How to Go Outside


This piece first appeared in Volume Four of our magazine.

Hiking on a trail over a mountain pass in New Zealand last February, I stepped over a log, and stumbled. The trail at that juncture bordered a sheer drop, but was wide and well-made, and I don’t remember feeling fear in the split second before I recovered my footing. In fact, I remember thinking how incredible it was that our bodies know how to do this. There is a small monument to evolution in the mechanics of each footfall, the perfectly held tension in the muscles.

I’m not a particularly outdoorsy person, but I never have trouble going outside when I’m somewhere Extremely Outside. I’ve done multi-day hikes, camped on beaches, slept under the stars. At the house on Fire Island where I spend extravagant amounts of the months May through October, the outside-inside border feels porous, and going outside is often the first thing I do after waking: I open the screen door and step across the threshold by instinct, in my nightgown, a bipedal animal pre-caffeinated and blinking in the morning sun. But I struggle in the city. I work from home, which means my desk can hold me fast like an anchor.

In Brooklyn, I sometimes feel sequestered. Between me and outside, there are three flights of stairs and three heavy doors. To successfully emerge requires planning, a negotiation of clothing and footwear and keys and purse. Sometimes, it’s more daunting than I’d like to admit. In my grimmer periods, which mostly coincide with the colder months, I ration whiskey and pasta, the prospect of going out even for groceries sometimes beyond me. At times, staying inside seems like a form of protection.

On a conscious level, I recognize this is foolish: that, maybe soon, there will be a time when I may not be as free to go out or to wander, whether due to mobility, age, or changing life commitments. If I sometimes struggle now to go outside because it involves confronting creaking stairs and winter layers, imagine how hard it will be with a baby, or when I have to use a cane. But sometimes the most tempting thing to do in the face of future loss is to pretend it does not exist, because to alter one’s behavior in response to the loss would be a way of acknowledging its reality. All I can say is that I am a person who lives with a not-insignificant amount of anxiety, and I try, as best I am able, to be alert to its exigencies, and to not let it make my life too small.

Recently, after a breakup, I set myself the small task of going outside every day for a week. Sometimes you get the choice whether to wallow or rally, and I wanted to tip the scales for rallying; I suspected it would ultimately make me feel better, even if it made me anxious.

Some days I barely strayed from my building, and just sat outside on the stoop for a spell after closing my laptop, or walked to the bodega for a ginger ale. One evening, a friend came over and we climbed onto my roof with a bottle of wine and watched the sky turn pink over the distant Manhattan skyline. We talked, and I cried a little. That mundane spectacle is one I never miss on the island, where seeing the sunset is a matter of ambling to the little dock at the end of my walk, but in the city, my most frequent view is an oblique wash of pink and orange from my bedroom window.

On more ambitious days, I went for long, aimless walks in my neighborhood, walks that usually grew from some notional errand. The best one happened because I needed to mail a package. It was late summer, so I watched children playing in opened hydrants and firefighters recovering between calls at the local firehouse. I tried not to think about my ex, a volunteer firefighter in his small town. I smelled hot garbage and baking bread and sour beer, spilled from someone’s late-night festivities. Virginia Woolf said that the plot of To The Lighthouse came to her while she was walking around Tavistock Square; in her diary, she called walking alone in London “the greatest rest.”

Walking can be liberating. You can recognize the strength and wisdom of the body, the intelligence of motor memory. Like driving, I find that walking engages just enough of my brain to dim the anxiety, leaving the rest of my mind to wander as freely as my body.

After the week was up, I extended it by another, and then another. I eventually made it a month. I realized I felt better. The only way to go outside, after all, is to do it. You brush the hair and put on the shoes and stand up straight, giving yourself whatever pep talks or threats are needed, and then you open the door and find out what awaits.