In the Garden of Earthly Delights, there are many things and some are far from delightful. The painting by Heironymus Bosch – so busy, near manic, and polyform – is almost the polar opposite of the classical ideal, which emphasises serenity and focus. Yet this turn of the 15th century masterwork is enduring and especially relevant to our times.
There is so much going on in the world now that if you were its president, the screen in your global situation room would be full of red blinking dots, from the Ukraine to the South China Sea, and more than one possible location for a certain missing airplane. This is not to mention, more ephemeral curiosities like twerking, selfies and raw footage of road rage incidents.
In fact, you don’t need that global situation room. Just look at the computer screen and your Facebook page (Or Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin or whatever your social media channel). Unless you have been hiding in a virtual cave (which is not altogether a bad idea if you value privacy), all of these and more will show up.
Some “friends” will post political analyses and links to articles that go beyond the headlines. Others share photos of every meal they eat and make 300-picture albums of that trip they just took. A few rant about everyday frustrations, share jokes (witty or humdrum), and are the first to wish near strangers a happy birthday.
You could spend hours here, meandering through the varied pathways of social media, and even more if you bother to leave comments that elicit responses, whether the thumbs-up “Like” or fractious debate.
I do, to some degree, do that. There are some 1,000 friends and followers on my Facebook and nearly 500 pictures on my Instagram. Even before the US President made it acceptable, I took selfies and colleagues recently gave me a selfie-stick. I don’t know if my presence online is average (in the social media world, the variety is so wide that averages mean little) but on most days I spend up to an hour on the Internet – usually in the evenings, during or after the news.
Sometimes that hour stretches when I meander through the diverse and varied minutiae of links and photos of friends and FB acquaintances. As in the Garden of Earthly Delights, this seems a virtual walk along meandering pathways that may lead to nowhere in particular.
Yet something has led me back to walking – of the literal kind – putting one foot after another. I’ve never thought that walking was a habit of mine. It isn’t for most Singaporeans. Blame the blazing sun and high humidity and also the sudden squalls of our tropical weather.
Once, hosting an important guest from England, we offered to send a car to pick him up in the morning so he wouldn’t have to spend 10 minutes walking to the office. “The next generation of Singaporeans,” he drily quipped, “will be born without legs – you certainly don’t use them.”
For me, years back, out of teenage enthusiasm for tennis, I destroyed my knees and a long walk or, worse, a pounding run on the pavement will bring back swelling and pain. As a writer, moreover, I can and do spend hours sitting back comfortably to write and read. Yet, if I were to think of it, walking has been important in my life.
There was a 10-month trek across Latin America, from equatorial Guatemala down to the far south of Tierra del Fuego. Of course, I didn’t walk all the way – there were trains, buses and small planes. But the most memorable parts of the journey were on foot, walking through favelas, old colonial cities, the thin air of the Andes, and deep rainforests.
Back in Singapore, I used to walk in Botanic Gardens, especially in the early morning, when people from all over come and do tai-chi and other activities. But since moving to the north of the island, I walk with my son and his dog around the old Seletar camp. Until the redevelopment started, there were double the number of black & whites, the old golf course, and enough unfenced green stretches that you could walk an hour and barely see a single car.
When travelling, I enjoy people-watching, window-shopping and perhaps running errands to give myself an excuse to wander through the city. The place could be Manhattan’s Upper East Side where I lived for a year, or even cities on a brief visit. Wherever it is, walking is often the best way to feel the texture of the city.
Walking is more than physical. The Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman explains that a moderate pace of walking allows the mind to relax in a way that is almost meditative. Poets as different as Wordsworth and Baudelaire found inspiration in walking, whether in nature or as a saunterer through the city.
This is, however, not trekking to extremes of altitude, temperature and endurance. If you are with British adventurer Bear Grylls, survival is the only focus. But a more gentle walk can be an adventure of the mind and even the soul: the mind is free to wander, and the soul to find itself. Walking can be an inner garden of delights, like social media but without the screen, and in communion with yourself, rather than the near strangers who are FB friends.
One of my favorite books is Wanderlust: A History of Walking, by the essayist Rebecca Solnit. She writes: “Walking with the alignment that only comes after miles, the loose diagonal rhythm of arms swinging in synchronisation with legs in a body that feels long and stretched out … Exploring the world is one the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.”
If you’re tempted to walk, there are three things to look out for.
First, good shoes are essential, and there is a universe of brands and hierarchies, almost as complex as designer labels. The most famous brands in department stores are often cross-overs that specialists scorn. Choose what you like and what fits, but try not to look like a mountain climber, unless you are indeed doing that.
What is most underrated are shoes that look good in the city but can allow more than a few blocks of walking to a lunch or a meeting.
The second is clothing that is suitable for the environment. In Singapore, options are sparse. A look that is smart, casually fashionable, in light or wicking materials, has so far escaped manufacturers and designers. If more people take to walking, an answer can be found but in the meantime, try not to look too much like Indiana Jones (or if you must, include a whip).
The third thing is a reason to walk. This is not to be confused with a fixed objective, a finish point to be navigated via GPS. The kind of walking that most rewards the mind is a kind of wandering. A kind of wondering.
In this, the body is directed, but the mind acquires a kind of openness to what is seen or felt, and to thoughts and emotions kept below the surface.
This is how I think of walking now. I write this essay on the eve of a longish walk along an old pilgrim’s trail in Italy. I will bring walking shoes that I use normally, and some simple clothes, rather than those made for conquering Mount Everest. I have some idea of the places and logistics, but some things remain uncertain.
There was little time to prepare more. But maybe it is better this way. That it is the true luxury to walk while being open to things that happen along the way.