For a few years now, I have closed out most weeks by taking to the trails with the Wander Women, a local hiking group. We walk, and we talk, and we take in the sights and sounds along our woodland paths. But the truth is, we don’t really wander. We have a definite destination and an approximate time frame, from which we rarely deviate.
That’s as it should be. We all have post-hike errands to run or appointments to keep or evening engagements to get ready for, so it helps to have an idea just how the day’s hike will fit into all of that.
Sometimes, though, when I’m on my own in the woods—or on a city street, for that matter—I like to just aimlessly meander. That makes me a flâneur, a word I learned from a lovely article in Mindful magazine. The word has been variously defined as “an aimless idler” and “a passionate wanderer.”
I guess I’m a little of both. So, apparently, was Henry David Thoreau, who extolled the virtues of “sauntering” and letting his mind wander along with his feet.
When I worked in downtown Detroit, I spent most lunch breaks walking, usually with no particular destination in mind. I might end up strolling by the Detroit River or losing myself in the Ren Cen’s maze of hallways and catwalks or exploring Greektown or Harmonie Park or Washington Boulevard. Wherever I roamed, I always came back to the office refreshed and ready to work for the rest of the day.
Later, when I worked in Ann Arbor, my lunchtime walks took me into various neighborhoods, where I found inspiration in the creatively-designed gardens, quirky houses, and funky yard art I passed along the way.
“When you wander, the spring you tighten in order to secure your purpose and direction can unwind,” editor Barry Boyce observed in the Mindful article. What’s more, he noted, wandering can even be a kind of mindfulness practice. While we tend to think mindfulness is all about corralling our restless minds, the definition can expand to include “the practice of just noticing one thing after another as we let ourselves out to play.”
That’s exactly what I find myself doing on my walks these days. A just-bloomed wildflower, an oddly-shaped stone, a leaf floating down the creek—there’s no telling what will catch my attention and take it far from whatever minutia occupied my overloaded brain before I set out on my stroll.
I seem to wander best when I wander alone, but some folks are joining up in free “walkshops” organized by the nonprofit group Street Wisdom. On these volunteer-led strolls, participants are encouraged to tune into their senses and use their heightened awareness to sharpen their creative problem-solving skills.
Whether you ramble solo or with fellow flâneurs, you can bet your creativity will get the same kind of boost, as long as you let your mind meander freely. Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology found that frequent daydreamers scored higher on tests of intellectual and creative ability and used their brains more efficiently (as measured with brain scans) than people who zoned out less.
All of that is reason enough for me to get up from my desk and wander off. See ya later!
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.