We all wondered what the Mother would do when she retired, but none of us imagined that she would become an exercise fanatic. It was inevitable that she would become a fanatic of something, she isn’t someone to do things by halves, but exercise… It’s not that the Mother didn’t exercise, she used to cycle to work every day, but it wasn’t an obsession like it is now.
I am very grateful for the Mother’s current enthusiasm. If I lived alone, or with just my father, I would probably be a lot less fit than I currently am. It’s not my great self-discipline. It’s not my immense will-power. Nope, it’s down to the presence of the ever-yogaing Mother.
By the time I wake up in the morning, she has done three yoga routines
This is because instead of occasionally changing up her routine, the Mother merely adds to it. She started, reluctantly, with a single yoga class when she was still working a normal everyday kind of job, in a normal fashion, as normal people who get advised to strengthen their body or tackle their inflexibility or posture… and then time passed until now, in lock-down, she has become an index of yoga classes and other Eastern traditions.
I have this great idea that one day I am going to wake up energetically and do ten sun salutations as I used to when I lived in Spain, and it rarely ever happens. But I mention it to the Mother and lo and behold, she does them. When I mention them again three months later, she’s still diligently doing them.
It’s very important to not constantly compare oneself to other people
We all have different bodies. We have different skills and abilities and strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes though, I look at the Mother and instead of thinking ‘I hope I’m in as good a shape as you when I’m your age’, I think ‘why can’t I do that?’ as sometimes I’m the one on my knees in a plank arriving to it late and leaving it early, while she’s holding a beautiful full plank, looking the picture of serenity.
But I am seriously grateful that she’s there, enthusiastically suggesting more videos to do and coming up with stretches and activities that I find myself doing, and therefore find myself becoming capable of.
At the age of 12, I couldn’t touch my toes
And I mean by some considerable distance. But under the Mother’s influence, I can sometimes get my hands flat on the floor. That’s with my legs straight. It’s amazing what you can change with a huge amount of persistence (or a mother like mine).
When I was about fourteen, I cried my way up Snowdon
It was foggy at the top, and I could barely see my family as I wolfed down a pasty and with cold wet tears declared I was never hiking again. Why anyone would go through the ordeal of climbing a mountain, especially a mountain with a perfectly functional train going up it, I had no idea. At the bottom, we drank the most delicious hot chocolate and I satisfied myself with the thought that I would never have to do such a horrid thing again.
This last week I went on an 8-day hike around Torres Del
Paine National Park
Not only does this park contain train-less snow-capped mountains, but a number of snow-queen-blue glaciers. There are two circuits to choose from, the W and the O and my hiking buddy decided on the O before I had the chance to stick the place name into a search engine and discover that it was definitely the more challenging route.
Furthermore, we did this hike not just carrying pasties, but
all the necessary food
That’s eight days’ food, a tent, mats, sleeping bags, cooking
equipment, coats, clothes, woolly hats, sun-cream, insect repellent and
everything else you might need to survive out in the wilderness. Not only did
we clamber up mountains and scramble down them, but we also camped beside
glaciers and mosquito-infested ice-cold turquoise lakes and in the middle of a
knobbly floored forest.
At twenty-nine, I am different than when I was fourteen
It’s not just that my hair is turning grey, but my body is more
muscle and less squidge. I cried my way up Snowdon because it was a physical ordeal.
My mind did not know how to process the work and I had no idea how to control
my breathing or how to motivate myself to be cheerful. When I climbed up Snowdon
all the agony was clearly the Father’s fault and the more I blamed him, and the
more he refused to accept responsibility, the angrier I became.
Climbing up to the John Gardner pass this last week (which is higher than Snowdon), my legs certainly ached. I’d already done three days of hiking up to this point. What’s more, I’d risen at half five so that we could strike camp for seven and be on our way. The start of the trail closed at 8 am to avoid anyone trying to get over the pass during the afternoon when the wind has a trick of trying to throw people off the mountain.
I knew that there was a steep uphill followed by a steep downhill, both which threatened to be tricky. The previous night I’d slept badly, as we’d been camped close to the Los Perros glacier on a forest floor made of rocky gravel in a campsite where the shower only came in the cold variety.
Yet, there was nobody to blame for me being there other than
myself and so I accepted responsibility for the situation without causing
myself a fuss. There wasn’t any complaining – other than a grunt of hatred
towards the sounding alarm clock. There was mud. There was clambering. My hands
were dirty and my blue boots became a dusty brown. My legs ached. My feet ached.
My bag was heavy and my clothes stuck to my body with sweat.
My legs ached, but they didn’t hurt
And it was the same with my feet. My boots are getting closer to worn out than worn in, but I love them dearly as with them on my feet I didn’t get a single blister.
Slowly but steadily throughout the morning, I nibbled at cereal bars and toffees, nuts and dried fruit. I sipped at my water, fresh from the glaciers above, and the hot coffee kindly prepared by my hiking buddy in my tiny thermos flask (me being too slow in the mornings for her general approval).
We’d been told to expect rain, but the sun shone bright,
giving the mountain snow that crisp white look, and we had to pause when we
left the forest to make the final craggy climb, as we needed to plaster on the sun-cream.
And my legs continued to ache, but the ache seemed irrelevant
They were working hard, and expected to ache. If they hadn’t had been aching after all that climbing, I’d have been surprised. Mentally, I’d prepared myself for much worse. The pass proved not to be as difficult as I’d once imagined. Sure, I was tired by the end of it, but taking it all one step after another, it didn’t seem so important. After all, there was sunshine, the wild Patagonian wind was sleeping and we had the sort of view that makes you giggle with exhilaration.
In no time at all we were stumbling into the campsite (which
had no showers at all), removing out boots and boiling water for a cup of tea.
When I was about fourteen, I cried my way up Snowdon
I felt defeated by the mountain but I was being defeated by myself. At the time I had no idea of this, I could not see where the anger was coming from and I did not understand my own role in my emotions. It’s not just my body that’s changed, but the way I think has altered in a fashion so radical that I laugh at the thought that both that girl and I are one and the same.
Now, of course, I am greatly thankful for the father taking me up Snowdon. It’s put a marker in my brain identifying the person I don’t want to be. The person I keep on growing away from being. And yet, also it reminds me, whenever I hear someone’s ridiculous complaints, how real such complaints do feel. It makes it a little easier to forgive the stranger who can do nothing but complain about their situation. Every one of us has been there. We’ve all had those days.
It’s just some of us get the wild luck of being guided to grow
…and, blessed as if a soul escaped from purgatory, I bounded, leaped, and flew down the steep road; then, quitting its windings, shot direct across the moor, rolling over banks, and wading through marshes…
-Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
I leapt across an icy puddle up on my moor this afternoon. The ground was frosty and hard, except in spots where dark mud oozed through and my trainers sank and the cold reached my feet and I thought ‘eww’. And I laughed.
Another such habit that I am reliant on is going outside. Not just walking between the house and the car, or hurrying along the street to get from the car park to the hairdressers, but being and enjoying being outside.
“I’m never doing this again,” I swore after the father dragged me up Snowdon as a rather unfit teenager. And yet, now I’ve taken responsibility for my body and I’m not so squidgy, walking is something I really enjoy doing. It’s bliss whether it’s giggles and chatter with a companion, the slow unravelling of life’s problems, or a quiet occasional exchange of peaceful thoughts. When I’m on my lonesome, where fellow walkers glance around expecting any moment to see a dog leaping through the heather there’s an undistracted, invaluable calm.
If I could go back and convince my younger self of anything, it would be that I need to use my hands, and I need to feel the sun on my face, or if not the sun, the bitter coldness of a fresh winter breeze, or the murky drizzle. My body doesn’t feel alive seated in front of a computer. It doesn’t matter how ergonomic the chair is, I’m still missing the joys of movement.
Swooping down the hills on my bike is the closest I know to being an eagle. It’s not so easy as walking. Initially, my body resists giving up its comfort. It’s understandable. We’ve got hills here. There’s also a haunting fear associated with being reliant on a piece of machinery which I don’t entirely understand. When I swoop down those hills I’m depending on the breaks to work. As the wheels spin faster, and gravity pulls me down, I’m praying that I’m not about to end up in a hedge. It’s a risk. Adrenaline. Fun.
And then there’s running. For me, cycling is the better sport, but it’s also the one I fear more. If I fall over running, I’ll have a grazed knee. I know I can manage a little disaster. I’ve run back to an apartment in a foreign town, 3km, with blood pouring out both my knees and been fine. However, if I come off my bike, the damage is likely to be more than just a grazed knee. If I get stuck on a run, I’m going to be a couple of miles from home at the most. On a bike ride, I’m hopefully going further. The risk is higher. I’ve still never managed to mend a puncture on the side of a road, or replace an inner-tube. And yet, to soar…
But running has its own delights. When you go running for the first time in a long while, or after a cold, or when you’re forcing yourself to go rather than wanting to go, it can be miserable. It can be more than miserable. It can be horrendous. You feel like you’re dying. However, for those days where you’re running and your breath isn’t wheezing or drowning out the rattle of your house keys, you feel powerful. That satisfaction of all the cogs in this great machine working together. I look alive.
Exercise makes me feel better – stronger – and it makes me feel more confident about my body. As sad as it may be, the truth is that for most of us, image and self-worth are intricately connected. It’s all too easy to develop a negative relationship with your body image. Which is another reason I like running and cycling. It’s hard not to like yourself when you can climb a steep hill on your bike, or when you glide past a couple walking their dog and they smile at you with respect for the efforts you’re extolling.
Even if I can’t see it in the mirror, I can feel how amazing my body is. With exercise, my confidence exists independent of the mirror’s reflection. This isn’t to say I’m not insecure about how I look, or at other times vain, or that I don’t love make-up, high heels and pretty clothes. I do. Applying make-up is painting on the most interesting canvas I own. But make-up can’t give me the belief in myself that pushing my heart can.
I know which one I value more.
For me, respect for my body isn’t simply theoretical, it’s a physical sensation that’s earnt through hard work. The more I see and feel what I can do, the more I realize that my ideal body isn’t an idea sold to me through a magazine or an advertising billboard. It’s a body that knows how to ache joyously.
Cycling has become interesting over the last few days. At one point, my cycling buddy pointed out, the section of hill I’d just come to the top of would have been coloured black on the Tour De France magic map. And black means steep. I was too exhausted to respond with anything remotely intelligent. My thighs were burning.
Not every hill has been a successful climb. Luckily on the rural roads there’s nobody who could hear me curse, loudly, as I struggled to push my bike up the last few metres of a particularly steep section in my cycling shoes. It’s like trying to walk with a pair of heels on back to front.
Côte de Goose Eye A short and savage little 20% ramp, yes 20%, that will hopefully catch many by surprise. There will be those powerful riders who will eat it up like a ripe apple but the rest will grind to halt on its savage slopes that rise, twist right then left and will hopefully provide one of the highlights of the whole weekend.
I’ve cycled most of Goose Eye, but ‘grinded’ to a halt not far from the top of the particularly steep initial ramp. However, by the first twist right I was climbing back on my bike with my determination to keep on going.
Jelly babies I adore you.
The other night, I watched the Imitation Game, the film about Bletchley Park which is a place I’ve visited a number of times and is held in a warm place in my heart because it reminds me of watching the father excitedly talking about valves and British genius and maths and logic and secrets. Such excitement is infectious.
The repeated quote in the film is:
“Sometimes it’s the very people who no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”
Which is a beautiful way of saying that sometimes people surprise. Now I wouldn’t make any comparisons with people who are real cyclists or real geniuses, but the one person I can compare myself to is myself. A number of years ago, I remember having a big stress about a hill which was 0.8km, had 26 metres of elevation gain and an average gradient of 3%. This week I’ve done much more than that, much more than I could have imagined anyone imagining me doing.
However, I don’t believe The Imitation Game quote really works. I struggle to believe that if you are someone ‘who no one imagines anything of’, then you will ever gather enough self-belief to imagine much of yourself at all. If you can’t dream of having a success, how are you going to walk the path? Alan Turning had Christopher, Joan and presumably his mother, not to mention he was generally known to be incredibly intelligent from a very young age which inevitably results in academic support (even if he was a pain to teach).
I couldn’t cycle the route I’ve cycled without believing it might be possible. I’ve looked into a pair of eyes which taunted ‘you can do this’ and this made me believe.
Failing to imagine the possibilities of life keeps us grounded at the bottom of the hill looking down at our chubby thighs. Perhaps the step between the ego driven dream and the impossible ‘just do it’ is imagining ourselves actually pushing through the pain. It’s easy to laugh at our inadequacies; it’s harder to imagine that you could actually have success.
The friend, the colleague or the coach who believes is the catalyst. Maybe the biggest gift anyone can give to another is to believe in their potential.
At the beginning of the week I considered Goose Eye, laughed and said no. Despite this, and despite failing to get up it, I believe I will climb that hill.
Cows graze in the field opposite. The grass they chew is brighter than I remember, as if someone had added a little extra yellow from the paint box. Unlike the neatly mowed lawn of the house, the field is uneven, scattered with thick tufts of dark green and clumps of light brown that catch the sunlight and almost look pink.
I stare for a while.
For me, there’s nothing ‘normal’ about this setting. The clouds mask the bright blue sky, with a brilliant white that makes the ceiling of the study in which I work look dull. Bright fuchsia foxgloves grow on the bank of the winding stream, choked by something my mother calls ‘bindy weed’. She has a names for all the weeds which in no way represent their Latin counterparts.
The house smells of freshly baked bread: rich wholegrain spelt flour and the sweetness of honey. It’s deceiving, if you go into the kitchen you might be disappointed to see it’s been me at work rather than my father who actually knows what he’s doing.
There’s a comfort that comes with this place. The house is full of furniture from my childhood. Black and white faces with my nose or my chin look at me from the original black and white wedding photos. My sister and I dominate the coloured photos: me as a grinning toddler, grinning child, grinning teenager and grinning adult, all with a scrunched up nose. These things make it feel homely, but it’s also the land itself. I can’t say why. I don’t know exactly. I didn’t grow up here. The land is just the right colour.
Our Yorkshire hills aren’t huge, but there are a lot of them. They look down on the valleys and the reservoirs. The roads, with their bends and dips are the sort that bring a smile to your faces as you’re driving along. I often wish that I had tough, strong legs to peddle up the hills like the Tour de Yorkshire riders.
Except, actually got some pretty strong legs now. I sometimes forget how much I’ve changed. I use to detest going on long countryside walks. Some years ago I recall the misery of clambering ungainly up a hill in the Lake District, feeling that it was entirely unfair that I was incapable of enjoying myself as others bounded up the hills in front of me, chatting and laughing without whining for another rest. I was unfit, carrying more weight than I do now, and my unused muscles were in shock.
Today, things are different. Yesterday, I took my bike out and within minutes was heading uphill past a sign that said 17%. I focused on my breathing – a trick I learnt from meditation – dropped down to the lowest gear and told myself that as long as I made a good effort to get as far up the hill as I could then it would count as a reasonable first ride out. I could always cycle a little further the next time.
I had the rubber clips to put on my cycling shoes in the back pockets of my jersey for when I needed to walk. Yet I never needed to walk.
I kept climbing, went around the corner and glanced up and saw the top of the road. At the top I kept on cycling, turning left and heading further up. Up and up I climbed until eventually the road flattened out. I paused for a drink, for my banana and to look out over the stunning view across the valley which is now my home.
If you’d told me a few years ago my life would look like what it does now, I’d not have believed it was possible.
The Midget and I watched a film on the subject of grief yesterday evening. It was about American football which is a sport where they use their hands.
I shan’t pretend to understand the sport, or my sister’s interest in it. But like Quidditch and the MotoGP it’s infiltrated my life. My limited interpretation tells me it’s not a game of half measures. The culture of American football appears to be all-or-nothing. You’re in or you’re out. The key succeeding appears to be making sure everyone knows what their role is and making them perfect that role.
I’d make a terrible American football player. It’s not just that I don’t want to dress up in pads and a helmet that smell of sweat and blood. And it isn’t that my two X chromosomes make me comparatively physically weak. I’m hopeless at the cheering and the jumping up and down, I’d be uncomfortable with the level of prescription, and I’d be a bore on the bus as I get travel sick and hardly know any lyrics suitable for a sing-along.
There is part of me which dearly believes that if I would just pay more attention to the music and follow the rhythm to which others seem to wave their arms, legs and life, I’d fit in better and things would be easier. Maybe I wouldn’t find myself in a different country to the people I love struggling for a sense of belonging with my dreams of the future turned up-side down. I know though, this is a lie. Every time I try to control the situation and make people happy I have the opposite effect. I’m not the sort of person who can sit on the sidelines. I’m going to fight to play the game by my rules. I always do.
Control, and believing you have it, are apparently vital to well-being according to my current psychology reading: Me, Myself and Us by Brian Little. I figure the sort of control you have matters. For me, it matters that I have control over how I spend my time. I dislike a sense of urgency and the pressure that goes with it. I dislike doing things just because someone else, some-when, thought it was a good idea. For some it’s control of knowing things are moving in the right direction. The bank balance is creeping up and the job title shifts a little every now and again to accommodate the inevitable and necessary change in time. Grief happens when something suddenly snatches way our sense of control.
In the first few minutes of the film, almost the entire American Football team was killed in an aeroplane crash. The story was how do you rebuild a team and community. The grief is overwhelming and yet the remnants of the team that remain keep pushing forward. Not smoothly, not elegantly, but with fits of anger and bursts of uncontrollable rage. Grief hurts. It is individual and incomprehensible. Success had to be redefined because you can’t win matches when you’ve lost your team. You can’t be strong without a solid foundation and the foundation – the talent, the coaches, the faith – had gone.
The Midget is on a winning streak. I can see it in her grin, in the twinkle in her eye and the tone of her enthusiasm for life. It delights me to see her so happy. I’m less stable. I’m haunted by grief so my successes need to be smaller. They include recognising my pain and voicing it. Accepting I’m never going to know the lyrics of the songs being played on the bus and that’s okay. Knowing I’m a thousand miles away and most often alone but that’s where I want to be. Trusting the love in my heart isn’t a bad thing sent to cause me trouble but is my greatest strength.
Bad days are those where I can’t see how my actions can resolve my problems. When someone dies, gets diagnosed with a terrible illness, hurt or betrays you, you inevitably feel helpless. As much as you say ‘this isn’t my fault’ or ‘I couldn’t have done anything’, you can’t actually change the situation. The only thing you can do is choose to respond to the situation with faith.
The college football team lost a lot of matches in the years following the plane crash. When you suffer a significant knock back you can’t just jump back on your feet. The rebuild is a long slog. The team though was rebuilt, and as the credits of the film rolled round, the later eventual successes (the putting the ball beyond the right line and the winning of shiny things) were recognised as the result of the long stint of grunt work.
[The film was ‘We are Marshall‘ and is based on a true story. Yes, there was a delay between writing and publishing.]