Monday, January 31, 2011


While most of America was under snow last week, I snuck down to Florida to spend some time with my parents. On my way to the airport, I nearly got into a traffic accident as a trunk squeezed my taxi nearly into a parked car. The cab driver, a young Moroccan man in a hooded sweatshirt, shrugged his shoulders, sighed some prayer to Allah and we went on. “I don’t get upset any more at these things,” he told me as if explaining to himself. We’d bonded and he went on to give me his philosophy of driving he’d picked up from an old Indian man he knew from his cab company: “Doesn’t pay to rush. You do your job and thank God, for what comes to you. In the long run, you are happier, you don’t get so much of the stress, and you are thinking more of God. And this is the better way.” He was happy to tell me this. We talked on about politics in America and in North Africa. He was excited about events there. (Though he reminded me that, like so many immigrants from North Africa, he’d come here to find work as there was little chance for him there.) Yet he was proud of his country. He told me that Morocco was the first country to recognize America after its independence.
When I told him, I was going to visit my parents in Florida. He turned around for the first time, smiling under his hood. “You are a good son.”
I sighed. My parents are aging and it’s hard sometimes to watch this. My mother is struggling with dementia (or Alzheimer, no one knows). My Moroccan cab driver heard the sigh. “Tell me, when you come back from visiting your parents, how do you feel?”
“I feel . . . I feel always better. You’re right.”
“I know I’m right. They took care of us. Now we take care of them.” (He’d told me that he sends money home as often as he can, and he’d helped pay for their new house along with his brothers.)
In northern Florida, I spent every day walking with my mother on the beach and into the inter-coastal dunes and oak and manzanita groves on the barrier islands where they spend part of the winter. Each morning, we walked an hour or so. And at night after my parents went to bed, I’d walk back on to the beach, where it always gives me the sense that you are walking in space, as the sound of the surf and soft sand seems to lift you out of your small thoughts and up into the stars.
But it’s with my mother where I always seem to learn something new about walking, which is to say, something I’d ignored about what happens to our body when we reconnect to the land around us. When my parents came to this part of Florida twenty years ago I found the area of quaint beaches and the endless inter-coastal wetlands boring. Over the years, in my visits I’ve hiked about and kayaked and fished and found more fascinating each year. This is the area, I’ve learned, where the Spanish first landed in the continental US. It’s also the same area (roughly) where Charles Bartram, the 18th century Philadelphia naturalist, made his drawings and observations about natural history as part of his walks through the Southeast. Bartram’s Travels, chronicled with a lyrical but lucid prose, is often credited with being a major influence on the Romantic poets Coleridge and Wordsworth, as well as a hundred years later, inspiring a young John Muir, who trekked from Indiana to these same wetlands to follow in Bartram’s footsteps.
With my mother, we walked as naturalists, too, picking up seashells, pointing at the pelicans and skittering sandpipers, marveling at the osprey with the snake dangling over the telephone wires where he perched. We always make a pilgrimage, a long walk around the beach to Fort Matanza National Coastal Park. A wonderful park with interpretative board walks along the shore and coastal waterway. Here we invariably meet my parent’s neighbors out for their morning walks. There, we find our prize, nesting in the great Spanish oaks, the great horned owl, warming her egg. My mother has a hard time spotting it but feels the excitement and presence of the wondrous owl just the same.
Over past few years with onset of memory loss and the cognitive impairment of Alzheimer’s, my mother’s pace has slowed. She can’t always discern the level of the ground from shadows and changes of light. The beach is easier for her somehow. Perhaps, she trusts it from all the years she’s walked on it, relying more on the feel of her feet than on what her mind might misinterpret. She’s more relaxed and thus more lucid. But, then again, so am I.
Walking gives her a sense of agency and adventure and certainly a sense of joy and freedom. And this, in fact, is extremely important to all of us, but especially those suffering from memory loss and cognitive impairment. Recent studies have shown that walking three or more times a week for at least a mile has a marked improvement on brain plasticity and cognitive health.
Why? Circulation and heart rate are improved, of course, but perhaps more importantly the intricate relationships in the brain circuitry are maintained via the variety of actions being carried out by the body as we walk. Think about it. Orbetter feel it next time you walk. We think, we move, we see, we feel, we haveemotions, all in fractions of seconds as we simply take one step. Link.
As much as I can, I try to slow to her pace, noticing the ferns growing on the mossy limbs, the raccoon tracks in the sand, listening to the cardinals overhead. But I’m still too fast. And then my mother asks, from behind. “You don’t like to walk slow, do you?” I turn. She’s looking out at something in the wooded undergrowth of the oak groves, and if talking to it and not me, declares to all who might walk too fast in the world: “I liked to walk slow. It’s better that way. More interesting.” And then finding me again, “There’s so much here to see, isn’t there?”
From my Moroccan cab driver to my mother, I’m trying to get the message.

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