Walking Lessons

Walking Lessons

Young mother and her son walking outdoors in city

by Alysa Salzberg

Most people who know me well know that I love to walk. I’m not athletic, and am sort of morally against most activities that cause me to sweat. But a good, long stroll doesn’t faze me.

When I was in middle school, I was bullied for being chubby. Amid reassurances that I was beautiful, my mom also invited me to start race-walking with her through our hilly neighborhood. I didn’t lose much weight from those regular walks with my mom, and it was my family’s support and something within me that made me overcome the bullying. But at some point, walking became about more than discipline and trying to please others.

Knowing that few things could be harder than climbing steep hills in the hot, pollen-dense north Georgia air, I wasn’t afraid of long walks. Over the years, that’s meant fearlessly crossing perilous highways or entire towns and cities on foot. Walking has been a major way I’ve discovered the places I’ve traveled to. Living in a city, it’s also the main way I get around.

It’s also something else: a way to dull my anxiety. Whether I’m at home, or on public transportation, if I feel a wave of nervous energy or panic coming over me, I go outside and walk for a while, letting my quick, sure steps keep me steady.

When my son was born, he became my walking partner in my adopted home of Paris, France. Sometimes our walks were simply to run some errands and get some air. Often they were also spurred on by crying that seemed endless, or the fears and challenges of new motherhood.

I’d push his orange stroller through familiar neighborhoods and new ones. We took on cobblestoned streets and steep hills. We slathered ourselves in sunscreen in the summer. Sometimes, he slept. But often he looked out curiously at the world. He seemed to be as invigorated by our walks as I was.

As my son’s gotten older, our strolls have gotten more fun — when he starts singing, I can’t help but smile. But things have also gotten more complicated. Now, there must be snacks and a toy that may get dropped…or thrown. For a while, we weathered phases, like when he’d quietly remove his shoes and socks onto the street as we strolled along. And then there was that month-long period where he kept stealing fruit from grocery store displays and market stalls. What amazed me then was how many store owners and stall operators let us keep the free fruit – or even gave us more.

It seemed strange that in the months leading up to my son’s first steps, everyone told me “Wait ’til he’s walking,” in that knowing, teasing tone that I’ve never found useful. What’s the point of making parents dread what’s to come?

And anyway, I was excited about it. I knew it wouldn’t be easy at first – I’d have to help him, and my usual swift pace would be significantly slowed. But soon, I imagined, he’d be my walking companion on a new level, keeping pace at my side as we strolled along, chatting and singing the songs he likes.

And then, he started walking, and it was harder. But not in the way everyone said it would be.

What no one told me about this new-walker phase is that my son knows how to walk, but he doesn’t know the rules.

I didn’t realize there were rules, either. Or, rather, I’d forgotten that I’d ever had to learn them in the first place. I never thought I was that far from childhood until I realized that I’d forgotten how fascinating dirty cigarette butts are, or that there was a time I didn’t suspect that a dog might have peed on a fallen leaf. I’d forgotten a time when nothing could hurt me, and the pure, fearless joy of running towards headlights.

A joy that’s even greater for my son than it could be for me; he doesn’t carry around a stuffed animal, but a plastic toy truck.

I guess I thought that with all the months of observation under his belt, my son would take to walking the streets of Paris like a pro, as I assumed every Parisian kid did. No matter how young, they always seem to obediently hold the hand of the adult walking with them, or else obediently follow, or hold onto their (or their sibling’s) carriage.

Lately, though, I’ve started watching fellow pedestrians with young kids more closely, and it seems like my son’s not the only lawless walker. Other parents do struggle, too. It probably seems obvious to most people, but I have to admit, I’d never really paid much attention. I was always too distracted by Parisian dogs, who are not only fun to watch, but usually marvels of discipline, politely entering many stores or restaurants, or even encountering other dogs without much of a fuss. And anyway, it just doesn’t look as dramatic as it feels when it’s your own child who’s insisting on walking into traffic, or leaning down to pick up the contents of a burst trash bag.

It’s brought me to what some people might consider a controversial conclusion: Maybe the truth is, just like those dogs, who you’ll sometimes see being disciplined as excited puppies, kids need to be trained to walk

For a few months now, whenever I take my son out for a walk not involving his carriage, I’ve started seeing it as a fun, albeit important, training session. I remind him that we don’t cross the street until the little electric man turns green (he doesn’t quite understand colors yet, but I guess I want to show him there is some kind of logic). I tell him sternly not to pick up things on the sidewalk. I firmly direct him to go in the direction I say we’re headed, if he doesn’t follow on his own. I’ve gotten used to saying “That’s not our car, so we can look, but we can’t touch it.”

In winter, the cold weather and our frequent food shopping jaunts inspired me to do indoor sessions, too. In bigger-sized shops or grocery stores, I’d let my son out of his carriage and follow him carefully. By now, it’s become a game: How many things can I get on my list before he heads in a completely different direction, or somehow puts himself in peril (his fascination with motorized floor cleaners knows no bounds)?

I’m happy to say it seems like it’s working. There are still the occasional tantrums and insistent wanderings – including, alas, into the street if I don’t stop him. There was that recent near-disaster when he discovered one store’s wine section and tried to pry a few bottles from the shelves. And the almost-shoplifting incident, when he snatched a pair of lacey underwear off a wrack – I think because the anti-theft tag resembles a wheel. But overall, he seems to be less intent on picking things up off the ground or pilfering fruit, so there’s that.

I’m proud, but I have to admit I’m also conflicted. I know my son has to learn to follow the rules of walking so that he can walk beside me – or even, simply survive. But a part of me also realizes some of his discoveries are being cut short, his wanderings stopped before they could ever begin.

Walking is a way to calm my racing heart. Seeing the city I love unfurl before me has always soothed me. It seems strange not to let him walk the way he chooses, like snatching a gift from his hands. Every time I tell him not to pick up that leaf, or nudge him in a particular direction, a part of me stands stubbornly with him, understanding.

Alysa Salzberg is a writer and worrier. She lives in Paris, France, with an eccentric Frenchman, a car-obsessed toddler, and a dog-like cat. Besides them, she loves books, travel, and cookies. You can read more about her adventures in parenting and other matters on her blog, or feel free to stop by her perhaps-too-sparkly website.  




The Summer I Rediscovered the Virtues of a Walk

The Summer I Rediscovered the Virtues of a Walk

powerwalk3I’ve had episodes of exercise devotion over the years. In the early 90s I tackled Cindy Crawford videos, then Step Aerobics, roller blading, and the Buns of Steel series. Decades later, after my third baby, I got hooked on Pilates. And according to Google, the most popular post on my personal blog is about the year after baby number four when I became an accidental evangelist for Barre classes.

Despite how it sounds, I’m not an exercise fanatic. The effort I exert is average at best. What happens is that I get excited about the next new thing because I know it’s important to do some physical activity. Then eventually I lose motivation or get bored. There’s only one option left when the walls of the gym or the expense of yoga sculpt classes becomes too overwhelming: I walk.

Walking Alone

At the end of this spring I put my gym membership on hold and rediscovered the simplicity of a walk. Right away I remembered the walks I took in high school before I had my driver’s license or my parents’ permission to buy videos. In those days, I’d grab my Walkman and my latest mix tape, then randomly head in one direction or another. By today’s standards, it’s astonishing that nobody knew where I went. I couldn’t text to say whether I was on the Green Bay Trail heading towards Glencoe or heading to downtown Highland Park. I couldn’t tell my mom that instead of the trail I’d decided to meander south on Sheridan Road. Alone with my music and my dramatic teenage thoughts, I was an explorer. I was free.


Walking With Friends

Although I like walking alone, I’ve also scheduled many walking dates with friends this summer. I’m convinced that there’s no time with a friend as quality as the 45 minutes or so spent on a walk. The last point in my life when I consistently made time for such a luxury was during my freshmen year of college. In the mid-90s, when we still didn’t have cell phones that left the car, a walk with a friend was an uninterrupted, intensely focused experience. We’d fill the hour with details about our families and high school experiences, returning to the dorm strangers no more.

Leaving the gym for the summer has meant using a good portion of my exercise time connecting with old and new friends. I meet people for walks in the parking lot after a camp drop off where the crowd is different from the one I see during the school year. I’ve also become closer with women who live in my neighborhood as they’re the ones available for a spontaneous night walk after the kids are down.

The conversations I have with friends during these walks would never transpire over a meal. Perhaps the discussions are deeper because we’re trying to forget that we’re exercising. I also suspect that the lack of eye contact as we watch for approaching cars makes it easier to divulge what’s going on in our lives. Whatever the reason, I always feel significantly closer to someone at the end of a walk than I did at the beginning, and that includes my husband. A few times this summer we’ve taken a walk when we have a babysitter, which allows us to catch up in a way that bears no resemblance to the quick summaries exchanged during a hectic weeknight of dinner.


Walking With Kids

As a family we’re getting outside more, too. Two of our kids can ride a bike while the other two fit in the double stroller. Perhaps my favorite walk so far was the one I took with my oldest the other day. Sam rode his bike while I moved quickly to keep up without running. (I am not a runner.) Every so often he’d turn around in a nearby driveway until I was next to him. We’d talk for a few minutes, but then the impulse to ride fast would propel him again. In a few days Sam turns 10, yet it seems impossible that a decade has passed since he and I explored those streets as a twosome.


Walking For Sanity

During the summer Sam was born, I’d go days at a time without taking him anywhere. Overwhelmed with anxiety combined with a case of the baby blues, I found it easier to stay home so I could feed Sam and change him with as few tears as possible for either of us. “Put Sam in the stroller and go for a walk once a day,” a friend said. She encouraged me to get out for at least 20 minutes, promising that Sam and I would benefit from the sunlight, fresh air, and the change of scenery. My friend was absolutely right, but until this current gym-free summer, I’d forgotten how easily a walk quiets my mind.

My walks alone are less “free” now than they were when I was young with nothing but time to spare. And my walks with friends are sometimes interrupted by various adult responsibilities (and texts). Nevertheless, I still appreciate the way this summer of walking has reminded me of previous phases of my life. When the temperatures drop to typical Minnesota lows, I’ll likely rejoin the gym and enjoy the energy of my favorite teachers, but for now I’m relishing the summer days and nights still ahead of me and all the quality walking I have yet to do.


Illustration by Christine Juneau

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