I’m going to tell you something about myself that may make you think less of me. I don’t have a car. Actually, I don’t drive. It’s partly a lifestyle choice, and it is also partly an environmental choice. I think the economics of it balance out – I have always chosen to live in the inner city and pay a little more rent, so that I am close to work and good public transit, but I don’t have the expense of a car. (I must confess that I do buy expensive shoes. I fell in love with Camper when I read the description of a pair of pumps – “for women who walk.” Yes! I thought, these people are my tribe.)
Walking is a normal part of my life. Sometimes it is annoying (but then so is driving in traffic); most of the time it is enjoyable. Walking is a Slow choice; the time it takes to walk, and I think the rhythm of the physical activity itself, help to create a liminal space between here and there.
Sometimes I deliberately try to do nothing, and to think nothing as I walk, other times is a time to think, plan, fume, daydream. Often I listen to something on my iPod as I walk (I prefer audiobooks and Rachel Maddow to music); if I’m walking with someone, there’s time to have a conversation.
In the city where I live, walking is not seen as a normal thing to do. In fact, you could be mistaken for thinking it was a disease or a disability, or even something to be embarrassed about from the reactions of the people who find out you are on foot. “You’re walking?” reapeats the grocery store clerk incredulously when I turn down his offer to carry my purchases to my car. “Are you sure?” asks the colleague who pulls up beside me to offer an lift. “You really want to walk?” asks the kind mother of a child in my spawn’s class when I politely refuse her offer of a ride home. Walking with a child is somehow much worse than walking just by yourself; “We saw you walking,” acquaintances confide, in hushed tones.
None of these people are lazy; I am sure they all drive to the gym a couple of times a week. They pick their children up in the car and drive them to a physical activity because they worry about the “epidemic of childhood obesity”. When I walk home with my spawn, I know she is getting 25 minutes of mild exercise. That’s nice, but it isn’t really the only (or perhaps even the main) reason we walk.
In that space between school and home, I can feel her unwind. If it’s been a hard day at school, sometimes she stumps along, or drags her feet. As the walk progresses, her steps get lighter, until she’s twirling and dancing with her usual joy in the last block before we get home. As we walk, we chat: I know who is in her secret club and what the password is this week; I know that she is proud of the puppet she made to go with the legend she wrote, even though some boy said “Cats can’t be pink”; I know that her ‘big buddy’ in Grade 3 made her day by spending a couple of minutes talking to her; I know so much more than I want to about Swannalina and Swanna – characters in the story she is telling in her head. This information takes time to trickle out; it isn’t what you get when you ask “How was your day?”
Walking gives us time to notice what’s going on in the neighbourhood, to understand our environment, to feel connected. We know where the puddles form when it rains. We know who shovels their walk, and who doesn’t. We know lots of the local cats, and have our own nicknames for them. Our favourite is Hammock Cat, who, when he isn’t sitting in the window, often leaves a little stuffed toy dog to mark his place.
We’ve been tracking the progress of spring in lots of ways. We know who has good flowers in the garden, and we’ve been watching the tulips come out, and speculating on what colours they are going to be. There’s a huge plane tree next to the pedestrian overpass; when we walk up to the top of the ramp, we are level with its upper branches, and we can see the progress of the buds and leaves.
Walking is worth the time it takes – and I guess that’s the whole point of slowness. Once we get home, life speeds up.