Walking After Midnight
categories: unquiet things
I have a lot of memories of my tenth and eleventh years on earth. Most of them involve either reading or walking. It was that year that I first remember going on daily evening strolls with my mother. She would loop our neighborhood, taking turns with both my sisters and me, sending one in to fetch the other when their turn was up. I know sometimes we look back at our circumstances and say “man, I sure wish I had appreciated that more in the moment,” but honestly? I did appreciate those moments as they happened, every step. I loved my walks with my mom. Even though later our relationship became strained and difficult, it was at this point in time that I thought she hung the moon. I’d tell her about the stories was reading, about how I couldn’t relate to anyone in my class (they were into boys, I was into books,) we’d talk about everything and nothing. I remember telling her, in all sincerity, “mom, I could never be mad at you!” Oh, little Sarah. You sweet thing. Just you wait. But that wouldn’t come for a few more years, and in the time between, my mother and I had lots and lots of walks together.
In the years since, no matter where I have lived–in a shitty apartment on the river around the corner from a slew of biker bars, in a damp and moldy cottage next to the ocean, in a small town in New Jersey notorious for its asbestos legacy–where ever I’ve found myself, I’ve always walked. I am not keen on exercise. I am not coordinated, I don’t like public gym facilities, group classes stress me out, and quite honestly, I am too repressed to even jazzercise or dance or whatever, alone in my own home. But walking? That I can do. And I have walked, four-five times a week, for the past thirty-five years.
There is something deeply meditative about placing one foot in front of the other and carrying yourself forward. It feels intentional. It feels progressive. It feels like life on a much smaller scale. It makes life’s larger obstacles somehow more bearable.
. A friend of mine shared with me that she’s never in her entire life met an endorphin, but I’m not so sure about that myself. I’m very easily susceptible, impressed, influenced, and when I read about endorphins flooding your brain when you exercise, I thought, “Oh! So THAT’S what’s happening to me!” On my evening walk with the right music and having fallen into the rhythm of my steps, I know that if someone were to look at me I would have a strange beaming gargoyle grin on my face, and I would feel as if I were flying out of my skin.
I think of walking as an overall wellness thing rather than an exercise in…well, exercise, I suppose. Walking daily keeps me on an even keel, it centers and balances me. I could walk a million miles and, considering my metabolism and the way that I know my body works, probably never lose a pound–so it is for sure not a part of a diet and weight loss regimen. And anyway, I’m not sharing this as some sort of ableist fitspo rhetoric; I am writing this from the perspective of a mostly healthy human with no current mobility issues.
Walking is an activity that is so normalized and can be so easy to take for granted, but it’s actually not so easy for everyone. People with arthritis, with auto-immune diseases or degenerative issues, with knee and leg injuries–they can’t just “walk it off.” I want the things I share and the conversation surrounding that to be as inclusive as possible, and I realize that ability is not a choice and a disabled body is not something to overcome. So I don’t mean to discount or dismiss anyone’s experience and abilities or lack thereof here, I guess is what I am saying. Walking is a thing that I do for me, but I’m not here to give anyone a hard time about it or to shame them or make them feel lesser-than for an activity that they are just physically not capable of, or that maybe they don’t even want to do. Also, like I said, this has nothing really to do with fitness or diet. I mean, it’s probably good for my heart, I guess? But that’s a secondary benefit for me.
Walking has quite literally changed the course of my life–more than once! I typically take my walks very early in the morning, and when the world is still dark and quiet, and the only sounds you hear are of the crickets and the frogs and your own breathing–it’s a great time to get some thinking done. I plan my day, I compose poems and emails and silly tweets for Twitter. I daydream and let my imagination run away with me. Sometimes, in the mindlessness of steps walked becoming miles traveled, the inner paths my ruminations take will lead me to interesting places with new ideas or present solutions to problems I was subconsciously working out. I come up with my best interview questions, my favorite article titles, and my most intriguing lines of inquiry during these perambulations, and even in the heat of summer when it’s a sweaty miserable slog every step of the way, I wouldn’t trade that precious time for anything.
It’s funny to gauge memorable moments in terms of walks I have walked but I actually came up with a list of ten of them!
-My first walk around the block in October 2011, when I moved back to FL. It was in my middle sister’s neighborhood, as I was staying with her for a few months while looking for a place of my own. We walked together and joked how it was October in FL and 75 degrees and time to pull out the heavy coats.I had just escaped that toxic relationship situation in NJ, and it was the first time in seven years I felt like I could actually take a deep breath and say, “ok. I am gonna be ok.”
– New Year’s Eve, 2012 I was at a friend’s party when I became hot and overwhelmed. I stepped outside, and I kept stepping. I was halfway around the block before I realized I was navigating an unfamiliar neighborhood, partially drunk, and without any idea of where I was. Suddenly there was a person at my side. Someone else at the party, feeling out of their element and who needed air as well. Side-by-side, with a silent understanding, we followed the floating lanterns from a nearby festival and got the space we needed, together.
– Halloween 2009, I was having a rare afternoon walk around my neighborhood before a friend arrived for an evening of junk food and horror movies. I typically walk in before sunup or just as the sun is setting, but this was an overcast day, and also I was living in NJ, so October temps were probably in the 50s-60s and bordering on chilly. It was a still, beautiful afternoon when a little tornado of fallen leaves suddenly swirled up around me and a maple leaf punched me in the face!
– The year before, in 2008, I was also in NJ and found myself often lamenting that I didn’t seem to experience the same sort of thunderstorms that I recalled from living in Florida. That evening during my walk and about a half-mile from home, I got caught in a torrential downpour that soaked me to my bones. There was no shelter to be found unless I huddled on someone’s porch and I’m too shy for that, so trudge home through the deluge and ankle-deep puddles it was. I was so thoroughly drenched that I had to take my clothes off in the hallway before entering my home because I was just that wet and I didn’t want to drip all over everything. And it was a PUBLIC hallway. I didn’t care!
– In 1992 I fled from my home after my mother gave me a dreadful nonconsensual haircut. By the time I noticed the amount she had taken off, I jerked away and hollered at her to stop. But the chop at that point only covered half my head! I entered my freshman year of high school very lopsided. I was so furious I ran out the front door and just kept going. But as our block was a circle, I ended up right back where I started. I must have walked at least twenty times around my neighborhood that evening, sobbing so hard I made myself sick. Remember what I said about telling my mom I could never see myself mad at her? HA!
– I spent New Year’s Eve, 2010, like all of my NYE’s in New Jersey– depressed and alone. I drank too much gin, put my snow boots on, and hiked down to the river. I called my baby sister to wish her a happy new year and while stumbling around in the cold and the dark, I almost fell into the river. Le whoopsie.
– In 2019 I with much trepidation, I walked around a few blocks in Los Angeles by myself. That doesn’t sound like it should be much of a big deal for a human person in their 40s, but I’m terrified of getting lost in strange cities, and I don’t ever venture out like that on my own, so it was actually a pretty big deal. I celebrated with the best breakfast sandwich I had ever eaten.
-In 2018 I visited my Best Good Friend and we spent an afternoon in Philadelphia. We had left a gothy-antiquesy-jewelry type of gathering and were trekking across the city for dinner and along the way, we went through a sort of boardwalk-type atmosphere and we passed some kind of seasonal festival of lights. I don’t actually know if any of that is accurate, they’re all just marvels and blurs and fanciful impressions in my memory right now, but it was like a dream, how one weird and discordant and beautiful scene flowed into the next. It was late afternoon and the sun was streaming directly into our eyes and I what I recall –so vividly– is trotting to keep up with her long-legged stride when we realized we had ended up in a sketchy part of town. I don’t know why I cherish this afternoon so fiercely, and why this piece of it stands out so powerfully in my memory…but maybe because it’s in my dreams I can never keep up and I eventually fall behind and lose sight of whoever it is I am chasing and who eventually leaves me. But in this instance, we reached a busy intersection, and there we were, once more standing side by side, for more adventures together.
-In 2002, my baby sister was living across the state while she worked on her graduate degree. She’s probably going to read this and tell me that I’m wrong about both the year and where she was at in her schooling, but MELISSA, THAT’S NOT THE POINT. I would periodically drive out and spend a weekend visiting with her, and on one of these weekends, we spend an ungodly amount of time on her apartment complex’s treadmill because we planned on going out for all-you-can-eat sushi afterward. She’ll probably tell me the treadmills weren’t in her complex and that it was some other weekend that we went for sushi, but the POINT, IS, MELISSA, that I went on a memorable walk with you! And we ate a lot afterward!
For a while there, I was doing a brief walk in the morning as soon as I rolled out of bed. I slipped on a pair of crappy shoes and crept outside in the early dawn hours for a leisurely “wake-up walk” around the block in my pajamas. This was generally done right around 5 o’clock in the morning and it was still very dark out, so it’s not like anyone could see me! But I’ve moved on to developing that habit into a more serious morning walk, and that requires actually getting dressed.
Lately, I’ve been wearing the bike shorts from Universal Standard, a favorite tank top, and these shoes. The shoes that I had been wearing developed holes in the tops of the shoe from my toes poking through–and this happened with two separate pairs, same brand, same style–so I thought it wise to move on to footwear with a wider toe box. So far so good, but it’s only a month in with the new ones and we’ll have to wait to see how they hold up. One important piece that I do not have a handle on right now is a good sports bra. So if you’ve got a favorite brand or style, I would very much like to hear about it!
During the time my mother and I took those walks, she was also going back to school for her nursing degree. As it had been a while for her, she had to start off with a bunch of 101-type classes, and one of them was English or Writing or something like that. On one of our after-dinner strolls, she shared with me that I had inspired the essay she was currently writing. I marveled at this–what could I have possibly said or done that struck any sort of chord with her? Apparently, I confessed to her that when I was walking, and getting hot, or tired, or felt like I wanted to give up, I would tell myself “you can do this, you only need to make it to the next mailbox!” And that’s how she was trying to look at her schooling, all of the classes she needed to take, and the road ahead of her to get a new career started. I was floored and flattered and I loved my mom so much and was so proud of her in that moment. For both listening to me and thinking that I had something valid and important to say, but also for recognizing something in herself, seeing that she had something to contribute and strive for, as well as persistently and with dedication–stride toward.
I don’t know if I will ever get to where I am going. Most days I don’t know where that is and I don’t know where the mailboxes are along the way or what they’re meant to represent. But the point is…I keep moving forward. One stumbling, senseless, insignificant step at a time. I’ll get there one day. I don’t think it even matters where “there” is. But when I look back on the path I forged I hope I feel like I did that one day when my mother repeated my own secret back to me, and I realized that in just being who I am and sharing what’s important to me, I helped propel someone else forward, too.
To be honest with you, I don’t know why I felt compelled to write all of this. I’ve been thinking about my walking practice (is that a thing? can I call it that?) and what it means to me, over the course of dozens of walks, over the past few years– and it’s been in my drafts here since 2018. I don’t think I’ve done it justice. It’s such a deeply meaningful thing for me and I feel like I am leaving something out that’s really important and which needs to be said. I’ve just now hit on the barest inkling of an idea what that might be.
It occurred to me that I didn’t share the kind of music that I listen to when I’m walking, or the podcasts or audio books that I listen to…but you know what? More often than not, I don’t listen to anything. I think a large part of the magic and the ritual and the significance of this practice is the time I spend in conversation with myself. Where it’s just me and the quiet of the morning and my feet carrying me forward while my mind is working on whatever I need to work on or work out. Even when those things are ugly or uncomfortable– and those things are definitely easy to ignore or avoid during the hustle and bustle of the day, you can drown them out with music or television or Zoom meetings or mindless chatter. But when it’s just you and yourself again, those things are still there, and it’s important to sit with them.
Or, in my case, to walk with them.
ericka eckles says
This was so poignant and beautiful to read. I used to walk everywhere, I can't drive and Norwich is a pretty small city. I really have missed walking the past few years-health and then covid but reading your memorable walks reminded me so much of some of my favourite strolls.... I've detoured walk homes in case I might spy a neighbours gentle ginger cat, a huge maine coon that would trill and head bop into my fingers, turn left to check on hedgerows and fruiting trees for Autumn jams and jellies... I've walked through a small copse in the wind where tall trees creaked and wobbled, their roots rather unstable as they grow over a chalk mine... Walking the same route week after week to see subtle shifts of the seasons, or noticing blue plaques or finials that make reference to the history of the city I live....
The past year has been so isolating and I appreciate more than you can know a friendship stretching out over seas if only for reminding me of the tranquility, peace and joy in just stepping out the front door and taking one step after another.
S. Elizabeth says
Oh, YOU! You made me a little bit weepy here with these beautiful walking memories. I too, love to see the seasonal shifts, or how the moon is phasing from one night to the next. It makes you feel like you exist, like you're a bit more alive, in a world that sometimes seems so isolating. It's also such a comfort...sometimes I skip a walk for days or a week, but when finally walk those sidewalked paths again, I see a tree is blossoming when it was bare before, or a neighbor's broken lamp post has been repaired, and I think, well, I guess the world and these people keep happening whether I'm here to see it or not!
Simon Drax says
This is a beautiful piece and very pleased that you shared it with us!
S. Elizabeth says
Thank you, friend! I always appreciate your reading these things.
Allison Felus says
I've had this piece bookmarked since you first posted it, waiting for a moment when I could really luxuriate in your words, since I knew I was going to love it. And, this quiet Saturday afternoon, I finally found my moment, and did love it, very, very much! I deeply love walking too; it's the only form of "exercise" I can rely on myself to do with any regularity. I get SO bummed during the Chicago winters when it's just too icy and cold to go out for months at a time. I have so many fond memories of walks around the various neighborhoods I've lived in, and it's often the main thing I want to do when I'm visiting an unfamiliar city. (I'll have to tell you about the crazy walk to Lucky Scent that my partner and I took the first time we visited L.A. together!) Perambulatory adventures and walking meditations forever!