CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
The Other Walk
Sven Birkerts


This morning, going against all convention, I turned right instead of left and took my circuit—one of my circuits—in reverse. Why hadn't I thought of this before, given that the familiarity of the other loop has become so oppressive, even to one who swears by the zen of familiarity, the main tenet being that if you are bored with what you're seeing, you're not seeing clearly enough, not looking? Still, going against the grain of my usual track, seeing every single thing from the other side, was suddenly welcome. It also helped that it felt like the first real Spring day, the birds somehow more liquid in their vowels, and the elusive something which when added to the accustomed air suddenly makes it the new season. Habit and repetition. It's not like I don't know this other walk intimately, too—not like I haven't taken it hundreds of times over what are now becoming these years of walking. How is it I haven't written more on this? It's been a big part of the day's business for years. I don't remember when I started. Easily seven or eight years ago, maybe more. Though for a long time walking vied with swimming—walking was what I did when I couldn't get myself into a pool or pond in the early morning. Then swimming gradually waned, and this took over. Five, six mornings a week, year round. And so many phases. The edgy, anxious midlife walks that for years were my only recourse against my sleeplessness. I would wake in the dark all wired up and needing to push against myself, to burn off the gnawing, no choice but to get out. In those days the circuits were vast, miles and miles, all of them covered at a clip, the point being not to see anything, but to get into the day in a way I could stand, that was not intolerable. And the walking would eventually bring me around—after the up and down of the neighborhood streets, down along the edge of the playing fields, onto the bike path, which I followed for a good mile or so, then hooking up with the long road winding back past the Busa farm stand and home, and it was really only in that last stretch, coming up to Busa, that I would feel my body and breath get into synch. . . . Psychic news travels. After some months of this mania, Mara started asking if she could walk with me. She would make me promise to get her up, even though it was still dark outside, even though she had school to get ready for, and she would join me. Morning after morning she would bundle up in her sweatshirt and the two of us would head out. Sometimes I would feel sorry for her and we would make a modified loop, but other mornings—many—she would insist that we go the distance. And we did. We would talk, or not. There were many days when we moved in our separate worlds, me walking ahead, she trailing. She was having anxieties of her own—she was in love and it was unrequited. And then it was requited. But she kept at it. She would leave the same little note at the top of the stairs: "Wake me if you walk, dad." Very much afraid that I would go without her. I wondered about this, her determination, and only some time later did I learn that she was worried about me, was afraid that I was lonesome. She hated to think of me by myself in the early morning, didn't want me to be sad. This went on for many seasons. It never stopped abruptly, but there were more and more mornings when it was hard for her to get up, when I would touch her shoulder and assure her that I was fine, that she could join me tomorrow. And sometimes she did. Now more time has passed. Mara is away, and I still go out, most if not every morning. But the loops are smaller, I don't go the great distances any more, and I don't go to calm myself. Now I go from habit, and to start the day. If I didn't look at things as much before, now I do. I start down the street and let my gaze swing this way and that, taking in the sky, the outlines of branches, the texture of the pavement. I feel myself stretching, working my way into a rhythm. Around the local bends and onto the path that goes around the Reeds Brook Reservation, which is not much of a reservation, but has tall hardy grasses on the left, which fill me with a sense of the Midwest, and the swampy area on the other side, high with those bamboo weeds, and in the Spring and Summer full with red-wing blackbirds. And I round the bend to the left where the water stretches—suspect, contaminated, but still catching the light, and home to ducks and geese, and, at certain intervals, a single heron, which all last year became my goal: as soon as I rounded the bend I began a careful study of the reedy indentations, looking for that distinctive silhouette, that long beak protruding at a 45-degree angle, the exciting stillness that gathers around creatures that are poised for the hunt. When people ask about these walks I tell them that I use them to set up the day, to start my thinking. And sometimes I do. Usually by the time I get back I have some basic sequences worked out. It does happen, too, though not every time, that I think about projects. I'll get hooked on some thought, and I'll go over it repeatedly, as if inscribing it into my muscles, but also testing its basic hardiness against the rhythms of walking. The wispier thoughts dissolve and float away; the more durable ones settle in and then start thudding recursively. This morning—did I think this morning? Or did I just try to get a sense of the day? It was just a few hours ago, but I can't remember, and maybe that's another property of these hours: that they are unto themselves, not an aspect of the day, but a prelude to it. I planned, I thought, and I honestly don't think I can recover much of either. All I get right now, thinking back, is an impression I had coming down the hill, heading toward the other gate, of clouds looking soft and touched up around the edges, red-gray. I did think, at that moment, that Spring does have its own special character, unlike any other time, and that part of what happens in Spring is that we remember that we have it in us to surprise ourselves; that things do come fresh again.