Of Many Things

Since I moved to New York City a year ago, I have taken to walking after dinner around the midtown neighborhood in which I live. It’s especially glorious in the summer; the setting sun lends everything a generous glow. Winter brings early darkness, trudging and multiple layers. In the daytime, temperatures can be mild enough for passersby to leave loose the collars of their heavy coats. Come evening, exposed flesh will soon sting. At first I was drawn to the carnival-like vitality of Times Square, which lies to the south. I walked down the bustling streets slowly, savoring the diversity of the faces in the crowds and the enormous, brilliant billboards that shone down on us.

“I live in New York City,” I would frequently say to myself in awe.

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But about the eighth time I got elbowed into the street, to be almost run down by squealing teens on enormous party bikes, I realized you don’t meander in Times Square. You stride; you press forward; you penetrate; you force your way. Strolling here is the pedestrian equivalent of the guy on the interstate who parks himself in the passing lane while cruising at an easy 55 m.p.h. As they say in Milwaukee, “Drive it or milk it, buddy.”

I walk now more to the north, toward Central Park. The long-limbed boughs of birch trees stretch out above, and a lush quiet covers all.

Mostly, I walk to let go. In any given day, I take on new tasks, new ideas like a waiter adding plates. I can manage three projects; why not seven? And just to keep things interesting, what if I worked on them while at the same time checking my e-mail (both accounts, of course), correcting punctuation, returning phone messages and preparing a homily for Sunday’s Mass? Honestly, some days I think that those around me should pay to watch me try to keep it all going. (I hear my friends and family now: “Oh, don’t worry. We do pay. We do pay.”)

By the end of most days I usually have an assortment of at least four or five objects in motion—three tennis balls, a butcher knife and a long-stemmed rose!—and whether I like it or not it’s going to take a little time to come down. Some events, maybe most, quickly recede into memory. Others, though, are like those merry-go-rounds children ride on school playgrounds; you pretty much have to wait for them to stop spinning.

If I’m not careful, I can forget altogether that this slowing down is a good thing; rushing through dinner, I forsake my walk and leap back into my office to do some more work. It is astonishing how many interesting projects become burdens when you work on them all the time. (And it is amazing the good ideas you have at 3 a.m. that make no sense at all the next day.)

When I stick to the program and do take my walk, the different events or issues that I have allowed to crowd my attention slowly begin to fall behind me, to be returned to tomorrow or maybe not at all. I find myself greedily drawing in deep gulps of air, as though I have been unconsciously holding my breath. And while the world around me is exactly as it was 10 minutes before, I take everything in hungrily now. It all seems richer.

Day-to-day existence, I am slowly deducing, can feel a little like frostbite. The sheer busyness of it all makes you numb. Ask me halfway through my daytime equivalent of a Balinese line dance done while transposing Dante into Cyrillic, “How are you doing?” and my eyes glaze over. You are speaking gibberish. I have no idea. Often, the best response I can give is monosyllabic snippets spoken in a harried, Don’t-talk-to-me-until-this-is-over-and-I-have-no-idea-when-that-will-be sort of tone. There’s no time for conversation now.

With deep breaths and small steps, circulation returns. The restlessness that spun me through the day dissipates and settles into a sore but grateful longing. I discover God all around me then, in the silhouette of an elderly couple walking and holding hands; in the distant sounds of the traffic; in the wafting aromas of gyros and roasted cashews that pour forth from the sidewalk food carts. The mania fades; I stop, finally, and drink deep.

It’s a difficult task, this journey from self-imposed craziness toward life. I’m not terribly good at it. Often my mind wanders to the next article, the next phone call. Busyness is strangely seductive.

But if I am going to actually live in the world, rather than just run through it, this road is essential. So I try to take it every day.

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11 years 11 months ago
Thanks, Fr. Jim, for describing your method of shaking loose from the cares of your very busy day. Too often those with responsibility in their life's work, including stay at home mothers, have lost the sense of freedom to just be for at least a part of each day. Walking after work is one of the best forms of letting go, I think.

Anna Seidler

10 years 9 months ago
The recent Of Many Things column by Jim McDermott, S.J., (1/2) was superb! As one who visits New York City often and tends to juggle too many balls in the air with career and family, etc., I needed to hear Father McDermott’s wise counsel to live in the world one day at a time.

11 years 11 months ago
Thanks, Fr. Jim, for describing your method of shaking loose from the cares of your very busy day. Too often those with responsibility in their life's work, including stay at home mothers, have lost the sense of freedom to just be for at least a part of each day. Walking after work is one of the best forms of letting go, I think.

Anna Seidler

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