This interview is with Andrew Forsthoefel, speaker, peace activist, and the author of the fascinating book Walking to Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time (Bloomsbury, 2017). Andrew’s narrative work has appeared on This American Life and The Moth, and he teaches walking and listening as practices in connective presence, personal transformation, and conflict resolution. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.
I loved reading Walking to Listen and it was an absolute pleasure to interview Andrew. If you are a sensitive creative, highly sensitive person or someone who is searching for a deeper connection with life, Andrew’s walk and his insights will resonate deeply with you. I learnt a lot from the book and this interview, and I think you will too.
Hello Andrew. I know you as the author of the wonderful book Walking to Listen. It is the fascinating chronicle of your 4,000 mile epic walk across America. It talks about how, after graduating from college, you were ready to begin your adult life but not sure about how to do so. So, at 23, you decided to walk across America, gathering stories from people, looking for clues about how your life was supposed to unfold. At the start of the book, you walk out the back door of your home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, with a backpack, an audio recorder, your copies of Whitman and Rilke and a sign that said Walking to Listen. Can you take us back to that time and tell us a little about the beginning of this long journey. How were you feeling? What were the first few weeks like?
At the beginning, I was exhilarated and terrified and somehow utterly determined to walk, even though I had no idea what would come of it. Some part of me knew it would be enough, to just walk—that my sincere questions and the act of entrusting them to whoever I met would be a worthy offering, and worth whatever costs might be involved. I hoped there’d be much more than just the walking—insights and epiphanies, connections with people along the way—but if none of that came, I trusted that the intention was worth following. The intention was love. I was following it as a disciple follows a teacher, or trying to—disciplining myself to this work of love, work that I did by listening. But first I had to learn how to listen. I had to learn what listening actually was, is. In learning how to listen, I was learning how to love. Still am.
But at the beginning, I was just raw. Scared. Boots on the ground. Pack on the back. Sweat and fear and don’t-know-where-I’m-going-to-sleep-tonight. It was electrifying. It was miserable. I was fully alive, weeping and giggling and feeling things I’d long suppressed or had never felt before, seeing in ways I’d never seen. Paying exquisite attention to this moment, to the miraculousness of being alive. In setting out, alone into the unknown, I was stripping away that which tended to distract me or block me from the sheer wonder of being here.
In the book, you talk about how you developed a deeper trust in yourself by being on the road. You also started trusting in other people more. Their trusting you and opening their homes and lives to you also changed you. It lessened your fear. What would you say to people who say that the world is a dangerous place? I think the world can be both a safe and a dangerous place. If we have experienced it as dangerous, it takes work to let go of that fear. But even objectively, there are many dangers in the world and your journey was very courageous. Can you talk about how your walk progressed in terms of your relationship to fear? What were the points when you felt most fear? When did the fear ease a little bit?
Fear came to me in some form just about every day. It was a reaction triggered by my assumptions about people, a fleeing from love—in which generosity and compassion rule—into fear and its obsession with domination and control. It tended to go like this: I’d see a stranger up ahead. My mind, uncomfortable not knowing who they were or what was about to happen, would leap to fill the void of unknowing with a story about this person. This story almost inevitably involved what they were going to do to me, what they might take from me, how they might treat me. Listen to it: me, me, me. Obsessing myself with myself, in my experience, primed me as an ideal host for fear and everything else that comes from fear: hatred, manipulation, exploitation, violence. If, however, I was not approaching you, the stranger, with myself as my primary concern—fearful of what you might take from me, or think of me, or do to me—something else became possible. What if you, the stranger, were my primary concern? What if I approached you like that? What if my life was dedicated to understanding you? Listening to you? Trusting you, and trusting that your life is worthy of being seen and known, trusting that you belong and that I belong nowhere else but here with you? How might that change my experience of you? How might that affect your approach to me? This is the beginning of the movement from fear to love, I think. Changing the place from which you are living. Are you living for you? Are you living for me? Are you living for us?
Trust, for me, was a powerful offering that I both gave and received everyday. Entrusting people with my earnest questions and even my life. Trusting, even when I had no reason to. Which is not to say that I wasn’t taking care of myself, being sure to respond prudently to any real danger, as opposed to the countless imagined dangers in my head. And then, if my trust wasn’t reciprocated, or if it was violated in some way, trusting that within the fabric of that violation or non-reciprocation were the designs of some redemptive experience: an opportunity to practice the love of forgiveness, a love that is unconditional, a love that is freedom, that does not need to remain intact to keep on loving. A heart that can be broken without becoming resentful and suspicious and evasive. A heart that will keep trusting, and in so doing, grow in its capacity to include, which is to love.
Your journey explored both your relationship to solitude as well as your search for connection. You talk about how the “alien planet of solitude had a gravitational pull” on you even as a small child. But even after walking for a long while on this cross-country walk, your loneliness did not completely disappear. This is what you say in one lyrical passage: “Perhaps it was an effect of the lingering longing to love someone in a way that would dissolve me, merge my planet with theirs. But this was an impossible wish. Each one of us was stuck on our own planet–we each were our own planet–and any attempts to squash two planets together would result not in a new planet, but in a catastrophic collision in the cosmos.” Later on, you say: “Better to be like binary stars, two celestial bodies orbiting around a common center, existing on their own together. Looking up into the night sky with your naked eyes, binary stars appear to be a single point of light, but they are in fact two separate entities, connected by the space between them, not divided by it.” I found your thoughts so beautiful. Of course, culturally, we are told that love is surrendering, uniting, whether it is in romantic relationships or otherwise. Your walk was about both connection and self-definition. How do you think this journey has changed your relationship to your own self and to others? Is there a different balance of connection and solitude in your life? Are your expectations from other people different?
What I am learning now is that the best way to love someone is to release them of the burden of my expectations, to let go of my fantasies of who I think they’re supposed to be or what our relationship is supposed to look like, and, instead, to simply experience who they are now. Which is not to say that I cease to communicate myself to them—my needs and wants, my hopes and longings, my fears—but to do so without the subtle (or obvious) intention to manipulate them in any way. To respect them deeply and fully, each their own sovereign king and queen. To see them as fully capable beings. To ask them questions without weaponizing my language in the slightest. To share without trying to extract anything from them or implant anything in them. This is listening, trusting that whatever they offer in that moment—a heartbreaking story, something light, stony silence, or even a lie—is the only thing they could offer, and that it is allowed, included, and needed, in ways I might never understand. To let them be. To love them as they are. How might they be my teacher?
Solitude is a place to cultivate the capacity to be in relationship with others in this way, because it’s the place where you get to learn how to be in relationship with yourself in this way. For me, all my shit comes up when I’m alone, without the internet. I get to hear all the voices: judgment, fear, pettiness, paranoia. All of it. All of myself, no part left out. Learning how to be in relationship with all of myself is the work of learning how to be in relationship with all of you, too. Solitude is where I get to work, to see that I am the creator of my suffering, and to begin taking responsibility for healing, rather than perpetuating that suffering in my relationships by my unwillingness to take a good, long look at my own mind.
In Arizona, as you came closer to the end of the journey, you stopped journaling as much. You recorded fewer interviews. You shot fewer photographs. “Remembering everything became secondary to just living it.” In your book, you talk about how, even now, when the questions start bothering you, you try to get back to that feeling, that “state of clarified connection,” when your body was so exhausted that you dropped the thought that you were an isolated self. Later on, you discovered that this state of mind is called “beauty-walking” in the Navajo Nation. Do you think this state of “beauty-walking” is accessible to different people in different activities? For example: When I paint, I forget myself, and yet, feel fully present. This feeling is different from the feeling I felt when I used to do photography. While painting literally nourishes my heart (I feel it being comforted), photography is about feeling connected to the world. The quality of these two experiences is different for me. What would you say are the qualities linked to walking? We have been walking for eons. So many religious journeys are made on foot. What do you think walking evokes in us?
Walking slows the body down and invites the mind to slow down, too. In that slowness, you can sometimes hear things that go unheard when you’re moving at high speeds. Harsh words you’ve been repeating to yourself without even realizing it. Powerful insights whispered wordlessly. Not to mention the spring peepers, or the falling snow, or the honking cars in the street. The movement of walking reflects the movement of creation, the movement of all things. To walk is to surrender to the movement of your life, from birth and into death, or it can be such an offering. But this movement is everywhere, even in the most exquisite experience of stillness. Because what is still, really? What doesn’t move? Walking is just one way to roll into the motion of being alive, watching all the waves that come with it.
You talk so evocatively about so many places in America. At one point, you say: “In the Navajo Nation, the land was living. A kind of sentience stirred in the stands of pinon pine and juniper. The rock especially appeared to be alive, watching me walk, listening to my footsteps. Looking out at the horizon, it filled up half the frame. The other half was sky. The sky, here and everywhere, seemed outside of time, immeasurable, but the rock in this place was deep within time, the recorder of antiquity.” That is so beautiful! I loved how you had this deep sense of place and showed us different places in America. Can you talk about some other places that spoke to you in this full-bodied way? Do you think the people you met were shaped by the places they lived in? If yes, how?
Walking through Alabama was a wonder: the desert red soil, so fertile, growing every shade of green imaginable. The homemade signs marking homemade diners and hardware stores and bars. Patches of America untouched by the faux-culture of mega-corporations and the human impulse that inspired such a thing. I was also deeply troubled by Alabama, seeing the way the wounds of history have gone so radically unaddressed. Where is the truth and reconciliation process? Where are we gathering together to talk about and bear witness to the pain of our shared origins—slavery, colonialism, and state sanctioned campaign of oppression and terror? Where are the descendants of enslaved people and the descendants of the ones who enslaved them coming together to listen to one another? Somewhere other than courtrooms? I think it is happening in little corners here and there, in some churches, in some homes, and through organizations like the Equal Justice Initiative. But I was shocked at how powerful the allure of willful ignorance was for so many of the people I met, and for me, too. It is hard to look at pain—in this case, the pain of our collective past—because to look at pain, to really witness it and behold it, is to be in pain. We must learn how to be in pain if we are going to heal. Not just in Alabama. Not just in America. Wherever humans are living in the cycle of violence and retribution. Walking through that land had a way of smacking me in the face with some of these realizations.
As an immigrant, I sometimes feel as if my memories of my life in India are disjointed, as if many of them are lost to me. But while reading Walking to Listen, it struck me that as you say, “memories have to be cared for, though, if they are to survive, and remembering is the only way to care for them.” Do you think that writing this book was a way to care for your memories of this journey? Sometimes, I also feel as if just the experience itself does not change us, but something has to be integrated later on. What do you think? Has writing this book added to or solidified your journey?
Writing the book was a continuation of the walk, the work of exploring this human experience, understanding it, getting completely confused and lost, finding insight and beauty. Yes, to your point, sitting down to write about what happened was a way of integrating it at a more conscious, mindful level. My body was there for every mile of the 4,000 mile journey. My bones got it all. It was my mind that had some catching up to do, and writing was a way of slowing down my mind into a single slipstream of concentration—one long string of words—which played the part of midwife for insight and even healing. Writing the book was a healing act for me, as the act of receiving insight so often is.
Could you talk a little about the brasstacks of writing this book. How did you begin? How long did it take? Did you have a schedule that you stuck to? What was the most difficult part of the artistic process for you? I was also wondering whether anything was edited out of the book? If yes, then how did you decide what to leave out?
I began writing the book in the summer of 2013 and finished all writing and editing at the beginning of 2017. The first two years were the most intense creatively. Some part of me knew that if I remained in community I wouldn’t be able to write the book—I’d prioritize my relationships instead of the book—and so I took to the road again, in a car this time, and hopped from one secluded place to the next, spending one to two months in each spot. The home of adopted grandparents in Alabama and Vermont. A forest cottage in Erie, PA. A sublet in Brooklyn, and another in San Francisco. A writer’s residency program in Wyoming. All over the place. During these one to two month stints, I’d keep to a very disciplined schedule: writing from the early morning till lunch; resting, reading, or exercising in the afternoon; and sometimes picking it back up again in the evening after dinner. I would take a month or so off in between these stints, then dive in again. It was a creative crucible, and a delight.
The most difficult part of writing the book was thinking about writing the book. Whenever I was just simply writing it, there was no problem. But when I got to thinking about the project (as opposed to just immersing myself in it), I’d get freaked out. The numbers would rattle me. How many hours of audio recordings will I have to sift through? How many pages will I have to cut and then rewrite? Will I be able to get it finished in time? And these superficial concerns could often lead to more existential ones, doubt and fear about my capacities as a writer. Am I mature enough to write this book? What am I missing? How will I mess it up? There were countless things to freak out about, countless ways to stop trusting and freeze up with dread. What was often helpful in this spin-outs was remembering that there was nothing inherently true about these fears—nothing inherently true about where the fears were coming from or what they were pointing to. I would remember this, and then just slide back into the writing—the work of it, the rhythm of it, the flow, even if the flow looked like blockage in that moment. Just coming back home to the project itself, rather than thinking about the project—how it was going to get done, how it would be perceived by others, what the future might look like. Just here and now, with this sentence, with this word.
I did have to edit a lot out of the book. I simply couldn’t condense a year’s worth of experiences into a single three or four hundred page narrative. So, I listened as carefully and obediently as I could, to my heart, to which stories had to be told, which tributaries wanted to get explored. What felt alive and real for me in that moment? What was I avoiding or trying to hide? What was I disturbed by or utterly delighted by? What didn’t I understand? These were the questions I asked to search for the writing. Listening, the answers would come, one word at a time. And then the answers would change, with all the drafts and edits. The final answer only came once, at the very end, when I sent the file to my publisher for the printing press.
Do you think your experiences during the journey and the way you approached long-distance walking inform the way you wrote this book in any way? For example: From reading the book, it seemed to me that you did not overthink taking on such a daunting journey. Is that something that is part of who you are? What would you tell other people who want to undertake a similar journey, whether it is long-distance walking or writing a book?
Walking across America was excellent training for writing a book. The more I thought about the task of walking across the continent, the more daunting it became. If I just stayed with this mile, this footstep, the problem disappeared. Same with writing a book. And learning how to rest and pace myself was something I learned on the walk, too. I learned how to be kind to myself on the walk, which is something I needed to write the book—that patient, generous kindness. I learned a lot about trust on my walk, and I needed a lot of trust to write the book, faith that it would happen somehow, even though I had never done it before.
If you are setting out on a marathon project—a long distance walk, a book—see if you can enjoy each moment of it, even the miserable bits. And if something is preventing you from enjoying it, finding gratitude for it, you might ask yourself why? Why am I not enjoying this? Why am I even doing this to begin with? Investigating the impulses behind your intentions are an important part of any project. Getting clear on the motivation. Understanding that there will always be some mystery around the why of everything that we do. Coming to have reverence for that mystery, rather than resentment or fear. Walk in beauty with your footsteps and words, in wonder that you are even capable of taking a step, in awe that words even exist. Find that place of radical gratitude, and everything will flow from there. And when you can’t find that place, dedicate your confusion to the service of something greater than yourself—your community, your children, your God. Trust that nothing is wasted or wrong about what is happening through you and how it is coming to be.
Can you tell us a little bit about how your journey continues and how you are using listening as a catalyst for personal transformation and peacemaking? Is there anything else that you might like to add or tell your readers?
I am still apprenticed to the practice of listening, and a part of that work now sometimes involves speaking about it and teaching it, at colleges and universities, high schools, retreat centers, libraries, basically wherever I’m invited to speak or facilitate a workshop. As I’ve grown in my ability to listen, I’ve realized that most people don’t actually understand what listening is, and if they don’t understand what it is, how can they be expected to do it? I recently learned that the word “teach” comes from a word in Old English that means “to show.” Listening is not an inherent ability that everyone grows into. It must be taught, shown, and the only way to show it is to do it, to listen. So, if you’ve never been listened to, how can you be expected to listen? Given that listening and being listened to are integral parts of our psychological and spiritual health, which in turn affect our physical health, it is critical that listening be taught as a requirement. And not just for individual health, but for the health of our communities, our nation, our world. And by health, I mean peace. Without deep listening, there can be no peace. No wisdom. No truth and reconciliation. No forgiveness. No mercy. No love. Listening is not the only piece necessary for harmony with self and other and Earth, but it is a necessary one, and it happens to be an endangered piece, a forgotten piece. I do what I can for listening in my personal life, in the way that I cultivate and attend to my relationships, and in my professional life as a speaker, writer, and facilitator.
Thank you for this interview!
Thank you for your sincerity, Ritu. Truly, an honor to receive such earnest questions. My best to you!