My various sleep issues pretty much make sure my mind is constantly moving and I get restless. Naturally, that means I’m often up and about because what else am I going to do? I recently read and connected with that same sense of restlessness in Virginia Woolf’s classic essay “Street Haunting.” I realized that a nice stroll around the block is not only good to pass the time, it provides us with valuables to bring back with us. Besides the occasional “lead pencil,” it gives us ideas, inspiration and connection to the outside world. With today’s advancing technology and growing list of reasons to stay inside, this is especially precious for our writing, our endeavors and ourselves.
The narrator of Woolf’s essay describes a walk taken one evening with the excuse of going to buy a lead pencil, and this lead pencil reveals itself to be much more than a mere writing tool by the end of her mini odyssey. Each frame of the vibrant and busy London life she observes is honestly and beautifully relayed to the reader.
“As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room. For there we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience.”
The essay is brimming with delightful descriptions about the London streets “with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree–sprinkled, grass–grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally,” and constructs characters from strangers, like watching a woman in a shoe shop try on shoes and gain a temporary sort of confidence she seems to have found inside them. The narrator’s mind roams freely regarding her encounters.
She does caution that the eye is resistant to anything other than superficial gathering of visual treasures like gems and stones. However, there is a great amount of inward reflection and self-evaluation. How the narrator chooses to interpret and analyze what she sees strengthens her imagination and sense of self. The eye may be petty, but the mind seems to find value and delight in every aspect of the leisurely stroll. Therefore, much of what the narrator brings back is intangible and perhaps more useful and rewarding. Mental images are “looked at again and again half consciously by a mind thinking of something else, any object mixes itself so profoundly with the stuff of thought that it loses its actual form and recomposes itself a little differently in an ideal shape which haunts the brain when we least expect it.” Here, “haunts” may refer to the recurring, other-worldly beauty that the mind can create when given raw visual material.
The narrator realizes the sheer absurdity and randomness of life during her walk, and this helps her relate more to the concept and function of the universe. It is as much a mental journey as physical. “The wonder is that I’ve any clothes on my back, that I sit surrounded by solid furniture at this moment. Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour—landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one’s hair!…Yes, that seems to express the rapidity of life, the perpetual waste and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard …” she begins to wonder about transience as well, about the reality of permanence. “Is the true self this which stands on the pavement in January, or that which bends over the balcony in June? Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves?” The simple walk becomes philosophical and a source of great discovery for the narrator.
She also praises those who seem not to focus on material possessions. She sees attractiveness and dignity in such a non-materialistic lifestyle. Such individuals seem to have escaped life’s clutches through their poverty and walk with a liberated gait. To the narrator, a certain freedom resides in the existence of few material possessions. This suggests that the value of the walk is not material but immaterial, other and intangible. In addition to encountering the beauty of the poor, the simple act of walking among others can be of great benefit. The narrator points out, “in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.”
In the end, the narrator may express bringing back “the only spoil we have retrieved from all the treasures of the city, a lead pencil,” but the reader knows that in actuality she has brought back much more than that. This is the only material possession, the only one the narrator really needs. Herein lies the beauty of street haunting. We as readers, as writers, as people, should all street haunt. It leads to mental advantages and connections, found meaning that would remain hidden otherwise. There is little limit to the gifts given to us by our environments when we move about within them. If you happen to have a bit of time, try street haunting. You may come back with more than you ever thought you could carry.