It is Saturday, my recovery day, and I’ve been thinking a lot about walking. I dream walking. On Saturday, I page through old picture albums, subconsciously seeking evidence that I was once an able-bodied walker. There is a certain enjoyment in old pictures—the kids, Ev, all the places we have lived. But there is also danger, because it focuses the despair that being tired brings. It seems like such a little thing—walking—yet I cannot think of anything that symbolizes my bodily regression more than losing my ability to walk. Walking means a lot more to us humans than traversing from one place to another. Upright walking is one of our core conditions, so it is little wonder that in the quiet of a recovery day, I focus on a lost activity of another existence.
If you get evolution, then you know that walking is as important to human development as the opposable thumb. When humans stood on their hind legs, they were suddenly able to look farther out across the savannah, negating the distinct advantages of stronger, larger animals with keener senses. With walking, we could see the enemy, drive prey, take shelter from storms, increase our rate of survival. With upright walking we could develop a cooperative kind of speed to run down animals far bigger and faster than us, taking turns until our prey was exhausted. Walking is one of the big evolutionary developments, but its importance doesn’t stop there.
Walking defines a whole section of the human lexicon. Biblically, we talk about “walking the lonesome valley,” or “walking two miles when asked to walk one.” We talk about walking in someone’s shoes as definitive of understanding another person’s point of view, or we suggest that the longest journey begins with just one step. We use walking to define development. If a baby doesn’t walk in the sweet spot of two standard deviations from the mean walking time, we worry that something is wrong with her, that she might be developmentally delayed. We might even talk about her later with her teachers, on some totally different topic of concern, and drop in the information—“Well, she was a late walker.” We pay attention to walking until we can walk, and then we treat it like it isn’t anything special.
There is a different perspective on walking when you are in a wheelchair. On any given day, I find myself examining the walks of my fellow humans, trying to place myself in their shoes, trying to remember this activity that I no longer directly experience. In the wheelchair, since my eyes are about butt height, I cannot help but notice the myriad of walking styles around me. There is the shuffle, the stride, the inside to outside roll, the lope, the purposeful canter, the spring in the step, the drag, and a whole host of others. The walking style says a lot about the person, a projection of personality through the walk. Walking communicates everything from “do you think I’m too sexy for my own good” to “I’m a very busy important person,” to “this person next to me is my life,” to “if I walk just so, perhaps you won’t notice me.” I watch this like one on the outside looking in, struggling to remember some forgotten name on the tip of my tongue. It is as if all the memory of this very central feature of my old normal self has atrophied along with the muscles in my legs. And of course, once in a while, when I stand myself up just to see if I can still do it, I experience a stab of recall that cuts to the quick, reminding me of what is lost, what is gained, and that in spite of the good place I am in, it will always be a secret ache in the gut that I don’t walk anymore.
I started by sharing that Saturday is my recovery day, which means that I actively and somewhat oxymoronically try to do nothing. The problem with doing nothing is that in the stillness of no activity, the discipline of the now can easily crumble. In that crumbling, comes the temptation to fall back on the old style coping that goes with old normal body activity. And in that temptation comes the sorrow, the grief for a life that is no longer mine, and a little bit of hopelessness as I look ahead. Dis ease is an unsolvable challenge.
One of the things I am doing this weekend is getting ready to teach one week from now. In the leadership courses I teach, I urge my students to work their own unsolvable challenges using a variety of strategies. I ask them to embrace all the knowledge that comes their way about their situation, even if the facts don’t square with how they want things to go. I encourage them to be skeptical of many things—their own assumptions, “either-or” thinking, dualisms that mislead and are too easy to be of any real use. I try to foster negotiation capacity, accounting for the seeming contradictions of disparate needs, multiple realities, and the very human tendency to push one’s own agenda. And I remind them to not take it personally, even when it is personal. Most of all, I ask my students to be creative, seeking the broadest possible interpretations, not so much as to solve their problems, but to work them to some sort of resolution with which they can live, knowing full well that they will need to work these situations next week, next month or next year, because after all, they are not solvable. To me, leaders provide the narrative that makes sense out of contradictory evidence. Today, I perceive the same needs in working my own dis ease challenges.
I am no longer a walker, and I am far less active than I ever thought would be my fate. Working dis ease requires the same skills as those I encourage in my teaching. I must learn and learn again how to reconceptualize the active identity I miss, and the energy conservation I require. And here is what I have concluded.
I’m a roller, a wheeler, zipping along as fast as the chair will take me whenever I have the human space to do it. And I am not alone. Many of my wheeling comrades speak, write, blog, about how much they like to go fast in the chair. It is the one freedom you get from an item mostly defined as a constraint by our able-bodied friends. Rolling allows the conservation of stillness, and the speed of activity, and that is the space I have negotiated for myself today—rolling, wheeling, zipping along.
I know this space won’t last. It will require new negotiations as dis ease progresses, but for now, this is where I am.
It is ironic that it took the very active state of getting ready to teach next week, to find some peace with my current state this week. It caused me to remember that as a teacher, I have the responsibility to do more than talk the talk. Even though the literal ability is now in my past, the fact is that walking the walk is probably more important to me now than it ever was before.
Or maybe it is rolling the roll.