Finding joy in accepting, navigating obstacles on annual Philly perimeter trek

Photographer J.J. Tiziou's yearly walk offers life lessons as well as myriad views of the city.

Rituals are sort of like MRIs. They give us a cross-sectional view of our lives at that moment to compare against times when we’ve done the same thing in the past. Whether we’re talking about religious rituals, Valentine’s Day dinner, or birthday cakes — the familiarity of the ritual helps us see what is new.

So when photographer J.J. Tiziou recently took his third annual walk around the entire perimeter of Philadelphia — 102.7 miles in 5 ½ days, with every possible view of Philly, and at least a couple of pairs of shoes — that was enough to qualify as a ritual. I was curious to see what his 2018 perambulation showed him about the past year.

“This third one was again part of the ongoing life lesson about perceived boundaries and flowing around obstacles,” Tiziou said, characteristically looking past the specs of the walk directly to its meaning. “Doing it the third time, there were elements that are known and familiar, yet still potential for surprise and discovery.”

He compared it to what he and companions had walked through and stumbled over the two previous years. “There were the places where there had been no obstacles in the past but there were this time, and realizing that if I got hung up on ‘Wait, I got through last time, I should be able to get through again,’ it led to frustration,” he said. “Then there were other places where there were obstacles in the past — where I wasn’t able to go before — and I found my way through this time.”

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That sounded so much like regular life to me — especially the part about getting mad at something that was easy in the past — that I pressed for a little bit of life advice. What was helpful when he came up against that kind of emotional thicket?

“It was about accepting obstacles and finding my way around them,” Tiziou said, “and letting it be enjoyable — with that word being important, about choosing to bring joy to it.”

I hadn’t quite heard the word “enjoy” used that way before. Too often, it seems to be used in the same bland way as “nice” — more of a blank spot in conversation than a word. But Tiziou was teasing something else out of it, something that felt like it helped transform the experience.

“The word ‘enjoy’ is about joy. But people usually put emphasis on the ‘joy’ and depend on outward circumstances. Like, if it’s a sunny day, then it’s enjoyable, or if it’s a rainy day, it isn’t. But the emphasis is on the ‘en-,’ meaning ‘bringing it in,'” he said.

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A stray cat can bring a flicker of enjoyment to a log hike around the city. (Image courtesy of J.J. Tiziou)

“It’s an exhortation. One can choose to do it. And it’s a challenge to us, too, not to depend on external circumstances. As I found myself tromping through wet, muddy, polluted obstacles, as we laughed at it and through it, it was a great reminder of how enjoyment works.”

OK, fair enough. One man’s enjoyment can be this woman’s “no thanks.”

But I wanted to know more about what this year’s walk — which also coincidentally overlapped with Ash Wednesday and what Christians experience as the beginning of the Lenten season — showed him about what was different in his own life.  When he’d walked Philly’s perimeter in February 2017, it had been the same week as his birthday, a week after his father’s death, and in the wake of the 2016 national elections. The Earth had spun a whole cycle since then. Anniversaries of the death of a loved one can be powerful. What had the walk shown him about where he’d come since then?

Appropriately enough, one of the first images that came to mind for him was the day he and fellow walkers reached Mount Moriah Cemetery in Southwest Philly. “We were walking Mount Moriah Cemetery at the tail end of the walk and looking at the gravestones,” Tiziou said. “This time we noticed a cluster of children’s gravestones. The first day I walked by Overbrook Presbyterian on City Line Avenue, that had the banner for Heeding God’s Call, and it made me think of life getting cut short, being grateful for my dad’s life. His life has come to a close. Now he’s wrapped up in history. That’s the normal thing for all of us. The thing we all have in common. Something about seeing all of those gravestones and memorial markers and remembering to be grateful for every day we have.”

But the thought of those gravestones and the gun-control advocacy group’s banner brought to my mind another major event that coincided with Tiziou’s walk, this one on the national stage — the shooting of 17 students and school personnel at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

I asked him: When he heard about the shooting, how did it affect the walk?

“I was struck by how slow big things are to change,” he said. “Feeling we’ve been here before, we know this place, but it’s still different. It is another time around. It’s a chance to make another path. Or we can keep going in the same circles.

“I was imagining the people’s experience walking around Philly when that Second Amendment was written. They couldn’t have imagined where it would go — or imagine trolleys or the internet or anything else, let alone semi-automatic weapons. Where are we guided by the past, and where do we need to make course corrections based on where we find ourselves.”

With that larger view, both of life and of Philly, I wondered what he thought of his ritual going forward. He brought up something he’d told me after the first walk around Philly back in 2016. It had to do with accessibility and inclusion.

“An ongoing question for me is what it looks like for me if I do it as a yearly thing and how to share it with others,” he said. “We also hope to find resources to make it something accessible to others, not just as a guidebook or online resource, but be able to pay other people to create the same experience we had — be able to take time off from work, create small groups of diverse Philadelphians to do this.

“What would happen if you had a nurse, a plumber, a returning citizen, and a city politician walk the city together and have that bonding experience of overcoming challenges and having spacious time for naturally flowing conversations?”

And, I would add, it would be interesting to see what Mayor Kenny’s experience might be like.

Tiziou says the route can be broken up into segments easily (see the map below) and done over time by people who want to share the experience and see where it finds them in their own lives. The map is simple, he says, and so are the rules:

  1. Stay as close to the border as you can.
  2. Go around obstacle as they arrive.
  3. Safety first — and no trespassing.

Sounds like good advice for so much of what life throws at us.

Going clockwise from 63rd Street and Baltimore Avenue, Day 1 (orange) takes you 23 miles to Wyndmoor; Day 2 (green) takes you 17.6 miles to Forrest Hills; Day 3 (lavender) takes you 13.4 miles to Torresdale; Day 4 (pink) takes you 20.6 miles to the South Philly Wal-Mart; Day 5 takes you 17 miles to Fort Mifflin, near the airport, and Day 6 takes you 9.3 miles back to Baltimore Avenue.

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