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In the Footsteps of Others

By Magdalena Guździoł

A girl lies on her side atop a bed, in a dress.

Art by Cleo Scott

For me, every new year begins with an all-day hike. Visiting beloved spots amidst Surrey’s gentle hills, striding in and out of the valleys as Lewis Carroll once did, provides the ideal conditions for the mind to wander along with the body. My grandfather used to take my dad and his siblings on nature trips throughout their childhood. It is a tradition passed down through generations. The suggestion of a Sunday afternoon walk has been routine since I was a child, with the summer months bringing longer escapades still.

The same has been true of reading. I’ve been reading novels for as long as I can remember. My first time lugging a hefty tome while on a walk was in 2016; Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 classic, Gone with the Wind, sat heavy as a brick in my Mountain Warehouse backpack as I rose and sank with the rolling white cliffs of Dover. Ever since, despite the discomfort of their weight, novels commensurate in length to the distance of my walking trips have become constant companions. Essential items in my packing list now include a tent, a stove, water, and a book.

The thousands of kilometres I have walked since 2016, and the number of pages I’ve read, are an achievement of sorts. I have acquired skills whose usefulness in our current world is up for debate; I can fall back into a pleasant sleep after touching something distinctly wolf-like through the frail fabric of a cheap tent, I can enjoy a night under the bare sky on a summit in the Black Forest. I am indisputable proof that people aren’t made of sugar and that rain is just a bit of water.

Most valuable of all though, walking has given me the ability to reflect, and to not be afraid of reflecting. Walking is when I most enjoy my own company, revelling in the solitude of my journey and the subtle sounds of my surroundings. In the summer of 2016, I walked half of the North Downs Way. The tenacity that allowed me to wild camp in the densely populated South East ran out soon after I turned the last page of Mitchell’s masterpiece, with Rhett’s ‘Frankly, I don’t give a damn’ ringing in my mind.

In June of 2018, I was back to finish the North Downs Way, having completed an underwhelming year at university. This time I was in the company of a Mr. Tolstoy, engrossed in analysing his experiences, constantly searching for the fulfilment of his ambitious designs. I spent endless hours, that summer, mulling over the characters in War and Peace. Though only 19 at the time, I did not see myself in youthful Natasha. Rather, it was Maria’s unexpressed longings, known only to her innermost self, and her attempts to order her desires that struck a chord with me.

One evening, when I was camping at a caravan park, Tolstoy’s words stirred in me a feeling, one described by C. S. Lewis as an unsatisfied desire itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I closed the book, index finger trapped amid the pages, marking my progress. I looked out towards the honey-coloured stalks in the distance, and with every fibre of my being, willed this sensation, placeable somewhere between longing and loss, to never cease.

To mark the end of my undergraduate studies, and as a farewell to the North, I planned a long walking trip. This time I was trudging along the Pennine Way. The cold, spacious and remote terrain had held my imagination captive for years, and for fourteen and a half relentless days in late spring, I obeyed the crack of the wind above my head and walked on. It isn’t unfair to assume that a wish to escape civilisation plays some role in my passion for walking. My insistence on ‘roughing it’ for a fortnight can be mistaken for an aversion to technology, scorn for tools more advanced than flint and steel.

But, in fact, I am quite fond of my earphones. My greatest pleasure during those two weeks was getting lost in Les Misérables, speaking quietly into my ear chapter by chapter, step by step. Scrambling up Pen-y-ghent with a 16kg backpack was less painful than experiencing Jean Valjean make the decision to leave Montreuil-sur-Mer and travel to Arras.

Reading the outstanding Polish author Maria Dąbrowska’s Nights and has been a glorious exercise in introspection. Like Maria Bolkonsky, family life is never far from my thoughts. Nights and Days, depicting the lives of married couple Barbara and Bogumił through the decades, spurred some of my most vulnerable ruminations. I found myself questioning, alongside Bogumił, ‘for whose strength, for whose reason then is human life calibrated, since it appears far too difficult for the strength and reason of man?’ Then, I rolled my eyes at my twenty-four-going-on-sixty-year-old life-weariness. Barbara’s overwrought regret about a gushing, boastful letter of advice sent to a young woman introduced a short burst of laughter to a Sunday walk otherwise defined by much handwringing and overthinking of my own social interactions. My fear that I was awkward in some uniquely embarrassing way was briefly assuaged by the reassurance of a hundred-year-old novel.

For me, the novel form has always sparked intense introspection, revealing uncharted and often daunting depths in myself. Walking, like a rosary providing the guide rope for a believer contemplating the Divine Mysteries, allows me the opportunity to dwell upon these thoughts. The world does not make enough room for such moments – some call them self-indulgent. My desire for self-exploration is not a dead-end, focused on no one but myself. Tolstoy’s avoidance of people, because they bother him, alongside his declaration that we live only through people and for people, succinctly summarises this contradiction.

Among other things, my solitary wanderings have allowed me to discover that the existence my own interiority must mean that others also possess such uncharted depths. Novels train the muscle of empathy; empathy is a variation on the Biblical purity of heart. Simon Tugwell says that with a pure heart we can recognise the mystery within ourselves, some unknowable element in our essence. This leads us to confront the related mystery that must therefore live in all other created things.

In western culture, we frequently associate empathy with emotions and emotions with the heart. To me, empathy is not a sweet feeling, an empty sentiment that prompts a perfunctory ‘I’m sorry’ in the face of bad news before moving on. There are places in this world where the heart is the site of inner life, the whole interiority of human consciousness. The empathy I seek to practise in my life stems from this heart and as such is the repeated conscious choice to understand the other through imagining ourselves as them.

Walking gives me space and time to connect to those intangible and invisible aspects of my heart which give rise to what C S Lewis called a desire for something never to be described. Thus, walking and reading, or rather reading while walking, reinforces self-exploration and the entrenchment of an empathetic worldview. These preoccupations are the sum parts of who I am.

MAGDALENA GUŹDZIOŁ is in the first year of an MPhil in Slavonic Studies. Her favourite consequence of multilingualism is the list of side-splitting language jokes she has on her phone.


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