How to Free Yourself From the ‘Walking Essay’
Lucy Schiller On Writing From Stillness
In the winter, or at the advent of extreme stress, my feet begin to turn a horrible color, the color of a malevolent ocean, an eight-ball under fluorescent light, an eggplant left too long in the crisper. What happens next is hard to predict. They sometimes go numb. My toes sometimes swell and begin to touch each other with a sensation I can only describe as supremely unsettling: it’s not normal, nor is it pleasant, to be both touching and feeling the touch of a piece of skin upon another piece of skin, outside of your control, for hours. And that’s how long it lasts: hours. Or sometimes a day, or sometimes two.
A permanent condition called Raynaud’s syndrome, the malady’s effects are anything from fleeting to weeks-long, with no logic and no consistency. Rashes crop up to itch and bleed; there might be the feeling of feeling nothing, or the feeling of feeling everything. Pressurized by a leaking of fluid and a lack of circulation, the feet can become almost unbearably sensitive to even the slightest brush of contact against sheets or carpet. Socks can become a no-go, and so I’ve found ways to keep them warm outside of confinement. The system I’ve devised involves two main tools: plastic Birkenstocks, to separate my skin from the chill of the concrete foundation beneath the carpet, and a tufty blanket the color of whipped cream, made from a material so very synthetic it’s both light and ungodly warm. Because the toes can become so swollen, I can find myself knocking them into things far more, like when, in puberty, I used to walk straight into door frames, hips unaccounted for.
It’s negative 50 degrees with windchill today, Jan. 30, in Iowa. Suited in my Birkenstock and blanket system, I’m inside my house. The sun is streaming in. There’s a sense of heat, warm music on the stereo, an oven roasting vegetables, a humidifier tooting along, and bright fabric for a quilt I’m trying to make without the adequate tools or expertise. The university has canceled classes for the first time in 11 years—under the prospect of lawsuits, I imagine, from the families of slipping students, locked-out students, students becoming frostbitten and gangrenous, becoming too possible, suddenly, to ignore. A student already died of exposure this morning. He was found around 3 a.m., outside for a reason we will likely never know. There is no one with whom to discuss this in person, not until things thaw a bit and come up above zero again, doors open, buses run, bodies warm the university buildings once more, ready, after this week of forced stasis, to discuss the reading.
There is a type of essay I love called a “walking essay” in which the writer moves through space, allowing those things she sees and encounters to “jog,” so to speak, her brain. To encounter a pear tree in an alley might mean open a digressive exploration on the taming of things. To watch a couple arguing on a street corner might prompt a few musings backwards into the emotional space of her own life. Virginia Woolf was a master of the form—in “Street Haunting,” she goes so far as to disassociate from her body entirely, floating into the lives and places she encounters on her walk through London on a winter evening. Andy Fitch does a kind of opposite in his project Sixty Morning Walks, presenting city sights with the same just glanced-at weight, and only occasionally stepping aside from the catalog to meditate. Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts travels past and present Harlem on her walks, noting the changing of signs, the rain dispelling sidewalk chalk. Rousseau found reveries in his walks, Thoreau a life, Hazlitt a moody, cheeky solitude free of conversation’s awkward silences and puns.Sometimes the mental movement that accompanies walking essays can feel a little too convenient.
In general, to be able to move physically through space prompts and justifies otherwise aerobatic leaps of the mind, and it can be a mode of resistance, to be able to amble. But it strikes me sometimes, reading less successful walking essays than the ones listed above, that sometimes the mental movement that accompanies walking essays can feel a little too convenient: the way happening upon a spotted dog, then a shouting man, then an old, broken fountain might allow for a lengthy meditation.
On days like today, and in seasons like this one, when movement is limited, of course I can’t write a walking essay. The task of “journeying,” of connecting ideas, feels particularly difficult: I’ve been staring at the same things for minutes, days, years. The similes that come to mind are all movement-oriented: wading, struggling, thwacking. And yet here I am, stagnant, in my chair.
Few people know or have reason to know that I struggle with my feet the way I do. There are many people, of course, who might write and interpret the “walking essay” with their own range of mobility in mind. My students and I now dub the category “moving essay”; it is in that broadness that we read and write some of the most energetic, interesting intellectual roaming.
Even if I could walk outside, the sights, I fear, would be somewhat bereft—snow on this, snow on that, and a screaming wind that doesn’t allow, really, for meditative thinking. And there is real danger to being outside, to moving through the world, not just for me but for everyone: the news has told us, of course, to avoid it, but also to not even talk out there, to not take deep breaths. The news doesn’t say why, and I imagine lungs aching for days afterwards. It’s not a space or a time through which we are meant to slowly travel.
I got my feet from my father. We’re the same, I tell him when we’re together. It’s half-punchline, half-love note. I can tell he loves when I say this, that there is a golden, gorgeous strength in that identification, that intimate recognition I have of him and he of me. But he sees it, too, as worrying, the simplicity of that inheritance.
He and I have pushed like salmon against the currents of an ever-crushing anxiety. We have a web of skin between our chins and our necks I call “The Hypotenuse.” We wear the same “booties,” as he calls them, on our feet, when we feel them going bad—monstrosities of goose down and plastic in a color he relishes classifying as “aubergine,” as if this lends our condition a kind of elegance. We are both depressive, prone to retreating in rage and in misplaced, badly-stated affection. In the mornings, we rise in the dark, move downstairs to make coffee. We keep the lights off, keep everything as quiet as possible: no electronics, no music, no noises but for the rustlings of our own bodies. We’re the same: I took these things, or were given them, from him.
The purest expressions of our sameness, and the most euphoric, have been those extended moments free of time, in the car, in which we were both moving and not moving, at once. Long summer trips through the west, through the Petrified Forest National Park. It was six in the morning; I was ten and felt our similarity without being able to voice it yet. The strata of rock, in blush and rouge, began to be able to be seen. I had the haircut I’ve had all my life. My father, younger, fiercer, drove with the windows down. I sat behind him, looking alternately at the back of his neck and at the scenery. We hurtled together through the blue air. Nothing was on the tape deck, that would come later in the afternoon, Steve Earle singing of something called a “motel tan.” All around us: petrified conifers resembling huge geodes, boulders. Things that had not moved in millions of years.
My father’s mother, self-confined against the crush of the world, developed several systems: keep the blinds closed from prying eyes, warm your feet directly beneath the bathtub spout while leaning forward to extend each of your toes inside the stream. Keep a piece of paper over the camera on the computer. Never go sock-footed. She wears size 13 shoes—hard enough to find now, and in styles emphasizing extreme, cushy comfort, let alone when she was growing up. Her mother, she tells me, wore size 15.
Inheritance is tricky: the foot issues have a clear lineage, a clear genetic river running from and through my grandmother, my father, me. The anxiety we feel about our feet, and the strange adaptations and behaviors we make to accommodate that anxiety, are learned in other ways that feel just as natural but are far less obvious.There are ways of sitting static, of finding meaning and even a sense of possibility without going on a walk and searching for a pear tree, an argument, a plot.
As a young woman, my grandmother was in a plane crash: she parachuted out, fell thousands of feet, landed in a tree, and survived. When I was a teenager, I found a newspaper article describing the event. It called her “Caterpillar Schiller”—she was found clinging, insect-like, to the trunk. A photo showed her ensconced, like I am now, in a blanket, shivering. When my father or I prepare to fly, prepare to stay suspended above the earth and moving forward in that awful, nonsensical way, we text each other the same thing: Boarding. Love you. Implication: when you encounter these words, you’ll understand exactly what my brain was doing, imagining the horrible permutations of the future. Implication: we’re the same. I think of my grandmother often, preparing to jump from that plane, and the rushing of clouds beneath her, a terrible, terrifying unknown ahead. She was, and is, brave.
And yet I wonder, too, how to be brave right now, in this thing called the polar vortex that may be the latest regional evidence of climate change—climate scientists have noted that the jet stream is becoming “wavier” with warmer temperatures, possibly bringing frigid arctic air further south. In the recent springs in Iowa, the forsythias have been opening their brilliant flowers weeks earlier than they’re supposed to. In the summers, bug populations either surge or seem oddly absent. There has been, occasionally, no glorious fall, just a quick, weird transition from a flat version of summer to the dry brown of early winter. And now, in the thickest depths of the season, piercing winds sweep across the fields, shutting down towns and keeping most people inside, stagnant, static, but hurtling, too, towards a future that feels at times defined by certain doom.
Sleep well, sweet dreams, night night, love you, I’d tell my dad growing up after he kissed me good night. The same few words in the same order, an incantation murmured to bring us both safety until I met him in the morning, in the dark and the quiet downstairs. He would return the spell, sealing it. And come five a.m., when he’d taught me to wake up by balling my fists so hard the physical sensation overcame any lingering sleepiness in my brain, there we’d sit in silence on a cold plastic couch, watching through the windows what he called “the Yellow”—a slow raking of morning light down the hill in our backyard.
There are ways of sitting static, of finding meaning and even a sense of possibility without going on a walk and searching for a pear tree, an argument, a plot. These days, when I feel that tumultuous surf of the future beating against my brain, I think of my dad, now close to old age. That was once far ahead of him. I have no present vision of the road we drove through the Petrified Forest, that vast, painted, time-stamped place, but I have read that the birds there are starting to die off, now, and that the temperatures are rising. We kept the windows down, and there were no sounds but our own, and the rushing of air as we moved forward, still.