What remains

Projecting into an imaginary future served me badly and I’ve had to learn that lesson very consciously

It’s hot.

Southern Greece in the middle of August hot. The pool is quiet, the crickets are loud, the children are playing. It’s a good day.

It’s a good week. Earlier I wrote about clearing stuff out. The physical stuff is relatively easy to deal with, at least for me as I have few attachments to things.

The harder things to deal with are the patterns of thought that we’ve outgrown. How to rid ourselves of those and what does what remains reveal?

The heat is making me think about running a bit later today. It’s going to be a physically tough one. I can fit it in though. Family will be showering; I’ll run down the hill from where we are staying and find a taverna to eat at later. I’ll be back before they’ve finished getting ready. It works.

What doesn’t work for me is the lousy tactic that I’ve always defaulted to with my running: find a race, set a target, make a plan. I end up obsessing over the end point rather than getting stuck into the mile in front of me. It’s a pressure that I don’t need, don’t respond to, don’t enjoy. Like the physical stuff, it’s time to let it all go. I’ve learned to keep my mind in the day, in the moment. Projecting into an imaginary future served me badly and I’ve had to learn that lesson very consciously. I’m annoyed that it’s taken me so long to learn that, likewise, this is all I need to do with my running: run the mile I’m in.

Most of us know that the marathon originated in Greece. I’ve got one on the horizon: the Chester Marathon in October. Strava tells me that If I run today, and I will, then I’ll have run for 14 consecutive days. All I need to do is keep it up and not worry about times, paces, imaginary finish lines. That’s what remains.

And besides, it’s too hot to obsess.

Oliver Twist

It’s heartbreaking. This is the first time I’ve read Oliver Twist while I’ve had children of my own. Indeed, it’s the first time I’ve read it as a teacher. I struggled to read it out loud in class.

Last year I read Oliver Twist for the third time. It’s odd how a novel that you think you understand can turn on you and quietly insist that it is not really what you thought it was about.

Perhaps it was because I was using lots of extracts from it with a particularly interested Year 9 group. We pored over the beginning of chapter five with a keen eye for the gothic, noticing that state of mind that Dickens exploits so well in the novel: somewhere between dreaming and waking. He uses the same device elsewhere and it starts to lend the novel a nightmarish quality that has never been captured beyond the page. I’ve never seen an adaptation that is able to convey what Dickens does so well in his first novel proper: that existence for some of Victorian England’s most vulnerable was a literal nightmare. Yet Dickens is able to take this trope, and through his ironic narrative detachment (which, ironically, means that the reader can almost touch his passionate defence of the poor), he is able to propose a space in which little Oliver is both dead to the world, and at the same time very much suffering. As he sleeps in an undertaker’s shop:

‘he wished, as he crept into his narrow bed, that that were his coffin, and that he could be lain in a calm and lasting sleep in the churchyard ground, with the tall grass waving gently above his head, and the sound of the old deep bell to soothe him in his sleep’

It’s heartbreaking. This is the first time I’ve read Oliver Twist while I’ve had children of my own. Indeed, it’s the first time I’ve read it as a teacher. I struggled to read it out loud in class.

I think they understood.

Goodbye to all that

‘Love people and use things. Because the opposite never works.’

It’s never easy.

I’ve been having a clear out. Stuff has gone. Old running shoes, DVDs, things.

I’ve been conscious for a long time that I have too much stuff. In my middle age, I’m well aware that I’ve already had enough of an impact of the limited resources of this world and I’ve been trying to take out less. It’s never easy. I bought two pairs of sunglasses recently, one would have been enough. But it’s progress, and not perfection that counts, surely, and besides I’ll inevitably leave a pair on a table somewhere and someone else will end up with them.

Whole email boxes have been deleted; everything I’ve previously published online has gone. My blog, my podcast, youTube – everything that I’ve worked on over the last few years: gone in a few simple clicks.

And that’s the point, it’s everything that I’ve worked on. It took a friend’s Facebook post to make me realise that what I’ve been working on has been avoiding the real work that I know that I should do: writing.  Should I sit down and write? No, I’ll make a podcast episode. Should I sit down and write? No, I’ll film something, edit, mess about with music, tweak some colours here and there. Should I sit down and write? Yes… but inevitably I don’t. And I don’t because of all of this other stuff. So, it’s gone. I need to write.

I see and hear the world through words. Some people musically hum their way through life, some see everything differently and can recount colours, smells, the taste of a pastry from 30 years ago. I dream in words, not images. I wake with lines inside my head. I see something and immediately have a phrase, often a fragment half-remembered of something I’ve read to go with it. And these words need a more permanent home. Unless I sit down each day and write I fear that middle age will become something else, and those words will be half-remembered phrases of a half-remembered life.

None of this is my idea. A friend’s Facebook post about writing (thanks Adam) and a documentary called Minimalism. I’ve had help. I’ve even recycled the title from Robert Graves’ post WWI autobiography, not because the book was particularly memorable some twenty five years after I read it, but because I’ve always liked the ambiguity and understatement of the title. It’s a perfect title for an autobiography.

But this is not an autobiography. It’s a fragment. It’s simply a line or two about the fact that I’ve got too much stuff, and maybe you have too. Perhaps we all benefit from having a clear-out from time to time. My books stay, my old running shoes have gone. As too has the the endless ‘work’ that I’ve distracted myself with at the expense of what I really need to do: write. Goodbye to all that.

I dropped some things off at a charity shop last week. The stuff was simply taking up time and space and perhaps someone else will get real use or value from it. I hope so. As I left and walked back to my car a line from the minimalist documentary that I watched last year flashed across my consciousness. This one is not half-remembered, and if it’s alright with you, I’m keeping it.

‘Love people and use things. Because the opposite never works.’