Falafel + skinny jeans

Hello! I am possibly well enough to walk again … but it’s pouring in Melbourne today. Here is another chapter from my Lockdown One Sort-Of-Memoir to tide us over. Next time … it’ll be a cheerful lockdown 2 walk, I promise!

Read chapter one 

Read chapter two

Read chapter three

Read chapter four

Chapter Five

Walk Four – 10778 steps

By day four I was a little tired. Yesterday’s longer walk had taken it out of me a bit. The fatigue had caused a bit of an afternoon slump, but I was still feeling much better than I had before I started this whole palaver. I even made falafel and pita bread from scratch for dinner, stuffing the little pockets with onions pickled in red wine vinegar, cherry tomatoes and cucumber from my garden and homemade hummus. Remember how we tried to make all the things from scratch during the pandemic?!

On day 4 I was more prepared. Instead of waking up ‘naturally’ I had set my alarm for 6 and was up before it was light. This was not just down to the alarm, I admit. It was also thanks to the kid I live with having a night long pandemic party with his mates. He was still up at 6am. To be fair, the delighted whooping of a young adult in the next room were not the only thing that got me out of bed. A small dog licking my face played its part as well and of course my enthusiasm for this new walking project. Let’s not forget that, although I admit it was a sort of creaky enthusiasm at this early hour. 

I checked my phone, clocking a tweet from writer and comedian Magda Szubanski aka Kath and Kim’s Sharon Strezlecki.

“Not a good day. Feeling a bit wobbly. If you feel the same don’t be embarrassed. Reach out Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 beyondblue.org.au@beyondblueofficial or @lifelineaustralia 131114 lifeline.org.au or@headspace_aus or @SANEAustralia Take care my loves,” she wrote and uploaded a video about her own coping strategies which included good food, friends/family chats, good books … and medication.

Yes Magda! I thought. I am taking care of myself with those things too. I’ve had some of those wobbly days as well.

Feeling the warmth of solidarity, I put on my sweatshirt dress, leggings, socks and trainers, drank a small glass of water (I got really thirsty yesterday) but not too much because I didn’t want to need the bathroom on the slightly longer route I had planned today and headed off.

To my surprise the streets were abandoned when I set off at about a quarter after 6. I was out earlier than usual, to be sure, but it was also Saturday. Perhaps the other exercisers were allowing themselves a weekend sleep in, I thought. Not me! I mused smugly as I tripped over my own foot. I am going to walk every single day, by hook or by crook.

By the time I reached the park I was feeling pretty okay. I was breathing well (no wheezing) and my pinchy hips from yesterday had not kicked in at this stage.

The huge green expanse of grass at my park was empty and I took in its dewy green splendour before cautiously stepping onto the shared path, the sun just peeping up over the trees by this point.

And so I began. Walking all by myself, a good five minutes into today’s route before someone passed me on a bike. Ten minutes later and some other walkers emerged on the path ahead, making their way towards me from the other end of the park.

There were far fewer bikes and walkers today offering much sleepier traffic as I traipsed along.

I tried not to think about the time that was passing or my pace or what I looked like or what I’d do when I got home. I just walked along allowing my mind to wander and coming up with good ideas which I mumbled to Siri asking her to make a note.

I made lots of notes on these mind-wandering walks to remind me of all the things I wanted to write about and do that day. 

“Siri. Make a note. Talk about how I’m walking even faster around my house.”

“Siri. Make a note. Get in touch with Liz to see how her chemo is going during this hairy time.”

“Siri. Make a note. Talk about how I am starting to get really hungry by 11am now instead of not feeling hungry at all!”

“Siri. Make a note. Talk about how I was smiling and laughing and being a total idiot in the kitchen with Ari yesterday.”

Another amazing thing happened too. My hand got so sweaty holding my phone that I shoved it into my bra in frustration. It was one of those elastic fabric bras … more like a crop top really. The phone stayed put and suddenly I had achieved the hands-free status I had dreamt about the day before – without strangling myself or having to fork out for any walking kit. Clearly I am a genius.

With my hands free to do whatever the heck they wanted to I was instantly in a much more chipper mood. I could really lean into this wandering along the track now, both physically and mentally. Don’t get me wrong, I was still walking slowly, those warnings about listening to my body ringing in my ears, but it was much nicer to walk without worrying about holding onto my phone or worse dropping it. It was more meditative and I could toss about ideas and observations and memories with abandon.

That dark tunnel at the end of the park kept popping up in my thoughts. I had followed the path beyond it on Google Maps the night before, looking at what lay ahead and working out where the path ended up. Today I wanted to walk through the tunnel and head a little beyond it. While I was feeling well I figured I may as well try to walk a bit further every day, I reasoned.

So I put one foot in front of the other, taking things step by step until I reached the tunnel. It was actually not dark at all, I realised when I rounded the bend, bikes whizzing by me dinging their bells or yelling ‘passing!’ It was very well lit with street art lining the walls and lanes for cyclists and walkers clearly marked. 

Brilliant! I’m going in! I thought on approach at the very same moment that a man in skinny jeans, a grey t-shirt and a jumper tied around his waist overtook me, walking ahead into the deserted apart from him and (nearly) me tunnel.

For a whole host of reasons this turn of events alarmed me. The skinny jeaned man could be a very, very nice fellow, I thought. Or even a non-nice but harmless gent. But maybe he was neither of those things. Familiar panic swished through my body.

I started sweating, my chest and back hardened, my breathing grew patchy and adrenaline began coursing through my system. 

“If I had to scream, would anyone hear me?” I wondered. “How loud COULD I scream, anyway?”

As the man walked on, he was about halfway through the tunnel, I took some deep breaths and reasoned with myself.

“He probably overtook me because he wanted to get ahead and give me space,” I theorised. 

“He’s just having a walk minding his own business and not every man is a threat”, I told myself, but I was … scared.

I remembered a sort of murder-y tv show I had watched which doesn’t sound that helpful but in it a panicked young woman grounded herself by naming the objects in the room.

“Desk. Chair. Book. Door,” the woman recited slowly.

“Tree. Grass. Shoes.” I countered in my real life non-murdery TV show world.

“Graffiti. White line. Flickering lights. Okay. I’m going in,” I decided and indeed I did head into the man-containing tunnel, shoulders back, head up, all false bravado and smothered panic.

As I got to the middle of the tunnel, the man was already out the other side and heading along the path ahead.  

“You silly!” I scolded myself, continuing those deep breaths and striding on and out of the underpass. 

“That poor fellow was just minding his own business. Of course you can go for a very early Saturday morning walk in skinny jeans, it doesn’t make you a murderer. What are you even thinking, Pip?!”

As I emerged back into the grey morning black cockatoos flew overhead screeching and I felt pretty pleased that I had not let my possibly irrational but familiar feelings distract me from today’s plan. And also that I had not been assaulted.

I headed around the bend towards parkland that I had never walked in before. Tunnel man had turned around at this point and was now walking back towards me. I kept my pace, heart pounding out of my chest, and he kept his, sweeping past me at a speed you wouldn’t expect from a man in skinny jeans. He disappeared back into the tunnel and then I couldn’t see him anymore.

It’s a strange paradox that when you are a woman over 50 out walking or exercising you often feel quite invisible at the same time as often feeling under threat. 

There’s good reason for the fearful part of that equation. The number of attacks on women when they are simply trying to move their bodies and enjoy being out and about in the world is way too high and it’s unforgivable.

There have been many such attacks and even murders in my city. One such murder occurred not far from this tunnel, in fact, that of 17-year-old Masa Vukotic who was taking her usual walk in the park near her home when she was fatally attacked by a man she did not know. There were many others like Masa, just in the last year or two. My guess is that you city is the same.

Consequently I had, like many other women, been quietly tallying these horrible and tragic events and trying to compute what the risk might be to me.

In 2017 I came home one morning rattled and posted on Facebook about a creep who had scared me down the street from my house one morning. I had tried to get myself moving at a similar time to this day’s walk.

“When you say to yourself ‘It is your RIGHT to go for a walk in the pre-dawn darkness, no need to feel scared or ill at ease’,” I wrote. “And then you go for a walk on your deserted suburban street and a guy pulls his car up BESIDE you, opens the rear passenger door, gets something out, gets back in and drives further up the street, then pulls over with his lights on 100 m ahead and sits there in his idling car as you walk in his direction.”

“So you turn around and jog back home very quickly,” I continued, “looking over shoulder and vowing not to walk in the pre-dawn again.”

And by jogging I meant running and I am not a runner.

Lots of other women responded saying they’d had scary experiences while exercising too. 

Encounters like this - and the more serious cases of violence against women I spoke about earlier - have played some part in my keeping me tucked away at home. So have numerous other negative man-related experiences of my own – both strangers and those known to me – that I simply do not feel strong enough to write about. Perhaps that’s another book.

For now I’m determined to get out there – perhaps not quite as early as I did on this day – and make sure to walk in areas where there are plenty of people around. Not that women should have to do that, but there it is.

Back in the park on that 2020 day, I had emerged from the tunnel, alive and well, heading down the path past a playground (taped up due to COVID-19 virus fears). I walked along to a little clearing beside the track where the trees tower over a surprising and tiny little creek.  The creek is squished between some back fences, the path and the huge barriers of a freeway our state government is at this very minute battling with local councils to widen. They plan on  bulldozing parkland to make way for more cars and people have been tying red protest ribbons onto the thousands of trees they’re threatening to remove.

This little creek must actually run along under the freeway, I thought. What a sad life for a creek and what a perfect illustration of what happens when development proceeds at all costs.

I was glad that the creek had at least managed to emerge here, as I had. It seemed lucky to have emerged at all and not be claimed by the six or seven lanes of traffic above it.

I stared at the muddy water for a while and then turned on my heel, carefully avoiding a cyclist whizzing by at breakneck speed. This was my halfway mark and I set about retracing my steps and heading back home to leftover falafel and pita bread. Maybe with a side of eggs. Eggs!!

It was at the eggy point that I realised I really needed to go to the bathroom. 

“Novice!” I remonstrated myself. “You can’t even go for a simple walk without buggering it up,” I scolded.

Then I wondered if I needed to adjust my morning routine a little to prevent this sort of dilemma. Avoid water? Leave home a little later? Have a coffee, bathroom, then leave home? Due to my inexperience I was not really sure how to handle this issue on long early morning walks.

My stomach cramped reliably and painfully and I realised that probably none of those things would have made a difference. It was likely that my panic about the (possibly very nice) tunnel man and the resulting cascade of anxious physical symptoms had incited this inconvenient situation.

I walked home much, much more slowly in an attempt to keep things nice. I was determined not to use the playground bathroom (virus germs!) as I passed it by and very keen not to ‘have an accident’ (another thing my Nan used to say!)

Mind over matter,(ew!) I told myself, flexing a desperate assortment of of physical and mental strategies – keep walking! Have faith! Stand up straight! Shoulders back! It’s FINE!! Stay calm! - I wished I’d  displayed this mettle when the skinny jean tunnel man fear kicked in. I might not be in this urgent and uncomfortable situation.

Down paths, across gravel tracks, around street corners, across driveways, up stairs I battled. I crossed paths with ladies with swishy pony tails and lithe types running in shiny uniforms and track-suited people wrangling pups, all the while trying not to sport the expression of someone who really, really, really needed to go to the toilet.

It was quite the heroes journey, I think you’ll agree. If you have ever been caught out and needed to use the loo you’ll know exactly how horrible this feeling is. 

Somehow I ultimately triumphed over my crampy feelings and even waved victoriously to a lady I’d seen on the path a couple of times before on my earlier walks. The lady waved back and a man walking several paces ahead of me waved at her and I guffawed at the bolstering brilliance of witnessing misunderstood waves.

I made it home and on arrival noted that the all night online pandemic party was over and the house was silent. I speedily acquainted myself with the bathroom immediately, then ran a hot bath with Epsom salts, soaking my stressed-out self and tired muscles for a good 40 minutes, attempting to erase the memory of possibly-very-kind skinny jeaned tunnel man and all that he’d/I’d/life had unwittingly ignited. 

It was the nicest bath I had ever had, made even nicer by the fact that I didn’t ‘have an accident’ after all. Hooray for me!!

I changed out of my walking clothes and into a nightie (#StayHome) which felt so comfortable after my uncomfy jaunt. In the very early afternoon of that day I climbed into bed and instantly fell asleep watching New Amsterdam. This was partly because I’d walked my longest distance yet and had tuckered myself out physically. But my exhaustion was mostly because panic attacks and revisiting old emotional wounds makes you very, very, very tired. Sometimes the only thing that recalibrates your overwhelmed system is snuggling down and sleeping it off, rather like you might do with a bad hangover.

When I woke up I felt a little bit better, and a little further down the track when it came to processing tucked-away traumas as well as a little more interested in revisiting better coping strategies should this happen again.