Small Satisfactions, Relentless Incrementalism: night-time walk in a town where I was young
Last Saturday, for the first time in five days (I’d had company), I reached my daily goal of 10,000 steps, counted on my Fitbit. I reached it with a cool 10 minutes to spare before midnight.
This happened because, as I was working away that evening, I looked up from the laptop and realized, if you hustle, you can do it, Dragon.
And I did.
“How we spend our lives is how we spend our days,” wrote Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life.
I’d turned 63 a week earlier, and, two years before that, walked the cardboard box containing the vacated body of my 98-year-old mother into the flames at Ferncliff Crematorium. Aging: no one ducks it, except those who are already dead.
The women in my family are long-lived. (My mother, right, in her early 90’s). But even a long life, and the occupying of a body in it, is a lease, never an outright gift.
If I consider what life I likely have left to live, I wish, as far as possible, to be able to move within it; to fully, and as healthily as possible, inhabit my form on earth until my lease is up, and I too vacate the premises.
And if I want this, if how I spend my life is how I spend my days, then I knew on that Saturday night, that I needed to get moving immediately. As long as I can, as much as I can.
This is a knowledge that I return to daily, for it’s not enough to know it, it must be acted on, and those actions can’t be stored up or postponed. Vitality is not a someday proposition. Today is fleet. We must run, or at least walk, to catch up to it. I want my life, hence my days, replete as I can manage. Engaged, fit, active, full. Full of good food, friendship, conversation, love-making, thoughtfulness, noticing (for example,as I did on a recent morning walk) the luminosity in a flowering cabbage, which seems to emit the very sunlight shining on it. I want to keep moving but not anxiously. I want, also, to be able to stand still, in contentment.
So. I walk a lot. By day and sometimes, like that Saturday, by night. Uphill is harder than it was. I am not unmindful of my mother’s three hip breaks, the poor vision that runs in my family. I keep walking, though sometimes I stop and catch my breath on the landings. I keep walking, though I am mindful about where I place my feet, especially in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where so much terrain, built and natural, is irregular, uneven, cracked. I keep walking, and though I look down a lot, I also look up.
I write like I walk: every day, when I feel like it, when I don’t, uphill-down-level, rain sun heat cold. When it’s icy I have been known to stride back and forth in the living-room.
And yes, that silly little FitBit really helps. It doesn’t judge. It does inform. And this motivates me, though I hate to confess it: all that from a pinky-sized device which, basically, counts and then offers up the tally.
Walking the Talk on a Saturday, Late
I had longed down and seen I was at 9,473 steps last Saturday night. I glanced up at the clock, at the lateness of the hour, then stood up and pulled on my green jacket before I could talk myself out of it. It was late, but it was still today, so out into the chill dark night, in Eureka Springs Arkansas, I went.
I walked second by second, step by step, down the gravel alley, down three sets of concrete stairs, the iron banister-rail cold under my palm. I used the flashlight on my iPhone to go down the steps (I went back the next day, and took a picture in the light, right).
At the steps’ base, across from the post office, is a small park, lit up for Christmas, built (like all town’s parks) around a spring. I took a picture of the white snowflake lights decorating the curved limestone wall above and behind the spring which was the park’s centerpiece.
A Victorian article of faith: the curative nature of these springs, around which the town grew.
As I stood, live loud bar-blues bent the sound waves from the joint across the hollow. I stilled, listened. Oh yeah, I thought, it’s Saturday night, right.
As I stood I stilled. I could almost feel my young self in this very town, in the days when such a sound would have pulled me irresistibly, iron to magnet, towards it, hungry as I was for connection, wondering as the young me walked towards the club of the moment, if I would go home alone or not. This memory — more than 40 years ago! — was so vivid I had a kind of olfactory double-exposure: there, in the clean, chilled air I could also inhale those old smells, which surely were much the same as those in the bar I could hear across the way: cigarette smoke, the fug of bodies sweaty from dancing, the fume of liquor.
I was, those days, uncertain where life would take me, and how, and with whom. I was still young enough to be bothered by this. Still young enough to believe that one could have such certainty, and that eventually, I hoped, I would. Still young enough to believe that “things” would “settle down.”
That Saturday, at age 63, I knew otherwise.Yet I was was little bothered by this. And as for my younger ravenous hunger for connection, these days whether I am unaccompanied or with others or with that one other who is most dear to me, never do I feel unconnected. Rather connection (though not certainty) is surfeit, a continual cornucopia.
Looking at the snowflake lights around the spring, I thought: Which spring is this, isn’t it Sweet Spring? I thought it was. But I was not sure. After all, it had been 13 years since I’d lived here. I’d given up being a local authority. This is part of aging in general, at least as it’s unfolding for me: in keeping with my experience and acceptance of uncertainty, I appear to be becoming less and less of a know-it-all. (Right: the snowflake light on the spring’s stone wall, by day, taken the next morning).
When I remember that tough vulnerable 18-year-old girl who lived here, I am glad for most of what I now know lay ahead for her… mostly. I do love the early life I had (even its discontents and aches), and I even almost love most – not all but most – she/ I lived through. Though some events she/ I simply endured, feeling there was no other choice. The bone-deep sudden loss of my beloved husband, Ned, a man so amused he laughed in his sleep, and with eyelashes as long as a giraffe’s. Ned, forever 46, the age he was when he bicycled into eternity on Highway 62 West.
Loving the liminal
Ned, among many other things, besides being the great love of the first half of my life, was the first president of the Eureka Springs Preservation Society. When, the morning after my recent late night Fitbit walk, I went back to look at the park by daylight, I saw this limestone table with its legend (“Our past is your present”). I thought: oh Ned. Oh past. Oh present.
Like so many people of a certain age, I would not go back to my youth, though paradoxically and forever, I will always wish that Ned had lived. That I had gotten to see him age, and to have aged with him. And yet, I so love my present life, which would be very different if he had lived.
The reason I’d gone five days without reaching my Fitbit goal was because, as I said, I had company: the beloved Alpha Male who is the great love of this late portion of my life. Rarely do I reach 10,000 steps when he’s around. But how could I begrudge one second of this privileged time? Time when I am accumulating not steps but kisses and stories; time being penetrated by love, time privileged all the more for my ripened awareness of certain uncertainty; of life as lease, not gift — though there are certainly moments when it feels like a gift of the greatest magnitude. If my Fitbit silently reproaches me for these burnished hours, well, I can take it.
That Saturday night, the day after Alpha Male went back to his New York life, was when I went walking the dark and steep way home, just before midnight. I was certainly alone but not in the least lonely. Improbably loving and beloved at this late date, I am surprised by contentment. Dots of cold pinked my cheeks; I felt flooded with life-force (“the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as Dylan Thomas wrote) as I walked back up the concrete steps with their cold handrail, back along the gravel alley with its steep drop to the left, back to the warm apartment in the yellow house, where I will spend this winter.
Sunday, the next morning, I retraced my steps in the bright light of a December day, under a sky so blue one would have thought it belonged to October. I took a picture of the limestone spring-surround I had photographed the night before.
I took a picture of that picnic table which reminded me so uncannily of Ned, and time, and its carved words, which indicate all we do not and cannot know about each other and particular places and history, personal and otherwise, no matter how much love we bring to the endeavor of knowing.
I took a picture of the steps, and handrail. Steps: we take them, and our Fitbit counts them. Steps: they take us, up, or down. They are liminal, less a place than neither one place or another, a way to get from one place to another. We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, as the old hymn goes. Every round goes higher, higher.
That little park, and the spring it was built around? Yes, it turned out I was right: it is Sweet Spring.