learning to walk

I’ve learned to walk differently. It’s happened gradually, and as the dog and I made our way around the loop that leads by the lake this…

I’ve learned to walk differently. It’s happened gradually, and as the dog and I made our way around the loop that leads by the lake this morning, I noticed it for the first time.

Somehow, in the past few years, I’ve learned to meander. There’s no workable definition for that. All I know is that it fits somewhere between mosey, amble and stroll.

It’s an ‘aw shucks’, hands-in-the-pockets thing. Maybe it’s the rural, mountain life I live now, or maybe it’s just the way the light affects me. Either way, I find it rather elegant.

That’s scary to a man like me, whose life had been marked by rampant charging into things. But I could learn to wear elegant like I’ve learned gumboots, plaid work shirts and gloves.

When I was a boy, they called me Wobbly Knees, not Wagamese. I ran everywhere and because I was reckless and rambunctious, I tended to fall a lot. My young knees were always a mess of cuts, scrapes and bleeding.

It seemed to me then, that time was a vital stuff and there wasn’t a moment to lose between one thing and the next. And so I learned to love speed.

I remember learning to move through the thick northern Ontario bush.

My friend David Cutler and I would meet after school and head into the bush to play. We loved hiding games. One or the other of us would cover our eyes and count to fifty. The other would dash off and try to hide as best we could.

I’d blast through the trees and deadfall, leaping, bounding and scrambling so I could disappear deeper into the rough and tangle. Sometimes it took David forever to find me.

Other times, I’d just march. The bush was comfortable for me. It was where I’d learned to play and my walking was strong, purposeful and intent. I could hike alone for hours and I was always amazed when I sat on the porch of the foster home I lived in, drinking Kool-Aid and realizing how far I’d tromped. I was proud of my walking. I felt powerful striding through the bush.

After I was moved to the city when I was nine, I learned to walk on pavement. There was no give to it. There was no alteration in the pitch of it and the plant of my feet felt awkward and I slowed. My walking became purposeful.

Everywhere I went was a confrontation with change, with the face of something new and weird, and I learned to walk cautiously. I prowled, never certain whether or how I should enter rooms or buildings. But I always knew how to leave.

Only in the playgrounds did I feel any degree of freedom. Only there do I remember an absolute letting go and running as wildly, as exuberantly as I did among the trees and rocks of the North.

When I fell and cut myself I was admonished, punished and made to feel clumsy. Grass stains on the knees of pants were a mark of shame, of irresponsibility, and eventually, I ran less and plodded more.

For a while we lived on a farm and I recaptured some of that freedom in my gait. No one in my adopted family cared to be on the land and I was able to saunter across the fields and marshes of those two hundred acres and be with it all.

In that solitude I moved easily. I traipsed. It was only the walk back to the house and the constraints of that rigid propriety, when I began to shamble and trudge.

As a teenager I learned to lurk. I walked inconspicuously. I crept everywhere. We were in a big city by then and I was the only Indian kid anywhere. Because of the straight-laced nature of my home life, I knew nothing of the hip, cool, popular culture things my schoolmates took for granted. I was shunned for the oddball. And so I learned to skulk and loiter at the edges of things, and my walking was tight and joyless.

When I left that home at 16, I learned to stride. It was the early 1970s and the streets I went to were filled with a wild post-psychedelic glee. There were still hippies and flower children. There was the primal pulse of great rock music. And there were girls.

I was young and lean and I grew my hair and wore blue jeans, T-shirts and leather for the first time. It was glorious.

I strode through those next years unencumbered. To be freed of strict Presbyterian bounds, I chased after everything that smacked of rebellion, youth, and wild, rootless devil-may-care abandon.

But it had to slow and I found myself a young adult with a future to face. I became purposeful again. Intent. I learned to walk with measured stride. Evenly. Time became a vital stuff again, but in terms of what could be lost, what could be gained and how I was seen. I learned the to-and-fro shuffle and I walked less freely.

When I became a writer and my life began the long slow curve of my 40s, I began to pace. My walking became deliberate. I walked to think, to construct, to build and fashion stories, to create.

I walked by rote. I seldom noticed anything and despite moving through some of the most beautiful Canadian landscapes I walked almost oblivious to it all. Engrossed. Removed.

Then somehow it all changed. I found a woman whose spirit I could wrap around me like a coat from the cold. Together we found a home in the mountains and began to cobble it together one piece at a time. I found the sky again and the trees and rocks and the wonder of open spaces.

I’ll be 53 soon. The age I am is wonderful. It allows me to meander. All those varied territories, loose around my shoulders, make me blithe, uncaring how I’m seen. Aw shucks.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.

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