In case you needed reminding, we are just about a year into this pandemic. If you had managed to completely forget about it, and my introductory sentence served as a grim reminder, I apologize. Every week for the past year I, like millions of other Americans, have logged onto Zoom or Google Hangouts to brainstorm with my colleagues about the ways we can meet this moment. These conversations have been practical, hopeful, and proactive at the best of times — at others, they’ve involved us very much struggling to improvise, adapt, or overcome. For every meeting that has hosted breakthroughs and long-shots to maintain our survival as a company, there’s been another ending in seeming defeat. In those cases, we sit and discuss how each of us is staying sane — by walking, and more specifically, “flaneuring.”
Does this constant refrain of the past 12 months sound familiar? Be sure to get outside! Go for a walk! Walking is the new x-ing! Don’t forget to stretch! Walking is a saving grace! If various and sundry media outlets are to be believed, the cure for every psychological ailment exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic is walking. This discourse rang so loud at times that I resisted the practice out of spite, especially when one article made the particularly bold claim that the cure for seasonal depression in winter was — you guessed it — to keep walking. In the middle of my first Chicago winter, complete with sub-zero temperatures and feet of snow, that was the last thing I wanted to hear.
But don’t start to think that I’m anti-walking! Nothing could be further from the truth. I am happy as anyone to extoll the benefits of walking, and would consider them akin to journaling, meditating, running, origami, cooking, or anything else that is intentional and contemplative. In fact, walking is more akin to these things than ever in the sense that knowing how good it might make me feel rarely motivates me to actually do it. Anyone who has tried to establish and maintain a journaling or meditating practice knows what I’m talking about: as good as you know it is for you, it can feel like just one more thing that you need to do, another box you need to check on your “being a human” list for a given day.
I’m currently reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s leading experts on trauma and how it affects our minds and bodies. While trauma constitutes much of the text’s subject matter, the book is also rich in easy-to-understand medical and psychological knowledge that artfully illustrates the nature of our mind/body relationship. One of the most interesting things I’ve learned about the brain’s understanding of memories, geographical location, and routine is that it makes “maps” of our activity. This can explain everything from why you can’t always remember the reason you’ve walked into a new room to why arriving in a new destination is so invigorating: breaking out of routine is disorienting, and coming to grips with our new reality takes priority in terms of our brain functions.
Walking into a new room, the part of your brain responsible for locating yourself in space and time briefly takes control, making you forget what you had been thinking about in the previous room when that region of the brain had been mostly dormant. Stepping off of a bus into unfamiliar surroundings excretes more adrenaline and stress hormones, which also makes the memory of the experience exceptionally strong and long-lasting. Travelers know that life on the road has a different feeling to it — things seem brighter, time seems to move slower, and life kind of feels like a movie. Altogether, traveling makes us feel alive, viscerally alive. To me, this is why it does literally feel addicting, and why that sense of vibrancy is so often referred to with words like “wanderlust.” Traveling evokes incredibly strong feelings in the body and creates vivid, distinct experiences that are not unlike a psychedelic drug, a skydive, or a marathon.
What does any of that have to do with walking? Well, if traveling is the drug, walking is a little bit like microdosing. My hypothesis about why walking has been so universally prescribed as a balm for pandemic anxiety, depression, and malaise has to do with its powerful, if ever so subtle, ability to disorient our mental compass and expand the borders of our mental map. Outside of times that we’re able to safely socialize with friends, get out to the wilderness for a cabin escape, or travel in a larger way during the pandemic, walking really may be the only tool we have for breaking out of routine and pushing back against the feeling of “living the same day over and over again.”
This brings me to a walking/writing experience I first learned about in grad school for creative writing and became a little bit more familiar with once I was a travel writer: that of a flaneur. This is a French term with its origins in Old Norse language and Parisian cosmopolitan spirit, and is variously translated as “observer,” “idler,” “stroller,” or “lounger.” To be a flaneur is to observe urban life with no express purpose other than to observe, whether you’re engaging in people watching or observing construction sites (like the conceptually-related umarell of Bologna, Italy, retirement-aged men who pass their time watching city works projects). Think of this as people watching on-the-go, with the added element of paying attention to the rhythms of life in the city and how people engage in them. And while this concept was born in Paris, there’s no need to go there to become a flaneur yourself.
So if you’re like me and felt yourself cringing or cursing the editorial managers who kept okaying articles and tweets about the benefits of walking, consider the possibility of walking with the intention of exploring and observing. What if the solution to getting out of a troubled headspace on a given day is literally just changing the physical space around you? That may sound like an oversimplification, but I also think that very small, one-step-at-a-time thinking is the only way to survive an isolating and alienating event as prolonged as the pandemic. Thinking about the big picture and everything that’s wrong in the world — which is a lot, don’t get me wrong — can be incredibly overwhelming, and might even make you feel responsible or guilty for not doing anything about it. One year later, the only things you can do are still very small, but incredibly important: stay home more often than not, wear a mask, and keep putting one foot in front of the other. That’s all that’s expected of you, and I’m here to remind you of it.
Where’s your favorite city to find relief in a simple stroll? Let us know on Twitter!