After dinner, I run upstairs and grab a pair of footie socks. I dig out my IPod (I know, I know,–old people’s technology) and attach its ear buds, and I pull on the socks and my comfy sneakers. It is time to start walking every night, to build up from two miles to four miles, and then to push on further. I am signed up for a walking 10K in September, and wouldn’t it be nice to be among the first walkers to finish in the Old Girls’ category?
I crank up Leonard Cohen; he croodles pulsingly in my ears, and I push on out the back door, swinging out the driveway, down the hill, out toward Dresden Road. Every night: a good, stretching walk, an opportunity for meandering meditation. I am committed to this routine.
I blame it all on Wendy.
Wendy is one of those blessed people who burst into our lives when we needed exactly what she shares, someone whom we felt, from the beginning, as if we had always known. She was Mark’s academic advisor when he earned his paralegal degree, the testing ground before law school. Mark was in a life-changing situation; he hadn’t been back in college in–hmm—27 years. Wendy was in a life-changing situation: she hadn’t been a single person in just about that same length of time. As Mark worked toward his degree, Wendy set up a new household, established her independent identity. And between us two bossy women,–he was armed, too, of course, with his own determination,–we nudged Mark firmly onto the road to law school.
In the process, Wendy became more than a friend: she became family.
And so, every year after we moved to Ohio, Wendy would come for a visit. One year, she called to say that she had signed up to walk a half-marathon in Columbus. She was walking in honor of a friend, Dan, who was fighting cancer; she had collected pledges for him and was excited to complete the race and help him out in a wonderfully healthy, meaningful way. She’d walk the race, she said, and then we’d have the long weekend to visit.
It was a beautiful Spring weekend. I drove Wendy to the race on Saturday morning, saw her walk off in the midst of thousands of bouncing, excited walkers, and then found a convenient Starbucks. I pulled end-of-term essays out of my valise, and while Wendy got to know Columbus, up close and personal, I sipped dark roast and graded papers.
After three hours or so, I took my schoolwork to the car and made my way, on that cool sunny morning, back toward the finish line. It was thickly rimmed with waiters and cheerers. A medley of people continuously finished–runners who’d opted for the full marathon, walkers who’d selected the half, the 10 K folks who’d started later. Music pulsed. The perked-up celebrity announcers roared each person’s name as he or she crossed the finish line, and an official race-person ran over to drape a medal–anchored by a hugely impressive piece of bling–around the completer’s neck.
Friends and family surged to hug and snap photos and congratulate. Continuous applause pounded a back beat, excitement simmered, happy tears spurted. The completers were beaming and exhausted. Just as I turned on my little digital camera, here came Wendy, striding along with barely a sweat broken, smiling at newly met walking companions.
“And…it’s WENDY! ” blared the announcer. “Congratulations, WENDY!”
A girl ran out and looped the medal over Wendy’s neck. Wendy stopped and executed a jazzy little dance. I snapped her picture, and I ran to give her a hug, and then we navigated down the row of replenishing foods, finding her half a bagel, a banana, a bottle of water.
Oh, it was exciting. We strode back to the car–Wendy wasn’t even winded: 13.1 miles!–and I said, impulsively, “I’d do this next year.”
Wendy, dear and sincere friend, took me at my word.
That November, she sent me the link to registration, and I signed up. Snug in my chair with an afghan and a book, the thirteen mile walk seemed like a fine idea.
It didn’t seem quite so lovely along about March when it was time to start training, but I did it, grudgingly. Every night after dinner, I’d get out there and walk. Well, almost every night.
Well, at least two nights a week.
I worked my way up to a four mile circuit, and on weekends, I’d push a little further. A young colleague from work who was planning to run the race would stop in my office to talk training; he kept me motivated and moving.
By the time the race date rolled around, I hadn’t quite walked a full thirteen, but I’d made it to ten or eleven. I was confident. I had read up on distance walking; those writers recommended not breaking in brand new shoes for the race, so I cleaned up my cozy old size nine-and-a-half Nikes, put on two snug pairs of fleecy socks, and off we went, Wendy and me, in the bright early hours of a Spring morning, to walk a half-marathon.
Oh, it was exciting. We bounced along with the other walkers in our corral, screaming in one voice as batch after batch of runners were released, feet flashing, hands flailing, into the sunshine. And then finally: us.
Bands played on every corner. Residents sat on porch steps with coffee, cheering and encouraging. Grinning volunteers held out cups of water and Gatorade; we grabbed and gulped and kept on going.
We found that our paces matched pretty well.
We found that energy sagged at just past the halfway point. And we found that then we hit a zone and it ramped back up, an expectation of movement plugged in, and our feet kept moving.
But, oh, my big toes were hurting.
We made it to the bling and the celebration, to the bagels and bananas, back to the car in a ‘we did it’ happy haze, and we drove the hour back to the house, where the boyos waited to congratulate and feed us. I showered; I napped; I noticed my toenails were kind of…black.
Within two days, those nails had fallen right off. Ick! Ouch! I hobbled a bit for a week or two, and then, healed, I went to a famous shoe store, nestled in a country town thirty miles from my home, to get me some new and better walking shoes.
The perky young clerk–she probably was legal age, but she looked about thirteen,–asked me my size, and I told her nine-and-a-half.
“Well,” she chirped, and I could see she doubted me, “let’s just measure, shall we?”
She pulled out the metal foot tray, and I snugged my heel in the cradle and stood.
And topped out, to my shock, at size eleven.
“Our feet grow,” said my diminutive young clerk, sympathetically, “as we grow older.”
What’s this ‘WE’ business, Sherlock? I thought sourly, looking at her tiny, teenaged, size twos. She went and got me a couple of pairs of sneakers to choose from: Which of these sets of lengthy canoes do you like best?
I tried; I chose; I forked over an outrageous sum of money. Perhaps they charged me by the inch.
I fwapped out to the car, feeling like I was wearing long-boats, like I had clown shoes on my feet.
But I had to admit, the shoes felt better.
Appropriately shod, I marched off into the future. Wendy and I walked the half marathon for a few more years, even dragging Larisa in with us on the fourth go-round. That was the day the President made a visit to Columbus, and the police were pulled off the race to concentrate on a different kind of safety. Halfway through the route, the beaming Gatorade volunteers disappeared, the bands packed up their instruments and went away, and a police cruiser came along and told all of us walkers to get out of the street and on to the sidewalk. We walked the last six miles dodging ordinary Saturday morning pedestrians intent on coffee or laundry or a bagel run. It slowed us down; it sapped our glee.
The finish line was a deserted anti-climax; the bling, that year, seemed not so bright.
We sent letters of complaint to the race organizers–Respect the WALKERS!!! we wrote–and decided against a fifth reprise.
But the walking had become a reluctant habit. Creativity guru Julia Cameron writes about the necessity of walking; she likens it to moving meditation, and I find that to be true–when I hit my swinging, oblivious stride, tension drains, and there’s an almost musical intensity to a long, well-paced walk. So, despite woeful excuses and jazzed-up schedules and the fact that there are always too many chores and tasks to squeeze into the precious hours after the dinner dishes are done, I bow to what I know is true: walking season has, again, begun.
Having a goal and a challenge inspires me, gets me out of the reading chair, makes me put down my knitting. And it will be fun and worthwhile this September to join that 10 K, to lace up and jump into a field that is ONLY walkers.
But the race, I’ve come to realize, is not the thing–it’s the every night walk that’s really important. It’s the freshness of the air and the looseness of my muscles and the sense of moving forward. It’s the luxury of listening, during a solitary, slogging march, to music I have chosen. It’s the magic of thoughts unwinding, of tenseness being stretched out and hammered away, of the realization of the beauty of streets and the friendliness of people–appreciation of all those things that just blur by when I pass them in my car.
This summer, I’ll visit Wendy, and Wendy will come here, and chunks of those weekends will include long meandering walks through Mission Oak Gardens or around the rim of the pretty gorge in Wendy’s hometown. We’ll look forward to September and the walkers’ race it brings. But walking will infuse my ordinary days, too, a habit inspired by, a practice that’s a gift from, a wonderful friendship.
I’ll lace up my flapping size elevens, point those long-boats toward the north, and sally forth, walking out the tension, stepping into a habit that enriches and energizes my life.
Our friendships bring us many gifts, and for the gift of nightly walking, I thank Wendy.