I started this piece while sitting on the long, planar bench that stretches beneath the Campanile. Pallid, overexposed winter sunlight was slowly burning through my SPF 50; wind was gently combing through my hair. I was thinking about how everything had oscillated between being wonderful and terrible since my arrival at UC Berkeley in August, feeling prosaic and radically different all at once. I missed my family so desperately I cried nights on end in bed. I miserably and acutely felt my fingers and face go numb when walking back to my dorm after an early discussion section. Still, I was never happier than when I was trudging through my English 45C readings or when I sat and watched the bridge vanish and resurface under the gossamer quilt of fog pulled over the water, which bluntly shone like a sheet of hammered metal.
I’ve only recently realized that my whole adolescent life has been defined by similar episodes of ambiguity. Although such episodes are remarkable and irreplaceable in their own right — and although my perspective of them is colored and clouded by a particular anticipatory nostalgia — I’ve been thinking about what it means to find stability in the inconsistency, what it feels like, how one gets there and how one stays there.
Last semester, every Tuesday and Thursday, I had a lecture at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive that began immediately after my course on California’s natural history ended at noon. The timing of this was fortunate because in some inspired post-class haze, I was always particularly attuned to my surroundings on the walk down Campanile Way toward the museum. In this induced state, I saw squirrels communing and chattering; mysterious plumes of steam coiling up behind stately Redwoods beaming toward the sky; orange-toned light filtering through elegant and wizened oaks; and Strawberry Creek’s ebb and flow with rainfall measured by a meticulously placed ruler at the water’s edge.
This walk became one of the most beloved and enjoyable parts of my Tuesdays and Thursdays — and of the whole week. While I am nervous by nature, a characteristic exacerbated by the pandemic, the act of moving through campus, eschewing distraction and disregard, grounded me in a newfound and somewhat foreign way. I wanted more. Near the semester’s end, I started taking long walks in the evening — powerwalks — up to and around the northern part of campus. Funnily, these led me to understand the directional meaning of “Northside” and “Southside,” names which should have spoken for themselves but for some reason never did.
Striding through the damp embrace of warm vapor, the balcony with booths embracing anguished students, between the sharp and glassy engineering buildings and around the Mining Circle’s resplendent links, my walk became a ritual. The resulting sensations of cold air through my nose, tucked hands clutching portable warmers and straining legs on Hearst Avenue’s ludicrously steep hill were ones I took delight in. I was shocked back into my own body and out of my mind, which otherwise often churned continuously around unpredictable and disparate thoughts. True to their name, these walks powerfully tamed volatility and uneasiness — my modicum of peace became a majority.
In The White Album essay “On the Morning After the Sixties,” Joan Didion describes her own powerwalking experience, writing, “I watched a flowering plum come in and out of blossom and at night, most nights, I walked outside and looked up to where the cyclotron and the bevatron glowed on the dark hillside, unspeakable mysteries which engaged me, in the style of my time, only personally.” Walking on campus in the 1960s was compelling, forcing presence and attentiveness in a time of great disorientation. Walking on campus today feels much the same. A myriad of personal troubles — this erratic and heaving pandemic, the crush of first semester sensations and the timorous angst that comes with a cross-California move — have been tempered by the reliable beauty and commanding mystery of the landscape I’ve traversed. My learned capacity for wonder and attention to my environment is even more valuable, I’ve realized, in a world where hardly anything else can be trusted to last.
This is how I find stability, and powerful certainty, which feels like diaphanous sunlight on my face and softly crinkling leaves underfoot and a chilly breeze pushed in from the water. As for getting there and staying there, if you need me, I’ll be powerwalking.
Contact Karissa Ho at [email protected]