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Un-commuting: some further thoughts

Erin commutes 90km to work. I commute about 1/40th of that distance. Or, rather, I mostly uncommute it, because 90% of the time, I walk. This walk is essential to my emotional and physical health. I am grateful for this but can’t take credit for any of it, really.  Where I live, relative to where I work, and the subjective and objective qualities of any and each of home, the office, and the space in-between is pretty highly deterministic of some important parts of my life.

My situation is this. From home to office is about 27 minutes on foot, half through a heavily treed heritage residential area, one third of it through a park, and the rest through two big parking lots. It is mostly extremely pleasant: minimal traffic, lots of green leafy things, a skateboard park and playground, a tiny bridge over an adorable river shaded by an arch of overgrown trees. And the parking lots.

This walk helps my heart. I have feelings about this walk, feelings from this walk: except for the days when the garbage truck and I pace each other through the neighbourhood, I smell dirt and see birds and watch the clouds. One day last winter, I had to navigate on the narrow trail to get around a red tailed hawk that had just killed and was happily disemboweling a pigeon: we looked each other in the eye, eight feet apart from one another. I feel my shoulders soften. I breathe fresh air. I calm down. My FitBit, too, tells me that it’s nearly half an hour of elevated heart rate–it sends me congratulatory stickers about my commitment to movement. I meet my daily exercise goals before I even get to work in the morning. I double it on the way home, and that walk has me shedding the film of anxiety and bother and other people’s stresses and tiny tasks and big problems that descend on me at the office.

Sometimes I have to drive. On those days, I quite often head to bed at night several thousand steps off my 10K step target. I miss my exercise target of 30 minutes of daily moderate exercise. I feel crabby and rushed and spend only as much time outdoors as it takes to get the dog around the block, because I don’t have time for anything else. Work all day is very busy. Evening are full of chores and family activities and obligations. I don’t have time. Who wants to get on the treadmill in the basement at 8pm, looking out for spiders? Or, ack, have to leave the house and go to the gym. Not me. I would just never do it at all.

One of my departmental colleagues invited me to address some graduate students about The System, and one of them asked me about scheduling self-care. She could see my digital planner: I’m really busy! And that planner didn’t show the yoga classes I teach, or piano lessons I bring my girl too, or any of the rest of it.

I told her this: I focus all my working during the day, and I go at it really hard, so I can be with my family in the evenings. I didn’t mention the double-duty of converting my commute into emotional and physical self-care.

I didn’t do that because I know that choice is not, particularly, free. I know that it is some combination of the privilege of being able-bodied, living in a mid-sized city, somehow accidentally timing a real estate market, the incredible dumb luck of having a secure academic position.

We hear so much, lately, about the so-called obesity and inactivity epidemics, the terrible road congestion and pollution, how people eat bad food and don’t sleep enough. And we blame individuals for all this. Our activity trackers exhort us to move more, eat better, or generally make so-called better choices. But what kinds of choices do we, really, mostly control? Circumstances very largely out of my direct control mean I can walk to work in optimal conditions most of the time. I do it because, frankly, it’s easy. My life is dramatically improved as a result. The exercise I get, the emotional release of the outdoors, the time I save not driving and not having to find ‘exercise’ time and can thus use for other things, enriches my life beyond measure, but I deserve nearly no credit for any of it. It is circumstance, luck.

I grew up in Kirkland Lake, where pretty much everything is 2km or less away from everything else. You could choose to walk everywhere or walk some of the time, and some people did, or you could choose to drive everywhere (there was plentiful parking, mostly free, mostly everywhere) and a lot of people chose that. Mostly, the choice was purely individual. When I lived in Toronto, I could live on campus and save the commute, but there was nothing for miles around York campus I could get to. Or I could live in a real neighbourhood but ride the bus for 90 minutes to and from school. In Guelph and Edmonton, it was easier to align a walkable life style with rental apartments and still be close to school. It would be nearly impossible in Vancouver, or Victoria.

Our jobs, our capitalist patriarchy, seem for the most part to conspire against this kind of balance, the balance that most of us really want. Our jobs are largely contingent and ill-paid. We have little control over where we might have to move to, closer to or further from our extended friend and family networks of support. We uproot so much and so often we have little say in determining the neighbourhood and city infrastructures that shape our experiences of life between bouts of work. We eat in our cars because we have no time to eat at home. We live where we can afford to live. We drive to work because it’s too far away or the commute is too unpleasant or dangerous to walk or bike.

The struggle to have some balance is real. Most of us try really hard to do eat right, get our exercise, help the environment, all of it. But whether we can or we can’t is mostly out of our capacity to choose.

As in most things, I’m left pondering the relation between individual agency and structural constraint, and wondering how much those of us in circumstances that make it easy to ‘do the healthy thing’ need to be less proud of ourselves as individuals, how much those of us labouring under more constraints can be kinder to ourselves about those realities, and how together we might advocate for better societies so that we all have a chance to stop and smell the flowers on the way to work, sometimes?

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