Categories
the journey

Walkshop 13: Navigating a Shifting World

introDUCTION… AND GOODBYE

This is our final walkshop, the end of our semester-long journey. I have roamed through my own neighborhood, the roads surrounding my area, through paths in the woods, cultivated gardens, past a man-made lake, and the wind-swept shore of a barrier island. I have spent time listening, observing, and simply enjoying the space around me. I do not know if I have grown, do not know if I have changed. I still find many of the men we read about pretentious, still find many of these ideas redundant. But I have enjoyed the experience anyway, and I am glad to have stumbled into it by circumstance, as I certainly never thought to seek it out. I may look back one day, when this pandemic is behind us, and suddenly understand everything. Or I may look back and realize what I think I understand is actually incorrect. But for now, all I can say is this has been a unique journey, one that will help define this chapter of my college career.

Walkshop 13

This walkshop opens with some interesting introspection about senses, about navigating the world in non-traditional ways. It reminds me of two of my favorite characters, Toph Beifong from Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Terezi Pyrope from Homestuck. Both girls are blind, and both have adapted their senses to help navigate the world with the help of animals. Toph, taught by the blind badgermoles who invented earthbending, uses her earthbending to send out subtle vibrations through the earth by moving her feet, allowing her to sense the placement of people, objects, and animals- as long as they’re on the ground. Terezi shares a telepathic connection with a blind dragon, who teaches her to navigate the world by smell, painting the world in tendrils of scent corresponding to the color and shade of the corresponding objects. Both go beyond the realm of any real-world inspiration of course, Toph able to sense if a person is lying by feeling their heart rate, while Terezi is able to determine a person’s eyecolor through their dark sunglasses, and bloodcolor through their skin. But these girls aren’t the only blind characters given an uncanny extra sense in literature. It is a common motif in sci-fi, fantasy, and comicbooks. This interest in super-powered blind characters seems to stem from a mixture of observing real life blindness, both in animals and people, and trying to explain how they manage without humanity’s favorite sense. hm.

But into the woods I go! There is a little stream next to our neighborhood, and it provides a bit of wilderness without having to stray far, which is a relief given the recent foul weather. The stream empties out into the marshy area of the intercoastal, making it pretty easy to identify the cardinal directions when prompted. 

Alternating between periods of silence and prompts, I roamed along the stream, pausing to stop and sit when necessary. The first of these prompts was simply to breathe slowly, to take it all in. Then I was asked to look and listen, to describe. The shallow stream flows past rocks and wooden planks, abandoned from hurricane damage but somehow brought away from the shore, a quiet flow in some places and a loud burble in others.

The creeping vines ensnare everything, and the lush greenery of it all completely hides the truth of the season, an illusory summer of chlorophyll. The sticks and broken reeds crunch beneath my boots, and the little rays of sunlight warm my skin, when they pierce the ceiling of leafy branches anyway. The sand is ever-present, a gentle reminder that I am not deep in the woods, but mere steps from the sea. I feel content here.

I am told to establish myself in the location, so I dip my fingers in the stream. I am surprised by how cold it is, a chilling reminder that yes, this is November. I whisper to the stream my intentions to observe, wondering if a stream this small could have its own Naiad, if she understood my intent to do no harm. I give gratitude to her anyway, thanking her for her work, how she fed the lush greenery between my neighborhood and the road, that she supported a tiny ecosystem just off the boardwalk, a hidden oasis for the birds and squirrels and little green snakes, the skinks with blue tails and the dragonflies.

It is a delicate slice of nature here, and the children of this neighborhood love it too, playing at adventure and exploration in an area too shallow to drown in, close enough to the houses to be safe, shielded from the main road by the lush foliage. If I was a kid still, it would be a hidden playground, a place for me to sneak away to read without being bothered.

Nature exists in relationship to me, I am reminded. I am told to search for movement, and it is easily provided- the stream itself is swift and merry, the leaves all around me vibrate with the motion of the birds I hear but cannot see, of the bugs that bounce off of me as they zoom past. I look up towards the sky, and see nothing but green, dark as the dusk rolls in, a chill in the air rising as the sun sets. A golf cart rolls past on the boardwalk (cardinally north of me), a loud and unexpected interruption to the natural environment. In the distance, on the main road, I hear the tell-talk whoosh of cars speed by (cardinal south), and towards the houses themselves, the friendly chatter of those neighbors (west).

I am told to think of the major landmarks of Wilmington, the things that place it on the map. The Cape Fear River is my obvious choice, the intracoastal itself another. These two bodies of water meet in Wilmington, colliding into a brackish zone that was the subject of quite a few field trips for the science classes of my youth. But the sun is nearly set, and the podcast nearly ended, so as I ruminate on the brackish land, the possible flourishing forest that may have existed on this spot before the land was reshaped to suit the needs of a neighborhood, I retreat.

I am supposed to talk a bit deeper about this place, but for that I must zoom outwards, must gesture vaguely at the 35 miles of the Cape Fear river between Wilmington and the ocean, the Cape Fear Estuary. The estuary exists because the ocean tides actually force salt water up into the river, and the mixture creates a special habitat for feeding and nesting, a nutrient rich zone that many species of fish choose to lay their eggs in, providing a safety zone for the young before they are large and strong enough to foray into the real ocean. Given that the river itself drains the largest watershed in the state, the amount of nasty pollutants being dumped into this space is incredibly dangerous. Estuaries are known for their biodiversity, and for many generations have served as the perfect place to find oysters and clams. But the rise in pollutants led to a safety ban on harvesting from the oyster reefs in some areas, as the shellfish absorb and accumulate pollutants when feeding and filtering the water. This was something that was discussed extensively in school, the pride we should take in living near such a rich ecosystem and the care that must be extended to it. Occasionally I hear people complain about Duke, claiming they dump things upriver and don’t care how it affects the people downstream. I don’t know how true these claims are, but it is certainly a frightening thought, the idea that the river is a dumping ground for many, and they unknowingly or uncaringly are destroying a swath of the coast as the poison they sow is reaped by the plant and animal life forced to endure it.

I did go back later, and found the kids have been taking the wood planks and actually dragging them away from the shore, so they could place them over the stream for navigating it. Here is some footage of me walking it (those loud rolling noises are golf carts, and the whooshing ones are the boats or cars).

Categories
Responses the journal

Reflection 10: Walking While Black, Flaneuse-ing, & Wild

INTRO

This week’s literature is a bit extensive, focusing on the concept of walking as “the other”, namely as a woman or as a person of color. They are a 2016 essay by Garnette Cadogan called “Walking While Black”, the first chapter of Lauren Elkin’s 2017 book “Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London”, and the third “response”, this one focused on the biographical drama Wild, a 2014 movie based off a 2012 memoir.

walking while black

Garnette Cadogan opens his essay with explaining his childhood in Kingston, Jamaica in the 1980s. When avoiding his abusive stepfather all day, young Cadogan often found himself coming home long after public transportation closed for the night, forced to walk. It was a dangerous time and place- he could get killed for wearing the wrong political color- so he learned fast, even pretending to be crazy sometimes. By befriending beggars, street vendors, and poor laborers, Cadogan learned how to navigate the streets. He often spent times at street parties, which were full of adventure. The streets were the place where he could be himself without bodily harm, so the way home became home. The streets had their rules, and I loved the challenge of trying to master them. I learned how to be alert to surrounding dangers and nearby delights, and prided myself on recognizing telling details that my peers missed” (Cadogan). 

Cadogan’s description of his childhood is one of the adventurous sort, the very real danger of criminal elements outweighed by the freedom of being himself, of growing intimate with a secret world. It’s rather exhilarating to imagine, this young boy attending parties he shouldn’t see and being mentored by the men who knew these streets the best. The snippet I quoted really speaks to this fantastical element of his life, how being forced to take refuge away from home had given him access to a way of being that the other kids couldn’t possibly understand.

In 1996, Cadogan left Jamaica to attend college in New Orleans, wanting to discover “the northernmost Caribbean city”. University staff, hearing of his walks, warned Cadogan of the crime rate, but it was lower than Kingston’s so he didn’t think of it. “What no one had told me was that I was the one who would be considered a threat”, he says, recalling the glances of passers-by, the way people sped up or crossed the street to avoid him. He wasn’t prepared for fellow walkers to fear him, nor for the police to stop and bully him regularly. He had to figure out a way to interact with the cops in a manner that he never needed back home: “I had to cobble together my own rules of engagement. Thicken my Jamaican accent. Quickly mention my college. “Accidentally” pull out my college identification card when asked for my driver’s license.” He explains that he dressed “Ivy League style” in an attempt to go unhassled. the streets never felt safe due to his constant worry of being perceived as a threat, and therefore put into danger, like the time he waved at a cop driving by and found himself slammed against the car (Cadogan). 

Cadogan’s first experiences of being black in a place where he is not the majority are heartbreaking. It almost calls to mind “ignorance is bliss”, as he was raised in a place were institutionalized racism didn’t have a strangle-hold on everyday life. Having to curate an identity to put on display simply while walking in public is a terrifying prospect. Walking is no longer a mode of transportation, no longer a way to enjoy the city he lives in. It has instead become a performance, carefully moderated to ensure his safety in a place where he is considered the threat.

Cadogan was visiting his adoptive grandmother Pearl in Kingston as she was dying of cancer when hurricane Katrina struck. Back in Kingston, he felt he had returned to 1986, that the streets were safe again. He added new routes to the ones from childhood, his walking an act of faith, serendipity. Here, he explains, his real identity mattered, without the constraints that had been enforced upon him in New Orleans. A month later, there were still no flights to New Orleans. He considered going to Texas while he waited to get back to New Orleans, but his adoptive aunt Maxine informed him that Texans were stockpiling weapons in fear of displaced black folk. Instead, she persuaded him to come stay in New York City, where he hoped to walk at night and explore. “I was eager to follow in the steps of the essayists, poets, and novelists who’d wandered that great city before me—Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Alfred Kazin, Elizabeth Hardwick” (Cadogan).

It’s interesting to see how, even years later, returning to Kingston brings back this fondness for walking, the special joy of being free to roam without worrying about having to explain who he is or why he was there. For that brief window, Cadogan was simply walking, without having to dress a certain way or behavior as if authorities were watching. His attempts to go back to New Orleans highlight the tension surrounding Katrina, where the press and the public were treating black refugees as a threat rather than as victims. New York City does seem a safer alternative, the place so many creative minds had called home, a prominent location in literature calling to Cadogan’s romantic mind, reinvigorated by the trip home.

NYC was a playground of different architextures, beautiful landscapes, and a kaleidoscope of ethnicities. Cadogan would walk for hours with a woman he was dating, and they explored the city together. The first few months of walking were rose-tinted, reality barging in in the form of a white man in the East Village, punching Cadogan with rib-aching force because he believed Cadogan’s hurried pace to dinner spelled criminality. Cadogan had to go back to the rules of walking in New Orleans: “No running, especially at night; no sudden movements; no hoodies; no objects—especially shiny ones—in hand; no waiting for friends on street corners, lest I be mistaken for a drug dealer; no standing near   a corner on the cell phone (same reason).” He would occasionally grow complacent and slip up, until a painful reminder alerted him to the reason he made these rules. In one incident, he was running to catch the subway for a concert when a half-dozen cops pulled their guns on him, shouting interrogated questions because a black man had stabbed someone several blocks away. Cadogan learned that it was better when there were white witnesses to these incidents, as the cops didn’t care about black dignity and a black witness asking questions might find themselves in the hot seat as well (Cadogan).

Cadogan’s experiences in NYC sound eerily familiar, echoed by black individuals across America as long as I can remember. One could say what happened to him was horrible and undeserved, and they’d be right. One could also say he was incredibly lucky, that some of what he described were near-miss incidents that came oh-so-close to his name being made into a hashtag, and they’d be right. There is a mixture of horror and resignation as I read his account, a bit of despair knowing that things are closer to worse than they are to better. The age of technology makes witnesses more plentiful, but it also leads to more aggression as the cops try to avoid letting themselves be filmed.

Cadogan discovered the thing he hated the most about NYC was how aribrary the circumstances of the walking rules were, how they infantilized him. While in NYC, he took to walking with white friends to make him appear less threatening, a tactic that wouldn’t have worked in New Orleans, where walking with a white woman attracted more hostility. He experienced solidarity with his female friends, a shared understanding of the vigilance that was needed while walking. He lamented on his inability to embody the flaneur, saying walking while black restricts the experience of walking, renders inaccessible the classic Romantic experience of walking alone.” Cadogan felt he was on tiptoe, hyper aware of the police and their incompetence, injustice, and brutality. He was more removed from the city because of his knowledge of being perceived as a threat, but he was also more connected to it with his attentive vigilance. He had discovered that walking was not simple, that he was unable to be himself while doing so because the city was not “home”, that he couldn’t access the freedom and pleasure of walking without his fear of being feared. “Much as coming to know New York City’s streets has made it closer to home to me, the city also withholds itself from me via those very streets. I walk them, alternately invisible and too prominent” (Cadogan).

Cadogan comes to the conclusion here that he cannot access the traditional method of walking, that he will forever be too caught up in fine-tuning the way his presence is perceived by others than to be able to simply observe. He has no choice but to always participate, unable to blend into the crowd in the way those Frenchmen were so smug about. His feelings echo my own, the ones I expressed during Response 2, when I declared the flaneur as irrelevant for its inability to be applied beyond a narrow scope. Cadogan is aware of the female perspective as well, the forever fear of knowing that strangers see a dark opportunity when us girls walk past. It is hard to feel safe in such places, just as it is unsafe for him, making the city we walk unable to fit as “home” in the way his childhood streets did.

Flaneuse-ing

Lauren Elkin first came across the Flâneur in Paris in the 1990s, but she became one before she ever heard the word, while wandering the streets around her university on the Left Bank. The Flâneur was defined as “one who wanders aimlessly”, and “a figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities”, who would have intimate understanding of the way his city works (page 3). Coming from America, walking for no reason made Elkin feel eccentric, and she had her most meaningful experiences while walking as she discovered the total freedom of the act. Elkin got to know Paris while walking, first between her flat and the school, then wherever she wished (4). She would sit at cafes and write down observations of people passing by, unaware that Georges Perec had done the same in 1974, trying to get his readers to notice the beauty of the “infra-ordinary”, what happens when nothing is happening (5).

Elkin’s place of introduction to aimless wandering is poetic, with it being unlocked in the city that birthed so many of the walking art movements. There is a sort of bliss to her walks, the way she was able to go out and explore, to see new people and new places in a context divorced from everything else. I don’t personally think I would spend my free time that way, even if I was in Paris, but for her it was a time of discovery.

Elkin had been an english major and intended to study in London, but a technicality landed her in Paris, which she fell in love with within the first month. The streets were saturated with presence for Elken, even when she was alone, always feeling like something could and/or did happen in that spot, and she would often imagine the stories of that something. The streets transformed from the place between her beginning and destination into a great passion. Elken was free of responsibility, her ambition only to do what she felt was interesting, so she wandered in search of interesting things. She got to know Paris and was surprised by how walkable it was, how close together the points of interest (6). She found that every quaint place had a matching piece of misery, and the more she saw the less she could ignore, began to turn off her New Yorker apathy in favor of being charitable to those begging for donations. At some point, she realized that her instinctive wanderings were not limited to herself, that there was a common experience coined as the Flâneur. Elken converted this to its feminine, Flânneuse, and gave it a parallel definition to the male counterpart, a definition that is not acknowledged in most dictionaries (7).

This idea of being saturated with presence is a familiar one, the idea that old places are layered over with the events and people that inhabited them throughout the years. Standing at a location in a city that was first settled by tribal fisherman in 200 BC means centuries of history, trillions of events to choose from in her imaginings. Of course, none of the architecture is that old, but the land itself has known human presence, and it can be felt. It’s interesting that these walks, these deep observations, are what brought her attention to the people in need, despite the abundance of those she walked by during her days of New Yorker apathy. I suppose when walking is only about reaching the destination, you get used to not seeing the potential holdups, at avoiding interaction that could slow you down or slightly inconvenience you. In the new setting, with nothing better to do than observe, the people on the street become people again.

Back in New York for her final year of college, Elkin took a seminar titled “the man of the crowd, the woman in the street”, wanting to see where a woman would fit into the narrative. She was displeased to discover most scholars dismissing the female Flâneur, as they asserted that sexual divisions limited the Flâneur to the privileged man of means. Critics claimed the woman in the street was most likely a streetwalker, a prostitute, which Elkin found issue with, Not all women on the street could be working girls, and those that were didn’t have free range of the city (page 8). Laws said where and when hookers could meet johns and what clothing they could wear, and only allowed them to work after registering with the city and agreeing to regular meetings with the sanitary police. In short, they were the opposite of free. The 19th century literary and artistic observations of the streetscape are saturated in male bias, exemplified by Baudelaire’s passante, the fantasy female passer-by, a keeper of mystery existing only to charm and poison him. The Flânneuse is discounted from the history of city walking because of the social conditions of women in the 19th century, when Flâneur shifted from gender neutral to male exclusive (9).

I understand her displeasure, but I don’t think the scholars are entirely wrong in this one. You can’t simply walk as a woman, not with the surety of safety and the default of lacking fear that propels male walkers (of the white variety anyway). That’s not to say I agree with everything here- I take Elkin’s side on the prostitute question, that their occupation isn’t really free walking just because it takes place on the dark streets. The ladies of the night are on duty, and must be extra vigilant about the male gaze, to determine if it belongs to pedestrian, client, predator, or police. They are not taking home secret observations to create masterpieces, they are simply trying to do their job and get home safe. It might be interesting if they did write their view of the city down, to counterbalance the depictions of women on the street by men like Baudelaire. But that simply isn’t the case.

By 1806, the Flâneur was a wealthy man who had time to wander, interesting in gossip and fashion more than women, In 1829, it was a man who liked to be idle. Balzac had two versions, the former happy to wander the streets for no reason, the latter a desperate artist who turned his experiences of walking into art. Baudelaire’s Flâneur was an artist finding refuge in the crowd. But soon, artists began to wonder if the Flâneur was the follower or the followed, if he blended in to hide or removed himself to observe. The Flâneur has been compared to policemen, while in Quebec the term signaled a conman (10). The Flâneur was an empty vessel filled with the wants and fears of different eras, and is rife with contradictions. Elkin concedes that Amy Levy was correct in 1888, that “the female club-lounger, the Flâneuse of St. James street, latch-key in pocket and eye-glasses on the nose, remains a creature of the imagination”. But women still exist in the city and still chronicle their experiences, and the joy of walking is still available to them, even while restricted. Elken wanted us to understand what city walking meant for these women, and to do so without forcing them into the masculine concept (11).

These different variations of the Flâneur are interesting, and the contradictions do raise some questions about the validity of the term at all, if it can still hold meaning when the meaning stems from opposing ideas. I suppose this makes the term a Janus word, with its multiple meaning of being the observer of the crowd verses finding solace among it. It makes sense, I suppose, to take women walking, who were never allowed in the definition anyway, and create something new to understand their experience. Why shove them into the masculin understanding when the darn thing is so shoddily put together, so narrowly applicable? I’ve written before that it doesn’t apply to many people, even many other men- the other reading proves it. 

In the 19th century, bourgeois women couldn’t travel in public alone without risking disgrace (11). They had to travel in open carriages, as closed carriages were suspicious, or take walks in the park with a chaperone. Elkin brings up Marie Bashkirtseff, a Russian aristocrat-turned-artist who died from tuberculosis at age 25. Marie wanted to have the freedom to go out alone, and while aware she was dying and not caring about family embarrassment, she had internalized the cultural stigmas and knew even if she did walk alone, it was too dangerous and she would only be half-free (12). Instead, Marie walked the Paris slums with notebook in hand and an entourage behind her, sketching and taking notes for her paintings. In her painting The Meeting, the central image is a group of young urchin boys looking at a birds nest, but in the background a young girl walks away from the scene, leadings out of frame and with Marie’s signature right beneath her, possibly representing Marie herself (13).

Marie’s story is a sad one, if not entirely unexpected. The social stigmas and cultural norms ruled the day much more rigidly then than now, to the point that even a dying woman had to worry about her reputation. I like her sense of adventure though, that she made do with her circumstances, dragging her chaperones into the slums so she could watch the urchins. I especially admire her cheeky inclusion of a young version of herself in the painting, asserting her presence in the scene and marking the figure with her signature.

One unfair (but cruelly accurate) argument against the Flâneuse is the fact that the Flâneur must be functionally invisible, but women never are, as Elken asserts we are observed by everyone, especially Flâneurs (13). Elkin reminds us that lower and middle class women were on the street in the 19th century, traveling to work, running market stalls, or sitting in front of their homes to observe, intervening in fights and asserting social control via commentary on clothing and behavior of passers-by. In the 1850s and 60s, the rise in department stores made it more normal to see women in public, and in the 1870s guidebooks of London notes places for ladies to have a safe lunch break without male escorts during day-long shopping sprees (14). the 189s introduced the bicycle riding women and the independant girls, and their presence was confirmed when leisure activities like the cinema and the need for female labor in WWI became present. This depended on the rise of safe semi-public places for women: the cafe, the tearoom, and the public women’s restroom. The other key to urban independance was being able to find respectable and affordable boarding houses for unmarried women (15).

The statement of invisibility, and the female lack thereof, is something I am keenly aware of, something that is on my mind whenever I walk. But I digress, as Elkin is more focused on the strides that women did make, the fact that they were on the street in some respect, and that as the decades passed their ability to be independant grew. Great strides were made, I agree, but at the end of the day, women in the modern world are at risk just as much as they were back then. It’s bittersweet, knowing we are now able to do all these things in the public, but still being aware that just because were are allowed there, doesn’t mean we are safe.

As the world grew more secular and democratic, street names- previous female saints, royalty, or mythical figures- and replaced with male heros, the intellectual, scientific, and revolutionary. This shoved aside the women, held back by glass ceilings, and delegated them to “the private, he traditional, and the anti-modern”. While cities still had statutes of women, they were decorative or idealized, an allegory or a slave. The muses and models for these statues were often mistresses, trapped beneath their lovers shadows and forever on display (16). Another aspect of Paris is the caryatid, the stone woman used as a load bearing column, a lithe and graceful figure posed without effort. There are male versions too, called atlantes for Atlas, bulging with muscle and effort. The caryatids aren’ really noticed by most people, even those living near them, as it seems to be the nature of monuments to fade into the background (17). We are aware they exist, Elkin asserts, and if someone stole them away we would know “something” is amiss. We are more attuned to the environment than we know, and while we might not know what that something is, we will recognize the absence (18).

This is an aspect I haven’t thought about before, the immortalized muses whose names have become “the mistress of the artist” or “the mistress of the artist’s friend”, no longer having an identity of her own, but prominently on display. Some would say it’s a great honor, being immortalized like that. But they don’t remember the name of the girl they stare at, don’t recognize the face of the woman holding up the roof of their building. They know the name of the artist, know the man who sculpted her or build the building she supports. We would notice if the piece is missing, but not because she mattered. We would notice because of whatever metaphor she represents, because of the purpose she served.

Elkin claims that the Flâneuse is still trying to be seen, even in the present, in a time when we’d like to think women have free reign of the. ity. Flânerie as a concept has changed, more politically engaged with the entrance of the derive. Urban explorers of the 20th century created psychogeography by combining the “emotive force field of the city” with its architecture and topography (18). The walker is still referred to as someone with masculine privilege, a fraternity of middle aged men performing psychogeography, creating their work and writing about eachothers to solidify a canon of male writer-walkers (19). Female walkers exist, Elkin asserts again, and they wander, recording what they find. Elkin wishes we didn’t have to divide the genders, but the narratives of walking continue to leave out female experiences. Elkin prefers the heart of the city, where women have been empowered as they walked where they shouldn’t, committing a transgressive act. To be a subversive women, she jokes, all you have to do is step outside your front door (20).

Once again the same things, the fraternity of middle aged men and the masculine privilege that pushes them along, bolstering their importance and growing exponentially as they uplift each other’s work, ignoring the contributions of any female artists. The men made this division, so the women work with it, creating their own canon and embodying transgression with their every move, heads held high and notebook in hand. Subverting expectations simply by existing, these Flâneuse- Elkin among them- stride forth into the day and the night, refusing to back down just because they aren’t acknowledged. 

Elkin still lives and walks in Paris, two decades later, a habit born from enjoyment of the rhythm, of the stopping and observing, of the possibility of being still when she wants to. Walking allows her to see how the different parts of the city meld together, to understand them as part of a whole. Elkin gets to feel at home as the city grows familiar under her feet. She sometimes walks just to sort out the things that trouble her. She finds the walking similar to reading, as she is able to eavesdrop on lives and conversations that have nothing to do with her (21). Elkin notes that as soon as she started looking, she found the Flâneuse everywhere, coming or going, “saturated with in-betweenness”. They had different occupations (or lack thereof, but they all went on foot and wandered, understanding the city, using it as place to hide or be seen, helping themselves or others, and changing the world or letting it change them. Elkin closes out by asserting that the Flâneuse is not just a female Flâneur, but she is a figure all on her own, forcing us “to confront the ways in which words like home and belonging are used against women” (22).

Elkin’s journey to discovering walking and her place within it is a bold one. Walking inspired her, giving her knowledge and understanding and empowering her. She was able to find others like her, if not in the academic canon, then certainly in the the streets themselves, making momentary connections of solidarity as they pass by. She has created her own Flâneuse, existing in a unique space where one must acknowledge that they don’t quite belong, and choose to keep walking anyway.

response 3: film: “wild” by jean-marc vallée

Before I get into the questions (which I get to choose two from a set of three), I feel the need to give a crash-course summary of the film. It is told in a series of out-of-order flashbacks interwoven with the chronological journey of its protagonist, Cheryl Strayed. Cheryl is a young woman who finds herself feeling lost after the death of her mother to cancer. She ends up on a downward spiral of cheating on her husband that culminates in heroin addiction and an unwanted (aborted) pregnancy. After getting a tattoo with, and then divorcing, her husband, Cheryl changes her last name to Strayed and begins planning to walk the Pacific Crest Trail, hoping to find herself, overcome her grief, and become the woman her mother thought she is. The PCT begins in Campo, California near the US-Mexico border, and follows the coast for 2,653 miles to the Canada-US border on the edge of British Columbia’s Manning Park. Cheryl begins her journey for redemption and healing in June 1995, and 94 days later, concludes her journey at the Bridge of the Gods on September 15th. During her journey she met fellow hikers, creepy men, friendly citizens, and a journalist writing about homelessness. She loses her shoes, breaks her stove, suffers dehydration, and has various injuries on her feet and body from the strain of the walking and the weight of her backpack. By the end, she is ready to move on, to put her ex-husband and her tragedy behind her, and starts a new chapter of her life.

1. Parts of the movie and sections of the book open with literary quotes; samples from Strayed’s list of influential thinkers such as Adrienne Rich and Joni Mitchell, that provide insight into her way of thinking and her continuous dialogue with nature. Like Elkin’s characterization of the Flaneuse, the film portrays Strayed as quite forthright in her own transgressions, and while she’s remorseful, she never seems ashamed. Do you think this is portrayed as a sign of strength or a flaw? Why and how? Does her portrayal carry any resemblances to Elkin’s Flaneuse? Discuss how.

I think there is a huge strength to owning your transgressions. By openly admitting to the things she has done and the mistakes she has made, Cheryl is able to take charge of the narrative of her life, able to decide how her story is told and what its message should be. It takes a lot of strength to admit to the things you’ve done, and it can be difficult to avoid wallowing in shame. But shame and remorse are not the same, and being overly burdened by shame can get in the way. Shame is public, it stems from the disapproval of others, and it attacks the whole self as being defective. Remorse, a type of guilt, is more internal, coming from your conscious and being pointed at the specific behavior, it actually makes you want to think about your actions and change them. Without the remorse, there is no incentive to do better. So yeah, it is strength that gives her the remorse, as she knows she can do better and needs to change her actions, rather than deciding this is what she is and feeling bad because others can see it. I don’t really feel this ties back to Elkin’s flaneuse, as that whole philosophy of roaming the city to discover its hidden beauty is pretty different from Cheryl’s attempt to roam the wilderness to rediscover her own self and fix her inner hurt.

3. Fear is a major theme in this story. Alone on the trail, Strayed encounters dangerous wildlife, the mistakes of her novice preparation and interactions with mostly men in secluded spaces. How do you see the issue of fear, vulnerability and perseverance in this context? 

One of my weird hobbies is my mental encyclopedia of true crime. Growing up, my mom would warn us about stranger danger, would tell stories about the man who broke in and robbed us of her heirloom jewelry and left only moments before we came home from her pushing me in my stroller, and would shout ridiculous things if she came home to an unlocked door ( “I’m a criminal here to rob, rape, and murder you”) to remind me and my brother to be afraid, because danger is real. I also grew up with knowledge of a half brother, 11 years (to the day) my senior, whose mother was unstable and passed on her mental illness to him, which mixed with a heavy drug addiction to land him in prison from 17 to 27. His mother taught him to distrust mine, and her lack of nurturing gave him a detachment syndrome, making him the scary story in my nightmares who I am aware might one day do something violent again. With all this from a young age, I ended up watching a lot of crime shows and listening to true crime podcasts, probably hearing things a kid shouldn’t. This gives me a “slight” case of paranoia, with a barely legal length dagger in my car in case it breaks down, a pocket knife in my purse, and a large knife wedged between my mattress and bed frame in case of a break-in (my brother still forgets to lock the door).

All of this is to say that I was definitely considering the fear and vulnerability of Cheryl during her journey, that fear and vulnerability are always rattling around in my brain. In the scene when she accepts the alcohol from Frank, who turns out to be a nice guy with a friendly wife, I jotted down that this was her first mistake. I wondered why she didn’t have an accessible weapon or a can of pepper spray on her belt, or why she didn’t try to raise more money for the trip in case of emergency. The fact that she didn’t read the instructions and warnings on her stove, leaving her to eat through her supply of stuff that didn’t need to be cooked, proved just how ill-prepared she was, increasing how vulnerable she was in my eyes. She was a woman alone, the sort of potential target that a predator might think wouldn’t be missed. Those with ill intent weren’t her only reason to be afraid: she ran out of water in a desert, lost her shoes on a cliff, and got a bit lost in the snow. She could only carry so much food and only clean so much water, and the weight of her possessions left wounds on her back and shoulders, the improperly sized boots mutilating her feet. She could have easily gotten infections from her injuries, gotten sick from the water, or gotten poisoned by an insect, arachnid, or snake. The hot desert risked dehydration and sunstroke, the cold risked hypothermia, and the rain risked trench foot. She did some preparation, bringing layers for the cold and purification tablets for the water, among other things. So she was aware of all the things to worry about, all the ways the human body is vulnerable in the wild. But despite all this, all the worries and reasons to stay home, Cheryl chose to not only begin this journey, but to stick with it, to persevere for months and countless miles. So fear and vulnerability are important. But her preservereance is even more important. It takes a great amount of commitment, strength, and bravery to make such a journey, to have the pain of walking all day and every day, all the discomforts and unpleasant surprises, and still choose to keep going. This is not the kind of trial I would ever do- I’ve road thirty miles a day for two weeks straight on a bike, but that was with my family, going through the trails and on the beaches of Hilton Head Island, with civilization around us to provide respite, carrying only the snacks and water needed for the day, bathrooms always findable and a vacation rental to come home to each afternoon. It makes your legs ache and your hands cramp up from gripping the handlebars, not to mention the need for a shower when it’s over. Walking all day, whether it’s thirty miles or ten, is exhausting in a different way, and she covered real distance, with nothing around but the wilderness, the only chance for bathing in a river, the only place to sleep on the ground.  It is awe-inspiring, this sort of dedication, forcing herself to keep going, to push through the pain and to confront herself, with no people or substances to distract her from her thoughts, her emotions, and her body.

How does the sensation of being lost help Strayed find her way back into the world beyond the outdoors? 

The sensation of being lost in this way, of knowing nothing beyond the occasional sign to point her way, increases the isolation. Part of being lost is being away from those who can help, of having to figure things out by yourself. Cheryl went into this experience because she was at a breaking point in her life, because she had lost it all. She had lost her mother, had grown apart from her brother in their grief, had been divorced from her husband due to her actions. In essence, she had lost herself, and needed to do this to find it again. Near the end of the film, when she is at the Bridge of the Gods, her narration states that it took her 4 years, 7 months, and 3 days from her mother’s death to become the person her mother thought she was. It was this part of herself that she had to become physically lost in order to find. She had to learn how to live with her actions, how to grieve- both her mother and the end of her marriage, and how to prepare herself for actually living in the “real world” once she came back to it. Alone with her thoughts and memories, she was forced to confront the ugly parts of reality and come to terms with it. Without the drugs and the sex, she could face it head on, dig through the pile of regrets and pull herself out of them. She had to learn to forgive herself.

What role does gender play when removed from the usual structure of society and in these open public spaces?

Gender is a social construct, a series of implicit assumptions about a person based on their presumed genitalia. It comes with a list of traits that our parents, teachers, media, and peers project onto themselves and onto us from a very young age, giving us the knowledge that young boys should be active and roughhouse, while young girls should sit still and not get their outfits dirty. Gender’s role is deeply ingrained into society, the first social division in history, before differing religions began to exist or the concept of race had any meaning, but it interplays with these other categories as well. Just as Garnette Cadogan is seen more threatening for being a black man, Cheryl is perceived as more vulnerable for being a white woman (as our society historically viewed white women as delicate and in need of protection, without caring enough about women of color to do the same for them). Frank, the man who offered his wife’s cooking and a hot shower, comments to  Cheryl that her “husband”, who she claims is traveling ahead of her, is crazy for letting her travel alone, saying he could never let his wife do that. Cheryl’s presence on the PCT is a bit of an oddity- she only runs into one other woman the whole time on the trail, and when she stumbles across the hiker Greg, he knows her name as the only woman on the trail registry. There is a sort of comradery in those who are actually hiking PCT, a bond of solidarity knowing they are all facing the same dangers. The fellow hikers exchange stories and words of advice, including Greg giving her encouragement to keep going during her second week, giving her the incentive of hanging out a little when she reached Kennedy Meadows, which she does at day 14. There she meets Amazing Ed, who isn’t really a hiker but hangs out at the checkpoint each summer anyway, and the older gentleman helps Cheryl prune her overloaded bag and informs her that her boots are too small, but the company she got them from can send the right size to her next checkpoint for free. The female hiker she meets sometime around 40 days in, is the one to tell Cheryl that “it”, presumably nature or the trail itself, has the power to fill you up again if you let it, to help you find something within yourself. The trio of young men hiking together recognize her as Cheryl from the informal notebook logs, again her gender giving her away as the person writing the quotes the men enjoy. It doesn’t matter where the hikers all come from, they are bonded together by the journey they all chose to take, and kindness is freely given.

But just because most of then men on the trail are benevolent forces, doesn’t mean Cheryl’s gender isn’t opening the door to strange encounters. On day 25, Cheryl is getting back on the trail after taking a bus to Reno to dodge the snow. She tries to flag down a ride on the highway, and the first person to stop is a man who interviews “hobos”, and is overly enthusiastic to meet a “lady hobo”, asking her questions and taking her photo before handing her a hobo care package and speeding off. When she does catch a ride, the man in the backseat with her makes flirty remarks and requests the people up front put on a non-platonic song , until one of them tells “Spyder” to knock it off. Cheryl is also harassed by two men dressed more like hunters than hikers on day 56, who are happy to share her water-cleaning tablets but still make comments about her body, one even doubling back to watch her change and accuse her of lying to him. He seems to imply he has free reign out there, and only his buddy calling for him makes the man back away. When she reaches Ashland, a woman working in a makeup store sees her trying on lipstick and tells Cheryl that all the makeup in the world won’t make a difference if she doesn’t take care of her personal hygiene, a reminder of the way women’s looks are policed, even by other women. During her time in Ashland, when Cheryl has a one night stand, she strips to her underwear and the viewer sees her body. She is emaciated from limited rations and water, with skin rubbed raw on her back and shoulders, and it is this the man- and the camera- focuses on, changing what would have been a lusty scene in another movie into an examination of what the trail has done to her, a reminder that her journey outside of civilization has changed her. In Mt. Hood, when the rain is pouring down and the fellow manning the package center is about to close down, it is her promise to have a drink with him that makes the fellow stay, giving her the care package and upon her insistence, the packages waiting for the trio of young men as well, men who gently tease her later for the special attention the fellow has given her.

In essence, Cheryl is not free of her gender just because she is walking through the wilderness, whether it is something as benign as being recognized by nature of her rarity, or as dark as a man with a weapon making dark remarks about her body and what he wants to do with it. People are still people, in the city or in the country, and if someone has dark thoughts about women in the usual structure of society, then being outside that structure lets him feel he can say it out loud, while those who don’t have sinister intentions will stay kind, the absence of oversight not emboldening a violence if it doesn’t exist. Seeing another woman in a male-dominated field leads to words of encouragement, whether the context is a type of employment or a few thousand miles trail, while seeing a woman breaking society’s rules about staying clean and pretty will provoke a foul remark from someone who doesn’t know your circumstances, even if it’s another woman.