Changing leaves

Today between classes at Framingham State, I took a quick walk around campus, venturing no further than a block from my office, where I now sit typing these words. Normally, taking a walk around the block is no big deal: normally, my midday walks are limited by time rather than distance, with at least one alarm to let me know when I need to stop wandering and resume working. But today is the first day since I’ve been sick that I’ve had enough extra energy to take even a short stroll, so walking around the block feels like a momentous occasion.

Changing leaves

This time last week, I was so exhausted from constant coughing, I had to stop and rest whenever I climbed a flight of stairs. This time last week, I ran out of breath on my way from my doctor’s parking lot to the reception desk: a distance of only a hundred yards. This time last week, walking wasn’t a relaxing, mind-clearing pastime: it was a strenuous, seemingly impossible activity that triggered coughing fits and crippling waves of exhaustion. This time last week, walking was an ordeal to be endured only when absolutely necessary.

Changing leaves

Today I had the strength to take a walk, and although it was a very short one, it feels good to be among pedestrians again. Your world grows very small when you’re unable to move under your own power. Instead of admiring the scenery, you focus myopically on distances, shortcuts, and the number of tiring steps between Here and There. When you’re too sick to walk, your body becomes an impediment: something to be dragged along rather than the source of self-sufficient power. Every day, I feel my body strengthen. On Monday, I was so desperate for a nap between classes, I laid my head on the café table where I hold impromptu office hours, not caring who saw me snoozing and drooling on my folded hands. Yesterday, I taught three classes without napping in between, and today, I took a walk.

This is my Day Thirteen contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Cold flamingos - Feb 17 / Day 48

Yesterday, J and I walked to Boston College for an afternoon men’s hockey game. BC is about three miles from our house, so walking there and back is a healthy hike in good weather…and yesterday, we were weathering the aftermath of our latest snowstorm, which meant walking through ankle-deep, un-shoveled snow for most of the way.

Gave up

A lot of New Englanders are getting sick of snow at this point of the winter, as illustrated by this castoff shovel J and I saw along the way. (Maybe we should have taken it to clear our own path.) I’ve found from experience, though, that the weather is easier to deal with, paradoxically, if you get out in it. Once you’re moving, the cold isn’t as intolerable as you had imagined from inside, and the snow isn’t as slippery as you’d thought.

Toppled stop sign

The walk home after the game was a bit easier than the trek there: walking home, we travel mostly downhill, and we’d made a mental note of how to avoid the most treacherous drifts and snow-banks. Walking home, we were largely retracing our steps, treading a still-snowy path that had nevertheless been trampled by other intrepid pedestrians. It was dark on our walk home, so we had to stride blindly into our own footsteps rather than primly picking a meticulous path. On the walk home, we quickly settled into a smooth, almost fluid gait that felt like cross-country skiing, minus the skis: just one foot following the other, two mates in single file.

Plenty of pokeweed

Yesterday afternoon, after I got home from teaching, J and I went for a walk around the neighborhood, and for the first time in weeks my body didn’t hurt. The foot I’d sprained last month wasn’t swollen or sore, and my hip (which I’d tweaked when I was limping around, favoring my foot) wasn’t stiff and aching.

On the fence

It was the first time in more than a month when walking actually felt good. I wasn’t counting steps, looking for shortcuts, or anticipating the end of the walk, nor was I lamenting every step as pain. I could simply walk—and enjoy walking—without worry, as I used to do, my body free and unencumbered. I’m learning that this is one seemingly inevitable part of growing older: you feel grateful for what you used to take for granted as “normal.” A good day isn’t one where something particularly special happens; a good day is when nothing bad happens. “No new aches and pains”—something unremarkable when you were younger—becomes cause for celebration.

On the fence

I’ve missed walking while I’ve been recovering. Walking has always been one of my favorite pastimes, an exercise that doesn’t feel like exercise. Walking is my favorite way of clearing my head and getting both my blood and creative juices flowing. For me, walking is an intellectual activity, an exercise for the mind as well as the body. Spending more than a month on forced rest, walking only a little here and there while constantly monitoring how either my foot or hip felt, has been challenging, as if the bounds of both my world and my interests had shrunk. When I’m sedentary, I grow sluggish, and I don’t enjoy life as a slug.

One of the things I’m looking forward to now that my body is better is exploring around Framingham State more. On the days I’m in Framingham, I teach in the early morning and late afternoon, with a substantial break in between. For the past month, I’ve been spending that break in my office catching up with work rather than wandering, trying to give my foot the rest it needs to get better. Now that walking is no longer a (literal) pain, I’m looking forward to getting out of my office and exploring a new-to-me campus and town: an excellent way to break up my break.

Unfurling ferns

I haven’t taken many pictures since Reggie died, in part because I no longer have a slow-puttering dog to walk in the mornings and in part because April is always a busy month. Whereas for years my life revolved around the morning ritual of waking, walking, and writing, over the past two weeks I’ve settled into the slightly different habit of waking, doing yoga and meditating, and then writing.

Lily of the valley

It’s a routine that seems to work for me, at least right now, when I’m making a conscious effort to go gentle on myself. But this morning ritual of yoga, meditation, and writing doesn’t offer many opportunities for photography. Whereas on a walk you can be perpetually on the lookout for interesting things to photograph (especially if you’re walking an old dog who stops and sniffs every few feet), my yoga mat and the bare corner where I meditate aren’t visually interesting. That’s the whole point, after all, of facing a wall when you meditate: you’re not looking for interesting images, you’re just following your breath as it comes and goes.

Flowering shrub

This past week I’ve been walking our beagle, Melony, in the evening: a way of continuing the walking I love, but in a different way than I walked Reggie. Melony and I haven’t yet developed the same rapport that Reggie and I had, where he would quietly wait while I photographed things and I would quietly wait while he sniffed, peed, or pooped. Eventually, Melony and I will reach the point where we settle into a mutually agreeable stride; for the time being, though, I concentrate on walking the dog when Melony and I walk, not on taking pictures. That will come soon enough, but not yet.

Lady bug on garlic mustard

This morning I knew I wanted to write a blog post today, since the rest of the week promises to be busy. Knowing I didn’t have any photos from this week’s Melony-walks to share, I walked around the yard with my camera to see what I could see. Even without an old dog’s pace or an inquisitive beagle’s curiosity to assist me, I managed to find a few interesting things to share. During a week that promises to be busy, a handful of backyard photographs is a windfall indeed.


I’ve decided it’s not the dresses themselves that catch my eye whenever I walk past Miranda’s Verandah in downtown Keene, but the light emanating from those dresses. On these dark days of December, when all my dog-walks are frigid and most happen in darkness, I can’t imagine myself wearing something short, sleeveless, and frilly…but I can imagine myself aglow with an inner fire, my soul smoldering within me like a torch.

I’ve quickly become re-accustomed this year to winter dog-walking, which is good given how often Reggie needs to go outside these days. Already it seems like an old habit to throw on my long down coat; grab my keys, a flashlight, and a few poop-scoop bags; and stroll around my neighborhood in a hat, scarf, and warm winter boots at all hours of night and day. Even when temperatures are in the teens, you quickly acclimate to the cold if you’re actually walking in it, versus watching the thermometer from inside. Your inner fire burns brighter and fiercer, and you give up fighting against the cold and simply relax into it instead. There’s no need to rush an old dog, and no need to fight the cold. Inside the shelter of your own skin and its protective layers, your life-light kindles and shimmers brighter than any star in the brilliant-black winter sky.

I wrote a similarly titled post almost exactly one year ago today, rekindling an age-old theme.

Backyard beetle pollinating pink flowers

Today has been warm and humid: suddenly, as if overnight, it feels like summer. After a friend and I worked up a generous sweat taking a brisk afternoon stroll down sometimes shady, sometimes sunny suburban trails, we stopped in town for iced beverages–a fruity herbal tea for me, and a decaf latte for her–and sat on a bench outside as afternoon thunderstorms rolled in, an overhead awning almost completely sheltering us from cool rain that felt welcome on hot skin.

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In the trenches

These are the days when smart dog-walkers choose the road more traveled, the path trampled by previous walkers being the best route through knee-high snow. Otherwise, your best bet is to stick to plowed sidewalks, lest you be tempted by the primrose path of street-walking.

Plowed sidewalk


I’m re-discovering this semester a simple formula for my personal health and serenity: WWW, the letters that represent my time-tested but oft-neglected morning ritual of waking, walking, and writing.

Shop window tiger with jewelry

It sounds simple enough: in order for me to stay happy and sane, I need to structure my schedule so I wake up early enough to walk Reggie and then write in my journal before tackling the day’s other tasks. Not only does this routine sound simple enough, it’s one I discovered over four years ago, when the demands of teaching, dissertation-finishing, blogging, and life in general were enough to drive even the most faithful walker mad. Back then, I learned from experience that a regular diet of dog-walks and journal-writing kept me sane. But even though I know full well that the simple recipe for my own personal happiness boils down to three simple letters, so many other things intervene. When you have classes to prep, papers to read, and emails to answer, life seems so much more complicated than the simple practice of “WWW.”

Window shopping

In a previous lifetime when I attended a nondenominational evangelical church whose Sunday services lasted most of the day, the minister used to remind us from the pulpit that “preparation for worship starts the night before.” If you want to be awake, showered, and dressed in time for morning service, you need to be mindful of that intention on Saturday night, when the temptation to stay up late can destroy even the best laid plans. This semester, I’ve been making a conscious effort to be both in bed and asleep by midnight so getting up early isn’t a huge difficulty. Thanks to the two and a half years I lived in a Zen Center, getting up at 5am or even earlier isn’t a completely foreign concept: you can, I’ve learned, train yourself to be an early bird rather than a night owl…but you can’t (I’ve also learned) be both.

Window shopping

Although having a dog guarantees I’ll walk sometime during the day, I really do prefer to walk “almost first thing” in the morning, when there’s barely enough light to see the sidewalk ahead of me. At that hour, my body feels fresh and invigorated; at that hour, it feels good to be awake, outside, and moving. When you walk “almost first thing” in the morning, when it’s still lingering dark, you can pretend you’re the only one for miles around who’s awake and stirring. The streets, shop-windows, and lamp-lit shadows are all yours, with no need to share. When you start your day with even a short walk, you have something to write about when you come home, sit down to today’s oatmeal, and then write today’s pages over tea. When you start your day with even a short walk, it’s even easier to come home after a solid day’s teaching, take the dog for a second stroll, and feel your workday has been beautifully bookmarked, the life of the mind fueled by the moving of one’s feet.

The three Ws of waking, walking, and writing are in no way fancy, but for me, they’re a simple equation that adds up to a good, productive day. In the pursuit of the elusive W called Wellness, it ultimately comes down to two other Ws: Whatever Works.


On Tuesday, just before heading off to teach a class on Henry David Thoreau’s “Walking,” I decided to put the essay into action by taking a midday stroll around campus: a purely pedestrian lunch hour.


I’ve been teaching a class on “American Literature of the Open Road” for years now, and Thoreau’s ode to sauntering has always been on my list of assigned readings. This particular essay, in other words, is familiar terrain, one I’ve walked repeatedly and in many weathers. Once I almost literally ran into a former Open Road student as I was rushing to teach a fresh section of the class, and he looked puzzled when I explained where I was going. “How can you keep teaching the same thing over and over,” he wondered, surely inspired by his excitement to take something different this semester. “Oh, but it’s not the same thing over and over,” I explained, and my former student looked unconvinced. Apparently, he hadn’t gotten Thoreau’s point the first time ’round.


The point of Thoreau’s “Walking” (or one of the points, since Thoreau has many) is that you can never grow tired of walking and re-walking the same routes. In “Walking,” Thoreau isn’t describing any actual experience he’s had visiting somewhere as exotic as the Holy Land; instead, his insistence that you approach any walk as if you had such a sacred destination points to the essentially spiritual nature of his pedestrian practice. In actual truth, Thoreau traveled a great deal in Concord: the four-hour walks he refers to in “Walking” began in his own backyard, included a fair amount of rambling, and then ended right where they started. We can see that as Thoreau’s failure to achieve his own ideal of a one-way walk that doesn’t look back upon the mundane world: proof of his presumed hypocrisy. Or we we can see Thoreau’s circular excursions as being a map we all can follow: even a busy instructor in the midst of a busy day can find time for an hour’s stroll.


What I once said to a former student wasn’t hyperbole: you can’t read the same essay twice, nor can you re-teach it. It’s always new. I can’t count the number of times I’ve taken the same old stroll around the same old campus to clear my same old head before rushing to teach the same old classes. Students line up to enroll in “Lit of the Open Road” because they think tales about travel will offer something new, just as wandering Anywhere But Here must surely offer new scenery and new stories. But even if you motor your same old body to the Holy Land and beyond, you’ll find your same old self when you get there. Yesterday, today, and forevermore–here, there, and everywhere–walking has always been and will always be a matter of putting this same old foot–your own, familiar foot–in front of the same old other.