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.
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.
Patterns and Habits: What do you notice about the ways you choose to move through the world? How do these versions vary based on a given context (i.e., difference between work & home, childhood & adulthood)?
I think sometimes the way we choose to walk reflects phases of our lives? I remember a day once, when my husband and I lived in Houston, where he said something, and he ran away and I tried to catch him. We were laughing, and I don’t honestly remember why we were doing this, but I remember how carefree I felt. We felt safe enough to run. We were on a sidewalk then there was a traffic light. He managed to run to the other side before the pedestrian light turned red. And I had to stop because it turned red for me. But the one car that was there stopped and called out to me “go get him, girl!”. It was sooo cool!!! I’m also thinking about something about our campus. American university in Cairo in Egypt. All the buildings with all the classrooms and offices and library and all are down this path called the plaza, with a few scattered palm trees. Not particularly beautiful. Lots of brown and grey. And then just behind this, there is an alternate path with lots of greenery and fountains. I’ll take a video of myself walking there. That path is wonderful to walk when you need cheering up. It’s a longer path to get anywhere, and you rarely find people there, but it is a great place to do a morning walk and a great place to sometimes hold walking work meetings when a screen isn’t needed. I sometimes hold my classes there, too.
Tell us a personal movement story that has stuck with you. What clues does it offer you about who you are/were/strive to be?
My daughter (now 8) loves walking. She hates getting up early and getting ready for school in the morning, but what motivates her these days to get ready is to have a chance to walk with me in the street just before her bus arrives. Cairo streets can be busy, crowded, noisy, the air so polluted that you miss out on any kind of beauty on the street. But at 6.45am, it’s kind of serene. Mostly quiet, but for the occasional school bus passing by to pick up some kids. When we walk early in the morning, we notice the cats (whom she loves), the birds (whom she adores) and the trees scattered around down the street (which for some reason are hard to see when traffic is bad). We also talk, and it’s a refreshing start to the day both physically and emotionally, as we bond while holding hands and talking as we walk. Sometimes we get so engrossed in walking that the bus comes and we are too far away from where it usually stops for us, and we sort of scramble to catch it and take her school bag from where we left it.
Barriers and challenges: What are some barriers or challenges you face or have faced that have impacted your access to a movement of choice? How have these influenced your thinking about your body in the world and the role of movement in your life?
I like to walk everywhere. One of the main barriers in Egypt is that sidewalks/pavements aren’t consistent so you actually often have to walk right in the street itself. That obviously poses dangers. Even if it is a one-way street, Egyptian drivers don’t respect those rules, especially those who drive bikes and motorbikes, so you have to be vigilant. Another barrier is the dangers of walking alone at night, as a woman. It’s difficult to do in Egypt, and in most cities honestly. One of the few cities I felt comfortable walking alone at night was Sheffield, UK. I can’t put my finger on why, specifically. I remember one time, while at a conference in Santa Monica, CA, US, I needed to go to a supermarket. And someone told me it was 3 blocks away and to the right. It was my first time there, and didn’t realize how far one block is. It took me much longer to get there than I expected, and by the time I had bought what I needed, it was dark, and scary to walk back to my hotel alone…
Connections: Physical movement can be a useful metaphor for any number of things. How and in what ways do you use your movement choices and experiences to make meaning in other areas of your life?
Walking represents freedom to me, I think. I don’t drive often and I much prefer to walk if I can, no matter what the weather. I have walked in (moderate) snow and rain, and in humid and hot weather. Walking when my daughter was very young, carrying her in the Ergo baby carrier gave me so much freedom because my hands were free and it felt like she was safe, almost as much as when she was in my womb… and the Ergo gave my back relief so that carrying her was not a burden but a joy (I have had chronic back problems since I was 21). I fear a day when walking becomes difficult and I would have to depend on other modes of movement. I’m always talking about how some errands can be done more quickly by walking rather than driving. It’s almost never true that it can be done quickly, but it can often be done in a less roundabout way, and for some reason, that simplicity matters to me. Walking is also for me a way of being in a place, of connecting with it, its people and animals and buildings and all. Accepting its ugliness to reach its beauty.
Any other thoughts, questions, concerns? Please share those here. Thanks for entertaining this idea and so many others!
Thanks for doing this! I didn’t know I had all this inside me!! I’ll send you some video soon! Probably of walks around campus.
Note: I asked my kid to read the parts about her here, and I got permission from her to post it publicly. She also added:
I like walking because you can see everything around you in the street while you’re walking, like nature and shops that look fancy from the outside. And you discover new places and you decide whether you wanna go in or just look. In the day, early in the morning, it’s refreshing to breathe the fresh air. And different animals, although very common animals, like birds, they sing in the morning. And that’s very beautiful. And the trees and the flowers.. the more nature the more fresh air, and the more fresh air the more refreshingness… and the more refreshingness, the more you like it. The best way to start your morning is by walking in the fresh air.
images: Maha Bali and Sherri Spelic, AUC campus gardens: courtesy of Sherri Spelic.