Park at nightThis article was originally published on the Huffington Post.

The park is almost dark.

It’s only 5pm, but here in the Northern Hemisphere we’ve all just switched to daylight savings time, so by the time I step onto the asphalt path the lampposts in the park are already on.

The park is a large triangular wedge of grass and trees tucked into a residential neighbourhood of wartime bungalows that are slowly being replaced by someone’s idea of a suburban dream home. To the north of the path is a sort of marshy area with tall reeds and shrubs that graduate into wooded wilderness up by the railroad tracks.

It usually takes me five minutes to walk through the park, from the fat edge of the triangle at the commuter train station parking lot to the narrow tip at the street that leads me home.

I have my headphones on, listening to downbeat global grooves that I hope will calm me after a long intense day. I’m loping along, in synch with the bass and the rhythm of the drums, walking fast, intent on the music.

As I pass under the first lamppost, I notice my shadow suddenly appear on the path ahead of me. I keep walking and it slowly lengthens out before me, then gradually fades and disappears. It pops back into existence again when I walk under the next light.

I think about an interview I heard several years ago: a brain scientist said although humans like to think our conscious minds are in charge of our lives, it’s actually our subconscious that controls us. Our minds just create rationalizations for the stuff we do, after the fact. He compared it to being led by our shadows. He said “Imagine you’re walking down the street and you can’t go where you want. Your shadow is in charge, not your mind or your body.”

As I watch my shadow, I notice my hips swaying back and forth as I walk. I remember an old boyfriend once telling me I walked like Bette Davis. At the time, I didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. In fact, I’m still not sure. I wonder if my walk is provocative. I’d never thought about it before, but I am alone in a quickly darkening park. I wonder if my jeans are too tight—I’ve been gaining weight lately—and I start to worry that I am walking provocatively in a dark park wearing tight jeans.

I know these thoughts are bullshit. I know sexual assault isn’t caused by what you wear, but we’ve all been fed this particular lie for so many years the thought is deeply planted in my brain and will probably never fully go away.

I am alone on the path. I wish there was someone else around, then I think: “But what if it’s a guy? Or two guys?” My heart is beating harder but my hips keep swaying. Maybe if I look very purposeful. They say you’re supposed to look like you know where you’re going. I know this is bullshit too.

The calming grooves are no longer working.

I wonder if it’s a good idea to be wearing headphones. I think about taking them off, but listening to rustling grasses and cricket noises might even be worse. What if I hear a twig snap? My mouth is getting dry.

I wonder if I’m walking too vigorously. I’m in my fifties, but from a distance maybe I look young and healthy. I’m not the usual demographic for sexual assault but in the dark who could tell? I consider slowing down, maybe looking a bit more feeble. I feel bad for thinking it might be understandable that a younger woman could be attacked but not me. And women aren’t raped because we’re just too damn sexy. Besides, older women can be sexy too. Does wanting to be sexy put me at more risk, or make it my fault if something happens?  

I am increasingly pissed off at these thoughts and that I feel so threatened by a short walk through a small park at dusk.

As I get close to the street there’s a dark cluster of trees and shrubs and I quicken my pace. This might be a mistake. I don’t want to look frightened. I think about how easy it would be for someone to come up behind me and drag me into the shrubbery, never to be seen again.

I think about what I would do and I know it wouldn’t be enough.

I try to breathe, try to get centered and it suddenly occurs to me that a man in my position would never think any of these thoughts. He would worry if he was walking provocatively or looked too young or too sexy. He would never fear for his life. He might worry about getting his wallet or phone stolen, but he would never think he might be raped or murdered—not in this harmless little park with its horseshoe pitches and children’s swings.

These are women’s thoughts.

These thoughts spring from the knowledge that we are not safe. At any moment, we might be targeted, perhaps hunted like an animal. We are potential prey.

This knowledge been installed in me and millions of other women and girls since the day we were born. These thoughts lead us down certain paths and not others, without us even realizing. As a former auto mechanic, I think it’s safe to say that our fear can even affect our choice of careers. Women aren’t stupid. We know some workplaces are much more hostile to women than others.

In our attempt to stay safe, we behave. We speak politely and avoid eye contact. We twist our lives and stay small. In the process, we can become completely detached from who we might have been.

Paradoxically, the path to freedom starts with noticing we’re not as free as we thought. The long road to liberation begins with noticing the shadows and entering the darkness.

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