This was one of those mornings that almost throbs with potential. The sun shone, the air was warm and silken, the birds a cacophony of avian merriment, trees in various and vibrant shades of electric green or a riotous mix of pinks and purples, the earth’s fecundity on opulent display. The kind of day that makes anything and everything feel possible.
This is the kind of day when I could walk forever. My daily perambulation can and often does get extended by miles on such occasions. It feels indulgent, luxurious. And thanks to recent research, it feels virtuous as well. Turns out walking is really, really good health insurance. It could be the best medicine around.
I love it when science catches up with me.
For years I walked to work, regardless of weather (and there was some weather; see January 2011, below), and swore by the salutary effects of the ramping up and cooling down that bookended my work day. Every step was a literal move into or away from whatever the day brought. Walking gave me time to plan effectively, to focus on interestingchallenges, to rehearse difficult conversations and to reflect on the lessons of the day. It provided a literal airing out of whatever I might be carrying into or out of home and office, keeping those domains clear of foreign detritus that might otherwise have drifted across critical borders. I have no doubt I was a better colleague and boss for it, a better wife, mother and friend.
And when the going got tough, I got going — for a walk. That safety valve protected me and countless others in ways too numerous (and potentially too mortifying) to count.
No longer regularly making my three-mile round trip “commute” to work, I am attentive to making up those miles in other ways. I don’t use an odometer, Fit Bit or a Jawbone Up (although I know some folks who worked on these fine instruments and many others who love their reassuring presence). I just count on myself to cover the requisite ground. My feet/head/heart seem to know when I’ve hit my targets and when I haven’t.
For all that, I’ve been trying to dissect it: what exactly makes a Good Walk?
- Proper Shoes. They don’t need to be fancy, expensive or anything, really, other than comfortable for getting from where you are to where you want to be, along a path of your choosing. After 9/11 I swore I would never wear shoes I couldn’t walk home in, no matter where I or home was. Nothing kills a walk faster than sore feet.
- Looking up. Sidewalks all look pretty much alike so I don’t spend any more time than absolutely necessary looking down. I look up. I check out the roof lines, the tree lines, the power lines, the clouds. Even very familiar routes become endlessly interesting if I actually look at them, observing their daily routines and inevitable gradual evolution. And a corollary: listening up. I like to really hear what is going on around me. I try to distinguish and spot the sources of as many distinct sounds as I can. I marvel at how far some of those noises have traveled, wonder about how much further they will go.
- Change of Scenery. Getting out the door and ’round about provides a change of scenery, de facto, which seems to me me a good thing, also de facto. Better still, mixing up my route introduces easy and delightful diversity in a regular routine. Walk to work every day? Take a detour, even if just a block off the beaten path, and see what I find. Have just ten extra minutes? Choose the festive route home, the pretty street, the path less traveled. Amazing what a little change of scenery can do. In surrounding myself with one sort of novelty, I find new ways of viewing the old stuff I need to be thinking about.
- Conversation. K. and I have walked two or three times every week for more than a dozen years. Our walks are great times to hear about one anothers’ lives, to problem solve and share confidences. I cherish our morning constitutionals and the friendship built upon innumerable shared steps. Walking meetings pretty much guarantee focused time and discussion that no office setting can match. The hardest conversations are somehow easier when I’m walking alongside someone, literally undertaking the difficult journey with them. Walking, like conversation, takes you places. They go well together.
- Meditation in motion. Nothing away from #4, but I still really need and love my solitary walks as well. The rhythmic stride, the chance for quiet in my head, the feel of air moving through and around me, the opportunity to just be. Long before I took up formal mediation, walking was meditation in motion for me. I know flow best when I am walking. I suspect there is something ancient and physiological in all of this. I like to think walking has served a restorative function for our species since time immemorial.
What all of these elements have in common is mindfulness, an attention to where I am, what I am doing or thinking or seeing or hearing. A good walk is a mindful walk, a passage through time and space that is duly and truly noted and valued.
Life Lesson #9: A good walk is a very good thing.