WORDS: ANNA BAUM
IMAGE: WILL SARDINSKY
When all else fails, I go for a walk. I see it as the simplest medicine – the act of placing one foot in front of the other in an ancient rhythm, of feeling fresh air on your skin and seeking out new sights for tired eyes – it can heal in ways that nothing else can.
I have weathered a few winters now. My leaves have fallen and life has stagnated under the weight of my sadness, and it has been in these times where I have walked. The ritual became sacred – I took a deep breath, laced up my boots and put on my red coat, locked the front door and with hands in my pockets I walked to the fields near my mother’s house. Down a muddy track, through the allotments and into the open space. I’d walk to the river and standing next to it, take deep breaths in and out. That’s all. Sometimes I’d walk further, sometimes I’d go straight home and make a cup of tea. A daily ten minute walk into the suburban landscape was the thing that kept me going.
Right now, I see myself as being at the start of my trail, at the point where you check the map every five minutes because you’re pretty sure that you are going the wrong way. As I write, I don’t have my own home, a career, an art form, or even a solid platform to express my voice (my attempts at writing my blog are so sporadic that I sometimes forget I have one at all). I do have a backpack, my love by my side and a few scattered dreams, but whilst I am still in that process of figuring out what I want to be, the most recurrent feeling I have these days is that of being lost. For as long as I can remember, whenever I asked myself what I wanted to do with my life I would come up with some eclectic ideas ranging from pottery to marine biology, but there was always one thing I knew for sure. Whatever I was doing, it would have to matter. I wanted to be making change. I wanted to make the world better.
As a kid I had fire in my veins. When I first heard about Greenpeace through a leaflet tossed through our letterbox, I took it to my mum and asked her how I could contribute. With her help, I wrote letters to my representative about various campaigns to protect rainforests and coral reefs. In my small, quiet way, I was an activist. I wrote and I read and I acted on the passion I felt for the natural world as a primal emotion. When I looked forward, it seemed obvious that I would have to do something to help the planet, overcoming whatever obstacles lay in my way to protect the nature around me that I held so dear. I don’t think that I could have imagined what those obstacles would be. I don’t think that I would ever have thought my demons would lie within my own mind – an imbalance of brain chemicals, a painful shyness of other people and low self-esteem.
I look back, and I don’t think I could have dreamed that one day I would stop fighting. But, in my latest winter, I stopped reading the news. I simply didn’t have the strength in me to care about the outside world anymore.
It was a cold and foggy time. I caved into the lethargy that stopped me from feeling possible. Drifting along on stale air, I felt the lack of a vital part of myself – the part with the spark, the part with the fire.
Images of tragedy played on repeat and stories about the planet we have learnt to love being excruciatingly destroyed are everywhere. In this age of the constant news cycle, suffering is presented to us on a larger scale than we have the capacity to relate to. We are faced with too much suffering to comprehend and in a primal coping mechanism, we detach. To care, to truly care – to learn about and discuss and fight to protect every small injustice in each corner of the world – would break us.
I reached the point where my mental health was so poor that I detached myself from all of it, and I hated myself for it. All I had ever wanted was to do something that mattered, but at that point, simply being was a daily challenge. On top of that was the constant daily comparisons I was making between myself and the women I followed on social media, the women who were further down their paths of becoming and who had photographic evidence. I couldn’t escape the feeling of having gone too far wrong to ever truly put myself right, of not being enough. Of being off-kilter to ever find balance again.
And so, I went for a walk. Boots laced, coat on, door locked and down to the river. A thrush sat within the brambles nearby and sang with a loud, trilling voice. Against the medley of distant birdsong, the thrush’s voice was piercingly beautiful.
This is the world we live in. A chaotic, large, complex world in which we will always be infinitesimally small. We rush and we charge about our lives, weaving a messy web about one another. There is too much happening to comprehend, and too much injustice for us to ever change it all. We have just as much chance of fading into obscurity as we do of making a mark. How do you make sense of that? How do you keep moving within that mess? How do you find your way?
I don’t know yet, but there are a few things that I have found. Wherever I am in the world, there are constant, reliable things. There is a sun and a moon in the sky above that people have been watching for thousands of years. There are always stars, whether I can see them or not. And wherever I am, there is solid ground beneath me so I can stand firm. The seasons will cycle round. The moon will wax and wane. Tides move in and out and all of our hearts beat just the same.
Even if I have nothing, I have this. And with luck, life might grow up and around. Plants will bud in the winter, flower in the spring and trees start their long, slow stretch up to the sky. I can plant seeds with care and love, and a garden may grow. Perhaps in the early morning thrushes will wake with the light and gradually fill the air with song. In the coolness of dusk rooks might gather with cacophonous voices as they settle down for the darkness. It is this that has struck me as remarkable, fortunate thing – that we might live in a world where birds sing. Perhaps our harvests will be shared with others. Perhaps we will find love.
Sometimes it is worth taking a walk and saying thank you. Because though it might feel as if the world is ending, like what we have is hardly worth a second glance, we are so lucky.
I am standing in a Spring that I thought would never come. Tending a garden I believed wouldn’t grow. All it takes is baby steps. Through my winter I learnt that those crucial first steps are the acts of kindness and generosity that we give ourselves. They are simple, seemingly unimportant things - taking the time to stand still and drink a glass of water, showering, the powerful alchemy of a home-cooked meal, going for a short walk.
If we slow down and take the time to look after our bodies then our minds will match this speed, allowing us to stop for a moment and reassess. Through these small acts of self-care I was able to forgive myself for who I am. Slowly, I learnt to love that self. I learnt to see the power in the person I am today, rather than being overwhelmed by the amount I am not doing.
I am allowing myself to take those first steps without feeling guilt at their insignificance. From there I will send out shoots and start to think bigger. I will nourish and allow myself to move with intention and wisdom, and sometimes to move a lot slower than I would like. This is my activism.
My boots are laced tight and a scarf wrapped around my neck. Dark clouds hang low in the sky, yet beneath them is a crack on the horizon through which an orange glow is filtering through. In the cold weather I am alone on a trail, discovering Vancouver for the first time. I stomp through the light drizzle and it clings to my clothes and hair. In the silence of the evening is a faint rustle above me, and I seek it out through the dim light, eventually catching sight of a hummingbird dancing in the high branches. Nothing special, really, but what a remarkable thing to see.
Going for a walk has been the first seed – the bafflingly small seed that almost disappeared within the palm of my hand. I planted it without much hope, but slowly it has grown. It still seems unlikely but I have learnt to trust that with care, mindfulness and kindness, I am creating a life that I love.