Biking my way into town on a summer’s evening, I pedal down the 200 block of East Sacramento Avenue and come upon Ken and Melinda sharing tea and cookies on their front porch. They call me to join in and I climb the steps to the porch and settle in for a little front porch sitting.
Here in the Sacramento Valley town of Chico, California, remnants of front porch sitting survive. California style bungalow houses like that of Ken and Melinda can still be found with garages off the alley and roomy front porches facing the street. Front porch sitting is a social custom wherein one’s presence is available to anyone who chances by. A front porch sitter gets waved to by passersby and waves back, gets spoken to and speaks back in a veritable culture of waving and speaking
I grew up in the 1930s and 40s in a southern California farm community where front porch sitting was a common tradition. Whenever I had an occasion to pass by the Reeder farm, I was likely to find Mabel Reeder and her thirty year old retarded son, Paul, sitting on the farmhouse’s broad front porch. Mabel would wave to me and then Paul would follow suit, waving enthusiastically and apparently unable to stop until Mabel caught his hands and held them still. You’re not likely to see such as Paul waving from a front porch these days, and it’s a loss to us because the Pauls of this world needn’t be kept out of sight.
But with the advent of the contemporary subdivision house plan where the street side of houses is designed to accommodate cars rather than humans, who isn’t kept out of sight? Drive up to the typical subdivision house and you’ll be greeted by a broad concrete driveway leading to a two-car garage door that if you happen to be the owner will open for you at the touch of a remote. Once parked, the door lowers behind you and you can step into the kitchen from the garage without being exposed outdoors. A consequence of this modern convenience is that the front door entries of houses aren’t much used these days by anyone other than guests. And even then the sidewalk to the front door most often branches off from the driveway so that guests can only reach the front door by walking an entry set aside for cars. In homage to the automobile, front porch sitting has been abandoned to practices more private and selective than public and neighborly. I’m fortunate that here in my eighty first year I can still find Ken and Melinda sitting on the broad front porch of their 1930’s bungalow where they can be seen and acknowledged as never could they were they hidden behind the blank face of a subdivision’s garage door.
Front porch sitting is something the body does, the doing of which elicits a corresponding frame of mind. The body goes first and mind follows, though stimulus and consequence are mostly instantaneous. Of course sitting isn’t the only way the body influences the mind. Bowing as well is another gesture of the body with mental correspondences. The clasped palms, lowered eyes, and forward curve of the body speak a universal language felt by all. It is an absolutely wordless communication that requires neither language nor thought, something the body knows to do on its own. The mind is drawn into the bowing unawares, rendered expressive of a gentle and yielding nature without necessarily being conscious of being so. You don’t need to know why you bow or what its affect is on you. The bowing itself does all that for you.
Much the same sort of thing can be said of handshakes, smiles, frowns, the most subtle adjustment of facial expression or posture, the whole realm of body language with which so much of human communication and understanding is transmitted. The body is forerunner of mind in so myriad a number of ways as to draw question to Descarte’s citing of thought (“I think; therefore I am.”) as the basis of individual being. We are as much creatures of immediate bodily sense perception as we are of thought, and an accurate metaphysics of being needs to acknowledge this primacy of body over thought. We can verify this in such instances as the bodily fatigue and inadvertent yawn that precedes any thought of rest or in the hunger that already resides in the body when it triggers thoughts of something to eat, the precipitous rise in blood pressure and rapid heartbeat that signals the perception of threat, the bodily symptoms of sexual arousal that predate the seeking of a partner, or in the sudden catch in the throat and rush of tears that precede grief. In all this, the body is most likely to lead the way, with the mind is obliged to tag along applying thought to what’s already occurring.
I knew a fellow soldier while stationed overseas who literally walked in his sleep. He’d get up from his bed and wander about the barracks, opening and closing doors, straightening up things in his locker, and then after a bit, typically a half hour or so, he’d go back to bed. On my first occasion to witness this and not knowing he was asleep, I asked him if he was okay, and when he didn’t answer, I shined my flashlight on him and saw that while his eyes were fully opened they were glassy and unseeing.
One night in the barracks room we shared, I woke up to find his bunk empty. That being not all unusual, I fell back asleep only to wake up later and find him still absent. He’d never been gone so long before and I went looking for him and found him clothed in fatigues and boots standing at attention outside company headquarters. It was two in the morning and he’d already fallen in line for the seven o’clock reveille. It was a most remarkable incident of the body apparently acting on its own. Not wanting to leave him out there in the cold and dark, I persisted until I’d managed to wake him. His having known for years that he sleepwalked, he didn’t seem particularly surprised to find himself out there. But the occasion gave me an opening to ask what he was thinking when he suited up and went out for reveille. He said he could never recall thinking anything during his sleepwalks.
I’m wondering to what degree any of us “sleepwalk” our ways through our days. I often think I’m in charge of what I choose to do, when in retrospect I can see that I was moved toward outcomes by forces of bodily response and circumstance other than those of thoughtful choice. I trust the body’s intelligence now more than when I was young and more willful. I could do worse than hold dialogue with the direction my feet are taking.
When my feet take me up the steps to Ken and Melinda’s front porch, my mere bodily presence telegraphs an invitation to the world of a sort that a garage door closed to the street does not. I can’t relate in any human way with a garage door like I can with a neighbor on a front porch, and I miss that. But there are contemporary alternatives to front porch sitting such as the ubiquitous cell phone, Facebook page, Twitter account, or blog that like the front porch sitting of earlier times signal the same availability to leave a voice message or text. These innovations of the Internet and wireless communications of all sorts don’t so much substitute for the face to face encounter of front porch sitting as extend the range of such encounter to encompass a vastly larger and immediately available community of contacts.
I recently watched three young girls sitting round a table in a popular lunch spot in downtown Chico. They were all three engrossed in their cell phones and for a moment I thought how isolated they seemed from each other. But then one of them found a text message to show to the other two and the three of them with their heads huddled together were gigging over whatever text it was that was being shared. And then they were comparing messages on all three of their phones, laughing all the while and talking with their mouths full with bites of the sandwiches they’d ordered. I then saw that rather than isolating them, the cell phones drew them together. It was an instance of front porch sitting except that the front porch the girls sat at was a little round table in a restaurant and their passersby were not limited to a single sidewalk but were distributed across the face of the whole earth. I left the restaurant that day feeling pretty good about what I’d seen there.