On Wednesday, just as the warmth of the day gave way to cool breezes, we walked around the pathways of Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. It was a flawless July evening, and as the sun was setting we stood in awe of what E.E. Cummings called a “blue true dream of sky.”
Walking is one thing I love most about living here: through unfamiliar streets, through winding museums — but mostly, through the gardens.
While wandering through the garden maze, it was the closest I’d felt to home since being here, as if the paths extended over oceans and connected right to the gardens I’d grown up around in North Carolina. The only thing missing was hummingbirds and lightning bugs floating in the thick, humid air.
Today I went on a run through our neighborhood of Tamboerskloof. I laced up my shoes, turned up my music and kicked up a path of dust behind me.
I’m not graceful, and I’m not fast, but I keep going anyways, the cracks on the sidewalk giving rhythm to my strides.
It’s easier to move fast through the world without stopping and staring.
It’s also easier to move through the world by running away from difficult people and difficult situations. I run far enough that there is distance between me and a problem, a way that I can leave behind my thoughts and frustrations and anxieties and focus only on the pavement and breathing in and out. In and out.
But in reality, running only works for a while.
Legs tire, muscles ache. And what then?
I walk. Deliberately and slow. Observant and carefully.
The sidewalk no longer keeps time to my steps; instead I meander in circling patterns that seem to have no clear direction. The music no longer drowns out the world around me; instead I listen to the whispered sounds of neighbors talking and birds calling.
I walk so I can slow down the speed of the world and take it all in, at my own pace.
Our conversation wandered back to walking at reflection this week, but walking of a different kind. We did an activity called a “privilege walk,” in which steps are taken forward and backward to demonstrate the advantages that a few have over many. Things like having two parents at home, food stability, and a house with books on the shelves.
To talk about privilege among a group of so many backgrounds brings an inherent discomfort. In most settings, we resort to metaphors to make it easier: a relay race, a leveled playing field, a handful of M&M’s.
But maybe walking is the most relevant, especially here.
The activity is meant to be a visual representation of our positions in life, and a way to examine the societal structures that placed us there. But in our discussion of these issues, we didn’t touch on why it’s called a walk in the first place.
To walk is to notice all of the things around you at a heightened sense. To walk is realize how two feet carry the weight of your body. To walk is to realize that you don’t do it alone.
Maybe it’s uncomfortable to frame privilege as a walk because it means that we can’t run away from it.
I’m slowly and deliberately coming to terms with this the longer I’m in Cape Town — the fact that my privilege informs nearly everything I do here, and nearly every decision that brought me here.
I can try to outrun it, but it catches up anyways. Walking — and with it, noticing and thinking and listening — will be what leads to understanding where I might go from here.