Reflections & Projections: Walking back to happiness, a step at a time

Thanks that the table can be set once more; this was the Foodie's Wife's setting for the dinner. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Sandra said it best, sitting serenely at the end of the dinner table, beaming at all of us: ‘We’re all still here!’ The clinking of glasses and smiling eye contact was never sweeter. Bless my friends. Bless your friends.

In my mind on this morning’s walk were vine leaves and dolmades; honey, pecans and baklava; deboned lamb, oregano and lemon. It was a shake-your-head-in-wonder kind of walk; had I really got this far? A miracle walk, even. Only a month ago I was wondering if I’d ever walk further than a few metres again. “This morning’s walk.” That’s a phrase I wasn’t sure I’d be saying again, only weeks ago.

It was also a marvel-at-where-we-are kind of walk: have we really come this far, starting to edge closer to one another again, with even the booster shots nearing reality? How amazing it is that I am amazed that we are about to visit the farm again at the weekend and that I’ll be making dolmades and baklava and the makings of Greek lemon wedges to go with the lamb marinated in lemon, garlic and oregano. Are we really going to get to a point, in the next 12 months, when we can be ourselves, hug again without being fearful, kiss someone on the cheek without being hesitant, touch a trolley handle, a public door knob, a stranger, without fearing the worst?

My walks have turned into some kind of metaphor for it all; a bellwether. Here’s me just a few weeks ago, buckled up at the roadside, asking myself if I’d ever walk to the other side of pain. The numbing had risen from my feet and halfway up my calves. My lower back felt like it was crumbling. My knees seemed to be giving way. I couldn’t stay upright for a second more. But I had only walked half a block. This from, just six months earlier, walking 6km a day, five mornings a week. Briskly. We ask ourselves: how did we get to this? But The Foodie’s Wife had a better take on it. Just keep walking, you’ll walk through it. You’ll get your walks back.

Why do I share this? Because I asked myself one little question: what’s the biggest thing you have achieved this year? And that’s it: not writing columns that are read far and wide, not buying that shiny blue car, not finally getting the bathroom renovated and retiling the kitchen floor; not even becoming “prize-winning” (I say this at my own expense, my friends are still ragging me about it relentlessly). It’s that seemingly simple little achievement that truly resonates with me: getting my walks back. I share it because it’s human, and aren’t we all.

Four months of lower back pain (therapeutic needling made scant difference) combined with deterioration of the osteoarthritis in both knees (there’s been 25 years of that, old story) ultimately had me on the ground. Compounding it was a troubling numbness in first one foot, then another, when I tried to resume my walks. Within 20 paces I could scarcely feel my feet at all. This for a man who only in March could stride out to the “Hofmeyr 60 km” sign 3km out of town and back again within an hour.

This is a food column. So how does walking, or not, relate to food? Because it’s on my walks that I find my inspiration. I think about things, troubles and fears, joys and thrills, intentions and contemplations. Some of my best columns have come to me between leaving the front gate and walking back in again an hour later. The Karoo sky and the veld do that to you. I dream up recipes too. I might know that I have a couple of aubergines in the fridge or a jar of this or that. I always have my phone with me so I google things, ingredients, cooking styles, customs, cultures. I use the iPhone camera to video the road ahead while I make voice notes to remind myself of themes I’m developing. I must be a sight to the passing drivers. Some of them give me funny looks.

My biggest fear was the numbness in the feet and whether this was the start of the diabetic’s dread: the potential loss of a foot, or both. I tried to imagine what life would be like: I wouldn’t be able to drive, visit family, go shopping, walk to the bathroom, live. How would I cook… Ultimately, after a thorough medical checkup, it turned out not to be that, so my fear has been allayed. And the best advice from doctor, wife, myself: just walk, damnit! Walk for your quality of life.

I took the advice that I had to walk through it, no matter how much pain had to be endured at the outset. One foot in front of the other. One at a time. Keep going. We devised a plan. I did a recce walk, eyes scanning for rest stops; walls, bollards, tree stumps, anywhere that offered a place to sit down for a minute for the pain to recede before getting up and carrying on. For the first week of pushing myself further, I managed about 2km, with difficulty. The numbness was coursing sooner than later, but a minute’s rest had it receding and when I resumed my walk I felt much the same as when I’d left home. So a walk could be done in sections, or compartments. Just get to that spot and you can sit, the back will stop aching, the blood will flow to the toes, you won’t feel the knee pain. Then the next, and the next. Eventually you’ll be home.

I pushed further each time. One recent Monday, I got so far that I could see the “Hofmeyr 60km” sign. It drew me towards it. Another step, another step. I must have sat down eight or nine times in that 6km walk but I made it. In an hour and 12 minutes from front gate to front gate. My previous best in March had been 50 minutes; I’d actually got it down to 10 minutes inside the hour. Now 10 or more minutes over suits me just fine.

Now I’m doing three to five walks a week of 30 to 50 minutes each; I’ve decided I’d rather do shorter walks more often, even if it gives me less time to contemplate my cooking and food writing for the day ahead. I hope to build up to a comfortable five walks a week, the whole 6km. The lesson is learnt: I cannot allow the winter cold to keep me indoors and facing atrophy. Like old Mrs Price said to me in the early ’70s: in life you will come to many bridges, just keep walking and you will get to the other side, every time. Dear old Thora Price. I wish I could speak to her now. Never was her advice more practical. She was born in 1910. I met her in 1969. She’d be 111 now. What a number.

I wish I could make her something to go with her cup of tea. She used to make a perfect cup of tea in her flat on the eighth storey of Port Soy in Mouille Point. The flat right in the corner. I sometimes stood and looked down at the parking lot below while approaching her flat after (what should have been) school and wondered if I had the courage to climb up and let go. Life looks relentlessly bleak for an adolescent truant who doesn’t know how to get out of the fix he’s put himself in. If you’re a kid in that kind of a fix, hear me: you just keep walking, a step at a time, into your life, and you tell an adult. You ask for help. You don’t have the answers, but someone else does.

The approaching final days of any year are a time for contemplating what has been and what might come. We don’t know what life is going to throw at us, ever. But we can stand up, stretch, and put one foot in front of the other and see what happens. That always beats lying down and giving up.

When all is said and done there’s always the kitchen. The place of solace. The church of the home. The convivial table. The act of holding hands and saying grace. Or just thanks to the Universe. Or to the host of the meal. Or to anyone other than ourselves. Thanks to the beauty of the garden, the abundance in the larder; the spice, the herb, the fruit, the onion, the lowly tomato. Thanks to the butter that sizzles, the cream that bubbles.

Thanks that we can serve food like this to our friends again. Brie with sultanas, preserved green figs and almonds. Find the recipe here. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Thanks that the table can be set once more. The crockery, the cutlery. The candles glimmering, the serviettes preening. The taken-for-granted now the miracle, the shake-your-head-in-wonder: we’re getting it back. We’re laying the tables again, the pots are simmering again not just for the locked-down but for the coming-to-visit. We’re inviting you round again. We’re kuiering again. With some circumspection leavened with caution. We’re being careful, obeying rules. We’re vaccinated, twice, and oh look, here comes the booster. We’re checking with one another that we are vaxxed, shaking our heads, perplexed, at the others.

God we missed that: the greetings when the guests arrive. The HUGS. The touch of another human hand. The touch. Actual touch. The first time we hugged and touched again, when dear friends came around recently for the first dinner since before March 2020, the hugs were tentative but warm; as if we were doing something illegal and unfamiliar. You could feel the need inside the one you were hugging to pull you close, coupled with nervous reticence. Hands patted backs and shoulders (“Is it okay to hug? Can we?”) and eyes moistened as we realised that we not only could: we were. You could see the question in every eye. Are we getting through this? Are we really getting through this? Sandra said it best, sitting serenely at the end of the table later on, beaming at all of us: “We’re all still here!” The clinking of glasses and smiling eye contact was never sweeter. Bless my friends. Bless your friends.

And now we contemplate another year, a year of walking upright and never looking back, of tentatively wading into the kind of lives we all left behind; into waters once familiar, but now wondering what kind of fish are swimming down there, out of sight. Will we be okay? Decisions had been and must be made. We know we will strive to have more social contact, but there will be rules.

So, a toast to life, l’chaim! To 2022. To commonsense and pragmatism. To doing what’s best for, and what’s right for, the next guy, the neighbour, the people in the street, the stranger. We got vaccinated for you, not just for ourselves. When the shots went into my arm, it was for you, for your mom and gran, your daughter or grandson; not only mine. We have to have one another’s back in this.

I grew up loving Helen Shapiro’s hit, Walking Back to Happiness. You will understand that it has special meaning for me now, but for all of us too. The village idiot may stand at the edge of town pointing down a road that he thinks we should all go down. We could carry on blindly down a road to nowhere or find a path that leads us to happiness. A path that professionals, scientists, epidemiologists have pointed to; people steeped in knowledge, study and research. Follow the village idiot if you will. But we’re going the other way. Please come with us.

I wish, with all my being, for all of you to be here a year from now, vaccinated, having lost no one you love, enjoying dinner parties and restaurants again, being normal again, feeling safe again. There’s another year, gone. Here’s another one just up ahead. Let’s walk out on that road together and make it all the way there and back. Safely. I’ll be plotting many recipes and other writings along the way. Let’s cook up a year to remember, for all the right reasons this time. Here’s to it all: to 2022. See you then. DM/TGIFood

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion of the Year 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is now available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.

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  • Thanks you (I also love that song). Thoreau called it to saunter, to walk in contemplation, apparently from “Sainte Terre” to walk on a pilgrimage, which has a common provenance with my moniker, Eardstapper. Be well, walk.

  • Thanks for such an inspiring article, and I hope the walking improves every day!
    Here’s a poem I repeat to myself in difficult times, by the Australian philosopher/poet:

    How to Get There by Michael Leunig
    Go to the end of the path until you get to the gate.
    Go through the gate and head straight out towards the horizon.
    Keep going towards the horizon.
    Sit down and have a rest every now and again,
    But keep on going, just keep on with it.
    Keep on going as far as you can.
    That’s how you get there.