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Connections | Magazine

Why we walk . . . and walk and walk

How many steps does it take to get somewhere other than the new normal?

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Everyone is walking. The neighborhood dogs wag and pant along every sidewalk. Dogs I have never seen before on my regular walks with my own pooch have become familiar, at least to him. There are couples, elderly folks bent forward with hands cupped behind their backs, young families pushing and pulling assortments of children in wagons and strollers, and fit folks in leggings with ear buds and step trackers on their wrists.

Everyone keeps a respectful distance, sometimes leaving the sidewalk to make a wide arc around one another, entering the street and then returning. Everyone waves, nods, smiles, and then seems to hold their breath.

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It reminds me of a route I walked religiously in my 20s when I lived in Cleveland. I’d start off from my apartment and wander through an alley, where sometimes I’d see a goat that belonged to a neighbor. Then I’d go downhill into the industrial flats full of concrete lots dotted by strangely shaped buildings, some active, some shuttered. I would pass piles of broken glass, sorted by color into mountains of green, blue, and translucent crystal, waiting to be recycled. From there I’d cross the bridge over the Cuyahoga River, imagining it on fire as was the lore, and start uphill into downtown.

On days when the dog and I were feeling especially game, we would make it all the way to the county jail, where I worked as a social worker, and I would look up and wave. I could not make anyone out in the tiny, escape-proof windows, but I knew how much time the people inside spent staring out. The lucky ones had cells on the side that spied Lake Erie in the distance, offering glimpses of boats and water that shimmered when the sun’s rays hit just right.

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Besides gazing, the women I visited in that jail walked. They had no gym, no recreation area, no place outdoors to go like might be found at a prison. This was an urban high-rise facility. They were trapped completely inside.

So they walked in tiny circles around the jail pod, on the outside perimeter of the metal tables that were bolted to the floor. It was a ridiculously small space, but they were undeterred and would go as fast as they could, to bring up their heart rates. In the men’s pods, the officers might have found this rapid movement to be threatening, but in the women’s pods, the female officers understood. More than once, I heard them say they would want to be allowed this bit of freedom, if it were them.

The women walked, they told me, to exercise, and to remember what it was like to be outside, walking to the bus stop or down to a neighbor’s house on the corner. A million walks they did not fully appreciate until they were no longer possible. They walked also because it was such a normal thing to do. A simple, utterly typical thing became resistance, therapy, a meditation for survival, in a place where fear and uncertainty become routine.

In those tiny walking circles the women transformed before me, like when you twirl an object on the end of a string, faster and faster until you can no longer make out the individual rotations, or the string, or even where the string is held by the hand, but only a blur of color, a new thing unto itself.

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I see those women now in my neighbors’ faces. And I sense them with me as I make my daily sojourn with the dog, this activity still allowed in the stay-at-home reality of coronavirus. We all smile, making the best of a bad situation, to be sure. But with every step we also create that other place, where the new normal does not reach us, so long as we continue to move our feet.

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Stacey Hall Burge is a writer in Cincinnati. Send 650-word submissions and comments to magazine@globe.com. Please note: We don’t respond to submissions we won’t pursue.