I started to walk to work. Well, I set a goal of walking to work at least one day ever week in a round trip journey that accumulates 5 1/2 steady miles. A decision brought on mostly by concerns for health and exercise and to finally combat the accumulated weight gain slow baked from a recipe of two parts sedatory life style, tablespoons of comfort food and cup fulls of unhappiness from my previous decade and pre-Phoenician life. Yes, it turns out that unhappiness, mortgage burden, income concern and bill stress have more calories than bars of milk chocolate. Who knew?
The unexpected realization once you descend from vehicles and hit the streets as a pedestrian is that the view is completely different from the sidewalk. Firstly, you notice bird song and the constant activity of birds in their chatter and their communication, their flurried activities amongst palms and shrubs and bushes, Quail that scurry away, Woodpeckers burrowing into Saguaro cacti. You notice every flower, every blossom, every blooming cactus in this land of perpetual flowering and manicured landscapes. You quietly resent the beds full of perfect Petunias when your flower boxes always struggle. You observe the roadside, makeshift memorial to an Hispanic, Iraq War casualty. You mentally judge the home fronts of the people who care, the ones that may not, the ones in difficult circumstances perhaps. You are awed by the flowering Palo Verde and luxuriate in the fragrant of orange trees blossoms. These are the things you don’t see, hear, smell or notice from the confines of a car.
And then you recognize your change in status. Once you are without vehicle, you become included in the classes who walk, take buses; who perhaps are not with means. It’s subtle at first, but you gently notice the glances, the long stares from motorists and you imagine their thoughts. “Why is he walking?” “He doesn’t look poor.” “Did his car break down?” “Is he Hispanic?” “Is he mad?” And you also start to notice the kindness of that class that does walk, does ride buses. The Hispanic bus driver observing you too far from the bus stop that you are walking towards who flashes his lights first once, then twice to communicate a question, “Should I pull over and wait for you?” Unused to these signals, and this kindness, it took me seconds to acknowledge and wave back a “no thank you.” The passengers at bus stops who look up, smile, greet you in this recognition of social bonding. You are included.
But, it’s not the mannered, the educated, the successful, the well-to-do who are the gracious class. That senior white woman in her minivan, wearing warp-around optical sunglasses which seem to shield her from the outside world and from good manners, her hands gripping onto her steering wheel as tightly as she is holding onto life itself, is not the motorist who lets you correct a lane change error and be included back into the forward lane. In her petrified, up-tightie-whitie world, she is not going to surrender an inch. Indeed, it’s the elderly Hispanic driver of a landscape truck; a vehicle having acquaintance and familiarity with decades past, sitting under a straw hat, sun bleached, soiled and beaten which has failed in many ways to protect its owners molasses colored, leather face but who is still capable of an easy smile, an encouraging wave to indicate that he at least is willing to have you intrude and delay him momentarily. It’s the Hilton Squaw Peak Resort, Mexican landscaper with whom you share a quick witticism and cheeky thank you for his assistance in pruning back olive branches away from the sidewalk at the exact moment you required it so not to impede your passage. These people who live so close to the earth learn first to smile, then to laugh and always to be happy, mannered and kind. This language that is so strangely formal, polite and respectful.
Here in Phoenix, my life is lived off a pedestal. That social plinth where we place ourselves in this constant quest to better, to improve, to grow, to accumulate. Accumulate ‘things‘ mostly. Unnecessary things without stopping and thinking and questioning. My New Jersey escape necessitating to pay dearly to ship across state lines financially prohibiting me from transporting life long possessions that I no longer loved, no longer remembered buying, sometimes never even liked nor knew why I still kept. An opportunity and cathartic exhaustion of chattel over two yard sales and many gifts. A paring down of worldly goods to just the essentials. Gone the large home that I rattled in along with the large mortgage and larger still, worries. Life in Phoenix necessarily started pared down.
But, during my last season’s, classic car group holiday, “progressive” party, a celebration meal shared and enjoyed in four homes over four hours, I was able to observe four different Phoenician life styles plus my own. The first, large, modern track built home in the suburbs, the second a typical 50s rancher updated, the third a grand celebration of early century hubris and the fourth not seen but enjoyed in its seven car, Corvette garage. All these unlived in empty rooms after rooms after rooms after rooms … and often one single occupier. The Romanovs would approve. Sitting observing and exhausted as if burdened by the weight of these mortgages and bills and commitment, I mentally toured my simple bedroom and simple bathroom that has become my new life in a condo that could fit squarely into one half of my last home. It inspired me to question why American homes had climbed to this inflated state. How many rooms do we really need? Rooms we have to heat and cool? How many rooms do we need to sit down in and when do we ever find the time to just sit? Have we become the Romanovs before revolution? Even Czar Nicholas in his final months before execution was reduced to being a simple, peasant farmer, and he was never happier without the burdens of state, his hands toiling in good earth.
Here, in these temples to hubris, I was taken to an unfamiliar emotional place, feeling sorry for people who had so much more than me and yet, were so many miles behind mentally, attitudinally and progressively. These privileged people had not yet reached the realization that life is actually very simple. We complicate it. Possessions are baggage and burden and accumulating possessions will not stop you from dieing. You are born, you live, you die, you are dust. The rest is ego. Here in plain Sunnyslope neighborhood, with modest living, I have come to realize that you can “own” so many things without the exchange of dollar notes, not needing the signing of contracts and titles, outside of commitment and entrapment. Own fresh air, fragrant flowers, constant sunshine and even a mountain. Yes, Piestewa Peak is “my mountain.” Mentally usurped and observed and enjoyed every morning and every evening from my patio, honored and admired giving me strength by its presence and constancy.
And I have noticed that when you grandly live on the hill-top, your view is only of the valley. When you live in the valley, your view is looking at grand mountains. I’ll take valley living any day.