I went out for a walk this morning, in the full knowledge that this was a privilege. It was my mandated single excursion for the day, and I won’t be going out again today, because I absolutely believe in following the rules, but I know that people around the world – including in my own street – cannot even go outside for several weeks. As I write, the UAE is in the middle of a 3 day complete lockdown with no outside access at all, in order to sterilise the streets; China has tightened its quarantine and self-isolation regulations; and colleagues and friends almost everywhere in the world are in self-isolation, having shown cold or flu-like symptoms. Going out for a walk this morning was not an activity I took for granted.
So I concentrated more carefully as I walked. I watched my shadow undulate along the walls as I felt the tickle of the sun on my cheeks. I heard my heartbeat shift up a gear as I walked more purposefully up a hill, and I sniffed out the aroma of wild garlic on the side of an old railway embankment. Above all, I heard the birdsong – louder, more insistent than I have ever heard it before … more joyous, perhaps, or perhaps just perplexed at the sudden absence of people and their vehicles. In any case, a symphony of tones punctuated my walk and lifted my spirits. One of my challenges this week to several of the leaders I coach and mentor has to been to slow down and notice – notice the world around them – because by doing so, their breath slows and their tension subsides, and they begin to look after themselves in a way which many of them have neglected to do over the past few weeks. Hearing the birdsong … a new metaphor for self-care.
And then there was the dance around other citizens out for a walk, a cycle or a run – a dance I call ‘pavement waltzing’. This – like any new dance – requires some attention, if the steps are to flow smoothly. When the shape of a person appears on the horizon, walking closer, one of us must choose to cross the road or move into the road; when one makes the first move, the other inclines their head gracefully in acknowledgement. Sometimes, especially on blind corners, two walkers may meet in surprise, and then must stop short, before either backing up or sidling cautiously past one another with an awkward smile but the satisfaction of knowing that we have successfully navigated the manoeuvre and maintained our distance. When a dog walker, cyclist and jogger enter the dance together, they circle one another in a complex chassé from which they contrive to extract themselves smoothly and with the appearance of confidence that this was exactly how the movement should have unfolded.
Pavement-waltzing to the sound of birdsong: a beautiful but bittersweet dance of our times. Let us learn the dance, and appreciate our good fortune at being able to engage in it.
Dr Helen Wright is an international education specialist and executive leadership coach. Her latest book, The Globally Competent School: a manual, is available on Amazon.