Stepping In

Snow and frigid temperatures, sun and balmy days, rain and wind and sleet…all of those kinds of weather crammed into the last three weeks. And Connie, the Fitbit on my wrist, blithely ignores all of it. The temperature, the weather, what’s falling from the heavens: these things mean nothing to her relentless little self.

If I sit too long, snuggled in the chair by the fire, she buzzes me out of rapt reading. She wants me to take at least 250 steps every sixty minutes; at about a quarter till the hour, my wrist will tingle and a message will scroll on Connie’s flat visage. “Only 113 steps left!” she’ll remind me.

And I’ll finish the paragraph and sigh, put down the book, and step it up.

And every other week, Connie challenges me to add 500 steps to my daily total. My walks get longer and more well-planned. I don’t like the thought of ending the day shy of my goal.

Most of the time, if it’s not raining too hard, if the walks aren’t icy, and if the temps are above ten degrees, I walk outside. I like that best: taking long strides, swinging my arms, the fresh air rubbing my cheeks. I have a regular walk; most days I walk a long walk; sometimes, on days I have to step in other ways, I take a short walk; and on changeable days, when I need a diversion, I go for an other-way walk. Those days I dodge around different corners, pace the trails at what we blithely call the old folks’ home (where folks right around our age live quite happily, although most of them are, to say the truth, a good bit older.)

When I walk outside, there’s a sense of mission, of forward marching, and there is the possibility of lots of unexpected things happening. There’s, Hey, look, Misty’s waving in her black SUV, and there’s a chat with a cute young couple carrying pizza boxes, leaking fragrant steam, up the steep steps of their porch, and there’s the chance to see how people’s decorations change, from Christmas to Valentines Day to St. Paddy’s green, and just now starting to speak up, a few hopeful pastel hues of springtime. I might stop and chat with neighbors on my walk. I get to see houses with for sale signs just about the minute those signs go up. Quite often, when I walk early or at dusk, I’ll have conversations with unimpressed deer.

I like my outdoor walks.

But many days lately, the weather has sent me scurrying to walk indoors.

Sometimes I drop James off at the campus library and drive around the back of the college road and go to the rec center. If I walk twelve times around their indoor track, I rack up a mile. Often, it’s crowded, and walking is more like weaving: friendly groups of gal pals in all kinds of togs, from the trendiest and gym-iest, to cotton shirts, denim capris, and Crocs, stride along in all three lanes, chatting and laughing. I veer off to the way-outside; they smile and pat my arm and wave me on and go back to their discussion of this one’s kids and that one’s stubborn husband. Some folks stand in the edge area, between the track and the tall bank of windows, and stretch. One rangy, aging gent wrapped his arms around a thin pole, a pole as long as he was tall, and whipped around from side to side. I ducked and flinched when I walked by; that pole looked like it was flying mighty close to my head, and he dropped the thing and gave me an exaggerated arm wave—a kind of, ‘After you, MADAME!’

I was glad when that guy went inside the equipment room and started bouncing on some odd round floor fixtures and I was removed from his flailing and sarcasm.

One young woman worked out on the machines in the middle floor, but periodically bolted across the track to press her hands against the wall, to stretch and squat, and to puff out her cheeks. She wasn’t always careful about watching for walkers. When she nearly ran me over, she glared at me as if I should have been more careful.

The day Jim came with me, the day his work was cancelled, he tried to walk the track. I took off before him as he screwed his ear buds in and tightened up his laces, and I found him, white-faced by the chairs, flinching as the chatty silver sneakers scurried past.

“It’s too CROWDED,” he said, and that day we went home early.

The next day, a day of relentless cold rain, we drove to the mall and walked there. The floors gleamed, the crowds were diffuse, and the stores offered interesting possibilities. Jim went one direction (“You walk too fast,” he grumbled) and I went the other; we high-fived each time we met in the middle, and I found him, finally, in the food court, where he munched on an Aunt Annie’s pretzel as he waited for me to complete my final circuit. Jim likes walking at the mall, where the other walkers don’t press so close, but I find the floors there very slick, and I am glad when my half hour’s walking is done.

I like to walk outdoors, but it’s nice to have indoor alternatives.

But Wednesday, it snowed, then rained, then cooled down again, and the slush froze into hurtful hard points. The streets were clogged with snow that squawked and crunched. I went out to clear the front walk for the mail carrier, and I slipped and slid and leaned on the push broom for a crutch. I broadcast eco-friendly snow melt from the stairs to the street and then hobbled slowly up the walk and around the house to the back door.

Wednesday I realized there’d be no walking outside, and there’d be no driving to another indoor venue to walk, either.

Wednesday I realized that, if I wanted to walk for half an hour, I was going to be walking inside my house.

**************

Mark had slipped out to work in that half hour between the snow and the rain; Jim was still upstairs at 9:00, my walking time. I opened the door to the glassed in side porch, the space we grandly call our Florida room, and I started mapping a track through the house.

I started at the big window in the kitchen, and I noticed that the floor really needed to be swept. I stopped and did that; sweeping the tiled floor, like sweeping the front walk, is just another kind of walking. I swept up a big pile of crumbs, and I pushed them into the dust-catcher, and I dumped that into the garbage can. I did another circuit of our little kitchen, and I noticed the new toaster, a long sleek silver thing. Instead of four slots, it has two extra-long ones. We can do two slices of normal-sized bread in each one, and we can also carve slices from large artisan loaves and toast them without cutting them in half.

It’s nice. I took Jim shopping after our old toaster—which had moved to this house with us, so it was at least seven years old, and not an expensive purchase in the first place—stopped popping up the toast on the right side. We went to Kohl’s with a small credit and a coupon for 30% off, and Jim chose this toaster.

It’s an Oster.

So, it’s an Oster toaster.

And when Jim was telling Mark what a great toaster it was, we said he was an Oster toaster boaster.

And since we were being snarky, I guess that made us Oster toaster boaster roasters.

But: time to walk on.

*******

In the family room, I walked the perimeter, behind the backs of furniture, and noticed the knit throws and fuzzy blankets were all puddled and lumped on the love seat. I stopped and fluffed and folded, and I gave each sitting spot its own snuggly blankie. I straightened up stacks of DVD’s, and I moved a laptop lap-desk from the walkway.

I noticed that the TV was a little fuzzed with dust and I turned round and got the Swiffer duster from the cabinet. I am too cheap to buy Swiffer duster refills, so it is armed with clean white sock rags, and they work just fine, thank you very much, to wipe the dust from TV screen and stand. I walked back and put the duster away and then headed out onto the sunporch. There was evidence of my early winter’s project: two boxes of documents to shred, left after I cleaned out files and divested them of anything we do not need to keep. I made a mental note to ask Jim if he’d like to make some extra cash; I’ve been meaning to shred those papers, but it seems that something always interferes.

I circled the sunporch twice, and I thought we need to think about furnishings. We ordered new curtains; Mark mounted industrial pipe for rods, and we hung bright, thick curtains so the little three season room is private and quiet. This spring we’ll move the daybed downstairs from the tiny bedroom and create a new guest space…and a new napping space, too.

We’ll take the old, wine-colored flowered furniture and contribute them to Jim’s man cave downstairs, if he wants them. We’ll need to think about what else should go in the Florida room once the little bed is added.

But walking, it was cold out there, and I completed the circuit and shut the door behind me.

I swung around into the living room, where the waiting fireplace beckoned me. I calmed it down. Not right NOW, I told it; not at 9:10 in the morning. But it was tempting, and as I straightened the books and magazines, napkins, emery board, IPad, and old letters that have piled up around my reading space, I thought about that. Who SAYS, really, that I can’t light a fire and take a reading break, mid-morning? Who SAYS?

Well, Connie does, for one. I sighed, circled the living room a couple of times, and forged on.

In each room, I stopped and straightened, noting things that needed to be dusted or moved. I thought wryly to myself that, if the track at the gym requires twelve circuits to make a mile, here at home, I must need something like fifty.

I walked, and I stopped to neatly put shoes into their spaces in the back hall and I straightened books on the shelves and I moved a stack of recipes to the bookshelves where the recipes to be sorted live.

With each pass through, the clutter became a little more controlled.

By 9:30, I had stepped a lot of steps and straightened up my house.

********************

Later that sloppy, indoor day, I ran the vacuum and mopped tile floors, two different ways of getting steps in.

By late afternoon, it had cleared enough that driving to teach my night class was no problem, although I sighed at the thought that I could have had a snow day. And, at class, just as I started to talk about the night’s adventures into writing, Connie exploded on my wrist. I’d achieved my daily step goal.

Whoo hooo, said my students.

**********************

The weather is clearing. Today is a much nicer day, and I laced up my black Nikes, twice, and stretched out into the outdoor world, and I enjoyed that stretch. But it’s nice to know that, even if stuck at home, I can get my steps in.

I can get my steps in and wind up with a cleaner, neater house because of it.

I wouldn’t want to do it every day, but there’s something to be said for stepping in.

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Thank You, Little Voice

All the consciences I have ever heard of were nagging, badgering, fault-finding, execrable savages! Yes; and always in a sweat about some poor little insignificant trifle or other–destruction catch the lot of them, I say!
– Mark Twain, “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut”

**********

The squirrel sits on top of a garden boulder like a fuzzy black statue; it is frozen but quivering with alertness. As I round the corner, it leaps into the empty street and runs up onto the grassy hill beyond, its little legs splayed, its gait awkward but speedy.

There are all kinds of squirrels—gray, black, and brown; well-padded and rangy–out and hustling this warm December day; they dig and recover and run, mouths clutching acorns. They scamper and skitter up tree trunks.

A dozen sleek black crows hop arrogantly in a yard as I pass by, and I see the red darts that are cardinals zipping high up in the tree tops. Leaves lay, crisp and brown, across the sidewalks. A guy with a hat pulled down over his ears walks by me, smiling. His almost-white blond hair springs out beneath the knitted tuque; his eyes crinkle behind thick lenses.

I try to decide who he reminds me of as I smile back and say hello.  

A little like Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

A little Elton John-y.

A heavy-set young woman with long dark hair and shiny, opaque, ear gages, flits her eyes away from mine and walks far around me, slipping a little on the muddy grass. She does not respond to my morning greeting.

Toward the bottom of the sloping hill, neighbors, the couple from the big old house around the corner from ours, stride out of a side street. They single file it to make room for me on the sidewalk. They smile and wave.

I love the morning for walking…love connecting with what’s going on in nature; love seeing the other walkers and runners cheerfully (mostly) up and about.

But sometimes, it’s hard to motivate myself. There is housework to be done; there are classes to be planned; there is writing I should not be ignoring. I could, on cold December days, light the fire in the fireplace and sit at my computer, basking in the comforting snap and glow. I have to push myself to lace up my sneaks, pull on my jacket, head off into the chill.

I love the sense of accomplishment in walking, too,–in taking a walk that chalks up, oh—maybe, two miles, maybe more. I use my phone’s health app to track the distance. One day I figure out exactly where I’ve reached 1.5 miles; then I turn around; I arrive home having completed a brisk three-mile walk.

The next day, though, I take the same exact walk, and I check my distance on the phone…and it tells me something different. It tells me I’ve only gone 2.75 miles.

What’s up with that? I demand, and not quietly. Does it depend on where I put the phone—if it’s in the coat pocket or my jeans pocket? Does it depend on how I stride? How can it be different when I walked exactly the same route?

Mark shrugs and rolls his eyes. He’s heard it before. And he’s heard my motivation laments, too.

For Christmas, he gives me a solution: I unwrap a FitBit. That night, we sync it to my phone and the computer, and I set what it tells me is a reasonable starting goal: 8,000 steps a day. I’ll do that for a week or so, develop a rhythm, and then ramp up to where I should be: 10,000 steps.

And then we’ll see.

********************

The Fitbit stays with me almost all the time; it knows when I am sleeping, and it knows when I’m awake. It buzzes little reminders to get up and move when I sit at the computer for long stretches. It tells me, sadly, toward the end of the afternoon, when I haven’t met my hourly expected rate of stepping. Then I sigh and log out of whatever work I am doing and pull on my jacket, wave to the boyos, and head out for another, longer walk.

I hit 8,000 steps on the way back; my Fitbit friend explodes into congratulations, gently buzzing my wrist, tiny fireworks shooting across its little screen. I tingle with accomplishment.

It tells me other things, too, that little gadget. When someone texts, her name and message scroll across the Fitbit’s face. It jumps and shudders when a call comes through.

It’s like a little finger poking me in the shoulder, like a little voice that says, “Gonna walk some more? Gonna answer that? Gonna keep sitting?”

“Sitting is the new smoking, you know,” I imagine the devious little device whispering as I turn a page in front of the fire.

And I realize Mark didn’t just gift me with a fitness tracker.

He gifted me with a verbal output machine for my conscience.

*********************

Growing up Catholic in 1960’s America, and growing up the daughter of an avid convert to the religion, meant developing, early and firmly, a nagging conscience. I tried lying, for instance, to get out of trouble when my mother stomped through and thundered, “Who….??????”

I learned not only that it did not work—she had eyes in the back of her head, that woman. (Why did she ask, though, if she already knew?)  I learned that if I lied to get out of trouble, I would suffer that night, when the weight of my venial sins would start pressing on me, jumping up and down on my chest, demanding my attention.

“How COULD you?” my conscience would demand, and then it would brush the bouncing sins away and sit, heavy and cross-legged, on my chest. It would enumerate all the other times I lied, and all the craven excuses I used for uttering those mis-truths. It would point out that I never learned from my sins, that I always said I’d go forth and sin no more; that that in itself (nudge, nudge, poke, poke), that errant pledge, was a lie.

My sleep would come slowly, and it would be roiled when it arrived, and I would be first in line at the confessional that Saturday, waiting to give my itchy conscience a nice little bath.

There were so many torments—nasty thoughts about people who thwarted me, tiny bits of beef in soup served by a friend’s mother on a meatless Friday. (This issue was in a gloomily hazy area. My mother told me that it’s better to sin than to offend a friend. But, oh: beef on Friday! My conscience smugly smacked me, parroting the words of my current nunly teacher back to me. I suspect it would have smacked just as hard if I’d refused the soup. “Nice,” it would have said. “Hurt HER feelings, didn’t you?”) Lies of commission and lies of omission. Gluttony. And sloth.

I watched Pinocchio and wished my conscience were a little more friendly and peppy, a little more like Jiminy Cricket.

I watched my friends, who were blithe and unrepentant in pursuit of certain goals. I wished I could shrug things off like they did, and I began to wonder if my conscience was not, perhaps, on steroids.

As I grew, it kept pace, my guilt-meter, my remorse machine. I could not find the switch that controlled its volume.

***************

In middle school and high school, I began to read Mark Twain,–starting of course, with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the juvenile version of which I got for Christmas when I was twelve. I discovered that Twain had lived in my town for a time when he was a young man; he had edited a paper called the Censor, and he had not been happy in the doing of it. His fleeting local-ness was fascinating.

I struggled through Huckleberry Finn, which I wouldn’t fully appreciate until I read it again in college, and I discovered the movie version of The Prince and the Pauper, which, for some reason, I loved. That led me to the book. And then I discovered Twain had a treasure trove of short works.

In high school, I came across an essay by Twain on the subject of conscience, a topic, I think, that troubled him even more than it did me. In this work, Twain described taking his conscience and beating it to death, throwing it into the fireplace, and feeling no remorse.

“I wish,” I thought, and I began the Twain-ian effort of toning down my conscience. Practice, I figured, would make perfect, and so I began to work on it.

“Of course, there will be parents at the party,” I told my mother.

“I would NEVER drink alcohol,” I assured my dad.

“Ick. Who would ever want to smoke cigarettes?” I queried.

“I don’t know what happened,” I said to my professor. “I was sure I handed that paper in, and now I can’t find my draft.”

My conscience railed and railed, but I was relentless. Finally, it rolled over and slept for a bit.

But it would wake up in the darkest, most vulnerable hours; it would wake up and it would wake ME up. At 3 AM I’d be sitting upright in bed, wrestling with questions of how could I….

I visited the confessional less and less often, finding the comfort it had once given was more and more diluted.

******************

So I trudged reluctantly into adulthood, dragging a bound and muffled, but never quite abandoned, conscience that kicked and squirmed behind me.

Teaching and marriage, loss and parenting, all the unexpected tumblings of life, taught me to see and feel new layers and permutations of guilt and remorse.

****************

I began to think about what the whole concept of ‘conscience’ means. The root word, science, means knowing. The prefix, con, means with. So the word itself meant ‘with knowing,’ the doing of a deed with full awareness of what that doing connotes.

And then I stumbled across a book on mindfulness, and I started wondering how much of life I sleepwalk through, and I started seeing the value—well, the necessity, really—of being awake and aware. Is THAT, I wondered, what a conscience really does? It calls me back to awareness, brings me to the present moment, asks me to acknowledge that I know what churnings the course I contemplate might agitate?

If that was a conscience’s job, maybe it was not such a bad companion. Maybe I could get acquainted with my conscience again, ask it to help me really inhabit my time. We began a cautious renegotiation of roles, my conscience and I. One of the things it recommended that I do is write about it to fully understand it. I wove my conscience into my morning pages. We started, I like to think, a kind of waltzing get-to-know-you dance.

This dance, I believe, continues to this day.

****************

And, “Okay!” says my FitBit as I type this. “Time to get up and get moving!”

And I heave myself out of the chair, think longingly of making another short pot of decaf, of helping myself to a piece or two of the locally-famed chocolates that a lovely friend surprised me with last night. But I trudge upstairs instead to pull on my new Sock Monkey socks. It is time for the First Walk of the Day, time to lace up my sneaks and venture forth into a gray world where squirrels scamper and birds shrill,–where, just an hour ago, a deer played peekaboo with Mark, popping its head up and down from behind the bushes as Mark grinned at it from the dining room’s bay window.

The Fitbit tells me this, but it is telling me only what I know: that action is good, that my heart needs me to move and needs me NOT to grab another goodie from the sweetie tray. The Fitbit is just another tool to help me achieve awareness, to guide me into mindfulness. I stare out the window and I acknowledge this as I twist my thoughts so that, “Oh boy! Let’s walk!” shows up on the screen.

I should be thanking my smug little Fitbit, firmly leading me by the wrist. Maybe, I think to myself, I should give my new little friend a nickname.

I reject the first one that comes to mind. ‘Fit Bistird’ just doesn’t seem appropriate.

Maybe I’ll call it Connie.