My Nightly Walk
Ginny Contreras Sawyer
Around seven-thirty at night, I leave the house, cross our tiny backyard, and let myself out the gate into the alley. The sun is just starting to set. By the time I finish my walk, it’ll be completely dark. All day I look forward to this moment. As I close the door, I’m shutting in the mounting stress of home-schooling my daughter, the exhaustion of endless Zoom meetings and meal planning and dish washing; I’m shutting in the latest death count and infection rate. I’m entering a different realm, a realm where I’m in control. I decide which streets to go down, how fast I go, how long I’m out. No interruptions. No unwanted company. It’s just me and my thoughts. A moment of silence after a long day.
My walks often take on a zig-zag pattern. I zig down one residential street until hitting an avenue, go up one block, and then zag back the next street. Back and forth. Back and forth. Like a ping pong ball caught in the narrow space between two buildings. I go as far as Summit, then turn around and come back the way I came. The route is not so important. It’s the movement I crave, or rather, the illusion of movement. (Deep down I know that I’m not really going anywhere.)
When I tire of pacing the streets within a six-block radius of my house, I get daring and cross Snelling Avenue—the great four-laned divider of my neighborhood and one of St. Paul’s main roads. Before, I never would have dreamed of crossing where there wasn’t a traffic light, but now I can stroll across with ease, not a car in sight. With the Governor’s stay-at-home order, the city is like a ghost town. The first time I try this, after weeks of sheltering at home, it feels as if I’m crossing an ocean, traveling to another continent, entering another world.
I’ve come to realize that these walks of mine allow me to confront this new reality in small doses. It’s like the movement of repeatedly putting one foot in front of the other helps me begin to digest the events of the day and of the past few weeks—my feet like giant jawbones opening and closing, breaking down even the toughest of morsels.
It’s on one of my walks that I realize, more than the virus, it’s the uncertainty that unravels me. The fact that we are caught in a moment which seems to have no end.
My family and I moved to St. Paul, MN about four years ago, and have come to love both the city and our neighborhood. Our house is a 1.5 story built in the late 1940s, and like many of the other houses in the area, it’s not fancy, but it’s solid. I still marvel at the thickness of its door frames, the size and quality of the original baseboards, the detailing in the arched ceiling and wooden staircase which leads to the half story. Though perhaps less glamorous than our well-known twin, Minneapolis, St. Paul has wider boulevards and stately trees. We have family-owned corner grocery stores and cafes, and quaint parks within walking distance. I don’t know New York that well, but I imagine St. Paul and Brooklyn to be kindred spirits, both possessing that unique blend of past and present, of both blue collar and hipster and of something else, something special that cannot be defined.
In my regular life, I am a college English professor—now, of course, working from home, well, from my bedroom to be exact. A few months ago, in a flash of foresight, I purchased a narrow half-desk and repurposed one of our extra dining room chairs as an office chair. Fall semester had felt especially hectic, and I found myself bringing books and grading to do at home. I needed a place to store my laptop and mess of papers. This is now my full-time workspace.
From my new “office” window, I closely monitor the state of the neighborhood. Normally, the low hum of traffic begins early because of the elementary school a few blocks down, and there’s a steady stream of parents and children, dogwalkers and joggers on our front sidewalk. Then, at 9:05 on the dot, the school’s walk line marches past. You can hear their muffled shouts and laughter from blocks away, and as the neon vested leaders come into view, the noise intensifies, and then slowly fades away—my daily dose of the Doppler effect. Now, there’s still some movement, but it’s definitely quieter. No kids.
Late March, when the snow has melted and temps hold consistently above zero, is normally an awakening of sorts. Foot traffic picks up, neighbors chit-chat over backyard fences, serious gardeners get an early start; after a hard winter, everyone is looking for an excuse to linger outside. But the streets still have a deserted feel to them, as if it were mid-January instead of early spring. Even the passersby I do see seem less animated, less joyful. The somberness reminds me of my Catholic upbringing, of attending church, and instinctively bowing my head and intertwining my hands as my family walked down the main aisle in search of an open pew. It’s as if we are all collectively bowing our heads in the face of a global pandemic. But then I wonder, maybe March is always this quiet. Maybe I’m being overly sensitive, manufacturing meaning where there is none. I wish this to be true, but somehow this absence of activity feels more significant.
Every morning as I sit at my desk correcting papers, answering emails, and trying to map out the week’s online module of homework, I can’t stay focused for more than a few minutes at a time. My husband has set-up his home office in the half story, and I constantly hear the creak-creak of him walking overhead, sometimes accompanied by the muted sound of the toilet flushing, more creaking, and then the rolling of the office chair on the wood floor. I would like to say that the noise is not driving me insane, but it is.
From the next room over, I can hear Olivia watching lecture videos or recording her voice on her Seesaw school app to send to her teacher. When I hear nothing for a suspiciously long amount of time, I pop into her room to make sure that she’s staying on track, though more often than not, she initiates her own check-ins. Busting into my bedroom with a flurry of urgency, she gives me updates, like, “Do you know that I can floss my teeth with my hair?” the strand of hair still dangling from her hand.
On top of English professor, I’ve adopted another job title: Olivia’s main playmate. She’s 100% extrovert, so school cancelation and social distancing has to be the most extreme form of punishment for her. We go for morning walks and draw pictures together. She’s taught me how to fold an origami flower and how to make a paper box. We work on fractions while measuring out flour for the banana bread. We eat lunch together in her tree house. It sounds picture perfect, but some days I have nothing left to give, no more energy, no more ideas on how to pretend we’re not going through a large-scale pandemic. Her father is also home, but me, I’m the chosen playmate. Always.
I used to consider our house small in the snug and cozy kind of way, but now it feels small in the claustrophobic, repressive kind of way, the I-can’t-get-any-work-done or be-by-myself kind of way. Many parents swear by the bathroom as their sanctuary, the one place they can escape their children and spouses, but even there my daughter finds me, and no matter what I’m doing, she’s not put off to come in, hunker down, and begin a conversation. I never realized how much I enjoyed spending time at home by myself until that wasn’t a possibility.
At least we have a home, I constantly remind myself. We have jobs, we have food, and for better or for worse, we have each other.
As evening falls, the softer light lends a surreal quality to the sky. Like a squinting of the eyes, the sharp edges of the day blur, distinct shapes are erased. I momentarily forget the squabbles, the tantrums, and the complete meltdowns of the day. Zigging and zagging along my usual route, I see the tips of tulips pushing out of flower beds and boulevards. Bare tree branches are beginning to bud. Without traffic noises, the birds’ singing is especially resonant.
On my nightly walks, I find myself becoming fascinated by the architecture of the neighborhood. I study each and every home I pass by, at first, in a comparative sort of way, like oh what a lovely front porch—I wish we had one like that. But then in a more dedicated way. When I’m supposed to be grading papers, I look up proper terminology for architectural styles and their identifying features. I want to know what makes a Tudor a Tudor and a Queen Anne a Queen Anne. The houses in my more immediate neighborhood are like mini-versions of the styles found in the wealthier Summit Hill neighborhood. Some might have the Corinthian columns of a Neoclassical, but not the height, or another might have the patterned stones and coloring of a Tudor but is only half the size. I wonder why I had never noticed any of this before.
At this time of night, houses both big and small glow with end table lamps, and backyard patios are illuminated by strings of lights. The air smells of burning wood and grilling meat. I imagine parents shuffling their kids off to bed, then sitting by the campfire, unwinding with a drink after a stressful day. In this moment, life seems so normal, so ordinary—everyone safely tucked into their homes, getting settled in for the night, readying themselves for the next day. The notion of a deadly virus holding the world captive seems like the hackneyed plot of a sci-fi movie, yet in the back of my mind, I know it’s still out there, this invisible airborne threat which has obliterated our carefully laid plans and schedules. My walks put some mental distance between it and me, but it’s still there.
Four weeks into the quarantine, the days are all starting to blend together. Sometimes, I wake up in the morning and just lay in bed thinking about all the hours which make up that day, all the hours to get through until the next sleep time. I feel sad. I want to look forward to my day, look forward to something, but what? Each day is the same. I look at the same things, do the same activities, think the same thoughts. A meme I see on Facebook puts it best: There are no weekdays and weekends; there are only This-days and That-days.
No gym to go to, no bar to meet a friend for a beer, I resort to alternative sources of pleasure: using up all the half boxes of pasta in our pantry, Marie Kondo-ing closets and dresser drawers, dusting door and window ledges, figuring out how to use the pile of scrap wood that’s been sitting in our garage for over two years.
While cleaning out the bathroom cabinet, I find a facial mask and scrub tucked under my travel toiletry containers. That night we do a family spa night. Olivia, always one for a flair of extravagance, wants to put cucumber slices over our eyes, too. I hesitate. Fresh veggies are one of the first supplies to run out. It’s still not clear where and how people are contracting COVID, so for the time being, we’re only doing online shopping, and it can take over a week to get a delivery slot. Can we afford to waste cucumber on our eyes? I ask my husband to cut the slices paper thin.
We now keep a running grocery list on the kitchen counter, and every two weeks or so we put The Order in. What we forget has to wait until the next two-weeks’ order. It’s like we’re back in the pioneer days when homesteaders hitched the horses to the wagon to go into town for supplies once a month or even once a year. In between trips, they simply made do. More and more I feel a kinship with these early settlers. Sitting by candle or firelight and conversing, or maybe singing to the tune of the fiddle—they mostly only had each other for company, too. Their world was small and fraught with uncertainty, just like ours… except we have cars and electricity and Netflix. Okay, the comparison is ridiculous, but that’s how it feels.
One Saturday in April, after playing frisbee in the backyard, going for a walk, watching a movie, and Zooming with friends, we’re fresh out of home entertainment ideas. (Or perhaps more accurately said, we’re out of ideas that we’re willing to do. If I have to play one more round of Life or Kids Monopoly…) Olivia and I are on the living room couch, me lying down and her leaning into me, and my husband is on the other couch working on his laptop. We’re staring out the bay window at the darkening sky. After however many consecutive seconds, minutes, and hours—whole days together—it’s as if we’ve finally run out of things to say to each other. He puts on a jazz playlist from Spotify, and we just lie there not talking, listening to the music for over an hour. That night, my daughter falls asleep in my arms, the sound of trumpet and saxophone in her ears.
My husband and I take turns being “on duty” as we call it. Mostly, I’m on in the morning, and he’s the afternoon guy. He has the patience to put together puzzles and play board games. My shift tends to lean toward the physical. I’m the Let’s Go For a Walk Lady. I’m also the Do Your Schoolwork Lady, partially because if she’s busy then I can get my work done, but also because I have more luck getting her to do it than her father does.
Mid-morning, we take a collective break to do what I’ve dubbed “morning movement.” If the weather is crappy, we’ll venture to the damp, unfinished basement where we’ve set-up a make-shift exercise space—yoga mats permanently unfurled on concrete floors and a chair we set either a laptop or a tablet on to follow a YouTube exercise video. Otherwise, we’ll, of course, go for a walk. Usually, Olivia opts for her Razor scooter while I chase after her on foot. She’s gotten quite good at navigating hills and jumping skateboard-style over heaves or cracks in the pavement.
We pass by Cretin-Durham’s immaculately manicured football and baseball fields, where the local hero Joe Maurer attended high school. Normally, we’d see the lacrosse team training, or the baseball team hitting balls into the backstop. There would be movement, chatter, the ping of bats—things that you maybe wouldn’t notice except when they’re missing.
As we canvas the neighborhood, some days we take the same route, other days we explore. We’re starting to run into the same “strangers,” and we wave enthusiastically as if we were the best of friends reuniting after a long time apart. We read hopeful sidewalk chalk messages left by neighborhood kids, we chuckle at lawn ornaments, like gnomes and frogs and swans which have been outfitted with colorful cloth face masks. We admire front windows filled with teddy bears and butterfly and heart drawings. We discuss things like is it possible to be a vet, a professional figure skater and live on a farm? But sometimes our walks are quiet. No matter how much I tease or cajole, I can’t coax a smile.
Supply Day marks a break in our usual routine, but entails a procedure of the newly minted kind. First, we tentatively speak about the encroaching need to replenish certain items (milk, eggs, flour tortillas, bread, and fresh produce), but stretch ourselves with creative cooking as many days as we can. Finally, when all we have left is rice, dried beans, and some frozen bags of broccoli, we venture to the online stage—finding an available curbside pick-up time. The shopping is the fun part, or should I say therapeutic. After adding the usual staples to our online cart, we try to procure more exotic items. We search and search prolonging the entertainment for as long as we can. This time we’re sure the store will be stocking tahini and gochujang paste, maybe even pickled ginger.
One of us has the privilege of opening the garage door, starting the car, and driving to the store for pick-up. It feels like a journey of epic proportions. An hour later, back in the alley driveway, my husband and I form a two-person sanitizing machine, our precious Clorox wipes called into action to render our bounty “safe” to enter the house, to occupy our fridge and freezer. Are we really sanitizing our groceries? Is this really what our lives have come to? No matter how many Supply Days we endure, it never seems normal.
Given the choice, I wouldn’t wish these circumstances upon anyone, but the amateur anthropologist in me can’t help but find it fascinating. Why are some states not sheltering at home, but others are on lock down? Why do some people feel compelled to take extreme measures (sanitizing groceries), but some take no precautions at all? How will this all be written up in the history books: epic government and leadership failure or overreaction by (certain) people?
As a parent, I ruminate most on my daughter’s experience. I’m worried that she’ll grow up to be a germophobe, afraid of shared spaces and international travel. I’m worried these months of social isolation will leave a scar. It all depends which narrative takes hold—the nights of jazz music and facial masks or the days of bickering and not speaking to another living soul besides her mom and dad.
In my mental meandering, sometimes I fall into the trap of why. Why are we going through this? What is the reason? What did we do wrong? If I were the religious type, I’d harken it to a Noah’s Ark like message from above—a punishment, an apocalyptic finale. But even in my grimmest head space, that seems a bit dramatic.
It’s getting really dark now, dark enough for street lamps to spontaneously turn on, dark enough that my husband might wonder where I am. Still, I keep walking.