Though I still jog occasionally, I’m sold on the urban hike. A walk, rather than a run.
Mornings are best. A few weeks ago I read a helpful rule to fight procrastination—“do the hardest thing first.” Apparently, exercising is that for me, and so to help maintain my exercise habit, I often walk down the same street. It’s one of the loveliest streets in my city, and it leads to a lovely old (and recently renovated) park. The setting, the routine, and the time of day all tell me physiologically that it’s time to exercise. I’m off before I quite know it.
Now, this street really is something special. There are decorative guard lions, statues of angels and dancing ladies, waterfalls and fountains.There are tall horse chestnut trees with huge leaves; the leaves can grow as big as my head. There are stunning views of the water. There are fantastic carpets of fungus and trees with petticoats of moss.
There’s one house with Miss Havisham (or, Miss Piggy) scalloped lavender stage curtains. Another house has a converted real estate flyer box outside, urging passersby to “take a poem or leave a poem.” Sometimes I’ll notice the patterns that different leaves have left on the sidewalks, other times I’ll look at paint colors, and still other times I’ll look at patterns of tree bark.
One morning last month I am on my walk, somewhat grudgingly. A grumpy gray cloud voice says, Oh, well, here I am again. The weather’s dismal, the fall leaves are gone, and there’s not very much to see. Then another relentlessly chirpy voice kicks in: You go down this street all the time, but I bet you can see something new. You just have to look hard enough. You just have to reach.
(I know both voices are mine, the grumpy one and the annoyingly chirpy one: they’re the two sides of my self-discipline. Self-discipline’s never really been a problem for me. What has been a problem for me is the high level of self-flagellation that can go along with a high level of self-discipline. Relentlessly Chirpy Voice is a great cheerleader, but also a surprisingly hard taskmaster.)
There are the same trees, the same pretty houses, the same real estate signs, the same leaf blowers near the bed-and-breakfast. The grumpy voice is ready to take a nap. Yet the chirpy voice keeps going: “I bet you can see something new! You just have to look!”
About a quarter of the way through the walk, there is this two-story brick house with a sign outside.
Oh, wait, no: real estate office. There’s a sign hanging on a pole outside the building. So I had always thought it was a real estate office. The curlicue writing on the sign says something about realtors…must take a look…
Oh, wait, no: apartment building. The sign tells you to contact a realtor office if you’re interested living there. The building is dark, with white columns by the front door, rose bushes, statues. A fountain in front. More bricks on a path that sets the building pretty far back from the street. The sound of the fountain actually distracts me—it makes me think there’s nothing else to see. But wait, there’s an ironwork fence curves around a mess of greenery next to the building…
Oh, the fence. I hadn’t really looked at the fence before. I look harder at the ironwork fence: the ornamental scrolls and flowers. I look harder at the plants just behind the fence…and then, I see it.
A swimming pool.
As if I am behind a movie camera, the landscape behind the fence zooms away from me. Shiny silver handrail, shimmering green water. The horizon, my very field of vision, expands—and there is, improbably, a pool.
I’m telling you about this swimming pool because I want to remember it as a metaphor for the writing life and its rewards. To look harder, to keep reaching, until the horizon expands and something gorgeously unexpected appears.
That’s how I found this year’s word for myself: reach.