Today I had a catch-up with Mytho, prompted by a Facebook exchange on street-naming. I thought we were going to have a cup of tea and talk about shoes and ships and sealing wax, and cabbages and signs for desire paths. But when I met him in Sardine Street, he had another suggestion.
A Dérivist pal of his has a project to walk each of the walks in “Ways to Wander” with a different companion. He is writing a book about the responses, and Mytho is contributing to the foreword. Hence Mytho also wanted to engage with at least one of the walks, and chose the Tennis ball. Here is the score written by Tobias Grice.
So would I be willing to walk around Exeter High Street while bouncing a tennis ball, with someone else doing the same thing? My first reaction was reluctance. I felt self-consciousness and worried that I would look foolish. It’s not an unusual feeling for me, just a little bit stronger than when I have to mingle at parties. Hmmm…
I did it anyway. Mytho handed me a cheap yellow ball. I gave it a trial bounce on the pavement. It barely rebounded, and I missed it. Whereupon a passerby stopped and returned it to me. This became one of the threads of our walk.
Even allowing for British politeness and shopping tunnel-vision, people on the High Street barely batted their eyelids. Mostly, it felt quite natural to walk and talk and bounce. Until we dropped a ball. Which was slightly awkward, because Mytho was trying to record the places they chanced upon. And people kept on being helpful.
When we reached the Cathedral Close, the street surfaces became cobbled, the bounces more erratic, the drops more frequent, and the encounters more meaningful.
In particular, one man commented on his lack of football skills in stopping the ball, which became a story of a friend of his who played for Brian Clough, which became a conversation about how he was in Exeter was his family to sort out his mum’s house after her death, and how his daughter had also died. We provided the listening ears and kind words, and a final shake of the hand before we parted.
Then the next moment, I smiled at a mum who had just left the Cathedral prep school with buggy. She noticed the balls, and described how she and her son had just been rescuing a ladybird. They had to get it home safely!
As Mytho commented, “the tennis balls had made us strangely available”. The playfulness, and that small interaction of passing the ball with a smile and brief word, was an opening for deeper sharing and even some pastoral care.
It was truly a lesson for me in the pointlessness of self-consciousness. And also how seeming foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.
Today was also the second anniversary of my dad’s death. This was a good way of marking it.