Every morning, before the news or work or even coffee, I throw on my sneakers and set off on foot…
A morning walk has been part of my routine for years, but recently, I have forgone listening to music or podcasts in an effort to be more present. If I get out early enough, no one else is around, and I can be alone with my thoughts. Outside thoughts, I’ve found, are different than inside thoughts. They are more expansive, more universal. They don’t get distracted by the mess in the sink or contained by ceilings. They want what’s best for everyone.
The walk doesn’t have to be long, although it could be — I’ll take whatever time and weather permit. As I go, I mentally say good morning to everything I pass, while breathing through my face mask, like a curious hybrid between Mr. Rogers and Darth Vader.
There is the very landscaped bed of flowers at the edge of the local playground. A little bird with a remarkably yellow stomach. The way the East River laps against the rocks. A bush full of hot pink azalea blossoms. A monarch butterfly perched on a window ledge.
These walks have no destination. Or rather, the destination isn’t a place, it’s a feeling. I know I’m there when all that’s left is the sound of my breath and the feeling of connectedness to everything around me. (Yes, at times, I feel like I’ve stepped right out of a Jack Handey SNL sketch, but I welcome this.)
Before, I held the natural world at arm’s length. It existed in Mary Oliver poems, through the windshield, inside the frame of an Instagram photo. But by and large, nature was something that existed on the way to somewhere else. It might have been part of the journey, but it was never the destination.
By circumstance, everything has changed. Now, grass is a destination. Barefoot is a destination. Shade is a destination. The wind is a destination. Outside — anywhere at all — is a destination.
I used to know this. As a kid, I would delight in the antics of a family of raccoons that lived in the backyard tree, descending to raid the trash cans or steal the barbecue right off the table. They once made off with a bag of Twizzlers — I discovered the empty package at the foot of the tree the next morning.
In those days, the yard was the ultimate destination. It wasn’t very big, but to my child eyes it was expansive. I didn’t have siblings, but I had my imagination, as well as the insects and squirrels and plants to keep me company. Everything I needed was outside the door, and I spent as much time there as humanly possible.
My quiet walks have reignited something in me that I’d forgotten since then. It can be good to find wonder in the natural world. It can be good to escape the plane of human concerns, even for just a minute. It can be good to feel small.
To that end, I’ve written before about why I love running races. You are one with the herd, a GPS dot, a mote of dust in the grand scheme of things. There are so many bodies moving in unison. I can’t make it fifty yards beyond the starting line without bursting into tears.
But lately, I don’t need the herd to feel part of the greater whole.
What I have realized, in my time at home, is that home is much bigger than I previously thought. Home isn’t four walls or even the hearts we share them with. Home is the great spinning mystery around us. Nature is part of that home. It’s always there, waiting for us to notice. You don’t need to set aside time or plan a visit or venture to a national park. You just have to look around.
This past weekend, I was stretched out on the couch with a book, enjoying the last quiet moments before bedtime, when I heard a ker-thunk outside. I went to the window, where a little masked face peered in at me. A raccoon on my windowsill.
It stared at me. I stared back. We blinked, daring the other one to make a move. Then it disappeared into the night, leaving me filled with equal parts wonder and panic. “Maybe it just wanted some Twizzlers,” my mom replied, when I shared the story with her. Maybe so.
After 18 years in this city (and eight in this apartment building), I still don’t know the full extent of who I share it with. That’s the thing about nature. There is always room for surprises.
(Photo by Stella Blackmon.)