Much is said about walking the road less travelled. There’s joy in the unexpected and the unravelling of, bene, who knows what. Just over a year ago, I left my London life for rural Wales. I saw it as not a desirable but a necessary pause in what had become a turbulent life. The previous six years had been full of turmoil, Morte, subsequent grief and estrangement. Before my big move, I ran away for a month to New York, to spend time on my own. I spent the days writing and watching a blur of people rotate in the world as I tried to find my place in it. I had become deeply sad.
Walking has never been my thing, but there’s no point in being in the countryside if you’re not going to try it out. So I bought a pair of expensive walking boots and made it my goal to put one foot in front of the other. Which is how I came to meet Wilf, a farmer in his 70s. Most days when I would go out I would see him tending to his sheep. It was a wholesome sight, a shepherd with his flock. There was something eternal about it, a man toiling the earth, as if this one scope held all of eternity. It made everything else look so starkly ephemeral.
The first time I stopped and spoke to Wilf, he asked me what route I was walking and taught me how to say “goodbye” in Welsh – “hwyl”. His knowledge of the valley astounded me and I was envious of how committed he was to this one piece of land; as if it was the be all and end all of him. I wondered how it must feel to be him – so anchored in life – when I felt so rudderless. He told me the valley was cut in the shape of his heart. His words stayed with me as I carried on with my walk. I thought of the amorphous shape of my own heart and wondered what form it would need to take for it to stop hurting.
One spring day, on one of my walks, Wilf told me that the cuckoo would be arriving from Africa in 10 giorni. Sure enough, nel 10 giorni, the cuckoo arrived. And around the valley, there was a mild, yet palpable, excitement on its arrival. I was sitting on my balcony when I heard it; its sound reverberated across the valley. And it was the sound of clarity.
Hearing the cuckoo marked the first day that I stopped listening to podcasts that usually accompanied me when I was out walking. They started to feel intrusive; why would I listen to someone talking, when I could be listening to the beat of my own heart? Or the rustle of leaves? Or the birds? The podcasts became emblematic of a world that never shuts-up – yet had very little to say. I would see Wilf working on his own in silence, but I was beginning to realise that he didn’t work in silence. He was just attuned to a different frequency. The quieter I became, the more I could hear Wilf’s world: sheep, frogs, crickets, swooping bats. It made me rather tearful because in the last six years, all I heard was dissonance. The cries from the new-born lambs echoed my own internal cry. It was like a reverse origami, where the Earth, in a tight-fisted ball, was folding out, rather than in.
My friendship with Wilf existed in small talk, snippets of conversation, a maximum of 10 minuti, only existing if I took my daily walk. But small talk is never small when it unearths so much. I never realised I was so London-centric until Wilf revealed that he had never been to my home town. Only then to discover that he had been outside his valley once – and that was 30 anni fa. I tried not to see him as a relic from the past; besides, he existed now, in the present. And there was me, running to places far and wide, like a magpie attracted to all that was shiny and new. All the while, Wilf stood still. I wondered whether Wilf gawped at me as much as I felt I was gawping at him. And perhaps it’s OK to gawp, to marvel and recognise difference with reverence and curiosity. What did he think of me? An Indian woman (unusual in these parts) full of questions? A flibbertigibbet in a Little Red Riding Hood raincoat, with a reckless habit of stepping out on to life’s busiest roads?
Because of Wilf, I was beginning to understand that there is movement in standing still – if you notice the changes of the season so acutely; if you allow yourself to hear the cuckoo. It seems such a city-dwellers existence to presume that the world revolves around us – that it’s at our beck and call with everything so instant. Wilf would never think the world revolved around him – the world moved and he simply moved with it. He respected the rhythm and the timing of the earth. He was a willing and happy slave to it, as farmers are. They know it’s futile to argue with nature.
Sitting in his little white van one afternoon, I saw Wilf eating his packed lunch. I asked him what he was having for his supper that night. I was horrified to discover that he’d been eating the same supper for years. To me, life was a banquet – and I always showed up for the feasting. Wilf reasoned that because he had found the food he loved, there was no need to try anything else. I wrestled with this revelation throughout my walk. I started to think about my own eating habits. Most of the time I try not to eat things that made me happy – cheese, crisps, cakes, desserts, chocolate – although I fail miserably at doing so. It dawned on me, that it was me who was restricted, not him. Wilf was eating the food he loved every night, unapologetically. He wasn’t restricting himself, quite the contrary. His chosen plat du jour – happiness.
My younger self would never have understood Wilf. We would never have found each other. I would have asked: what can you learn by standing still? The philosopher Immanuel Kant lived his entire life in Königsberg and barely travelled outside the city. He would wake at 5am every day, he’d have lunch at the same restaurant at the same time every day, he’d go for a walk in the same park on the same route, every day. Perhaps a myopic existence for many, but a life no less full. I was beginning to appreciate lives lived like this, as if under a microscope. I began to understand the beauty of a microscopic life. The thing with life is that it’s not stagnant, we give meaning to whatever we choose to assign meaning to. It felt freeing to know this.
I thought about many things on my walks. There was a time when I would have seen contentment, like Wilf’s, as the poor relation to happiness. Happiness, in its exuberance, swings from chandeliers, whereas contentment enters our lives quietly. And as I became familiar with Wilf’s contentment, I became envious of it; I understood its elusiveness. I had always thought that to find oneself, one must travel wide and far. It was an anomaly that someone could find themselves where they already stood. io, tuttavia, am happy to tread the Earth to find what Wilf has – many of us do, and still never find it. It’s just in my nature to swing in and out of the world’s revolving door. I need to take in the sights, I want to press all the buttons life presents to me and see what happens. It’s my way of doing things; my modus operandi.
The other day I walked up the valley Wilf told me he walked in most nights. I stood at the top and looked down; everything looked so small and far away. My heart swelled with gratitude from looking at a new perspective. I felt a sense of contentment looking at the green hills, the same kind of contentment one may get from seeing a Monet or a Picasso. There were no neon lights and signs from the city, no sounds that told me something was an emergency. Wilf knew this land like the back of his hand, but for me, it was the road less travelled.
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