Thursday, August 7, 2014

Have You Seen The Walking Woman?

So, here's the deal. A woman bereaved, veiled in black, a veteran of the US Armed Services (according to the BBC), decides there's nothing for it but to go for a long walk. Her reasons for doing so are personal and private. Nobody's business but her own. Were she a lucky resident of France, say, or Wales, she might have chosen to set out along any number of their routes sentiers – long, unpaved quiet pathways through pastoral, often private, property through which the public is entitled to pass unmolested,  winding through countryside or along the seacoast – engendering little or no public notice. But being as how this is Amerka, where no such unending peaceful pathways are easily accessible to the public (apparently none are considered essential), the only walkways long enough to suit her need in this Age of Wheels are public byways, roads; so she took to the highway. Were she riding around in a car or bus, no one would noticed. But because this woman is simply walking as though she had every right to do so, as though walking were a normal choice, destination unknown, and publicly wearing her sorrow, she is a media phenomenon in the US. Our very own Forrest Gump come to save us from ourselves for a brief sensational internet moment.

Consider this:

A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business. -Eric Hoffer, philosopher and author (1902-1983) 

Aside from the occasional long-haul perambulator whose purpose is to call attention to moral or political issues, the folks who end up walking America's roads are the have- nots, folks without cars or busfare, much less planefare, to get where they're going. Objects of passing curiosity, or pity, possibly scary oddities to be avoided. Hitch-hikers are rare today. We notice those who walk the highways as something odd, forgetting the story of slow westward settlement in our rush to get somewhere fast. Early pioneers walked for hundreds of arduous and dangerous miles behind heavy mule-drawn wagons, operating under the assumption that their own two legs were the most reliable mode of transportation, that their reasons for doing so were sound. No explanation needed.

When you suffer a cramp or pain – or a tantrum, for that matter – a usual recommendation is, "Just walk it off." Here's a gal who seems to have just felt the need to walk something off. She's not looking for attention, has no desire to explain herself, to "share her pain". (The face speaks volumes.) To the bored American mind this makes her all the more intriguing, as twitterers and facebookers, hooked on a need for the constant affirmation of shared experience, take her picture, video her steps, shout at her, applaud her without knowing why, voyeuristically believing this will somehow unburden her? all the while violating her right to mourn in silence, without explaining herself to anyone. Like Snow White's evil queen, the public stands before that silent dark mirror and hears what it wants to hear, sees what it wants or needs to see, believes what it needs to believe.   There was a time when folks would have left a grieving woman in black to pass quietly unmolested, would have turned away out of respect for her privacy, implicitly understanding that grief is a solitary and private thing.  

No longer.  The public's fascination with and their variously expressed projections regarding this solitary woman are an affront to the very notion of privacy.  Perhaps this is the point she's making, if she's making any point at all.  What makes observers think she, personally, wants or needs their attention? I'm guessing she doesn't.  She grieves. And if nothing else, is a walking question mark for all Americans: What is it we, as Americans, are grieving beneath the veneer of constant titillation? What absolution do we seek as we watch her go? 

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