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Tax time: Outside lies magic

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I’m a huge fan of walking. By “walk,” I don’t mean the fetishistic activity that involves leg weights, an odometer and a satellite system.

I’m talking about throwing on your sneakers, walking out the door of wherever you happen to be, and taking an hour or two-hour stroll for the sheer, exuberant wonder of the enterprise.

Deserts, seashores and prairies are good, but so are back alleys, warehouse districts and urban blight. The edges, as Pope Francis points out, are where things get interesting. The edges are where you have space to dream, where people will say hi. Or not.

I once wheeled into a Motel 6 in Flagstaff, Arizona, for example, took off on foot, and passed through a half-mile of gas stations, cloverleafs and underpasses. But then I came upon a dirt forest road, completely deserted, where I picked a bouquet of wildflowers, communed with several trees, and watched the sunset before tramping back to my humble room.

Suffice it to say that “Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places” (1998) is my kind of book. Imagine my surprise, to discover that while I thought I’d just been engaging in an under-the-radar, poor person’s activity, the author, John R. Stilgoe, teaches classes at Harvard!

He’s definitely on to something, though. Here’s an excerpt:

“Get out now. Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people at the end of our century. Go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow down, look around. Do not jog. Do not run.

Abandon, even momentarily, the sleek modern technology that consumes so much time and money now, and seek out the resting place of a technology almost forgotten. Go outside and walk a bit, long enough to forget programming, long enough to take in and record new surroundings.

Outside lies programmed awareness that at times becomes directed serendipity. Outside lies magic.”

As we reel from tax day — an event that makes us self-employed folk, in particular, blanch — Stilgoe’s message is especially timely. Because getting outside, among its many other attributes, is free!

One place I’ve always loved to walk is Downtown L.A. As a lawyer in the early 90s, I frequently washed up at the Superior Courthouse on Hill and First and the nearby law library.

I spent many hours of mingled existential anguish and interior joy in what is now Grand Park, sitting on a deserted bench and gazing at the fountain down the hill from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

I wept, prayed, buried my head in my hands, talked to homeless people, and drank endless venti Starbucks by that fountain. The seed of the decision to quit my job as a lawyer in order to write was planted by that fountain.

That fountain is now tricked out like a ferris wheel at night — spectacular enough, though I’m not sure I didn’t like it better before. The point is that I have a history with the fountain.

The point is that we don’t get a history with people or things unless we get up close to them. Christ always got close to people. He noticed the trees, the flowers, the mountains, the wind. He traveled on foot.

So if you have the tax-time blues, why not spend a day exploring our beautiful Downtown? You can park for two free hours on the Hill Street extension (take a gradual right off Cesar Chavez just past Grand), or all day in the streets above Chinatown.

Walk to the Central Library on Olive and Fifth. Peruse the stacks of books and racks of CDs. Check out the always interesting photography or art exhibit. Sit in the courtyard.

Walk up the hill to the Colburn School, a gold mine of free events: student recitals, faculty chamber music ensembles, dance lectures.

Sit by the reflecting pool in back of MOCA and give thanks.

Wander down to Little Tokyo and splurge on a bowl of ramen.

Visit Grand Central Market.

Find your way (you may want to drive the two miles) to the Bread Lounge at 700 South Santa Fe. Buy a $2.10 hunk of Ciabatta with Kalamata Olives (so eucharistic!) and walk over the LA River on the Seventh Street Bridge.

Say howdy to the lone folks you’ll come upon who have set up camp for the day in the occasional alcoves.

Stop in the middle.

Look out over the railyards and the river and the whole crazy sprawl of our unlikely, glorious city. Survey what God hath made. Tell yourself, heart bursting: I live here. I am part of this.

You’ll be footsore, and a little hungry still, and not a penny richer.

But remind yourself as you begin the trudge back that the mark of a follower of Christ is never whether we own houses, or lands or fat IRAs.  

The mark of a follower of Christ is the breadth of our imagination.

It’s our capacity for beauty.

It’s our willingness to suffer, for love.

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