Feet First

After wading through my firm’s annual marketing report and compiling an inventory of my own literary works for EDGE class this week, I sat down with the intent to write about report cards: the kind we give ourselves and others.

We are being graded all the time: by co-workers, partners, friends, people on the bus and our own consciences. Individually, we are known as the lady who holds up the line as she finds her wallet, the guy who turns in his assignments before deadline, the wife who leaves rings on the table with her coffee mug, and the man who wipes his nose with his hand. We are many things, including these physical habits, which become our defining if simplified descriptors — our brand, so to speak.

These perceptions create a report card over time. “I won’t ask William for this because he never answers my emails… but Jim does” becomes Jim:1, William: 0.

Most of the time, we grade others subliminally rather than actively, but some do keep score. I admit that I’m one of them, though my point spreads tend to be more gestural. Certain folks get a great deal of latitude, others a medium amount; those at the bottom better not be waiting for dinner, because they’ll starve.

This strata has evolved over time. I once gave away energy indiscriminately, mostly in the hopes of being liked or rewarded. I didn’t understand then that one’s energy and focus are finite resources, and that not everyone is equally deserving or appreciative. Getting older (and a bit more crotchety) has helped me become an unapologetic conservationist about who is served and in what order — As and Bs before Fs.

Today, those who score high are given access to a potent concoction of my energy and affection that is, to some degree, unlimited. They’re getting the good shit, and the fact that I have it to offer at all arises from that graduated delivery system. I’ve learned that I can’t run the fire hose at full blast all the time and expect to have any water left when I need to put out real fires.

With all this scoring, it’s gotten pretty crowded in my head over the past six months. I’ve rated myself on writing, the progress of my memoir, spending time with friends, applying for conferences and grants, as well as love, life, travel, money, career… That’s a lot of thinking about thinking, and a lot of scoring: win, loss, honorable mention.

While most of those categories bear high scores, that there are several that I rank null on, most of which are physical: yoga, sleep and walking. It’s not about points, but about the way I feel when I’m actively apportioning energy there. Right now, my body misses Flying Half Moon pose, sleeping until I wake up naturally (at least, on the weekends), and exploring the world with my feet and my senses.

On Friday, I met Lisa, the executive director of Feet First, through a mutual friend. We were supposed to meet for an hour, but it ended up being nearly two. We sparked immediately: two mid-career women geeking out about health, social justice, creative expression and the positive mental and spiritual effects of exploring the physical environment though the pedestrian experience. Our collective energies created an orange glow at the back of Caffe Umbria.

For some time, I’ve been brainstorming a new project centered on urban walks, so I left happily with neighborhood walking maps from Lisa, research fodder for a concept that needs to cook a while longer. Still, the idea of Lisa’s youth walks project left me super-charged. We had given each other a karmic boost, the kind that raised each of our energy levels.

Our exchange also made me consider how little I walk anymore. Right now, it’s mostly due to weather (and my wimpiness), but the rest is a result of time pressures. I’ve learned to trade off weekend exercise and fresh air for a few hours of work on grant applications, essays or blog posts. Last night, coming home from EDGE and the grocery store, I observed a family out for a sunny walk down Queen Anne hill. I considered joining them, but instead took advantage of the unoccupied laundry room, knowing that it’s nearly impossible to do wash on weeknights.

Of course it was free – everyone else was out walking!

“Walkies with Sean” in Ballard this afternoon will be the only outdoor exercise I’ve had in weeks. He is taking a yearlong sabbatical from work as he undergoes bone marrow replacement, including countless treatments to kill cancerous cells, wipe out his own tissue, replace it with donor tissue and regrow someone else’s DNA in his body. Thankfully, one way he can stay fit is by walking.

I’m always impressed by the pace we take on, as his oxygen capacity is so low right now. Still, I’ve got asthma, so we make ideal walking mates. I’m actually glad to have this chance to spend time with him, since he is first and foremost a bicyclist and I am not. Because we no longer work together, these walks are the most time that I’ve spent with him since I changed jobs two years ago.

Over the past few years, Sean has developed both a public and private writing practice. The public part, a blog on Caringbridge, began with writings about his daughter, who was battling leukemia. For two years, he wrote about her experience undergoing treatments similar to his own today. Not long after Sean set Louisa on her way (in terms of the blog – she is quite healthy now) he picked up the story of his own experience when his doctors informed him that he, too, had cancer.

Though we started out as co-workers for the same architectural practice, we rarely talk about architecture. I suppose that, in one way, we never did talk about design much. What I consider exceptional is the honesty and depth with which we’re able to talk today: about writing, about things and people who matter to us, and about our life experiences.

I’m continually touched by how freely and scientifically he explores this disease and his body’s reaction to treatment, both through writing and during our walks. For those of us whose lives have been touched by cancer, there is a common ground that we navigate gingerly; while familiar, I never presume that my experience is directly comparable with someone else’s. Hearing his perspective is comforting even if the subject matter is not.

Sean gives incredibly thoughtful form to feelings that would otherwise be impossible to guess at, even though I watched my mother go through something similar. The major difference was that she didn’t talk about it with me, or anyone. Sean’s words, on the other hand, are a rich offering: they encourage a free exchange of ideas, thoughts and feelings that galvanize our friendship.

For all of his stoicism, I am tempted to say, “Unlike me, Sean is not the sort to keep score.” While this is probably true, I won’t deify him. What I will say is that, much like the way he lives the rest of his life, Sean’s steadfastness in this is quite admirable. In fact, he typically appears so vital and jovial that I have to remind myself that he’s fighting for his life.

I don’t see him on weeks where he is ill from treatments or when he wears a surgical mask to protect himself at the grocery store (with a compromised immune system, he rarely goes anywhere that might be crowded with sick people, hence the walks in the open air.) The simple act of walking has become a key contribution to his health and mental wellbeing. Imagine being essentially stuck at home for months on end; it would drive any of us crazy, especially if we were as active as Sean. Most of us would spend our hours thinking a lot, perhaps a few of us would write, but we would need a way out, if only for a few hours a day.

Though our Walkies aren’t only about fun times, they are indeed that, too. Sean and I have well-developed funny bones (or perhaps irony bones?) In between earnest conversation, we tell stories about our families and ourselves, tickling each other with tales like two people just out for a walk.

To me, Walkies with Sean are a way to show how much he means to me, if in a small way. Except that we share something significant during our walks: we talk about what’s important to us. That’s the thing about cancer, or any adversity, really: it gives us pause to consider what matters most and where to direct (or redirect) our energies. It makes us conservationists of our assets and allies, not so much in the sense of score-keeping, but in maximizing the value and impact of all that is good around and inside of us.

Who knew that walking could be a means of becoming closer to someone?

From Jeanine Walker’s poetry-walk classes at Hugo House to Walkies with Sean to day-walks through places like Boston, Chicago and New Zealand, the act of walking has come to be a significant means of connection in my life. I once saw walking as a solitary activity, something one did when the car tires were flat or the bus left a minute early. Walking meant leaving or walking away rather than walking toward or with someone.

Thanks, Sean, for making sure that I get some outdoor playtime today. I’m ready to go, all in, feet first. See you soon.

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One thought on “Feet First

  1. Thanks for this. I agree walking offers an entirely different perspective than moving in a car or even on a bicycle. This is a wonderful, as usual, essay.

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