There are for me basically two ways of walking alone in Ashland, the town I grew up in: in which I comopose sentences, and in which I contemplate yards. The former, obviously, is linguistic; the latter is not. The former is manic; the latter, depressive. The former does not feel exhausting but soon exhausts; the latter feels dull, even relaxing, but raises to a suppressed din of impasse. In the philosophical scene of pointing at chairs, the former is essentially solipsistic, concerned with the world only as an aesthetic backdrop; the latter--more properly philosophical--obsessed with objects that cannot be reached. The former is masturbatory; the latter, romantic.
The latter is also more difficult to explain. Everyone who writes and idealizes writing is familiar with the high of phrases coming in flashes. Moreover, it has been, as you would expect, written about extensively. I have not read a word about my suburban flanerie.
I can only describe it by circumloctuion, in part because it mostly resides in memory. I have spend a staggering amount of time in contemplation of yards, but most of it when I was a teenager.
Ever since I began attending public school (kindergarden), there has been a lot of walking in my life. I would say that my parents insisted that my brother and I walk to school, but I don't remember thinking that there were other options. That dawned on me slowly after weeks of other parents' cars flocking to the school at the finishing bell. I don't at all remember being envious. By that time the walks were an accepted part of life. If anything, I took pleasure in not having a ride, just as I used to get excited when the other kids made fun of my brown-bag lunches that often contained pumpkin pie in a ziplock bag, which resembled something that more traditionally excites and revolts children.
For several years, however, I was accompanied by my brother--by protective decree, probably. In company one does not contemplate yards. Of course, the memory of the texture of my mental life at that time is sparse. I have no idea what it was like when I finally did begin walking by myself. Whimsy is certain: I remember looking up at the sky while I swung on the playground swings, wilfully inducing the illusion that the sky was down, the ground, up, and I teetering above an abyss of blue, held to the swing seat by some improbable countergravity.
Whatever those walks were to me, they were cut in middle school by the presence of another companion--my best friend. We lived a block from each other and so walked to school and back together. It occurs to me that I had very little time to myself (not that it was a thing to want, then) until high school. Given my current proclivities, I am tempted to ascribe a psychological cause to the near-fainting spells I had throughout middle school. Perhaps they were a symptom of early adolescence: I was just old enough to have an introverted clash with my peers, but not old enough to realize it. Instead, I spent time in the nurse's office laying down and trying not to black out. There was a certain restfulness in the white of everything there. That is where I might locate the beginnings of the contemplative noncognition that would later attach itself to yards. I spent a lot of time staring at white, letting its texture and light seep into me.
For reasons I don't recall, my best friend and I didn't walk together to high school very often. Maybe our class schedules simply began to differ. In any case, I walked to and from high school, sometimes twice a day because I would flee home for lunch (the clash had reached its apex: I was terrified of campus). The route between home and high school was entirely along residential streets. So I would walk by the same houses over and over. Yet I never got used to them. I saw them change from season to season, but these changes never accrued into dynamic entities that persisted through time. No, every glance at their evocative exteriors constituted an eternity. In part this was a kind of furniture catalogue yard envy. I would look at patios and arbors and wish I had them. Other people's yards are always more appealing. It's only there, indeed, that eternity is possible. Looking at some restful corner of a yard replete with greenery and soft light, I imagine sitting there forever, life solved.
There is a woman who lives two doors down in an enormous turn of the century homestead. Her spacious property is filled with old fruit trees, and a magnificent oak. Her name is Fader, and she does seem to. She takes very good care of her yard. I rarely see her outside, but the evidence of her care is apparent. The patches of daffodils and tulips, the mowed grass and trimmed trees, and the white benches and chairs at particularly nice spots. I have never seen her or anyone else sitting in the alluring furniture. Yet she has carefully placed it, each piece an idyll of sitting.
The yardanalia (for lack of a better word) I see while walking is not always idyllic. Often, it's just strange. Cheesy, neglected statuary signals the otherness of a domestic life. Looking at it, I realize that whoever lives there passes it all the time; that it's a part of their daily life. To imagine such a life is bewildering. Of course, this life quite probably ignores its yard for the most part. Yards are only really noticed when newly reinvented or by people who don't live in them. On the one hand, objects in yards are of little significance to those who inhabit them. On the other hand, this is exactly what makes them significant.
There is a certain pain in passing all of these artifacts of other lives. On a long enough walk, to look begins to hurt. The limits of one life become apparent. All of these lives, these singularities, these things one is not.
When I find myself returning to this mode of walking, I am relieved to realize it is rare, troubled to think it could continue, and concerned by its import. As soon as I've left it, I'm sad that I seem to have forgotten how to return.