Reflections on a walk in the park

In December last year, I took a walk in the park.

Many hundreds of people traverse that path every day, a short stretch running through a quiet corner of the sleepy British city I live in. Yet, at the age of 28, this marked my very first attempt at moving through a public park at night, on foot, and completely alone. It was pitch-black and deserted, and I kept looking over my shoulder, my heart pounding in my ears as I scurried along, hoping to reach the bright lights of the main road at the other end without incident.

In my endless (and not always successful) quest for self-reflexivity, I must confront the unvarnished truth: that I have, no doubt, almost always had the luxury of a more comfortable alternative over the unlit and lonely path, and that the story I have recounted might, perhaps, say more about my own privilege, and far less about the frightening nature of deserted parks. Indeed, I have no intention of making any claim of the universality of my experience.

Yet, as my social media feeds were flooded with stories of gender violence a few weeks ago as part of the #metoo campaign, I was reminded of my brief, solitary expedition through the park last year; it became apparent that the magnitude of those revelations pointed to a deeper, more pervasive culture of violence. Our myriad experiences, in spite of being qualitatively different, collectively highlight the ubiquity of this culture of violence, which appears to transcend regional and socio-cultural boundaries.

In my university town, forceful reports and soft murmurs of sexual harassment and violent assault in college rooms, on the street, in the elevator of a university building, at the local grocery store, through Facebook messages, abound. Each of these instances of violence forces us to reassess what our potential ‘safe’ spaces are, until we are eventually painted into a very lonely corner. The culture of violence thus goes beyond single acts of physical assault, verbal harassment or emotional abuse, and imbues real and imagined threats of danger with a material force that inhabits our daily lived experience.

Every day, on my walk home from my office, I arrive at a tiny lane, sheltered by trees and covered with fallen leaves, sometimes wet and muddy underfoot, and dimly lit even on the brightest of days. During these autumnal evenings, when nightfall creeps up quickly and stealthily, this little track is shrouded in darkness well before my arrival.

The number of calculations that subconsciously filter through my brain as I near this path include: should I take the longer route along the main road instead? Would my handbag and umbrella be sufficient as defensive weapons if I have to protect myself? The lights are on in the houses near the front of the lane, so perhaps someone will hear me if I need to scream? The soles of my boots seem to be wearing down – will I be able to run without falling?

While grappling with this thick, suffocating fog of confusion, I sometimes have a single moment of clarity, when I think to myself, what would it feel like to walk down this path, without thinking about this path? Will I ever experience the freedom of thinking about something, anything, besides the potential for bodily violation? When, if ever, will I cease to be haunted by this spectre of violence, and simply enjoy the singular pleasure of meandering through the city at any and all hours of the day?

That night last December, when I finally arrived at the other end of the park, the sense of relief that followed did not wash over me all at once, but seeped out slowly and deliberately, until I eventually realised I was smiling to myself.

Because, of course, #metoo.

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