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Smorgasbord

A smattering of tidbits here:

First, I’ve taken a dive into the strange world of social media. I’m back on Facebook after a two year hiatus, and I even got on Twitter (@aforstho) and Instagram (aforstho). Seek me out if you’d like to keep in touch that way. Might take me a little bit to figure out this bizarre new language, though. I studied Chinese in college, and learning how to tweet is proving to be far more baffling.

Second, I had a great conversation last week with the activist pastor Jay Bakker on his show, This is Radio Cast. Check it out here if you’d like to listen.

Third, I’ve sent out my manuscript to publishers. Waiting to see where this thing wants to make its home.

Fourth, I’m settling down in Northampton, MA for a while, where I’ll get a job picking apples or pouring lattes, and start thinking about future projects. Holler at me if you’re in the neighborhood and you wanna jam. I’ll also be getting out on the lecture circuit to continue sharing some of the experiences from this walk. The presentation I’ve put together looks something like this TEDx talk I was honored to give at Furman University last spring. If your high school, university, or organization would be interested in having me speak this fall, winter, or spring, feel free to contact me at walkingtolisten@gmail.com.

As always, thank you for being here.

We are all one

I wish Dylan Roof could’ve walked with me for a while. He might’ve awakened to an important truth on the road: that he does not exist apart from anyone else, and that, in fact, he needs people in order to survive. All people, every kind and color.

I wish he could’ve been there when I was passing through Baltimore, less than a week into the walk. He would’ve felt the deep gut fear I felt that night, of being alone without a safe place to sleep. Just as it was getting dark, he would’ve seen a young black man walking ahead of us carrying a 40 ounce beer in a brown paper bag. The man’s name was Corey Mosley. Corey would ask us what we were doing with our big backpacks, and we’d tell him we were walking across America listening to people’s stories, and that tonight we were looking for a place to camp out. Any ideas? “You can camp in my backyard, man,” Corey would tell us. “It’s right down the road.” In that moment, it would’ve been hard for Dylan not to feel gratitude for this black man. He might’ve even loved him for a second, before all the racist thought patterns came rushing back in again. We’d go with Corey to his apartment, and then we’d all hang out on the porch for a while, sharing beers. Corey’s girlfriend, Lynee Mallory, would join us. “You can just sleep in our living room,” Lynee would say eventually. “It’s going to be cold out here tonight.”

I wish Dylan Roof could’ve been with me in Tuskegee, Alabama. He would’ve heard the warning from the white woman a few towns east: “All the whites left, and the help stayed, and you have to be careful because the southern black is a whole different animal than the northern black.” But we would’ve kept walking, Dylan and I. We would’ve reached Tuskegee, filthy and aching from the long trek, and we would’ve felt completely vulnerable once again – far from home, exposed, nowhere to stay. And then we’d see the fire station, and we’d meet them, the firefighters of the only all-black fire department in the nation: Orlando Sim and Uralvin Clark, Marco Fields and Octavius Thomas. They’d allow us to camp within their safe domain, and they’d let us shower – sweet bliss – and they’d stay up with us until midnight, swapping stories. Dylan Roof is a human being, so he would’ve felt something that night, something quite different than hatred.

If Dylan Roof had walked with me, he would’ve been taken in by a black barbershop outside Selma. He would’ve been given a cold Gatorade by a black man who saw him suffering in the heat outside New Orleans. He would’ve learned something from this beautiful woman on the threshold of her death, and he would’ve realized that he needed all of these people to keep walking.

Instead, Dylan Roof, a young white man like myself, murdered nine black people on Wednesday night, people who welcomed him into their church to pray with them. Now we must make sense of this senselessness.

Sure, he’s an outlier. He’s an extremist. But he’s also one of us – an American, a human being – and what he has done is reflective of where we’re all at as a national family. We cannot write him off as separate. We’ve now met him on our walk, and he’s just as much a part of the story as anyone else. We are all one. This is not some hippie-dippy, feel-good, drum-circle cliché. This is the baffling truth. Sometimes this truth strikes me as beautiful. In this instance, though, it’s horrifying, because it means that since Dylan Roof is capable of such hatred and violence, we all are. It means that I can kill nine innocent people in a church. It means that I already have. I think this is where the transformative work begins – accepting that this problem is my problem, too, not just the problem of some deeply deluded kid in far-off South Carolina. It’s only in recognizing that I am one of the authors of this story that I can begin to write it differently.

This massacre is not an anomaly, nor is it an isolated incident – it’s impossible for something to arise out of nothing. Dylan Roof didn’t just become a mass murderer on his own. 21 years ago, he was a baby, as sweet and innocent as every baby has ever been. So we should ask: What were the forces that made a killer out of a child, and where are they now, and how are they continuing to do their work? Where were we for Dylan Roof during his coming of age as a man, as an American, as a human being? How did he slip through the cracks? Where are we now for those boys-soon-to-be-men teetering on the razor’s edge of good and evil as they navigate this wounded world? And what do we do at this juncture, to heal and transform?

I want to keep taking walks. I want to go meet more strangers and see them for who they really are, not for who I thought they were based on my fearful judgments. I want to find the capacity for hatred in my own mind – of self and of other – and I want to meet it with love, because hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love. A pretty smart guy called the Buddha once said that. I’m pretty sure Jesus was on the same wavelength, too.

On racial relations in America specifically, we have to be brave enough to be honest about the prejudice that is still alive among us and within us, individually and systemically. While I was walking, I met a great man named Bryan Stevenson in Montgomery, Alabama, and he had some wise words to say on this. I recorded them.

“I think our great challenge now is to try to address the fact that when segregation quote-unquote officially ended, we never really committed ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation. We didn’t tell the truth about what decades of segregation and apartheid did to both black and white people. We didn’t tell the truth about the trauma that we created and the burdens we’ve inherited and the bigotry we’ve ingested without thinking.”

“How do you deal with someone who doesn’t want reconciliation?” I asked him.

“Well, I think a part of it is they don’t want truth either. And so at first you kind of have to make truth a dominant part of the conversation. Because without the truth you begin to deny things. What’s a little fascinating to me is that because we don’t know how to talk about that history we just deny it. So, I think we make truth the first part of it. Then, if you can get people to at least hear the truth, even if they have a hard time accepting it, the reconciliation comes easier. You can’t create reconciliation until people feel there’s something broken that needs to be addressed.”

Let’s listen to the truth today. Let’s look at what we’re doing to ourselves right now. We’re creating a nation where some of our sweet little babies slip through the cracks and mutate into murderers. We’re perpetuating conditions that culminate in the racist slayings of nine black people, the very same conditions that spawn injustice and oppression in countless other quieter ways. Don’t get me wrong, we are also many beautiful things, we Americans. We are Corey Mosley and Lynee Mallory. We are the firefighters of Tuskegee. But we are also Dylan Roof, and everything that led to Dylan Roof, and none of us will ever heal until we admit that to ourselves. The work begins there. Let’s get to work.

I send my deepest love and solidarity especially to all those directly affected by the killings.

Book rollercoaster

For you kind, patient souls out there who’ve been checking in here occasionally for progress on my book, a couple things:

First, thank you. It turns out writing a book is actually way harder than walking across a continent, and so I appreciate the continued support. I haven’t been posting much here over the past two years, mostly because I’ve been pouring myself into the manuscript, which hasn’t left me with much writing-juice for the blog. Writing this book has been like singing a years-long song, except it’s been a silent song. It can only resonate with sound once someone else is reading the book. Hopefully it won’t be too much longer now, because what’s the use of a silent song? It’s like some kind of unanswerable Zen koan.

Second, some logistics. The universe threw me a bit of a curveball, and since it’ll affect the trajectory of the book’s timing, I wanted to tell the short story here. My editor at Houghton Mifflin moved on to a new job at Penguin in the fall. I was sorry to lose her – she’d been a great mentor and advocate for me – but we parted ways on good terms. Then, this spring, Houghton Mifflin informed me they wanted to cancel my contract. The reasons for this are complex, and to be completely honest I don’t fully understand all of them myself, but there’s no need to go into any of that here. The main thing is, I had a publisher once. Now I don’t.

I won’t pretend I wasn’t devastated, but the whole thing has taught me a lot: Beware your expectations. Mind your attachments. Let go of your grasping. Don’t fight the unfolding, trust it. It has also given me the chance to dance with Doubt, and learn from it, and walk away (on my good days). My friend, Alexis (who took me in with her husband, Archie, out in New Mexico when I was walking), wrote me this after I first found out about the cancellation. It’s too good not to share, especially for anyone being pursued by Doubt on the dance floor:

“Don’t let that little fucker DOUBT come a-knocking, Andrew. Don’t you dare open that door, not even a little crack. Please believe me when I say that nothing good will come from doubting yourself. You have a gift, make no mistake. Part of life’s sweet challenge is to know what you know, with a faithful knowingness – even when the vagaries of life would temporarily have you believe otherwise. Doubt blossoms when its alter-ego, Trust, thrives only on the feedback from others.”

So it is with all of us and our gifts.

All this to say, it’s going to take me a bit longer to give birth to this book. But I guess that’s not out of character. I move at a pretty slow pace most of the time. I made my mom go through a 40-hour labor before I finally decided I was ready to enter this world. Now that I’m the one in labor, though, and it’s taking forever, I can say I feel your pain, Mom. Actually, no, no I can’t. Let’s be real: Writing is a joke compared to childbirth. Mad respect to all you moms out there.

I’m hoping to find a new publisher this summer. I’ll let you know how it goes. Thanks so much for being there.

You got this

There are infinite ways to go about experiencing this whole human being thing, as many ways as there are human beings. For a while, walking was my way. I loved it for its simplicity. The solutions to the problems were simple: I am thirsty, so I must drink water. I am tired, so I must rest. The questions were simple, too, and so were their answers: Where am I going to sleep tonight? Ah yes, right here under this bridge. But how will I get to the next town? Put one foot in front of the other. This simplicity had a cleansing effect on the mind, constantly flushing out distraction and delusion before they could take root. I didn’t think too far ahead. I didn’t think too far behind. Mostly, I was just there, wherever I happened to be, feet hurting, back aching, feeling and alive.

Walking across America was the easy way. It was so literal. My path was literally a path. The forks in the road were exactly that, forks in the road. There was no need for metaphor. Life was not like a journey. Life was a journey, epic and wondrous, heartbreaking and fearsome, and I could not forget it. The walking didn’t allow forgetting.

Now, almost three years later, nothing about the nature of life has changed. Only the way I experience it has changed. And I see how much harder it is this way, the non-walking way. My path is not literally a path that I can see ahead of me. The forks in the road are not literally forks that I can trace on a map. The signs are not written in reflective white colors telling me how many more miles to the next town, the place where I can rest and drink and make home for just a little while. It’s much more confusing this way. Much easier to get lost.

This is why I always felt a little uncomfortable when people praised me while I was walking. They didn’t realize that their walk was far more challenging than mine. They were raising children, and paying mortgages, and taking care of their dying parents, and fighting fires, and running motels, and growing cotton to clothe the world. I was walking. That’s it. Just walking. And yet they celebrated me like a damn hero. Were they ever celebrated in this way, by complete strangers?

That was perhaps the most astonishing part of the walk – the experience of being really seen by a stranger, and then supported by that stranger, and even loved. I’m so proud of you. Keep going, man. I love you. I’ll be praying for you. Strangers gave me these lines like gifts, over and over and over again. After a year of walking, I was a very rich man.

Now, I’m not walking anymore. I blend in, anonymous. Strangers don’t approach me on the street to cheer me on in the new phase of this human experience. But it’s all right, because I’ve already received the gift. After the walk, I know I am loved and supported. But so many of us haven’t received this gift. We’ve never had a stranger look us in the eyes and tell us, “Dude, you just paid your rent, and I am so damn proud of you.” There are those of us who have never been celebrated, never been trusted, never been deeply believed in by another. And yet, they walk on. These are the heroes, and they deserve a parade, or a feast like the one I was given when I reached the Pacific Ocean.

Today, I want to be the stranger who cheers you on, whether you’ve been cheered on by a stranger before or not. I don’t know you, and I don’t know your walk, but listen to this, and speak it aloud to yourself so you can actually hear it: I’m so proud of you. Thank you for doing this. I love you. And keep walking, because I know you’re gonna get there.

Yummy

I swear to you, a New Orleans brass band will heal pretty much anything, especially if you let yourself dance. In another life I would’ve been a trombone player.

Let it take you

I’m in the midst of transformation, in between death and birth, and I’m thinking these things:

Write it – your book, your life – like the guy sings, “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.” That first line. Just ooh, just true. What’s been holding me back? I don’t know. I can’t see the gremlin that has kept this thing from becoming itself, and that’s why the gremlin is so seductive. I can’t quite see it, but I want to see it, just to be sure it’s really there, just to be sure I wasn’t making it all up, so I end up chasing it, and testing it, and imagining what it might look like. But really, there is no gremlin. The chasing, the testing, the imagining, that is the gremlin. So be free. Write it ooh and true. Relax and lean in. Lean into the earth, lean into community, lean into your relationships, lean into love, lean into God, lean into the flow, lean into who you really are, the one who flexes wings of magnificent color and wears green stars above his head like a halo.

You’ve gotten yourself this far by following a certain modality. This modality has now run its course. You are at the funeral, here in New Orleans. At the funerals here they bring out the brass bands and they play, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and the tubas fwomp and the trumpets blang and the trombones whowng, and it’s a beautiful thing. You might cry, but it’s still a beautiful thing. It’s a celebration, my friend! It got you this far, and now you no longer need it. Let it go. And dance. You can finally dance without giving a shit. You are free. You can fall in love again.

So what’s the eulogy? What has this dead modality given you? How should it be honored? We have to honor it now, otherwise you might forget just how much you needed it. If you don’t honor it, you might think it was a mistake, or a distraction, or a dead-end. Which it wasn’t. It was a stepping stone. You couldn’t have gotten here without having been there. So, the eulogy:

I thought I had to do it all alone. It sounds dumb, but I really did, so I kept moving. I saw so much, so many different ways of being – cities, seasons, people. Traveling alone, I sampled all these different ways. I gathered information from the outside. What works? What doesn’t? And then I inured myself. Defense and protection. Will I fuck it all up? Gotta hold it all together. I kept myself from going too deep with anyone. Hiding. I became, at times, a false ascetic in a cave of illusions. I was afraid of losing it all, because somehow I knew I would, so I grasped and grasped and found myself staring at a great blankness leading nowhere. It sounds bleak, but here’s the jewel: if I hadn’t touched all these things I never would have discovered they’re unnecessary. They’re not who I am. They’re not how I want to become. The deprivation, the isolation, the striving, the little self at center, the running, running, running – I had to experience all of it to see that I don’t want any of it anymore. I don’t need it. Enough. No more. But I had to walk in order to sit. I had to make it as difficult as possible to realize that it doesn’t have to be. It can be so easy. I know this to be true. It’s what I learned last month in San Francisco. It is so easy. It is wild and free.

So now what, here in New Orleans? Let the brass band play, I suppose, and dance, dance, dance. You have arrived, at long last. Welcome home, my friend. Love has come. Let it take you where it wants.

A German man named Nikolaus Huhn just contacted me. “You have a kind of relative on the other end of the great waters,” he wrote. Here’s his website. I don’t speak German, but judging from the photograph, I think he might be a genius. Nikolaus Huhn auf " Hoerendem Fu§marsch "

Have you listened today?

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