Walking

It’s grey and drizzly in Washington, D.C. this week, but also green and leafy, with the smell of earth in the air. Coming from Los Angeles, it’s refreshing. The mist plumps up my cheeks, and a luminous sky softly paints neat rows of brick townhouses. Clusters of bright green leaves spill over the stone walls and embellish the sidewalks. It’s quite a contrast from the brightness of Southern California. Since I have a bit more time on this trip, and because the weather is pleasantly cool, I’ve been walking a lot. I notice that moving among the northwest neighborhoods on foot calms and centers me – it’s not unlike the feeling I get from knitting or drawing.

In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit writes:

“I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought or thoughtfulness.”

Walking, knitting, and drawing connect my conscious awareness to the pace of my body, a pace that is comparatively slower and calmer than the flurry of analytical thoughts that typically race around in my mind. It’s a relief both emotionally and physically to walk, because anxiety, whether we realize it or not, is actually a full body experience. When I’m thinking at top speed and dragging my body along for the ride, after a while I can feel that my joints are stiff and my muscles contracted. Slowing down physically can actually help me lead my mind back to a more relaxed, expansive state. One way I do this is by walking. While I walk, I focus on the textures of stone and vine, and appreciate the perfect, spontaneous composition of living things against the urban structures. Almost immediately, this practice of observation elevates my emotional state, and my thinking is both clearer and more creative.

Some beautiful things I see while walking that totally short-circuit my worry habit: purple and yellow pansies, roses of every color, fragrant rosemary bushes, a silvery beech tree, tiny black birds with emerald crowns, grey squirrels, green leaves everywhere, and a curious white and black cat. In this part of DC, walking connects me with other living things, something the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology claims is very powerful: “even getting out into nature for five minutes at a stretch is enough to give your self-esteem a substantial upgrade.”

In addition, the action of walking itself is pleasant, my feet meeting the ground and pushing off. I practice softening my shoulders and releasing worry from that part of my body. I have a sense of the distance I have traveled, an internal map of the area. I feel oriented in space and time. I also feel my own agency, my ability to act or engage in the world. Most of all, my walking around DC reminds me how car-dominant travel impacts my mood when I’m home in LA. I honestly wonder if part of why I have trouble feeling at ease there is because I literally don’t have my feet on the ground enough.

And so, I resolve to find the time to walk in Los Angeles, and to find small but meaningful encounters with the plants in my neighborhood. I have the sense that, like drawing and writing, a short walk can do the important work of clearing my mind and grounding me back in my body, where so much wisdom resides, even in Los Angeles!

Have you taken any memorable walks lately? Where were they? And what made them memorable? Share your story in the comments.