Right before I took my oral qualifying exams, I called my adviser in a panic. I had failed my German and Latin exams almost ten times each, and time was running out to pass them before I would have to push back my oral exam date. My adviser talked me down. “Take a walk” he said “when was the last time you went to the park?”
There is tremendous restorative power in walking, especially walking outside. The clarity of mind that comes from even a calm pace or a fast clip, on bustling city streets or in desert wilderness, is unparalleled. Active but not strenuous, still but in motion. Most days I need a walk to regulate my mind and body, reset from anxieties or sedentary positions.
But walking is also a reminder of a deep pain, a loneliness and precarity that still haunts my adult life. When I was a teenager, I lived alone. Officially, both of my parents were present, as was my grandmother for some time. But in practice, I spent most of high school taking care of myself. I woke up to a silent house and took the bus or my bike to school. I went home alone, made myself dinner, did my homework, and went to sleep. Sometimes I sat in my dad’s empty apartment, cooking myself noodles with canned tuna and reading the newspaper. And many days, the thought of going home alone was too depressing, and instead I just wandered. I wandered the streets of Manhattan until I had nowhere else to go but home. I sat in diners by myself, ordering a baked potato and a chocolate egg cream, and paying in pocket change to the pitying looks of the staff. I walked Central Park, Riverside Park, the entire length of Amsterdam Avenue, and Broadway from Times Square to Morningside Heights. I took the subway from my school on the Upper East Side down to St Mark’s Place and walked home from there. Sometimes a friend came along, but usually their parents called to ask where they were and they hopped on the train and went home.
At the time, this wandering was meditative. I imagined worlds as I walked. I argued throat-hoarse loudly in my mind with people who had upset me. I wrote essays and painted pictures that I would make real once I made it home. But I was also scared and paranoid. I fantasized about strangers approaching me on the street and cutting off all my hair. I worried what would come for me if I stopped walking.
I still walked like this through college and during my time in Boston after. I used to get impatient waiting for the B line train to arrive and would instead walk home. But when I moved back to New York for my PhD program, I had to stop wandering the city like this. I went walking in my childhood neighborhood one day, without a destination. I passed my preschool and I remembered the garden around the corner where we released the butterflies we raised. I walked through the gate and sat among the flowers. I thought of my grandmother, whose physical decline began right after the time when my parents’ medical issues compelled her to live with me for a few weeks. I thought of how much I needed her in that time, and then how much she needed me, and how frustrated she was by her failing body. When I would walk with her, we had to have a destination, and we had to move slowly. I would catch myself speeding ahead, and slow down to match her arthritic pace. Sitting in that garden, the thought occurred to me for the first time that all my street wandering wasn’t helping me as much as I thought it was. While I walked, I was locked in my mind with my angry thoughts and my painful memories and my fears of what was waiting for me at home.
Walking isn’t a problem for me, but wandering is. Aimlessly walking, moving until my feet and legs ache just to avoid going home is a behavior that keeps me insular. But a stroll around the neighborhood, a walk to the store or the park, those are moments to clear my head. They’re a chance to call my parents or a friend, or to take time with my husband and my kids. I lived whole lives wandering the streets, waiting to find a reality better than mine. But strolling, I’m living my life. I’m working through problems or enjoying my surroundings or spending time with someone I love. It’s a fine line between the two.