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Calming the angerball one step at a time
A beautiful meditation on the power of walking.
A beautiful meditation on the power of walking.
I am, by disposition and accident, someone who helps. Equal parts listener and advocate. The problems of others are my job and I’ve spent most of my life paying close attention to them, calmly trying to understand them and where possible, finding solutions. Ordinary people have let me in to the most difficult times of their lives—parents making decisions about when to stop treatment in intensive care units, chronically unemployed people whose pensions have been stopped, people with disabilities often ignored by the rest of the world. These are hard matters of daily life.
But as many know, often it is easier to help others than to help yourself. I regularly fail to protect myself. But I have one reliable remedy: walking. Literary walkers, strollers and trampers, such as Woolf, Wordsworth and Austen are well-known, as are walking’s health benefits. But for me it’s more than a creative practice or physiological tune-up. Through everyday stress and extreme grief, walking has been my existential remedy. So important is it to my wellbeing that I have arranged my life to create incidental walking opportunities: to the shops and back, to the tram or train, morning strolls with my kids to school.
You might think this sounds nicely middle-class, comfortable and easy, but perhaps not convincingly helpful for more serious personal troubles. So let me raise the stakes and take you on a suburban walk on what remains the worst day of my life.
Autumn 2013. The dry Melbourne air has finally cooled after the summer heat. The plane trees have wearily shrugged and lost their leaves all at once. I sympathise with them. Under my eyes, a deep charcoal that looks like old makeup, but cannot be washed away. On my temple, a vein pulses visibly. But I think only I can see it.
I could go to nuclear over Lego left on the floor.
I am not myself and this is terrifying.
In my memory it is an Arnott’s mint slice biscuit, offered in kindness with a cup of tea, that triggers the heart palpitations. More likely, it is a surge of hormone from my undiagnosed mutant thyroid. My heart feels squeezed and exhausted. I feel dangerous and in danger—yet not quite enough to go to the hospital. My instinct is to pull away from my domestic world. To retreat into the smallest bundle beneath the covers; to find refuge in the controlled, familiar, unchanging environment of my bedroom.
I see the deep worry and care on my husband’s face as he gently but firmly suggests I take a walk. Part of me wants to fight him, but he is right: this basic self-care has always helped (later, it will be beta blockers and a dose of radiation therapy). I walk out of the house, turn my back on my family and walk my exhausted body and overactive mind away, deep into the suburbs with a simple goal: to walk until I feel better.
As I turn into the street, the “angerball,” as I now call her, clearly has the upper hand. The sensory environment gives her rage ample targets: the roar of a distant freeway, the irresponsible developers who have moonscaped a house, the cracked footpath.
But walking in this broken body is physical toil. I have to temporarily let go of my boiling anger to focus on moving my right leg. It takes mindful effort to recruit the muscles; a childhood chant “left, right, left.” I start to make small deals with myself: if I can make to the end of the next street, I’ll go home. Then the next. And the next. Until I am over the main road.
My body almost under autopilot, the suburb keeps cutting in again. Unlike retreat under my doona, this domesticated suburban world isn’t here just for me. My feet catch on a pavement made uneven by thirsty tree roots, clay clumps crumble underfoot. I have to walk around careless builders’ four-wheel drives—I want to hate them, but my heart isn’t quite in it anymore. It all seems to matter less outside, away from the clock, quarantined from chores, errands and crashing toy blocks.
And so I keep going, staying with the walk and my troubles, turning down an unfamiliar street.
Suddenly, a hairy blur in my peripheral vision. It only makes sense as its teeth are nashing, loudly against the cyclone fence, close to my head. I jump but I can only laugh with relief. A barking beagle is hard to take seriously. Perhaps it’s simply the ingrained social embarrassment of jumping at a loud noise in a public—being caught unaware without my public face on—but here is the proper fright my wired physiology has been waiting for.
I walk faster now. The long street ahead has a steep dip and long rise. I try return to my self-analysis. Yet each time I return I pick up my thoughts from a point of subtle difference—waves on a beach, similar but not the same. As I begin to walk downhill, it’s almost impossible, and impractical, to keep my jaw locked, my arms and shoulders rigid. As my lungs work harder, I put this inward business aside to look up from the path and around. I feel the long shadow of the w retreating.
All around me, the mundane struggles of natural and human world are on display: futile tree guards to stop recidivist possums climbing on roofs; leaf blowers and their strange cousins, leaf vacuums; false bright green turf side by side with desiccated yards. An elderly couple patiently using handrakes to battle the litter of native gums affects me more than I expect, cuts through my sick self-absorption.
As I ascend the other side of this suburban valley, I am exhausted, but I keep going. Then, without warning or willing it, I become aware of that familiar shift: I’m no longer thinking, just walking. This is the moment I walk for: when I’m alone but relieved of the weight of my mind’s presence, immersed in rhythm of steps. A casual observer of the surroundings. Even in this weak body, I feel properly embodied, rather than a mind destroying itself. I reflect that I’ve grasped some sense of what’s mine to guide, and let go of some of what is not. A little pedestrian stoicism.
Taking a walk cannot solve a world that is at times terrifying, or a sick body or selfish politics. Rather it is a brief opportunity to change where I put my attention—a to and fro between mind and body, a chosen encounter between the individual and her local world. It will not necessarily solve all my problems, but it offers me a certain type of experience in place and time that quietens, enriches, and keeps me going. Maybe it will help you too, one step at a time.
This essay was first presented as a talk at the 2017 Sydney Writers Festival.