Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Going the distance

School's straight down a busy road. We walk there almost every day. It takes about half an hour at a fast clip with kids, or closer to an hour at the end of the day when everyone's tired, and there are railings to play on, phone boxes to make phantom calls in, and bread to buy.

The theory of walking is good. We walk to minimise petrol use; we walk so we can share our car two days a week; we walk to keep our car off the roads. We walk to contribute to a cheerful human presence on the street, with our bright red pram and the burst of colours that young girls wear - pink, orange, and green. We walk to make time to talk about the day ahead, or the day just gone. We walk to catch up with other families on our way, and to chat as we go along. We walk so my kids experience heat and cold and wind and rain, and notice buds and blossoms and browning leaves. We walk.

But most people drive. They drive to go fast, and to get there quick. And time and again, I have to pull my children back as a car accelerates to turn in front of us. For all the nice theory, the walk to school is stressful, care-ridden. I can't relax; I'm always on alert for a car shooting out of a side street, or turning across us at speed. We can never assume that a car will give way; we always assume that they will cut us off. And they usually do. Trucks make deliveries, parking across laneways and side streets so we cannot cross safely. From time to time, forklifts careen around; cars parked at the various mechanics abruptly reverse across the footpath in the eternal car shuffle. Despite the many walkers, drivers here don't look for pedestrians.

The traffic is heavy, and thunders. Trams roll past, rattling and clanging, and cars speed up to undertake them. There are always road works somewhere along the way. Jackhammers jabber. A fourteen story building is under construction; as the foundations are being dug, dump trucks are filled and roar out. When my children speak, I have to stop and bend down so I can hear them.

All the way, I shout like a segeant-major: Stop! Look! Wait! Very good... Remember the laneway! Stay with me here. Let's cross together. Are we safe? Good, walk! walk, don't run. That's right...

Every day, I get home exhausted, ratty beyond repair, often close to tears. But I want to walk. I want to create a street presence for more than just cars. This city belongs to me, too, even when I'm on foot. But it's so draining.

Just last week, after six months of this, I finally tried a new route. It's longer, by another half mile or so - a big ask for a five year old. But on the way to pick her up, I saw a car with a trailer turn at speed across two lanes of traffic into a street where girls were crossing with their mother; the car slammed on its brakes and skidded; my heart stopped; the car came to a standstill; the family finished the crossing; the driver shouted abuse and drove off; everyone was fine except their mother and I, who had aged about fifty years in that instant... and after that, something I had seen a dozen times this year, but which really got to me that day, I asked my kids to try a different way home.

The new route runs along side streets, through laneways, and across a large park. There are two playgrounds, and, well beyond my wildest imaginings, there is almost no traffic at all. Perhaps two cars drove past the first time we walked it. We stopped in each park for a play with school friends, and swapped phone numbers with one family. The streets were so quiet that we talked all the way home. It was what I had hoped for in the daily run, but which had proved so elusive.

My kids loved it. They decided that as long as I pack a bite for them to eat, then they want to walk it every day. Now, in the mornings, we scramble to get out the door fifteen minutes earlier so we can go this way. In the afternoons, I take a couple of bananas or a sandwich, and we have a picnic and a play in the park. All of us arrive home much more relaxed, and I realise what an ordeal the old walk has been. Sure, we still walk it when we're running late - but breaking it up, so that it's not day in day out, has made an enormous difference.

It makes me wonder what else I am doing the hard way. Where else is life difficult because I only see the road straight ahead? I was reluctant to try the new route, because of the extra distance. But I had not registered just how draining the noise and the stress of the busy way were. The longer quieter walk, through a large park and playgrounds, and under mature street trees, is restorative.

Which other parts of my life are so hard, so dangerous, I wonder. What else drives me to the brink of tears? Where are the better routes? If I am willing to give up the convenience of the main road, are there meandering paths, longer, narrower, but more kind and gentle by far, which will lead me into quietness and show me the way home?

Post script: I've commented on some books about street presence; if you're interested, click here!

1 comment:

  1. I loved this post.
    I wished I had been so open to change when my kids were little. Awareness and openness bring so much to life.


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