How I Found Myself Through Wandering Around

The thing I miss most about my twenties and early thirties was just how much time I had to walk around. Walking used to be a huge part of my life. Not just walking for the sake of exercise, which has its merits, but walking to do the things that have to get accomplished for the day. Going grocery shopping. Going to the library. To the park. To school. To a party.

I went to college in a very small town: Kirksville, Missouri, populated by maybe 17,000 people. It’s possible that either ten or seven thousand of that population was really college students and faculty. Because the town was so small, it was easy to walk everywhere and anywhere I needed to.

My senior year I lived in a duplex a stone’s throw from campus. Though my memory is not always entirely reliable, I recall only needing about eleven minutes from the time I woke up until the time I sat down in class in the Fine Arts Building.

When I dream about Kirksville, I am nearly always walking somewhere. Sometimes I’m walking to an area of town that doesn’t exist outside my subconscious, going to visit fictitious friends and classmates in apartments that my mind made up. The buildings are old, partially decrepit.

As an impulsive and distracted student those buildings seemed exciting, hip. In my dreams they simply have the tired film of poverty. They are on the edge of condemnation, slightly dangerous. Rickety.

The sidewalks in these dreams merge with the masses of midwestern sidewalks I’ve traveled. Grey concrete squares with grass peeking through the cracks created by tree roots that muscle their way through the otherwise unyielding material. Sycamore seeds twirling down like helicopters (I once saw it described as “twizzling,” which, while I don’t quite know what that word means, sounds exactly right). Dessicated worms that never made it back to the soil which would have protected them from the sun’s drying rays.

Sometimes there’s shade overhead. Mostly the streets are suburban, sometimes they are slightly more rural, more feral, less maintained. Funny how of the streets in my life, it’s the ones that lean either more toward rural or urban that are less groomed. The newly suburban ones are the ones with less tree coverage (the trees having been cut down for development purposes), more of the decorative shrubs and trimmed grasses. Weeds are removed regularly. They have the time and the funds for it, so why not? It looks beautiful.

During my year abroad I walked more than probably any other time in my life. The family that hosted me in Salzburg lived a decent bus ride to the HauptBahnhof, the main train station. One time I walked from their apartment building to the station, but it added enough time to my commute that it wasn’t a regularly viable option.

At this main station I could catch another bus to my school, just off the banks of the Salzach river, in the heart of the old city. Sometimes, if I was running late, I would opt to take a bus. But walking was infinitely more enjoyable. I would put on my headphones (this was before the days of putting headphone “in”) and inhale the beauty of the city around me.

There was at least one palatial garden that I would walk through. Literally palatial, as in it was attached to a palace. There were roses, bushes that were sculpted, and an archway made of flowering plants. There was probably a pond or two, that detail escapes me now.

Walking through European cities pretty much spoiled me for walking in America for a long time. There’s no comparison. On my European walks I was surrounded by gorgeous, ancient buildings, fountains, gardens, palaces, surrounded by other pedestrians, immersed in a culture which was not mine and therefore had zero baggage for me at the time.

Plus, in Salzburg there were the Alps. Not just in the distance, but a part of the city itself. There was a classroom in my college where you could touch the bare rock of the mountain, feeling where the school had been built right into its side.

During that time of my life my walks my mental state could best be described as escaping. I was still grappling with the fallout from my disastrous freshman year of college and most of my walking time was spent surrounding myself with music that I was just then discovering. The Smiths. The Pixies. Sonic Youth. The Velvet Underground.

I wasn’t really into music (excluding classical music, which I was totally into), but I wanted to be. I wanted to be cool, I wanted the music I listened to to match up with the crowd I was now interested in running with. My new, protective persona.

The catch was that I didn’t know what I was doing. I would listen to the bands that I thought I needed to, but I didn’t know where to go from there. I imagined that the kids who were really cool, who were actually plugged into the scene knew about all where to find the new, best bands.

I wondered how they really knew who to listen to. Was there a magazine or something that I could subscribe to? I was too busy trying to project the right image to really delve into the scene properly. But I did like the music I managed to discover.

I remember sitting on my bed in my host family’s home, listening to some Austrian radio station when Frank Black’s plaintive voice came on, singing Caribou. When the melancholy song morphed into an unexpected scream I was both unnerved and fascinated.

Years later, walking in Israel evoked similar patterns. Again, like in Europe (l’havdil), I would alternate between taking the bus or walking. The landscape was utterly different though, living in the far suburbs of Yerushalayim. The dry, dusty landscape. The shrubbery and brush and the sand everywhere. The tan colors contrasting against the impossibly blue sky and the raucously flowering bushes. Everything there seemed dedicated to survival, seemed to take the desert environment as a challenge to aggressively thrive.

The concept that each new step taken in Israel is a mitzvah certainly appealed to me as a dedicated walker.

This was the time in my life when I started to awaken from the stupor of my early twenties and began to pay attention to myself, to those around me, and to differentiate between the old and new me. How fitting that this would occur in a city where the new and old are constantly brushing up against each other, the old protected and valued while the new is celebrated and vibrant.

It was while during this awakening that I realized, to my dismay, that my inner monologue was comprised mainly of rehashing conversations that had annoyed or troubled me.

One might think that after the endless yet, in retrospect, rapid process of discovering Judaism, converting and traveling to Israel to spend nearly my whole day learning, my mind would be preoccupied with loftier, philosophical or at least less petty thoughts.

Nope. Often, I obsessively reviewed conversations which had gone sour. I thought of better, wittier, more clever retorts. I thought of ways to most effective prove my rightness in a disagreement.

When I wasn’t thinking of things like that, my mind was filled, mainly, of nothing. I was saddened when I realized that that was where I was holding, but determined to improve my inner world, my resting thoughts.

After I married I found myself settled back in the State, which, for the most part, outside of certain urban centers, is a decidedly un-walkable country. Because of my deep emotional connections to walking and my romanticization of a more European (or Mediterranean?) lifestyle, I vowed to never drive when walking was an option.

Initially this was actually very easy to maintain because we only owned one car and my husband used it for driving to work. He was in residency and would sometimes work shifts that were upwards of thirty hours.

This meant I would sometimes be three days without a car. If I really needed it, I would drive him to work, a 25-minute drive each way (I know my coastal-based friends might consider that a short commute, but as a Midwesterner it felt like an absolute eternity).

Even after the birth of our first child, I would walk as much as I could. I would strap my son into his umbrella stroller (which we still have, incredibly), don a backpack and head off to my grocery shopping, or to get some library books. Or just take a walk for the sake of having something to do.

I was undeterred by the formidable Cleveland winters, and when I would be called in to sub at a local day school, I would bundle both of us up, walk the baby to the babysitter and then walk to work.

The scenery was considerably less grand than Europe and less inspiring than Israel, but I found that when I dropped my pretensions and simply observed the landscape around me, there was beauty nestled in the modest lawns and unassuming storefronts.

Walking to run errands honed my awareness of which streets were actually on a bit of an incline, which streets had the best shade, or which ones were the most buffeted by the wind. It compelled me to pay attention.

I had also graduated from being mainly engrossed in past conversations to also using the walking time to create. I would mull over writing ideas, I would come up with melodies which I would later turn into songs.

This was before smartphones, all of this, so when I came up with a melody I would have to sing it over and over and over and over again to myself so that I would hopefully remember enough of it when I got home to be able to notate it.Though there is certainly an element of idealization about this period of my life, the pedestrian period, I think the longing for the simplicity of a life where I have the time to walk that much has merit.

Now not only do we have two cars, but my day is full with carpools and rehearsals and the amount of groceries I need to buy to feed my family will no longer fit in just a stroller and a backpack. If I were to walk to do my errands I would accomplish nothing else the entire day but that, and I am much too busy for that.

This is what most makes me feel like a grown-up, the pragmatic sacrifice of what I want (to be able to walk everywhere) to what I need to do (all the things).

Interestingly, the diminishing of my time available to walk has occurred while the amount of time I spend on social media has increased. And with this switch, the way I spent my quiet time has shifted as well.

 

I hesitate to call the time I spend on social media “down time,” but as it is, I usually open the apps or tabs when I’m not doing anything else. When I’m too tired to do anything else. When I am waiting in line at the store or in carpool or sitting outside in my yard, ostensibly watching my children.

Even when I go on a walk with my kids, I am snapping pictures, sending texts or voice memos or whatever. I’m connected. I’m reachable. I’m not alone in my own head, not in the way I used to be.

Now being in my own head means also considering the opinions and reactions of the thousands of people I am connected to through my various channels. It is an entirely more self-conscious way of being.

That, too, has evolved. Years and years ago, so long ago that I can barely remember what it was like, I used Facebook primarily to keep up with friends and family. I would enjoy watching their happinesses, I would empathize with their frustrations, and I would use the platform to reach out at what was a somewhat lonely point in my life.

Newly married, a new parent, newly Jewish to boot, I was still trying to figure out my place in the world. Online interactions were far less threatening than having to maneuver through the minefield of complex social standards. I could be as eloquent as I wanted because I could take the time to formulate a response. I wasn’t caught off guard in an awkward state.

It was a cocoon. It was escapism. It was a life-raft. It was a crutch.

As my family and my internet presence has grown, I have found myself increasingly turning to smaller, more intimate platforms to share the private successes and joys I’ve had.

I vacillate between thinking this is smart and thinking that it is very stingy.

I have read too many posts about how it’s dangerous to post anything about your children online because if you do then someone will steal their identity or use their image for nefarious purposes or who knows what other horrible things.

Then there are the posts about how it’s not fair to the children for them to grow up with this online presence that they have no control over. They are not my property (or are they?), and perhaps when they grow up they won’t be quite as exhibitionistic as I am, and they will resent having their childhood in full view of all these people. In fact, one of my children has explicitly told me not to post pictures of him online. I don’t even know how he knows what online is, he’s so young.

But I mostly honor his request. Any pictures of him online are where he is turned away from the camera (and by camera I mean my phone. I don’t even own a camera anymore).

As if all that wasn’t enough to confuse my natural tendency toward anxiety and over-thinking, there are also the posts urging those of us with families to consider those who are struggling. To not overwhelm them with our joy. To keep it to ourselves.

This sentiment is connected in my mind to the concept of blessing coming from that which is hidden. I think about the tents in the desert that didn’t face each other, how people kept their lives private from each other.

But in that camp I’m sure the children were running around and in full view. It’s not like the families were hiding their kids in the closet or something.

So now that we have this online neighborhood populated by people for whom we have the most superficial and, at times, artificial frame of reference. Do we parade our children in front of them? Or do we hide our children only in our real life and keep them from the wide world out there until they make the choice to enter on their own (likely terrifyingly immature) terms?

Despite all these neurotic wonderings about my own children’s imagines and privacy, I deeply enjoy seeing pictures of my friends’ children.

And on the rare occasion that I do post something about my kids, the response is overwhelmingly larger than nearly any other post. People want to be happy for other people, mostly.

I also enjoy watching my friends’ professional successes, their businesses, their relationships, their personal revelations, their musings. I enjoy it, so it would make sense that my friends would enjoy it as well. So why do I keep these things from them?

Yes, there are always the voices which will point out the negative side to the simple joy of sharing a happy moment with over a thousand of your not-so-closest friends. It’s likely that those gloomy opinions will loom larger in my mind, creating a nest of worry and concern about how I might make someone else feel bad so obviously I shouldn’t ever share anything good ever about my life.

This is a side-effect of not walking. Instead of spending my time observing the yards of my neighbors, noticing which block has big trees, which block has the most uniform house, which lawns have the most toys, I spend my time obsessing over the possible reactions of people online. People I probably don’t even know. It’s ridiculous.

Partially because of this I didn’t share the incredible experience my husband and I recently had of watching the seasoned and expert performer Jon Bon Jovi. My husband had never been to a rock concert before. He came from Ukraine when he was young and became frum in early high school, so he never experienced many of the classic American youth adventures.

When Bon Jovi came to Cleveland on their recent tour promoting their gazillionth album (which we received a copy of when we purchased tickets, and I must say there were a number of really catchy tunes on it), my husband surprised me by ordering tickets.

I wasn’t sure how to feel. How excited should I be? I was never a huge Bon Jovi fan, though obviously I knew the hits because they are awesome. Should I post something? Should I not? What would it say about me to share this information with the wider world?

The concert was epic. The lighting system itself was breathtaking. It moved! With the music! Like a rock concert robot of coolness. The whole performance was on a scale that I had never seen before, which helped take the discomfort of the realization that I do not know about 99.999% of Bon Jovi songs and everyone around me seemed to know all of them.

And, of course, they closed with the most epic of Bon Jovi songs, Living on a Prayer. The energy of the crowd as the band played the intro was intense, and to be part of tens of thousands of people screaming OHHHHH OH! LIVING ON A PRAYER! was incredible.

But I didn’t post about it online because, you know, other people’s opinions.

Lately I’ve grown very tired of curating my online presence. I am tired of putting select parts of myself on display. I am tired of feeling the pressure to be relevant while simultaneously inoffensive.

I’m sure it’s related to all the anxiety I feel about “doing it right.” About not being “that guy” on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram. It’s an outgrowth of my desire to please everyone, to be relatable to all people at all times.

It’s unsurprising that this has mainly led to a retreat from all online interactions. Because I tend to agree with everyone, I ultimately agree with no one. I don’t even know what I think because I can see the merit in so many sides of each argument, and picking a side means telling other people that I disagree with them and I find that unbearable.

Even now, as I’m writing this piece, I’m anxious about this possible criticism: that I am complaining about not having time to walk because of the blessing of having a busy family and professional life.

I can just imagine an anonymous commenter leaving something to the effect of how I should be grateful for my blessings and how insensitive it is to bewail my lack of time to walk and don’t I know that there are people who would love to not have any time to walk.

This is what being online has done to my thought processes. Or, rather, this is what I have allowed my natural aversion to confrontation to develop into vis-a-vis my online presence and writing.

It’s interesting in a creepy way that the less I post on Facebook, the more notifications Facebook makes up to try and engage me. Look! So-and-so posted something in this group that you never check yet you have not yet dropped out of! And there’s a new post from this other person you know through this other person you’ve never met in person!

I’m sure that I’ll get into again, something will require self-promotion (like this article!) and I will enjoy the endorphin rush of interaction, of validation, affirmation. It’s heady, it’s addictive. I know. I like to feel the power of my words, to feel that there is an impact that I can make on my screens.

Despite the collective social media’s attempts to lure me back in, I’ve recently been more focused on the impact I can make off the screen. I’ve been investing more in my home, my children, my neighbors, my friends, my middos, my Yiddishkeit.

This is not to say that I was neglecting those things when I was more plugged in. But it was different. I was different. My life was different. Social media was different.

Another consequence of not having the time to walk is the marked increase in the pace of my day. I am always running from one thing to another, always seeing if I can fit just one more task into any open block of time.

When I was in my mostly-walking stage I would automatically include a massive amount of travel time into any activity. Going grocery shopping? Add at least another hour for the walk there and back. On my way to work? Add fifteen minutes both ways for the sitter and then another twenty for the trip from the sitter to the school and vice versa.

Despite the constraints of needing to leave at a certain time, any activity was cushioned by a large swath of time in which I could contemplate whatever I was about to do, or process whatever I just did. Or I could just be, not thinking of anything in particular. The time would just be there.

Now it takes me a rushed and noisy five minutes to get from my house to school (I adore living so close to my kids’ school, it’s fantastic). I feel like I am constantly zipping from point A to points B and C and D.

There are two things which keep me tethered, which keep me from flying so fast that I crash: Shabbos and my toddler.

On Shabbos I am, obviously, only walking. It’s not the kind of walking which lends itself to contemplation because I am usually accompanied by at least one child. This means the walk is parenting on the go, teaching them how to exist and act in a public space. To stay on the sidewalk and leave people’s lawns alone. To not run too far ahead. To be aware of the street, of cars, of driveways. All the dangers!

I also try to keep in mind the need to praise them for the behavior I want them to continue. To ignore behavior that I don’t like, unless it’s dangerous or whatever and then I have to think of a consequence (no Shabbos party, no playdate, all the things which feel like a punishment for me but which I know will leave an impression).

It’s a time of connection, of listening to their thoughts, letting them have the time to think and express themselves, to start to develop into the adults they will become. I am giving them the gift of the walk, letting them move into the space which I use to solely occupy.

On Shabbos I am not concerned with the vagaries of what to post online, of who I should and should not share my happy moments with. I am busy being present within my happy moment, with the people who are in the moment with me.

Especially on these long summer Shabbos afternoons, there is no rush to do anything. We let our meal stretch, the children running in and out, inquiring about dessert, being told that they should at least have some real food first. From the table we can hear our toddler opening the freezer.

We have one of those fridges with the freezer on the bottom, which means easy toddler access to ice cream, freeze pops and all sorts of things I’d rather him not be able to get into.

My toddler is the other tether which keeps me from moving too quickly. In the way of toddlers, he can do everything himself, and it is typically at his own glacial pace. When my other children were this age and I was less organized, thus more in a rush, I wouldn’t let them take as much time as this toddler is getting. He doesn’t realize his good fortune.

In the morning bustle, he prefers to get into the car on his own, and then get into his carseat on his own. He still lets me buckle him, but I have a feeling that will be the next thing on his agenda. And then we will have the predictable little conversation:

“I do it myself!”

“You want to buckle yourself? Such a big boy!”

“Yeah I big boy.”

“So big.”

(he fumbles with seatbelt)

“Should I help you?”

“No. Mmmphff, I do it…”

(more struggling)

“Mommy, help me.”

“Sure big boy. I’m so proud of you for trying!”

I think it’s because he’s my youngest that I have some strange and completely unexpected reserve of patience for letting him try these things himself. Maybe it’s maturity as a parent. Maybe it’s because he’s just so cute.

Whatever the reason, I am often stopped from rushing frenetically to whatever my destination is. I am forced to pause and to marvel on the development of this little guy, to be amused by his pluck and determination. To find incentives to help him go just a little faster.

In the middle of writing this article I was overcome with a desire to take a walk. The weather was perfect. It had been a hot day but the temperature had dropped to a pleasantly warm condition. There was a mild breeze and the day was just begging for me to go and recapture some of the magic of my solo walks.

Though it was smack in the middle of the dinner/homework/bath/bedtime rush, my wonderful husband agreed to hold down the fort while I took a walk around the block.

“Just come back,” he quipped as he changed the toddler’s messy pull-up.

I did come back, refreshed and re-energized and ready to be me, really me.