We mailed Beatrice her gifts and watched her open them on Skype. Her older sister, Gwyneth, joined us online from Iowa. We don’t know when we’ll see her in person either. We were supposed to visit Gwyneth last month for her grad school graduation, but that was canceled, another victim of the pandemic.
What was once such a big world — London! Iowa City! — seems small indeed when you’re sticking close to home and putting six feet between you and everybody else.
As is her wont, Beatrice decided to make certain demands of those of us marking the anniversary of her nativity. When once this meant a bulleted list of gift ideas, this year her family and friends all received a memorandum entitled “Beatrice’s Birthday Dérive.” The first section was headed “What is psychogeography?”
Beatrice is a lawyer. It sometimes seems that she’s always been a lawyer. But before law school, Beatrice was an art history major and as to the kind of art she likes, well, the weirder the better. I remember her telling me about a movement from the 1970s called Viennese Actionism and then wishing she hadn’t. Let’s just say they were gross, those Viennese Actionists.
What Beatrice wanted for her 27th birthday was for everyone to indulge in a milder form of performance art, one suited for these cabin feverish times. She wanted us all to take a walk.
Psychogeography, her memo explained, is “the exploration of the urban landscape led by curiosity, a paused sense of time and a heightened sense of place.”
One psychogeographic manifestation is the “dérive,” an activity popularized — though I guess “popularized” isn’t exactly the right word for something I’d never heard of — by a guy named Guy Debord (1931-1984) who was a Marxist, a Situationist and, naturally, French. His Wikipedia entry includes the winning line: “Debord attended high school in Cannes, where he began his interest in film and vandalism.”
A dérive is a walk whose route is decided by certain chance encounters. It’s sort of ambulatory automatic writing designed to force a pedestrian to notice the world around her. When Dadaists do them, these dérives are meant to take all day and be a communal experience, a half-dozen chain-smoking anarchists walking the urban byways of Paris, London or Berlin.
I didn’t have high hopes for ours, suburban Silver Spring not exactly like being the Latin Quarter.
But My Lovely Wife and I began anyway, starting with the first instruction from Beatrice’s birthday dérive: “Leave your house and go the opposite direction from the way you would go were you commuting to work.”
At the first junction, we were to make a left, walk for exactly eight minutes, then make a right.
This we did, heading further and further from our house. And then: “Wait until you see some red or pink flowers. Once you have seen red or pink flowers, make the next left.”
“Oh come on,” I thought. People in four different time zones were doing Beatrice’s cockamamie avant-garde scavenger hunt. We were all supposed to be on the lookout for some red or pink flowers?
I imagined myself trudging 25,000 miles, the entire circumference of Earth, looking in vain for a single crimson bud, but after just a few blocks, there, in the middle of a neatly mowed lawn, was a compact rose bush, its blossoms fuchsia.
The instructions carried on in this vein, telling us to change our direction based on various random occurrences: the passage of a car, the passage of seven minutes, the sight of a bus stop or of a tall tree.
Every few lines, the instructions were punctuated with, “Think about how Beatrice is now 27. Wow!”
My wife and I walked for miles, through neighborhoods we’d driven through but never noticed, and it was in the noticing of them that they became sublime.
The final instruction told us to head home: “Try to walk along roads that you don’t know, avoiding exactly retracing the way that you came.”
When you’re old enough to be the father of a 27-year-old, you sometimes think you know all the roads, metaphorically speaking. Beatrice’s birthday present to me was the reminder that it’s more fun if you don’t.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.