A sequential series of 19th century photographs of a man walking while tipping his straw hat.

We live in a confused slice of history that Chuck Wendig has called “the ghost of normalcy”, a placental state that one day very soon will rip away and push us ready-or-not into a far weirder time of uncertain duration, followed by an unknowable permanence. Whether this tribulation lasts weeks or months or longer, it will transform society, and we don’t know how yet. We do know that, like any forced change, it will hurt and bring hardships. Seeing ourselves through to the other side will require mindfully rationing energy on maintaining both interpersonal connections and individual fortitude.

And in that vein, I want to encourage everyone to walk. (Or, if you can’t walk, to perform your best analogous locomotion in the open air.) Even with full-lockdown rules in effect — such as those now active in New York, the disease’s new epicenter, from which I now write to you — taking a walk remains legal. Without any federal leadership, the list of allowed activities shifts daily and unevenly, but I expect that it will have to allow walkers if only because everyone understands that people have dogs, and dogs gotta pee. Less frequently acknowledged, though: humans need to stretch their legs too, and cycle out their lungs with fresh air, and generally unrattle their cooped-up brains and bodies through the rhythm and flow of a brisk walk.

Last summer — a subjective lifetime ago, yes — I read and enjoyed this Guardian profile of the neuroscientist Shane O’Mara and his research into the brain-benefits of simply talking a walk. One paragraph that resonates strongly with me (written from article author Amy Fleming’s point of view):

I witnessed the brain-healing effects of walking when my partner was recovering from an acute brain injury. His mind was often unsettled, but during our evening strolls through east London, things started to make more sense and conversation flowed easily. O’Mara nods knowingly. “You’re walking rhythmically together,” he says, “and there are all sorts of rhythms happening in the brain as a result of engaging in that kind of activity, and they’re absent when you’re sitting. One of the great overlooked superpowers we have is that, when we get up and walk, our senses are sharpened. Rhythms that would previously be quiet suddenly come to life, and the way our brain interacts with our body changes.”

We can accept as grim blessings how this pandemic strikes the western world just as spring weather arrives, and that the germ does not transmit itself through open air. Take that walk, and breathe freely, and let your mind wander and flow, uncramping itself alongside your muscles. Stillness has its place, certainly, but the unusual surfeit of solitude we must all endure for the next howeverlong invites visits from the demons of anxiety as the mind, demanding motion, circles agitated in the skull.

When I feel that scratching from within masquerading as a dreadful pressure from without, I put my shoes on and grab my housekeys. It always works. The lullaby of locomotion lets those claws slip from my mind’s control panel, and I return home as master of myself once more.

For the time being, I can’t visit any friends on my walk, and I can’t go sit at a favorite coffee shop. Though the trains still run, I can’t in good conscience board a subway and walk around on a different part of Manhattan. But I can stroll the familiar parks and bridges near my home, along the river, and I can phone a friend while I do so, or check in with a distant family member. I can also get a coffee and a snack to go, and enjoy it on a park bench. Or, as I’ve pushed myself to do more often, lately, I can walk “without purpose” — which is to say with the mere sole purpose of enjoying the superpower benefits that O’Mara describes.

It is very important to me that we all walk, that we add this kind of for-its-own-sake walking — yes, practicing social distancing the whole time — to our daily routine. Bring your dogs with you, bring your children and partners; it benefits all of you. Purposefully purposeless walking trades a little time for a manifold payout of mental and physical gain — and that lightens the burden put upon health-care professionals during this critical time when we, the relatively healthy, need to give them as little extra work as possible.

Please join me in hitting the parks and pavement every day, if you can. It helps everyone.

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Jason McIntosh

Dispatch from locked-down New York, March 2020

Pausing to acknowledge and describe my arguably precarious situation before I go off ranting about the internet again.

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