, for instance, I could see the houses, trees, and dogs, the people walking along the sidewalk, the flower boxes and fire hydrants in a configuration that, just seconds before, had contained my family and me, bundled into our car. Now they had all been returned once again to their familiar world, a world without us, ignorant even that we had briefly shared a space. And already, even as I formed the thought, we were slipping through another place and another, like a string passing through and connecting colorful beads. Taking in what was behind me, I saw how each linked niche got along perfectly well without me, but would willingly open up to receive me. I found this a satisfying arrangement.
The satisfaction remains even now. When I turn around to walk backwards, I encounter the world anew, as if I have suddenly snuck up on it and caught it unawares. The world had presented itself to me moments ago as I approached it… and then it let down its guard, assuming it would no longer be under my forward-aimed surveillance. Now it rests after my passage and allows itself to be perceived in a new, more relaxed, less rehearsed way.
Also, when I contemplate where I have come from—the hill I’ve climbed, the slight bend of the path that I scarcely noticed before, and simply the distance I’ve covered—my whole life seems to make more sense. We never know, after all, where we’re headed when we’re in the present. But when we review our life in retrospect, we see the patterns and how everything fits together and one thing leads to another.
Give it a try. At the worst, someone might drive by and say to themselves, “I’m pretty sure that person is walking backwards.” Or you can do what I sometimes do and fool them. When I walk backwards, I walk on the right side of the road. If a car approaches, I just stay facing in that direction and walk forward, as if I were a normal person just heading somewhere, until they pass. Then I cover the same ground backwards again.
What I’m reading
I’m rereading the extraordinary novel by Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony. It’s about a young Native American man from Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico (like Silko) who returns home after World War II, entangled in post-traumatic stress syndrome—which at the time was simply considered craziness. He drinks, he fights, he sleeps, he grieves. A traditional ceremony with a Navajo medicine man starts to bring him back to himself and to his tribal traditions, but he still has a lot to figure out and dare on his own. The book is a combination of novel and poetry, realism and the kind of between-worlds mystery that a meaningful ceremony can plunge one into.
My dear friend and colleague, Eugene Hughes, with whom I co-guide the Lead Like a River program in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains each year, came to visit for a couple of days last week. We took a long walk that I often take (I didn’t walk backwards that time), and it was wonderful to witness him noticing many things I myself notice and many things I do not and probably would not notice. While we were walking, a sudden snowstorm blew up, and the flakes whirled around us. Then the squall stopped and the sky turned blue and then pink with sunset. I was then, as I so often am, wildly grateful for my most amazing friends.
Next year my Bali from Within trip (March 2-14, 2020), which I’ve been offering since 2008, will include three stops to find and make beauty at wounded places, which is the focus of my newest book and the organization Radical Joy for Hard Times. Even in Bali, where art, spirituality, and nature are interwoven, the land is hurting. Next year, we’ll visit some of these places with our Balinese guides to bring attention and beauty, for example:
- a river that’s drying up because of tourist development for hotels and spas
- a clove forest that has been damaged by the excessive rains of climate change
- Tanah Lot, one of Bali’s most sacred and scenic temples, slated to be in view of a multi-million dollar hotel and golf course proposed by Donald Trump
Click the link to read more about Bali from Within and download an itinerary.