09/26/2013 09:03 am ET Updated Nov 26, 2013

A Walkabout Psalm


What if I took a psalm a day, read it, took a walk, and returned to my desk with jot-able thoughts? There are the year-of-living-some-way books, the applications-of-a-classic books, the travel-across-somewhere or enduring-peculiar-deprivations books... why not a scholar's-nonscholarship-of-a-biblical-book book? Turns out, there are several reasons not, not for me, anyway, not now.

The house where I live most of the time, my husband's for years before we married, is on a narrow and winding two-lane highway, suicide for a walker. But the property is large and lovely, with a driveway that swings around under beeches and oaks, tracks in front of an old barn (now a couple of rental units occupied by the same great guys who have lived there for many years), and passes between wooden fences and next to a wide reservoir with the requisite Canadian geese but also herons and eagles, hawks, egrets, and ducks. The stretch of road between the driveway's entrance to the barn and its entrance up to our house sports the road's only shoulder for miles. There's a public boat landing across the way. I suppose this gravel stretch was designed to serve for overflow parking. Indeed, on any given summer weekend, trucks and trailers line that stretch from driveway to driveway.

I'm A Walker, as they say, always have been and can't imagine otherwise. One loop around the driveway, with the gravel shoulder stretch thrown in, is about one fifth of a mile. By my calculations, five times around, then, is a mile, the distance I used to walk from my house in Richmond to my office at Virginia Commonwealth University. So I walk in circles a lot of the time, which suits me just fine. If you are a walker, you understand. Destination is superfluous. To keep track of the loops, I put pebbles from the driveway on top of the dogs' kennel. That way, my mind is free to wander, which it would do anyway, inevitably losing count. I call it my walkabout.

On one such walkabout, it occurred to me that I might read a psalm each morning before heading out, and make a project of it. I would contemplate the psalm along the way -- not a scholarly exercise and not devotional, either, though I didn't rule out and secretly hoped for some spiritual sustenance effect. Then, I'd write a few minutes afterward, recording the results. Mostly, it would be a kind of experiment: what was it about that biblical text that stayed with me, that tumbled around in my head as I ambled? The next morning, over my last sips of coffee, I read Psalm 1, which coincidentally begins with going (the Hebrew word can mean simply "to walk") and explicitly champions just the sort of ambly-contemplation one might do on a walkabout. Perfect.

The psalm's very, very first word allows a couple different English translations. "Blessed" or "happy" are the most common, and some mash-up of the two does seem to get close to the Hebrew. Already, I could see that keeping the scholar at bay would prove a challenge. Broadening to the rest of the psalm in general, there's a lot about comparing the righteous and the wicked. It's a theme that seems pretty easy to get ahold of and one that could stick in the craw of a self-assured goodie-goodie who easily judges others from the satisfaction of being right. But life is hardly ever quite so simple, and if I've learned nothing else from years of academic and religious study of biblical texts, it's that the Bible undermines every absolute any righteous reader might bring to it (the book of Job, anyone?). Even as it describes, prescribes, or otherwise instructs, its disjunctive gaps and internal disagreements, its foreignness and multiplicities demand that we use our own God-given brains to think for ourselves, ideally from a posture of humility with confidence and compassion. An odd mix, but there it is.

The thing that ended up rat-a-tat-tatting to the footfall of my Danskos had to do finally with being, place, and purpose. The business of defining righteous and wicked was secondary. There's a lot about place in that psalm -- from paths to seats to the company one keeps. But there's also a lot of movement. It's movement of body -- going, walking, sitting; and also of mind - meditating on Torah, specifically. To be clear, torah translates best as "instructions" (not so much "laws") of God. The psalmist says that it is this dynamic contemplation of divine instruction that makes a person blessedly happy-ish. Imagine my self-satisfaction: there I was doing exactly that. But to what end? My thoughts were scattered.

After all, the Torah is really much bigger than text, even the Bible. Granted, the word is used of the first five biblical books and of the Hebrew bible as a whole; but it is also used of the mass of other instructions believed to be received by Moses in oral form and later codified in the massive collection of Talmud. Finally, Torah in its broadest sense includes all of every means by which God might instruct, including especially the non-human natural world. (Consider logos in the gospel of John, poorly represented by the narrower "Word," though I don't have a better alternative. Observe how it riffs on the Genesis 1 and suggests an investment of divinity in every bit of the world).

Indeed, the psalm's image of a righteous person is not a person at all but a tree. Righteous persons, it tells, are "like trees planted by streams of water, which give their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither." What struck me especially about the righteous-like-trees is the particularity of it: their fruit, its season. They don't bear fruit constantly, and they don't produce what they're not inclined to make. There is an integrity of purpose at work here. Self-knowledge and perseverance.

Focusing on one's particular tasks, skills, talents, gifts, and demands rather than presuming to adopt everyone else's and then going about it with energy and non-leaf-withering strength, ignoring scoffers and sticking to the path -- these are the qualities that the psalm suggests define the righteous, at least in part. I'm reminded of Jesus' parable of the talents. To use whatever it is that one is given, to maximize one's potential, to develop skills and put them to use. To bear your fruit, whatever that it is, and in its particular time.

There is comfort in this. And a warning. The wicked, after all, are like chaff that the wind blows away. Scattered. That's the word I use for the far-too-frequent sense that I'm not doing as I should, that I've said yes to doing the wrong kind of work or am pushing to produce something when its time hasn't come. I'm not confident that I can always discern exactly what I should be doing, what is my fruit and when is its season. But to focus and proceed as well as one can, living in the ever-unfolding Torah embedded in the universe -- that gives a place to stand and the strength to persevere.

The loop I walk takes me under, around, and past all sorts of trees. The ones down by the water are doing great, flourishing indeed. But we live in Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and it's been a rainy summer. So the trouble is less about withering than about smothering. Bittersweet, wild grapes, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, English ivy, and wisteria climb and cover with abandon. They are beautiful in their places but death to trees. Someone has to come along every so often and pare the climbers back to let the native trees breathe and grow. Sometimes flourishing is as much about restraint as action. And we all need a little help from friends.

The final result of that walkabout exercise was that I decided not to take it further, not at this time, anyway. I've got enough. On good days, I feel lucky to have several exciting projects in the works. On bad days, I feel overwhelmed and scattered. Each in its season, unwithering, and green.

Another truth is that I really just want to walk. My mind does its own wandering. I watch the Irish-setter mix chase crows, her front paws bounding in the air, ears flapping. I hear the retriever at my heels panting his respiratory-challenged breath, every so often bobbing his big oddly tufted head into my hand companionably. I look at the weeds in the flower beds and the bamboo that needs cutting. The magnolia leaves have fallen onto the steps again, and there are Mortgage-Buster tomatoes ripe enough to fry. Butterflies sup the brown-eyed susans, and the echinacea is going to seed. I think a little about the play I'm writing and the novel in the drawer, about lectures I'll give in October, and an essay for a friend's new literary magazine. I plan menus and replay difficult conversations. The walkabout is its own place, with its own fruits that it gives up in its own good time. The psalms have been around for thousands of years. They'll wait.