the path out

by Tavis Gray

“I promise to change; I promise to be better,” a man, patently me, wailed as fever raged and sweat overtook sheets. I was three days with flu and ready to repair myself. “I’ll do anything,” I posed. If only god or spaghetti monster would do me this favor, strike down this illness where it festered, release me of my own un-inoculation, then I would commit to that hard emotional work I’d heard of, the person-changing stuff, accompanied of course by the waking at 5AM, the better eating, the kindness to strangers, the inevitable…CrossFit. I would craft myself from divine image! I would grow a carby tentacle. I would grow nine carby tentacles if it meant a clean bill of health and official notice that this illness, brought on by own irresponsibility re: remembering to get vaccinated, was not my fault. The plague chose me! Zeus, intervene!

My fever went on for several more days, as if the flu knew my direct line to the heavens, as well as my promise of change, was all the time a bluff. I do this often: I posture. I choreograph vast universes of self-improvement that unfurl from these moments of inadequacy: physical, mental, flu-abating, or otherwise. It’s a complicated dance. The curtain may lift at the promise of manageable routines and healthy habits, but the show is all about inaction. There is the plié past sustainable expectations, the hours in first position (fear), the pirouetting through what-ifs and if-onlys. For example, what if I became another person? Or: if only I hadn’t.

It’s easy to feel terrible. I’m not sure how many muscles it takes, but probably few or even none. You can feel terrible in the day or at night. At dinner, lunch. Between meals too. You can craft feeling bad into a kind of forever. There is safety in that forever. There is blame. There is purpose in being the always fool. There are even subcategories. Take failure. I can spend many hours considering the failures of my body, mind, and spirit. The fail-list is long, it’s aggressive and sharp, bulleted like thumbtacks in my hippocampus. Imagine for a moment a noun. Any noun will do. Hold it in your head, then know I have deemed myself accordingly inept. As an artist, a son, brother, worker, listmaker, fast-food-orderer. I have even failed at those things simultaneously, as I’m a terrible multitasker. I don’t bound past failure. I am not one of those “failure, you mean the key to all worthwhile education?” types. I sink in it. I let it fill my lungs. And that is to say nothing of shame.

I know what you’re thinking. Put on a face mask! Reader, I am wearing forty-five. The amount of bad I feel cannot be moisturized into oblivion, self-cared out of existence, or otherwise essentially oiled. Face goops have not solved me yet.

But, wait for it, the turn…walking has! Or at least it’s helped. It turns out it’s hard to fail at going for a walk. It may even be impossible. I like those odds. I am soothed by them. There is rhythm and ease to one foot in front of the other; there is awakening. I find myself walking whenever I have the chance. At the office, in my apartment, on Sundays, even Mondays. I will walk through my neighborhood for miles and not realize the feat. I go out lost in myself, stagnant of mind and body, and return changed. The feeling is delicious.

Do I believe a country walk will soon cure me of all ailments? Maybe! (I should note now that the health benefits of walking have been widely documented, beyond here, in my diary). What I do know is that regular walking has altered my chemistry. My atoms tingle with possibility between every footfall. Living at three miles per hour is electric. It feels like a revelation. Optimism, I’ve learned, thrives in motion. Indeed, it walks.

I could trot out anecdote after anecdote about good walks and even great walks. We could discuss the subsequent effects. But what matters is this: the intention to get out of the house and outside of myself has repositioned how I think, how I feel, how I am. Walking has given me a journey to go on, even if it’s just around the corner. Walking is story-centering. It is terrible-feeling unmaking. Even a leisurely gait shifts narrative. Ask Wordsworth. Ask Elizabeth Bennett. Do not ask Miss Caroline Bingley! Or perhaps stop doubting the act at all.