Perseverence

I like to think that I have a good level of perseverance, that I can cope with many things and can endure and push myself to finish the job, whatever the job might be. I have persevered in my work, despite circumstances which might rightly send me running. I persevere with books I don’t like and I persevere with the stubborn bunnies that don’t want to go to bed when it’s raining and dark outside. I persevered with cycling to work, until I didn’t. I persevere with my walking and writing, despite the lack of a noticeable return.

I like to think that I have a good level of perseverance, yet I’m as flighty as a dying leaf in autumn. One of my friends, a perceptive one, once mentioned that I am brilliant at starting things and not finishing them. This was a surprise to me. I have been in the same relationship for 22 years, and I’ve been with the same employer for just about the same length of time, and despite all the ups and downs that come naturally with any long-term relationship I am still there and I still enjoy it (well, my marriage anyway). Yet I start things and stop them. I am, for all but the most critical things, not in it for the long run.

I have started learning Japanese and stopped. I have written poetry; I actually got half decent at it, then I gave it up. I tinker at writing. I can just about crochet a straight line and I can only knit because I learned when I was younger. I have a high level interest in everything and depth in very little. I’m a tinkerer, an intellectual butterfly (and equally lightweight), I’m the bee that flits from flower to flower never settling. As soon as I get close to something, that’s exactly when I start to waft away.

That I have come to recognise this is a good thing.

I recently started the NHS Couch to 5k running programme. I’m not a runner. I’ve never been good at running for long periods of time. I have flat feet; I’m not supposed to run. I have tinkered with running before and I am tinkering with running again. I am up to week 4, though I have been running for 6 weeks. This week has been the worst yet. I haven’t run since Sunday (it is Thursday). I was supposed to run yesterday, but it was cold and I was tired and kind of hungry so I didn’t run. Today it was windy. I didn’t want to run.

I got changed into my running gear. I came downstairs and strapped on my phone, only to discover that the week’s podcast had not downloaded. I tried to download it: it wouldn’t download. Fifteen minutes later it downloaded. I hovered by the door. I didn’t want to run.

I went for a run. It was cold and I was tired. My knees hurt. In parts I felt like my breath was being squeezed through a tiny, burning hole in my throat. I ran for three minutes, then five minutes, then three minutes, then five. Breaks in between. I didn’t want to run, but I did. I persevered.

It’s easy doing the things that we love. It’s easy, too, doing the things that we have to. Work, family: they’re not exactly a choice (except they are a choice). Perseverance comes when we do something hard that we don’t have to, when we push through a barrier of pain and don’t give up, when we keep going even though keeping going is hard, even if it means just putting one step in front of another or living another shitty day or coping with a difficult relationship or situation that really we want to escape from. I am not good at persevering. I think, sometimes, that if I was a person on the Titanic when it was sinking that I’d go down with ship because fighting to live in those circumstances is much harder than giving in. If I was sent to a death camp, I’d die in the first week. If there was a nuclear attack, I’d run into the burning light. I’m terrible at being sick, I dread degenerative illness. Going on when it’s hard, that’s a kind of endurance I don’t have. But maybe I can learn.

I did my run. I didn’t want to, but I did it. This is a commitment, a small one but one worth making. Afterwards I was proud of myself. I didn’t have to run but I did. I’m not very good at it, I’m not very fit. But I can get better. I will get better. I will not give in. Well, perhaps I won’t give in on this.

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Knitting

One of my overriding memories from childhood is my Mum sitting in a chair, her needles clicking and the shape of a woollen garment – scarfs, jumpers, cardigans – emerging like magic row by row. As a teenager I, too, learned to knit. It was something that we just did, creating objects from loops of wool. I started with a knitting doll – those strange wooden objects shaped like a person with a hole running through them head to toe, and four little spiked rods on the head like a crown. I used to make long woollen ropes which I spiralled around into a coaster shape, and these coasters graced my room and others until I left home. Later I moved onto booties and mittens for my eldest sister’s babies, and when I grew more adventurous I made tiny little jackets and impractical little trousers, all from fine baby wool. I wasn’t a great knitter; I couldn’t cable or make lace though I did progress to making little holey patterns in the jackets. I could follow a knitting pattern and I grew dextrous enough with the needles to be able to knit without looking. But I was never as good as my Mum.

Now it is autumn, and my mind turns to knitting again. I want to knit a blanket, construct something unique and personal by making little knitted squares which I can patch together into a soft blanket. I have made forays with knitting before, but it has always fallen by the wayside after one thing or another, often because my visiting Mum has completed the project for me before I had chance to even say ‘wait a moment’. But this time is different. I have found my needles, a ball of soft chunky wool and I am reminding my fingers how to make the stitches. It is awkward. My hands don’t work like they used to. I drop stitches by accident and my tension is all over the place. Yet a pattern of knitting emerges. It is not special, it is not even half-good, but it is mine. I have made it. I examine my stitches, wrought from my awkward little hands, and I feel proud. I am making connections. I connect with the wool and I connect with my younger self. I connect with my mother, who was probably about my age when I first remember her sitting there knitting in the chair. I imagine how she must have felt, how different her life was to mine, and yet somehow the same. We are connected. The needles click. The stitches grow and grow.

Comfort

It’s a cold, grey autumnal day, not typical of autumn but one of a type. There’s a sharp breeze that shreds the yellowing leaves from the trees and penetrates to the bone. It is a day for staying indoors. The light is dim outside; it darkens early partly due to the time of year and partly because of the thick cloud that hunkers down close to the earth, creating a depressing feel. In my house it is warm. I wrap myself in a thick cardigan and think about making large mugs of steaming chocolate and think about how that makes me sounds like a character from an Enid Blyton book. The sound of the tumble dryer spills from the utility room and if I look up, out through the window, I can see the soft white bodies of the bunnies huddled together against the cold, and I wish I could bring them indoors without the experience terrifying them but I can’t. I can, however, place an extra layer of straw in their little bed-chamber, making a cosy warm hole for them even though its outside. I want candles and soft throws, chocolate (how unlike me) and warm tea, a book about something cosy. I want to huddle up against the dark with my family, enclosed in soft light like that from a fire or from candles. I want it to be colder. I want them to want to come to me: their warm, comfortable Mum.

Ten things seen from a train window

  1. A curve of water cutting through grass; in the distance, the motorway.

     

  2. Fields, recently ploughed; the brown earth darkly glistening.

     

  3. Faces, faces, faces, faces, faces, faces.

     

  4. A crane towering over the city, its limbs painted purple. By its side, a naked new-born bridge.

     

  5. Golden autumnal light spilling through the trees.

     

  6. A disused factory.

     

  7. In the valley below, a cluster of houses. People wait at the bus stop.

     

  8. In the tunnel, it is dark.

     

  9. Busy streets, rows of gleaming cars gathered on roads.

     

  10. The sky everywhere.

Dream

Last night I dreamt I was in a city, a strange city in the way that all cities are strange in dreams. It was like nowhere I’d been before and like everywhere. The buildings were unfamiliar but not improbable. It was early evening and we were heading to the top of a tall, broad building which stepped downwards like a half pyramid, curved on its longest edge. We were heading for the top floor, the highest point, a single floor which poked out above the rest of the city. We entered the building, somehow, and then entered a lift. It was a large lift, industrial in style with a single door which slid across, sliding into itself and then back out again. The light was like every lighting you’ve ever seen in a gritty detective / crime drama, that slightly sickly under-lit tone that evokes corner shadows and a morgue somewhere in the depths of the building below. The lift was large enough to take bodies on stretchers and a team of suited detectives, if you know what I mean.

When the lift door closed, that’s when I experienced my first bout of vertigo. I am a vertigo sufferer. It has grown worse as I’ve become older. It is not simply a matter of heights, in my case, but also one of layers. Layers and space and exposures. Mezzanine floors are a trial; stairwells too. Anywhere where I can see one surface and a vacant space beneath it or between it and another surface, those places make me weak at the knees.

I do not get vertigo in lifts, not even in glass ones. But in my dream I experienced vertigo. It began as the lift doors slid closed and in my mind I could see the top of the building, a balcony stretching all around the outside of the top floor with a chin-height wall and the lights coming on across the city. The sky was low-lit, the way it is once the sun has fully disappeared but the earth has not yet fully turned from the light and a slice of it still cuts through atmosphere. It was pretty, as cities are, but the vertigo killed all of that. All I could feel was the weight in my stomach, the dragging-down sensation, and my knees fizzing like pop. The lift doors were still closed.

I was outside. I don’t recall how I got outside. Somehow, despite it being the tallest building in the city, the land sloped around the edges like the building had been constructed on the side of a cliff except there was no cliff. There was no time to register the change in perspective, though it is something I picked up later, afterwards, when I was awake. A little inconsistency. The vertigo sensation was gone and then it returned. I sank to my knees, I saw myself sink as though I was watching from outside myself, from another position around the corner from where there was a woman sinking to her knees with vertigo, two men standing beside her grasping her arms. Then I woke.

It is not the first time I have experienced vertigo in a dream and it probably won’t be the last, though it is a fairly recent phenomenon. The physicality of it, the way it manifests as a palpable sensation in my body creates a sense of dissonance in my dreaming, as though the physicality makes it un-dreamlike. We talk of dreaming, of entering a dreamlike state, and we imagine a sensationless form of being, something like a shadow of the fully sensual experience of reality. We think of someone ‘dreaming’ as someone withdrawn from their experience of the external world and we know we are dreaming because the full force of our non-dreaming existence isn’t there. It is all interiority. We see it, of course, only in retrospect. When we wake we recognise the dream world as a half world, one lacking external stimulus except for those stray experiences which leak in from the outside world: the howl of the storm outside is interpreted as the sea in the dream, the cough of a lover is interpreted as the barking of a dog, the chill we feel in the dream is because the window was left open and the rain is dripping on the bedclothes, the dream of searching for a bathroom is prompted by our extended bladder. Sensation in the dream world is muted. Everything we experience lacks a physical, external stimulus. We feel fear, we feel joy, we know we are running but we don’t feel the stamp of our feet on the ground or the lactic acid building up in our thighs or the ragged, painful sensation of our breathing. Everything in the dream world comes from within, we react only to ideas and concepts. Yet it is impossible to know if this is how we actually experience the dream or simply how we recall it when waking, when we have embraced the certainty of the real.

Or maybe that’s just how I dream.

Vertigo isn’t caused by something external, this is its essential difference. Vertigo is self-generating, a matter of the mind rather than the world acting upon it. Its external component is a glitch of perception, of understanding. That is why it is possible for it to enter my dreams. Yet it manifests as a highly physical sensation. That manifestation is a kind of dissonance, a wrongness in the dream world. A breaking of the rules. Then again, everything in the real world is perceived from within. We have only our subjective experience. In this respect, what is real and what is a dream are not materially different.

Perhaps I dislike dreaming of vertigo because it reminds me of this.

Risk

For one reason or another, risk has been on my mind. Risk is part of life; it is part of my work, my entire career has been one of measuring risk, of averting it, of making it more acceptable, but most of all it has been about taking risk. Life is a risky enterprise. Nothing that we do comes with certainty except death and even that, when willed, can elude us like trying to grasp at smoke. Once I considered myself a risk taker, though I have never been truly adventurous. I like my safety nets: less than some, more than others. I have come to recognise when other people’s actions are driven by fear, though my own is a mystery. I drape it in words like loyalty, like reason, security, compromise, habit, certainty. Yet underlying all these things is fear. The risk is too great, the harm too probable. I forget, sometimes, how difficult I found probability when I studied it in maths as a child. It is no wonder, perhaps, that I am so terrible at it.

I will risk for myself, but in my relations to others I am afraid. I am afraid of disappointing, of letting people down. I am afraid of sending us down a path which is irreversible, which will lead to irreparable damage. I value my capability and my strength, though it is an illusion. I am not strong.

To love is to risk which is why I measure my love carefully, dole it out in small doses and only to those in whose hands I feel safe. Yet I am safe. I have loved immoderately, I have loved in a way which is absorbing and painful, which felt larger and more significant and more otherworldly than I ever could have imagined. I have done this: why do I not do it now?

I have become afraid of risk. I have become comfortable. It is not enough to live one day after another. The sun rises (the Earth rotates), each of us awakes, I go to work, I work, I come home, I eat, I watch TV, I sleep. I have worked minor variations of the same job for years. I have lived in the same house. In the evenings I sit and read, reading about other worlds, other lives, people living through their danger. It is safe, all safe. I am terrified of losing any of it.

Or not terrified, perhaps that is too strong a word. Perhaps I have simply misplaced my ability to imagine that things could be any different. Perhaps that’s the true curse of middle age – not the loss of desire, the slippery decay of the body – the loss of imagination. It is not tested enough; we do not risk dreams, not even in sleep. I look to the future and wonder how I will maintain my level of comfort.

I need to learn to dream again. I need to consider the risk of dying a regret-filled old woman an unacceptable risk to take. I need it to terrify me, so I won’t be afraid to live, now, while I still can.

On Expectations

There has never been a time when we were more in thrall of our expectations. Or perhaps there has: how can we know? Perhaps it is an essential part of the human experience, the jostling pull of social status, that we are forever looking over the next hill, measuring ourselves against our neighbours, plotting and planning exactly how our life should pan out, what we should be capable of, that our life will follow the master plan and have all the things in it that we’ve ever possibly wanted, that we will be forever young and healthy and admirable in our being.

Expectation has been playing heavily on my mind recently. I have just started running. I have started running because I have been disabused of my expectation that I will be forever as thin as I was as an eighteen-year-old, that I will always be able to run up the stairs without becoming breathless, that I will never get backache or high blood pressure (an expectation I was disabused of some time ago). I have started running in the expectation that eventually, though not immediately (I am not quite that deluded) I will begin to lose weight, I will grow stronger and my general fitness will improve. I have been running now for three weeks. I am following the Couch to 5k programme, the NHS podcasts, and it’s a gentle introduction to running starting with very little running at all and working up over nine weeks to being able to run for thirty minutes. So far, aside from the first run which I needed several days to recover from, it’s not been too terrible. I can run for three minutes continuously now. Three minutes. It’s a small number, but an achievement all the same.

So far I haven’t lost a single pound. I am no thinner than I was before I started though I am more bruised and my heel and toes are a little tender. My knees ache, now and then. I marvel at my body’s ability to maintain a constant equilibrium of mass no matter how little I eat or how much I move. I wonder if I’m over-compensating in other areas. Maybe I sit around more. Maybe I sleep more. Maybe I secretly eat more, though if I do I’m sure I don’t observe myself doing so. Perhaps it is so secret that it is a secret even to me?

It is early, still, in my running experience and the lack of weight loss isn’t a terrible issue. I still feel I am making progress on fitness. I can definitely run for longer and I am not horribly exhausted by my efforts. But I wonder: if at the end of nine weeks, when I can run continuously for thirty minutes (assuming that expectation is reached), if I still don’t lose any weight how will my expectations cope with that? What is the point of energetic activity if a slender, toned and muscled physique does not naturally follow?

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Once I start thinking about expectations I realise how pervasively they rule my life, like a secret rulebook programmed into my mind at birth from which I can never deviate. I expect if I work hard I will be rewarded. I expect my employers to honour my work contract and I expect to be able to retire, someday, on the spoils of my pensionable salary. I expect my children to do well at school, that they will make friends and be happy and find rewarding employment (as, no doubt, my parents expected for me). I expect my husband to love me. I expect the sun to rise (the earth to turn) each day. I expect to go on holiday once a year, or more if I’m lucky, and I expect it to be relaxing and joyful and for the hotels to be wonderful and the food delicious and the sun hot or the snow cold and each day to be flowing with exciting new experiences. I expect my mother to be healthy and independent. I expect my pets to be non-hostile. I expect my house to be weather-proof and in need of minimal maintenance. I expect my whims to be satisfied and my days to be without boredom or tedium. I expect to enjoy movies. I expect people I encounter to be pleasant and respectful and I expect that no one will ever make a negative judgement about me. I expect to be healthy and I expect to remain that way, even whilst sitting on my backside surfing the internet and chowing down a pack of Pringles having not raised a finger all day except to change channels on the TV. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration. I can’t remember the last time I had Pringles, and the chance of having possession of the remote is slim to none, but the internet surfing and sitting around is probably reasonably accurate.

There is a gulf in my life between my expectations and what I am willing to do to achieve them. I forget that anything possessed needs to be maintained. Perhaps that is the expectation of youth, a status I left behind some years ago but which my expectation is still catching up with, that nothing ever changes or if it does it only changes for the better. I am not adept at losing, as my failure to lose weight attests to. But I can revise my expectations and, perhaps, in so doing my experience will improve.

I could expect that there will be days of tedium.

I could expect that work is just work and it might not always be rewarding. Sometimes it will be a slog. My employers will be duplicitous and will strive to take more from me than they are willing to pay for.

I could expect to get old, that my body will slow and deteriorate but that there are things I can do to stay strong and as healthy as possible. Japanese radio exercises are worth learning.

I could expect that a bowl of soup is a satisfying dinner (I tried this today, and it is).

I could expect that I will never retire, but that my career choices will change as I get older.

I could expect that spending a portion of the day uselessly surfing the internet is not a total waste of time.

I could expect to enjoy running.

I could expect to subvert my expectations every day.