The Meandering Way - Elisabeth Ivey
I’m a homebody, so it wasn’t like me to venture outside for a walk. I’d grown accustomed to feeling sunlight only through the panes of a window or in the brief moments I stepped from my car to and from work. But in the wake of winter’s extended visit to Harrisburg, the first notes of spring were enough to coax me out for a free performance at the nearby local bookstore.
I almost didn’t go. Where nature didn’t deter me, the thought of walking the path alone did make me reluctant. Still, in a burst of determination, I traipsed down the marble steps of my front stoop after pulling the door shut firmly behind me. No take backs.
I don’t always mind being alone. In big cities, I purposefully let myself get swept up in the tide of a crowd, hopping on a bus or squeezing into a subway car and feeling perfectly fine amongst strangers. The Greenbelt path in Harrisburg doesn’t allow for such anonymity, though. The Capital Area Greenbelt forms a border around the city, twenty miles of patchwork pathways with a long stretch running parallel to the Susquehanna River, the part that runs past my house. Here, even with people whizzing by on bikes, we move in a meandering way. Couples saunter hand in hand, and small children dart ahead of parents who follow with traces of a smile. Here, even as joggers pass with a look of determination, there’s no real urgency to distract us from the moment. Yet I propel my feet forward in quick succession, keeping a quick clip along the speckled pavement lined with uneven fringes of grass.
It’s not until I’ve cleared the first two blocks that I ponder why the hurry, and I have no clear answer. Anxiety had propelled me out the door well before the time I needed to leave, and if I keep up the pace, I’ll arrive at the bookstore with plenty of time to spare. I don’t need to rush. Yet I don’t slow down, and my eyes keep wandering to the ground to track my steps, but also to avoid exposure.
As a woman, I get nervous when I engage in public solitude, always hoping a smile and eye contact don’t come across to the men I pass as anything more but a gesture of kindness. As a woman of color, I can’t stop the thought that flashes through my mind whenever I pass a white couple, wondering if they’re judging me and my hair, whether it’s coiled into several braids or stands out in defiance of gravity. These walks call up my biases and fears because in nearness, I can see and be seen. Gone are the defenses of a car door or the ease of slipping past too quickly to amount to nothing more than a blurry face. When alone, kindness becomes a vulnerability I’m not ready to feel.
These thoughts swirl through my head, and it requires a conscious effort to send a signal down to my feet to slow the pace of my clunky boots hitting the concrete. And it seems wrong. Without a steady rhythm, I feel like I’m sinking.
Rest—whether it manifests as stillness or slowness—does not come easily to me. I was sixteen when I realized this, washing dishes in a flat in Ireland. While I stood at the sink, my apartment-mates lounged on nearby couches and journaled. Presumably, they were taking the time they needed to reflect on the preceding weeks of our trip to a new country, but I had no interest in their epiphanies. I only cared about the work in front of me and the fact that I was the only one doing it. I may have slapped sponge to dish a little harder than necessary.
It was in that moment I had an epiphany of my own: I was a Martha. All through childhood, I heard a story from the Bible about two sisters and their opposing approaches to life. When Jesus visits their home, Martha bustles around as the epitome of hospitality while Mary rests with Jesus. Following Jesus’ cue, I always admired Mary. Up until that day in the kitchen. I realized in that moment - with dismay - that I was a Martha, not a Mary. I was a doer, not someone who particularly enjoyed being in the present moment.
I’ve since settled into that role, and justified it. I’ve packed my resume with indicators of my ability to work hard and multitask. I’ve convinced myself that I thrive on stress. I live in a hurry to get to the next stage in life without a clear conception of what the next stage will be. Urgency, it seems, has seeped into all areas of my life. Even the books that occupy my shelf and once offered me solace become sources of guilt when I don’t read them quickly enough or at all. I struggle to train my eyes on the page for more than a few moments, my traitorous eyes flicking this way and that until I shut the book in frustration.
And as I walk the path that day, I push through a hurting ankle. The twinge of discomfort started halfway through, but inertia carried me along, quashing comfort in favor of advancement until I thought, for what? What was the point of going fast, or more importantly, why did I fear pausing?
If I hesitate to slow down on a fifteen-minute walk, I wrestle even more when the stakes are raised. When I chose to commit to a year of service, people responded differently. Some approached me with misplaced admiration; others looked at me with raised brows when I told them just how much I make in a year. Both responses rattle me. They make me aware that I’ve chosen differently than people who selected jobs with more stability. And for the first time, I questioned my decision.
From the moment I passed the halfway mark in my commitment, I noticed the growing regularity of the question: what’s next? In some ways, I have a clearer answer than I did at the start, but in other ways, I still lack focus. I sometimes find myself forging ahead on this journey with no clear sense of what’s ahead but burdened with the urgency to accomplish something great and to accomplish it now. I weigh my options, struggling to know how to make choices that align with my skills, my interests, and let’s face it, my desire to pay off student loans. In sporadic bursts of panic, I watch friends diverge down different paths to financial stability, and I wonder if I have chosen wrong in seeking out experiences with value that doesn’t convert to the currency of this world. My belief - my ability to trust in overall goodness without immediate evidence in its favor - bounces back in the form of naivete. Was I misguided to choose as I’ve chosen? Sometimes, I wonder.
I’m nearing the street where I’ll turn off, but right before it, the walkway dips down into the Sunken Garden. Dormant cherry blossom trees stand at each corner of the rectangular space, and two gaps - an entrance and an exit presumably - interrupt the dark green hedges that line the perimeter. It’s fairly small, the span of a city block, with little allure for the one who’s in a hurry. But to continue my experiment, I step through one of the entrances and trade concrete for the clusters of faded orange bricks that make up the path, sprigs of green bursting up through the cracks in between. The quickest way across is straight, but I follow a loop that leads to nowhere before passing the central attraction: a humble gazebo made of darkened wood. It’s clear that places like these aren’t created for efficiency. Brief interludes in a journey, they lengthen the trip, but they’re enjoyable nonetheless.
In the weeks to come, I’ll go even farther down the path, passing the row of monuments that line the riverfront and invite passersby to pause. In the other direction, I’ll pass beneath the bridge and glimpse two nurses tucked beneath the concrete underpass, taking a smoke break. At a traffic light, two men stand to the side, and one of them coaches the other, who holds up a cardboard sign and steps toward the line of cars waiting for the light to turn. A little boy, about 3 or 4, stops on the walkway and peers down at the ground, stomping on the spot that’s caught his interest. These collected moments escape any quantifiable label, but I grow more determined to seek out and honor these intangibles nonetheless.
As I come up on the street of my destination (three minutes faster than Apple Maps predicted - old habits die hard), I weigh the price of efficiency. How easily I could’ve chosen to take my car and cut my commute down to a mere handful of minutes. If I had, I would’ve missed the sunshine, the serene surface of the river, and the faces that invited connection even if I couldn’t always bring myself to accept. I wonder what this means for the next step I take on the path of my life. I know I’ll continually face these choices and weigh sacrifices against gains, but as I lean into this life, I do so without hurry, trusting in the value of stillness and slowness when I’ve so often been told I should hasten toward success. There may be a cost to taking my time, but as Kevin Evers claims, “There are also benefits to taking a long, winding path to self-fulfillment.”
Elisabeth Ivey writes literary non-fiction and young adult fiction. She has contributed to The Odyssey and Messiah College’s The Swinging Bridge, and she has presented research on representation in youth literature at the PA NAME and IMAGINE Social Good conferences.