I've just begun a sabbatical year -- lots of writing projects in the works, some new experiments afoot and, the part that makes this time so valuable -- a chance to find a different pace, shake up old routines, and plan for the next chunk of my academic life. I find that one of the best ways to accomplish the latter part of this agenda is on foot, so I've been trying to establish a routine of daily walks, just as I did for my last sabbatical in 2006.
Back then, I had just moved to a little village in Nova Scotia. Here's a picture of a part of my daily route in those days:
This time around, I'm sticking more closely to home and the local environment couldn't be more different. Whereas in LaHave Nova Scotia it was a remarkable occurrence if I bumped into more than one person during a one hour walk along the beach, now I'm doing more of my travelling in urban environments.
Yesterday's walk took me first through Victoria park, a gorgeous urban greenspace which includes a playground, a water park, a small lake and lots of gardens and trees, and then down through much of the city of Kitchener's urban core. Kitchener is, in some ways, a typical mid-sized car-centric North American city. Compared to its largely gentrified twin city of Waterloo to the north, Kitchener is downright gritty, and I have to say that I love it that way. It lacks some of the fascinating dense activity of larger cities, but at least during the daytime the streets are busy with pedestrians, there's lots of on-street seating and socializing, plenty of food, small shops, and a pleasant overall bustle. There's a great mix of people as well. Business people in suits and skirts mix it up with others whom I suspect spend a fair bit of time lounging on Main Street for want of other places to go. You can tell that the city is hurting a bit, both from the way that some storefronts are vacant and from the way others are filled (a pawnshop in Kitchener's historic Utilities building??) but part of what that means is that rents are low and there is room for the small players to set up shop. The place is actually alive.
Once, during a long and quiet walk in Nova Scotia, I remember falling so deeply into a great hole of ideas that I had to stop, pull a scrap of paper out of my wallet, and scrawl down a few notes. Those ideas became the backbone of a talk that I gave last year at a forum organized for a visit by the fascinating French philosopher, Bernard Stiegler.
I can't imagine the same kind of thing happening on Kitchener's streets. My mind is busy, but in an entirely different way. As I walk, I'm much more aware of the influence of fleeting events -- a burst of fragrant basil coming out the door of a Vietnamese restaurant, a quick glance at a man hulking in an alley and carrying on a cellphone conversation whose import was written into his intense facial expression. This rapidly changing panorama of sensation and meaning triggers few deep thoughts but lots of emotional crests and valleys.
Tuning into these new rhythms and understanding what they are telling me about the psychogeography of my own neighbourhood and what it all means for the bigger picture of the influence of place on feelings may turn out to be the big project this year.