Last year, which was my first year of grad school, I lived in a house on the same road as the building where I took all of my classes, only a mile away from campus. To save approximately fifty cents per day on gas and a parking pass, and to ensure that I used my body to do something other than stare at a computer screen on a regular basis, I walked to school every day. Rain, shine, snow, sleet, ice, etc., like the mailman or just a regular poor student / midwesterner. I had some of the most beautiful, peaceful moments of that year on my walk to school. A disclaimer: some days, walking to school absolutely sucked. I don’t want to overromanticize it. Walking to campus in the middle of summer with a bag full of my heavy dinosaur laptop and then stuffed with lots of other things I may or may not have truly needed, I fantasized about owning a parking pass. Despite my less-than-stellar attitude some days, my choice to walk to school and the house that allowed me to do it were some of the best things for me.
Last year was the most time per day I’ve spent doing difficult things so far. I spent a lot of my days thinking, mostly about things that other people told me to think about. (For my own good, of course – that’s how school works.) I took furious notes in lectures. I read articles and textbook chapters with a lot of words that I didn’t really understand. And then studied it all. In order to make a tiny income, I had an assistantship where I was assigned to work with a researcher in my building, and so I read about her research and tried to help her with her research and Googled about topics she was interested in. I learned new tactics to force myself to keep using my brain longer than I wanted to, like rewarding myself with chocolate (which very quickly turns into eating chocolate constantly any time you’re working.) My mind was very full a lot of the time.
I had a detailed calendar on my computer that was mostly colorful boxes marking things I was supposed to be getting done all day, with barely-visible amounts of white space. I updated it somewhat obsessively. I tried to maximize everything (trips to the grocery store, drives anywhere, class) by always doing at least two things at once. I did get enough sleep, but I could have easily filled those hours with productivity, too, if I wasn’t so stubborn about getting enough sleep. I rarely let my walking pace slow below brisk. I ate a lot of meals over my laptop or precariously balanced on my steering wheel while going at least 7 over from one commitment to the next. Maybe your life isn’t exactly the same in the details (and I hope not – I do really count on being the only driver holding my lunch and steering with the same hand when I do that), but I bet I’m not alone in the pace, the urgency, the feeling of days being stuffed past their capacity more often than not.
My commute to and from campus was one time that my mind got to be free, every day. It took about a month and a half for me to realize how important that was. Sometime in October, I started to label my walks to and from campus magical in my mind. The leaves on the trees lining my street looked like fall, and due to my schedule and shortening days, the walks were usually pretty well-timed with sunrise and sunset, when the light hit the colors just right and everything looked its best. I spent most of that year rushing through my days or planning them to the minute, and the miles to and from school each day were a safe spot that the rush couldn’t reach. I discovered a podcast I liked and listened to it a lot of days on my way to class, approximately fourteen minutes of calm before joining in with the cycle of classes and research and trying to find the right person or the right room, which always felt too fast or crazy or boring.
In the winter, the walk was muffled by snow, and the snow also made the street look like a Christmas movie. (I’d be remiss not to mention the days that I truly thought my eyeballs were going to freeze open; but for the most part, the walk was peaceful and what I needed.) I listened to Shauna Niequist’s Bread and Wine, and then Cold Tangerines, the audiobook versions, and probably looked a little off while doing it because I either laughed out loud or wiped tears off my cheeks every day. I think I cried because the walks were the one time that I had a little space; I could think my own thoughts and dream and feel inspiration rather than feeling deadlines breathing down my neck. When I look back at last year, the walks are a sharp contrast to the whole rest of my life. They are the space between the lines, the pauses between the music notes, or, for an analogy that hits closer to home for me, the intervals of not eating between meals that make food taste extra satisfying. They made me feel something that I knew was true – that all the parts of who I am matter, not just the parts that helped me get stuff done and be on time. They were good for my soul. Of all of the things about the place I lived last year, I am most thankful for the walks, and a few other things.
I’ve been getting to know myself better, and one of the things I’ve learned is that I need walks, I need space. In overwhelmingly busy patches of my life, I feel like all I want is space. I feel as if I could lay in a bed and stare blankly for hours; I feel like I’d never get bored of letting the next episode play. But then I try giving myself big spaces, open weekends, and sometimes it’s too much (or too little?) The truth is that I crave work and activity and falling into bed exhausted, too. What I want is the perfect balance: long walks and also satisfying, effort-demanding work; quiet time by myself and also loud conversations. The walks last year were beautiful because they inherently were: peaceful, and outside, and reflective. But they were also beautiful because they were interspersed with their opposite, and they added what I needed to feel like a whole, balanced human.
Lately, it feels like someone messed up my balance by giving me way more space than I wanted, and I want to find the person responsible and monologue about how I had a great thing going, and how dare they mess it up? Of course, I can’t do this. My next best plan is to add, and add, and add, to collect items on my calendar and hobbies or to draw another box to check off. And that’s good; I think it makes me feel normal and sane. But I want to keep the spaces, too. I remember how I cried and laughed every day last year during my walks to campus, how the space let my mind and heart go places they couldn’t when I was in the middle of things. That makes me want to keep spaces, to protect them, to make sure I remain a whole human, who works hard and has a schedule, and who also dreams.
Like a lot of people, I’ve been taking more walks in the last couple weeks, down a different street because I moved. My neighborhood is small and mostly bare of trees, but across the street there are winding roads and basically a forest, and a creek, so I pretend I live in the neighborhood across the street and go for a walk. They’re a favorite part of my day again, quieting the rush of information from social media and the news and my mental to-do list for a few minutes, a space. The walks feel similar to the ones last year last year – I see sky, and trees, and I get to talk or be quiet, to move without hurrying or actually getting anywhere. Of the things in my life right now, I think I’m back to being most thankful for the spaces.