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Opinion

In Search of Spontaneity

9.8.20

The author's dog, Yuki, sits on the grass during a walk in the park.

The author's dog, Yuki, out for a walk. 
Photograph courtesy of Matteo Wong


The author's dog, Yuki, out for a walk. 
Photograph courtesy of Matteo Wong

Almost every day for the past six months at approximately 1 p.m., I’ve taken our dog for a walk in the park near my house. Early on in the pandemic, I hoped for rain—because, with almost nobody else venturing out, I wouldn’t need to be ready at any moment to swerve away to maintain my social distance. Darting out of a stranger’s way might scare away the cardinal I was watching or disrupt a fond recollection. In order to preserve one bubble, I had to burst another.

Walks through Prospect Park demarcate stages of my life: kindergarten shuffles through autumn foliage, my parents nodding along at my endless babble; brooding adolescent rambles along the algae-covered lake; high school wanderings—filled with teenage philosophical quandaries or laments over the New York Mets—to my favorite sweetgum tree. 

At Harvard, the riverbank along the Charles became my park—on Saturday mornings I’d FaceTime my parents and take them with me on my walk, our conversation always outlasting my phone’s battery life. Though the grass is limited (and there’s only one route along the Charles), walks are charged with the potential for spontaneity: an unexpected squirrel, or a different vantage on familiar scenery. As the poet A.R. Ammons put it, describing walking through Corson’s Inlet, a shore in New Jersey:

the walk liberating, I was released from forms, 
from the perpendiculars, 
         straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds
of thought
into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends
                 of sight. 

A walk is free of expectation and convention, a space to meditate on anxieties, or discuss something frivolous, or say nothing at all. But they have been largely absent since I returned home in mid March, after Harvard’s campus closed. At first, because there were no such walks: my family wanted to minimize outings—my father is immunocompromised—and it was cold, and the pandemic’s constantly changing circumstances left no room for rumination. Both my parents work from home now, my sister was also home from school, and we each found a routine; we couldn’t control the coronavirus, but there was comfort in controlling the everyday. Then routine sedimented—6:30 a.m. alarm, breakfast, cleaning, walk the dog, schoolwork, lunch, walk the dog, more class, dinner, chores, read, repeat for several months—and, compounded by the monotony of only seeing my immediate family in-person, it ceased to be comforting.

By that point, precipitation and rain had become irrelevant, and when I walked Yuki I hardly noticed the swerving or my mask. I went out in all weather—not to reminisce or to enjoy the greenery, but because often nobody else in the family was available; because I needed a break from Zoom meetings; because Yuki needed to go out. I took the same route each time, for the same number of minutes, so that I could get back inside and back to work. Squirrels and red-tailed hawks no longer brought fascination—they had become another part of my inevitable daily routine.

  

I did not expect, during the chaotic exit from campus last spring, that an unprecedented virus would lead to cycling through the same predictable day over and over again for six consecutive months. But then, nothing unfolded as I had expected in the early days of pandemic. 

When ordered to evacuate campus, I packed rapidly and, thinking the virus was akin to a bad flu, stored a couple of boxes in the home of a friend’s older relative, unaware of the danger I was exposing her to. I purchased a last-minute ticket just hours before the train’s departure, which permitted time to say goodbye to only one of my three blockmates, who are all among my closest friends. But I wasn’t concerned—the other two also live in Brooklyn, and I imagined we would be able to see each other. My third blockmate’s parting words were that he planned to visit New York City soon: “I’ll definitely see you in a few months.” When I arrived home, my parents did not make me quarantine, despite my father’s condition.

Early in the summer, I still imagined that I’d be writing this essay—the final assignment for my Harvard Magazine summer fellowship—from campus. I envisioned squeezing in a few hours during the first rush of classes, setting up under the skylights of Widener Library or under a tree in the Yard and writing a very different piece: After the pandemic pushed us all away, what was it like to finally return? I would narrate shopping week and classes, describe socially distanced reunions and a reconfigured campus.

But instead I find myself writing and studying from my childhood bedroom, where my bookshelf is now an amalgam of elementary school and college: A Wrinkle in TimeOne Hundred Years of Solitude, Dr. Seuss, Sappho. Instead of piano practice on an old Steinway in the Music Building—with its misaligned dampers that give the strings a harpsichord-like sound—I take three steps from my desk to an electronic keyboard, with its reliable, duller sound. 

For the foreseeable future, I will be a member of a household as much as a student: days not oriented around Crimson meetings, but chores and groceries. Meanwhile, my blockmates and I are now scattered across three time zones, as the two from Brooklyn left to spend the fall in different parts of the country.

The most electric moments of learning, the “bends and blends of sight,” have vanished. Leaving the classroom and excitedly discussing a just-concluded lecture has turned into clicking “Leave Meeting.” Dropping into a professor’s office hours, bouncing ideas for a paper off a friend over a meal, or walking out of lecture with a previously unfamiliar classmate—these things were impossible or had to be scheduled far in advance. I normally prefer taking seminars, but the remote learning environment has led me to take only one this fall. That English class emphasizes slow and pleasurable reading and, according to friends who took it in the spring, had responded well to the virtual transition. The lecture courses I’ve chosen include collaborative assignments, which I hope will limit isolation. After the first day of classes, I’d seen dozens of new faces, but was still acutely aware of being alone at my desk.

 

The spring and summer were difficult because I had no idea what the pandemic would bring. The next few months of school promise to be difficult for a different reason: because I know more or less exactly what they will look like.

Throughout the summer, I was able to meet a handful of neighborhood friends for socially distanced walks in the park. We wandered for hours, and every minute was enjoyable: a fleeting portal back into a pre-COVID world. Now they’ve all left to attend schools with some in-person instruction, so I will again mostly be seeing my immediate family for many months. But those few walks helped me set my priorities for the fall.

Preparing for the new semester in August, I revisited Ammons’s poem. He takes a similar walk every day, but there is always irregularity in the sand dunes or the tree swallows’ formations. Prospect Park’s paths may be limited, but what moves along them changes with every moment.

Almost every day for the next several months I expect to take Yuki for a walk after lunch. The overall trajectory of each journey, and the contour of each day, will be similar—so would my days in Cambridge during a normal semester. But absent the people, spaces, and events that make life at Harvard vibrant, I will have to seek out spontaneity, by calling friends, attending virtual office hours, learning new songs on the piano, exploring new paths. After that first, exhausting day of virtual classes, I took an hour-long walk, stopping frequently to appreciate the deep green foliage, a vestige of summer sun, and August thundershowers that predict the coming of fall.

Walks through Prospect Park demarcate stages of my life: During the fall, I hope, I can return to wandering, knowing, as Ammons did, “that I have perceived nothing completely, / that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.”

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