“Walking is a pastime rather than an avocation.” Rebecca Solnit
“Are we going for a walk?” asks Princess. She skips out happily when I say yes. For her, it’s a special time to step out once dinner is done, after school and homework and cleaning her room and the countless demands and directions that mark her day. For me, it is the first time I have stepped out of the apartment and possibly the highlight of my day. Our nightly walks have become a daily ritual, a rite that binds our family. When all of us choose to step out, we walk in two rows of two each on the narrow sidewalk. Sometimes it’s just me with my girls, each trying to narrate the day’s events or one monopolizing the entire conversation. On rare occasions, HH and I walk as couple. On days when one of the girls is unusually quiet or deliberately giving me the silent treatment I don’t know whether this is a good idea. Is this helping us bond? Will the girls cherish this routine when they leave home?
As a lanky teenage girl, transforming from a book-loving non-athletic child to skinny young woman, my friend and I walked hand in hand, sometimes wearing identical clothes through the busy Bombay streets, two pairs of braids swinging around our shoulders. Some evenings we walked to the temple, on others we did some errands or stopped for spicy street food when we had money to spend. Traffic fumes engulfed us as we navigated streets crowded with vendors pushing cartloads of bananas, people queuing up at bus stops and beggars lining the pavements. We talked as we walked, trying to make sense of growing up, understanding the world of adults as we contemplated our future. We didn’t know then that she would get married young but remain childless, a lingering regret that she is yet to come to terms with. Neither could we predict the marital troubles that would plague me for several years before I decided to do something about it.
Walking took a back seat during the years I buzzed about the capital beltway to school and back, always in a hurry to get somewhere. The laboratory beckoned. So did last night’s dinner dishes in the sink. I walked in parking lots. From my car to the mall, in Safeway aisles, up the road to the 7 floor parking garage in downtown Baltimore. It was a barren time in my life, a period of intense activity with very little introspection or interaction. As a couple we maintained busy schedules. As an individual, I didn’t have time to make new friends. I didn’t know then that this self-centered upwardly mobile phase was the beginning of an unraveling; an emotional moving apart that put many miles of unspoken distance between us as we lived the DINK lifestyle.
I resumed walking in California because I needed fresh air. Stuck in my office or lab all day, mothering a baby in the evenings and catching up on housework on weekends left few options. A lunchtime stroll around the periphery of my beautiful workplace in the San Francisco bay area was the perfect solution. I had 45 minutes of alone time in the mild sunshine as I walked a complete loop around the triangular site. I took comfortable steps in my Easy Spirit pumps, enjoying the light breeze blowing gently across my face. In an era before cell phones became appendages, getting out meant taking a break, from coworkers, computers and chores. I made a new friend one afternoon, a young woman who had moved to America for better opportunities, excited but bewildered by the world around her. Her lack of fluency in English was no barrier to our connection. We spoke about important things, matters that were hard to articulate to others but easier to say aloud to a relative stranger albeit one you met regularly. I didn’t notice how easily my body got back in shape after DQ’s birth or the month when I finally made peace with being a working mother without the debilitating weight of mommy guilt.
The terrace of the duplex house I moved into with DQ was my walking track for several years. The large L-shaped structure that overlooked the frangipani tree in the front and the children’s playground around the corner shielded me from inquisitive neighbors and well-intentioned strangers eager to know why I lived without a husband. The moon would hang low on some nights, yellow and heavy with promises of better days. Dark moonless nights reflected my somber mood when I wondered how my life had transitioned into that of a single parent. As I walked along the edges of the small terrace, I decided to leave my full-time job and create a more balanced work life. I couldn’t have known then that this physical moving out was also the spur for moving inwards to identify my core values and hidden desires.
Walking has always enjoyed “most favored sport” status in my life. But walking is so much more than mere exercise.
I would walk into my parents home, eager to talk about my day.
I have found walking across the room to greet a stranger and walking away from a dangerous situation to be equally terrifying.
We walk in and out of a relationship unaware that it may leave a permanent scar.
We may walk with friends or for a cause.
I walk towards new experiences but hate being walked over.
I find walking on air and walking on eggshells equally tenuous.
I love walking around a new city to get a feel for the place.
I walked beside my father as he learnt to walk again after hip surgery.
I have walked behind DQ’s first pet, a tiny but fierce dachshund who chased larger stray dogs fearlessly.
Walking can be the catalyst for creativity. Wallace Stevens said “I write best when I can concentrate, and do that best while walking”.
Walking provides a means for a moving meditation. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau remarked, “I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think, my mind only works with my legs.”
I don’t know if our family nightly walk ritual will lead to greater unity and fond memories but I would like my girls to walk boldly, and without fear; to discover not just physical benefit but joy in simple things.
Now shall I walk or shall I ride?
“Ride,” Pleasure said
“Walk,” Joy replied.
When alone, I rest my voice and activate my thoughts by walking. I put out silent questions and stay tuned for an invisible but palpable answer. I study what I have read and ponder over what I have heard. When I have company, I share what I have understood and open up about what puzzles me. When I turn around to see how far I have come, physically and metaphorically, there is more ahead to wonder about than what I have left behind. I echo the thoughts of John Burroughs – “I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read and all the friends I want to see.”