Bonnie Stewart

I keep imagining I will start walking. I keep not starting.

I am not a person given to movement, by nature. I *can* walk, to be clear: there is no physical logic behind my indolence. I like to walk, when the circumstances are right. But I can list one one hand the athletic endeavours I’ve ever taken to. I ran most of a 5k once. Once. I tried rugby in college but ran in the wrong direction – WITH THE BALL – the one time I caught it during a game. Twice a year I tend to show up at a spurt of yoga classes. I did Crossfit a few years back but the urge to light a cigarette in the corner and blow smoke at everyone never left me. 

Every now and then I take this great secret pleasure in lifting one leg high until my hip pops and I envision myself like a ballerina at a barre…though once I caught a glimpse of myself reflected in a window with my leg hauled up sideways. The look was less elegant than I’d hoped.

I have a Fitbit that mostly serves to shame me. Unless I’m teaching, when my expressively-flapping hands stack my step count.

There were two windows in my life when I walked all the time…and a period where I was repeatedly confined to bedrest for months on end. All three of those lives were perhaps better suited to me than the one I am in, this one in which walking is from a parking garage to class, or from my house to my children’s school on a rare afternoon. This one in which I teach six classes and raise two children and try to make that math work with the 24 hours available to me and my visceral loathing of leaving my bed in the morning. This life in which am writing these words on my couch after midnight.

It’s a very very lucky life. Full stop. But I have not figured out how to live it in a way that centres movement when I feel like I never stop moving from thing to thing.

There used to be fewer things. For me, movement is less a necessity than a practicality among other practicalities. 

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The first summer I came home from college, my mother had moved to an apartment on the outskirts of our town. She did not have a car, that year. To work my summer job, I walked the half hour into the city centre in the mornings, and back. My legs developed definition, and I liked that. I began to walk at night, too, with my yellow Sony Walkman and my Cowboy Junkies and Velvet Underground tapes. I was restless in a small, unfamiliar apartment, where my friends no longer lived. I walked because it felt like freedom, the steps a way to pretend I was going somewhere. It seemed practical to give myself to movement and music, when those were the only things I controlled. I wore army boots and spiked my keys between my fingers and I told myself it was safe. By the end of the summer I could even cut through the cemetery at night without being afraid. 

I doubt it was as safe as I thought…the streets, not the cemetery. But I was lucky.

Almost ten years later, I left the country and a marriage all in the same year – no kids – and took a teaching contract at a university in Asia because I wanted to see the world. The contract was year-round, but I was only required during term, so January and February and July and August, I roamed. It was practical: I did not have to pay rent. I travelled cheaply, often alone. And I walked. I walked to get lost, in cities all over Asia and Europe: Osaka, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Istanbul, Prague, Amsterdam. I had never heard of a flâneur, the connoisseur of the 19th century Paris streets whom Walter Benjamin later made an emblem of urban, modern experience. I walked because I was too small-town to be particularly adept at figuring out public transit in unfamiliar languages. I walked because the cities enthralled me, in all their messy humanity and their lights and smells and hawkers and catcalls. Walking makes you – momentarily, at least – a creature of the city, part of the throng of bodies sharing space and navigating each other. I stood out more than a proper flâneur should, of course, in some places. But even when Other, whiteness has its protective factors. I walked mostly unbothered and thought it was my bold stride. I wore army boots and spiked my keys. And I rambled on: observing, oblivious, lucky.

I stopped walking when they airlifted me five years later, from the town I’d recently returned home to, to another with a bigger neonatal centre. I was 24 weeks pregnant. I had retired the army boots. The doctors stopped my labour, put me in a bed, in isolation. I entertained myself by pretending I was on a beach. I did not believe it – the hospital food was a recurring giveaway – but it seemed practical to give myself to stillness. After two weeks, they could not stop labour and it went badly and the baby died in my arms eleven hours after his birth. Fast forward three years and I had spent a full nine months on maternity bedrest, spread over three pregnancies. I walked out of the hospital twice with wasted legs and living children…and the realization that lucky isn’t always what you think it is.

Then everything became a practicality among practicalities. Sleep when you can, eat what you find, walk when the colicky baby needs walking. Walk the children to school. Hustle to balance work, to grow a career, to foster healthy playdates and habits. 

I began to write, when I had to stop walking. I wrote my way through all of it, the grief, the joy and exhaustion of early parenthood, the isolation of being alone with infants. I wrote a voice into being, and I put it on the internet, and I found other voices walking similar paths, and so we walked together for a time, and I came to think of myself as a writer. I was so lucky. And it made me smile to realize the voice was the same one I’d scribbled into hardbound journals in cafes on the streets of cities far away, years before: turns out there is much to observe in the human condition when you are up close and have the opportunity to pay attention, no matter the circumstances. Then I did a Ph.D and the writing ended, too…tailed off into a chore, a thing to choke out on schedule and submit to Reviewer #2. Practical.

The eldest is thirteen now. I imagine I will start walking, just for me. But it’s cold out. Or hot. Or I have to drive the kids to karate too many nights a week. And so movement still takes a back seat to all the moving parts.

I tell myself life comes in seasons, and I will walk again soon. I tell myself I am lucky my body has weathered my taking it for granted. I tell myself the army boots are in the basement. 

For now, I write this, as a promise that all things can come back around.

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