On Walking

Design by Anasthasia Shilov

I’ve been walking for a while. I’ve been thinking about walking for a while. I think I could walk forever, and I’ve been trying to explain why. There’s a lot I could say about walking, a lot of words I could use: sauntering, pacing, stepping. It’s democratic. An act of resistance. An aesthetic practice. An appreciation of wind and weather. 

It’s connective. It’s the common denominator of my closest friendships. It’s the eternal movement of our species. We were walking on the day of the election. We were walking while you were losing your virginity. We were walking the year your brother was born. Before Chipotle was a thing. Before the collapse of the Khmer Empire. Before the blackbirds invaded the human city. It might be our most basic instinct. You could say any number of things about walking, but here’s what I want to say: walking is the making of a phenomenologically coherent place. 

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard’s treatise on architecture and everything else, he lays out the phenomenological significance of our built environments. For Bachelard, the house is especially significant. A house—rented, owned, lived in—is a nexus for interiority. Our soul abides within the corners and drawers; it dangles from the ceiling. “A house that has been experienced is not an inert box,” Bachelard writes,  “inhabited space transcends geometrical space.” If this is true, the walk enables us to extend ourselves beyond the static space of the house. The phenomenological significance of the walk, then, is more than the ability to locate the self in a single space, but that through walking, we create worlds coextensive with the self.

A few years ago, when I was staying in London, I went on a walk with a guy I’d never met before. We’d both come to meet up with a mutual friend, who, after thirty minutes, went back to her hotel because she was jet-lagged. The two of us had nothing else to do, so we walked the length of the afternoon. In walking the city, I began to know it and myself and him, and these acts of knowing became intertwined. The further we got from the coffee shop in Fitzrovia, the closer we got to each other. We passed Kensington Palace, which got us talking about history, politics, and his ex-girlfriend. Parks always remind me of that Georges Seurat painting, so I mentioned it and we talked about my friend who went to art school. Then we were quiet and walking and I was thinking about the domestication of wolves and my thinking got tied up with his white laces and the color of the sky. 

Cities are not real to me until I have walked them. In an image, one first sees a tree here, a pushcart there, the restored facade of a church over there. And then one walks, and these individual objects are woven together into a stable, alive narrative. In Delhi, a particularly unwalkable place where I lived this past summer, I found it impossible to negotiate my own relation to the city. I was unable to inhabit it. When I think of it now, I locate myself in peacock feathers, and warm Sambar on Sunday mornings, and my Nani’s sisters, my generous relatives, my friend Yashasvini—all these things I connected to. But I have no connection to the physical place. I was lost inside the land itself. Unable to walk, I couldn’t fuse the fragments of Delhi, its inner and outer worlds, into a whole. 

Sometimes I think all my life is held together by a raised-relief map. With each walk, a place is raised higher. When I say East Rock is the most elevated place in my life, aside from maybe my driveway in Rhode Island, it’s because I’ve walked there most every day for years. If you superimpose your own map on top of everyone else’s, you can see where you touched. You’ll find the party you walked home from together, the study spot you both found in September. And when you miss knowing someone, you know there is a foreign city here, a strip mall sidewalk there, where your maps are the same. Where cartography proves you knew each other once and always. 

On these maps I locate my mother and those two-and-a-half miles around a nearby lake. My brothers are there in the Tsukiji fish market, my Spanish class is somewhere along the crooked streets of Seville. My fifth-grade clique is walking laps around the track. Everything is there on the raised-relief map. Some walks, imperceptible as a scratch, are still there, even when fortune has failed to bring you back, even when memory is growing dim. There are the walks I went on when I used music to amplify whatever emotion I was feeling. The walks I went on with Libby and Eva and Isa, when we bought sausages and sauerkraut and ate them for breakfast. The walks that turned into runs; the runs that turned into walks. The walks I went on in silence, in avoidance, in the dark, gossiping, obsessed with him; looking for Cilantro. And yeah, I want to list them all. But if I told you about all the walks I’ve taken, I’d have told you everything. 

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