Over the last ten months, I’ve walked in my neighborhood through the changing seasons, through hours and times I’d never observed before working from home. When I worked in my office all day, I’d occasionally loop around the parking lot or join coworkers in a quest for caffeine from the shop down the road. But those places were nowhere close to my own home. Now I’ve walked through my own neighborhood at midday and on weekdays, more times than my past self could have ever imagined.
Still, on more days than I’d like to admit, the sunlight disappears with my chance to step outside. Night falls, and I only step onto the porch that day to grab the mail.
In the summer, leaving for a walk required much less effort than now. I could slip on my sandals, grab a house key, and head out the door. In January, I need to grab a hat, gloves, and snow boots if I want to avoid frozen limbs or a painful crash on slippery ice.
But even when the work of walking seemed easier, days (sometimes weeks) would pass between my walks. I could convince myself to walk somewhere for a purpose: to the farmers’ market, to the bakery, to the ice cream shop. Walking to make the blood pump and to feed the soul, walking for its own sake: that option I can decline again and again. No matter the weather.
In Amy Timberlake and John Klassen’s Skunk and Badger, the titular Skunk asks his roommate—the titular Badger—a question he cannot answer. Skunk, in the tradition of well-read children’s book animals, has been devouring Shakespeare’s Henry V by moonlight. The king says that “…when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.” But Skunk isn’t quite sure he agrees.
“Badger,” Skunk asks, “if it were true that kindness and gentleness were the best way to win a kingdom—or win anything at all—wouldn’t everyone do it? Not everyone is gentle and kind. Even I myself find it hard to be kind and gentle. Sometimes I get mad. Also, I am a small animal, and being small is difficult… Even when no one is hurt, you get chased out of town. That does not feel like you are ‘the soonest winner.’”
I read Skunk’s words for the first time on the evening of the attacks on the Capitol. No, kindness and gentleness did not seem to be the soonest winners, even in my local kingdom. And it all seemed so surreal, as Lauren has examined so poignantly. When day after day after day takes place in the same insular rhythms, shock becomes harder and harder to muster. The strangeness of the last ten months has only numbed my ability to separate the extraordinary from the mundane. History helps. Friends help. Books and strong tea and deep breaths help. And walks, in their own small way, help.
But as Skunk knows, acting towards the world we hope for—and not the one we live in—is so incredibly difficult. Again and again, I find myself choosing not goodness, not gentility, not kindness, but a dull, numbing surrealism. I turn down bundled-up walks; I turn down the hard conversations; I turn down the concrete steps towards kindness or gentleness that are actually within my own tiny sphere of influence. All too often, I decline goodness for the sake of mediocrity. I can write sentences and sentences about joy, kindness, and compassion. But praising goodness demands much less than participating in it.
When I finally convince myself to go on a walk, I’m always glad. I’m sometimes cold, and I sometimes skitter across the ice. But I do find myself noticing things: things I missed, things that make me laugh, things I love. A slightly lopsided snowman melting little by little each day. An elegant greyhound wearing a plaid coat. The feeling of my breath slowing down to match my pace.
Close to the end of Skunk and Badger, Badger heads out on a walk much more frantic than any of my own. Still in his pajamas, Badger needs to find Skunk, and he needs to apologize. He needs to tell Skunk how sorry he is for calling him vermin. (Well, the definition of vermin, anyways, which Badger has just discovered with guilt and horror.)
“His behavior had revealed things about him that he’d rather not know and now he knew… It would be just like him to fall right back into his old patterns and not make a single change. Still,” Badger thinks, “I should try.”
I hope that 2021 will reveal some things about ourselves, about our world, that we’ve been hoping for. I know this year will also reveal some things we’d rather not know in such detail. It’d be just like me (like us) to go on in the old habits, declining the good in favor of the mediocre. We’ll probably backslide more often this year than we’ll like to admit.
Still, like Badger, we should try: try to live in reality and try to participate in goodness wherever we find it.
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.
Thanks for this—I’m also feeling this way about walks. And also losing the ability to react anything except numbly.
There are always little nuggets of wisdom to be found if we but open our eyes. You so rightly say that participation is difficult. It requires giving ourselves and that is too often something we cannot bear to do because that feels like all we have, sometimes. But why shouldn’t we give our all? Why shouldn’t we try? May you walk from numbness into life.
(And again with another lovely book reference–or two if you count Henry V)