Doris Haddock with Dennis Burke
New York: Random House, 2001
ISBN # 0-375-50539-3
285 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
April 2006

Late in her 89th year Doris Haddock decided to walk across the U.S. from California to Washington, DC in support of campaign finance reform. Shortly after beginning her trek she celebrated her 90th birthday, and ended up skiing the last 100 plus miles from Cumberland, Maryland into Georgetown during a winter blizzard. A simply astonishing achievement all the way, the full 3200 miles.

Granny D as she was nicknamed, tells us early on that this book is about the walk itself and not about campaign finance reform, and that while we will certainly hear her views on this topic in some detail, the book itself is not about that issue but about the walk. And she lives up to that promise. We do, of course, hear the reasons for her cause, and where it all stood in 1999-2000 during her walk. But along the way the book’s thrust is upon the walk itself, her many many various walking partners, the more regular and intimate walkers and supporters, those who just walked a day or two or only came out to greet her, and about Doris Haddock’s fascinating life. Perhaps the highlights of the book for me were her reflections on life, meaning and death. Whether I agreed with her, as I often did, or disagreed, which I did less than agreeing but at times seriously, she presented interesting and thoughtful positions.

The key thrust of her argument against the then current campaign finance rules are that the money from the very wealthy, especially corporations buys valuable influence and access to legislators such that the United States government is more and more in the hands of the wealthy and ruled significantly in their interests. Given what has been going on in 2005-2006 and the revelations of the depths of penetration of money into the world of Congresspeople currently, the evils she speaks of in 1999-2000 seem even tame compared with today’s abuses of power and wealth.

However, the various arguments on the election campaign finance issues could have been covered in a modest essay. What made the book so fascinating for me was Granny D’s own story and reflections and the people she met along the way of her walk.

Early on we are treated to what would become a rather typical encounter with people who live life on their own terms.:

A truck with a huge trailer stopped to help one day – Karlene and Jim. He, a retired Marine, is a one-man orchestra. They live in a trailer full of painted dreams, dusty accordions, and crumpled horns, and making a living by entertaining at RV parks.

All along the way people came and walked with her for a day or two, or a week or more. They stayed where they could, often put up by supporters along the way, and did have a van that rode along with them providing a place to rest when rest was needed and carrying some supplies.

Granny D reports lots from their various conversations along the way and we meet a collection of really fascinating people.

In many locals there were celebrations for the cause of her walk and Granny D was able to give speeches and interviews, attracting a growing media following, all of which enhanced her cause.

I like a comment in one of those speeches in which she talks about activists and success. I spent a great deal of my own life in activist causes, typically on what would be called the political left. There were few victories and I had to come to terms with that lack of success. I realized early on that my activism was as much for my own spiritual well-being as it was about the hoped for political changes, and that our gathering together to work for a cause was energizing for most of us. Granny D tells of her own experiences and how she was motivated:

Never be discouraged from being an activist because people tell you that you’ll not succeed. You have already succeeded if you’re out there representing truth or justice or compassion or fairness or love. You already have your victory because you have changed the world; you have changed the status quo by you; you have changed the chemistry of things. And changes will spread from you, will be easier to happen again in others because of you. because. believe it or not, you are the center of the world.

Along the way Granny D was an inspiration to many. Her age, the enormity of the task she had undertaken to publicize her issue, the obviousness of the issue itself to so many, and, perhaps the near hopelessness of succeeding against big money in this nation which so kowtow’s to wealth.

She was aware of this power of her witness and reflected often on it. One woman just came out of no where along the road, hugged her and left. Doris reflects:

She gave me another hug and turned away to walk back to her car.

I do not know what she was thinking about or how her life had turned to make this moment so intense for her. But, after scores of little moments like this, I had come to understand that people have a great unmet need to live a life that expresses their passions and values and that they think they are being cheated out of that life — that they will die and it will have passed them by. They see an old woman doing something she believes in, and she somehow carries this ineffable something for them. Our shallow culture makes us people of great longing, for we are not always provided with opportunities to live out our most meaningful beliefs.

What, indeed, would the community look like if it were the perfect expression of our best instincts and deepest beliefs? The difference between that ideal and our actual lives is the gap that like a stretched elastic, energizes both our political emotions and our sense of personal longing. Politics, in this sense, is a much more personal thing than we give it credit for.

Perhaps the most refreshing and encouraging thing about GRANNY D is the reassurance in reading about someone who has some strong conviction of doing something out of the ordinary, wants to do it and summons the courage to carry it out. Where I do have a difference with Granny D is on what those “out of the ordinary” deeds might be. For my tastes, she is a bit heavy handed in believing that “proper causes” are an important criterion for such acts. I applaud the selfless acts for noble causes, but also have great respect for those who move away from the crowd for more humble and personal aims.

I remember when I was struggling to attain some aspects of voluntary economic simplicity and doing so primarily for reasons of social justice. But no soonrt had I entered that world that I discovered a huge variety of reasons that people sought a life of voluntary simplicity, and many of them weren’t connected with any lofty goals, but very personal aims – having more control over one’s life and work, having more free time, wanting to pursue personal goals and on and on. I have as much respect for those who move away from the culture of mass society for any reason as I do for those who are on more self-less causes toward their ideal of “betterness.”

Granny D is a delightful and quick read, a book that challenges us to think more about our lives, how we live them and why. I was much taken with her rather easy acceptance of the concept of death, even one’s own death, and found myself chuckling with Doris Haddock in many of her small reflections on human existence along the road and paths she walked, and even skied.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett