I’ve been taking long walks with my dog around Fresh Pond Reservation in Cambridge MA. It’s a surprisingly wild spot for a city park. A friend once fell into a swamp there and had to claw his way out of what he claimed was quick sand. He came home bloodied. I have more mundane adventures but I love the earthy smell of fresh water, dry leaves, and late autumn sunshine.
Sometimes I make two circuits around the pond plus the 1.2 miles each way to/from my house. I feel guilty, somehow, because it’s so time-consuming: five, six, seven miles in the middle of a work day. I’m not running, by the way. I’m not training for a marathon. Not even a half-marathon. Just walking.
My story (and I’m sticking to it) is that there’s a lot of internal “work” I accomplish on these meanderings: monologues in my head that become fodder for my columns or better counsel to my children and students. I compose recommendation letters in my mind, make lists. I think of how to have difficult conversations. I practice shutting up in a board meeting. That kind of thing. I find enormous clarity from thinking outdoors, away from electronic and other distractions.
Okay, but seriously? The other truth is that I’ve taken up the long walks because they make me happy and my flexible schedule permits them. I don’t want to jinx this but my life feels a little calmer and clearer than before the long walks became a routine. Yet I feel guilty and even embarrassed about my long walks and what they suggest about my life. Voices on my shoulder are chattering ungraciously about my freedom. I tell them (on these walks, naturally) that we all make tradeoffs: I’ve swapped certain things for others. That’s all.
At the same time, I have to acknowledge what’s not getting done. Book proposals are not writing themselves, for example. I seem to be perusing a lot of Greek cook books these days.
There’s a long traffic light at the intersection between Fresh Pond Parkway and Huron Ave. and on my way home yesterday I found myself staring at the stream of cars. Every single person was texting. I counted.
Our middle child is applying to college. He has “aspirations” and since he lives and works in an aspirational culture – indeed, our home is literally ground zero of aspirational culture, not to mention anxiety – he’s finding it a punishing process. How can I tell him on the one hand that none of this matters, that a meaningful, worthy life is a function of things that have little or nothing to do with academic achievement and, on the other hand, know full well that his life will, in fact, be significantly ‘better’ if he continues to work his ass off and forgo a lot of fun things to get the best education he can? Education matters.The income differential is huge. Studies show that he’ll also be more likely to have a strong marriage. He’ll have more career choices, more freedom.
But freedom to do what? To feel guilty about taking long walks? To watch a string of drivers frantically sending text messages? To raise kids to think that the measure of a life well lived is to work yourself to the bone to pay for the services and time you need to recover from working yourself to the bone? Freedom to live with a nasty little super ego on your back?
I’m not minimizing the importance of finding a passion or working toward difficult goals. People who can’t plan for the future are headed for trouble. But I don’t know when we started equating self discipline with risk avoidance. I don’t know when we started equating individual achievement with selfishness; success with fear.
My inner monologues around the pond have revealed one thing, for sure. I am a total fraud for so passionately defending the merits of a gentle childhood (unhurried, full of play) when here I am aiding and abetting a blinkered, dysfunctional path to adulthood! Right?
‘What is essential is invisible to the eyes.’ So they tell me. And yet… to be tautological about this, I can only make that trite-but-true observation because I had aspirational parents who wanted the best for me and gave me Antoine de Saint-Exupery to read in French.
Success/failure. Happiness/ Struggle. Balance. (That useless word.) I want my children to search for meaning. But how do we communicate the bewildering expectation that one should take life both more and less seriously? Sometimes I want to shake myself awake: Stop missing the forest for the trees…
I suspect that will require more walks in an actual forest.