Numbers

I didn’t know I had it the wrong way round: I had to provide life with love before it gave me any back. We have to give away what we care about.

I struggle with balance. To my detriment, I can be all or nothing. My personal challenge this week has been to let go of thinking about structure and simply running and stopping when I want. No smart watch, no Strava, no numbers. It’s been the perfect counterbalance to these uncertain times.

There have been times over the last few weeks when I’ve felt despair. As the numbers of dead have increased I have wished I could do more, be more, help more. The grim graphs, charts, facts and numbers fail to capture the human cost that this crisis is charging us all. I look on at the many hundreds of deaths each day and feel nothing other than a dull numbness. Perhaps we all do.

This virus is going to leave its mark on all of our lives. We will be stained by the tragedy of tens of thousands dying. But our lives can still also be coloured by beauty, by love, and by light. I have had a period of my life, some years ago now, where I wanted out. I lived as if life couldn’t provide me with any of those things. I didn’t know I had it the wrong way round: I had to provide life with love before it gave me any back. We have to give away what we care about.

However we are dealing with the uncertainty, the pain, the illness, the numbers, the fear and the need, we shouldn’t lose sight of what we can still give life. Life is beautiful and so astonishingly incomprehensible that, sometimes, all we can give is our commitment to take it one step at a time, continue to remind ourselves how precious it all is, and to look up at the trees.

Top of the hill

I forget just how far I’ve come sometimes.

It’s never a particularly good sign to be vomiting at just after nine o’clock on a Saturday morning; it’s even worse when you do it repeatedly. Each week, when I first started doing Bolton parkrun, I’d veer off the course at the top of what is affectionately known as Cruella D’Hill and leg it, as fast as my wobbly legs could, to a bush on the left hand side of the path just after it gently curves away. Behind there I’d wretch and writhe, emptying the contents of my stomach on to the ground below.

I’d invariably have had some beer and wine the night before. Perhaps a curry. Definitely more beer; probably more wine. And then more beer. I’d waddle round to parkrun for reasons which, some 8 years later, are only really starting to become clear to me. Then I’d run, or at least I’d attempt to run, round the course before feeling the sucker punch at the base of my stomach extending up through my back and, somehow, into my burning lungs. To say that I was unfit is somewhat of an understatement. I was unfit to run, and unfit to really function properly on a Saturday morning.

All that feels like a long time ago now.

Yesterday, I ran round parkrun. I’ve done nearly 250. But yesterday was special because I felt like I was running. I’ve been quicker. I’ve been much quicker on different courses. But yesterday felt like I was actually running again, and it felt great. Really great. Progress can feel fantastic.

I forget just how far I’ve come sometimes. Today, as I write this, I should be running. I should be running 23 miles as part of my training for the Bolton Marathon which is just 10 weeks away. I didn’t sleep properly last night: writhing and wretching again. This time, not through alcohol, but through one of those pesky stomach bugs that keep you from wandering too far from the bathroom. When I messaged my friend to say that I couldn’t make it, I felt like I’d let him down, and I felt (for the briefest of moments) that I’d also let myself down. My mind can sometimes play tricks on me and convince me that I still drink, still smoke, still eat everything in sight. Running calms me and this morning, for a moment, I really needed to run…but couldn’t. I felt that everything that I’ve managed to somehow do over the last few years had gone simply because I couldn’t make it out of the house.

In psychology we call this ‘catastrophic thinking’. Running has helped me to deal with such a disordered way of viewing the world. I (mostly) no longer think in these terms. The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other has helped to change my life.

Yesterday’s Bolton parkrun was fantastic. I no longer veer off the course to be sick. It is not who I am or what I do anymore. I do nod to the bush at the top of the hill each time I pass it though. Not because I want to dwell on what I used to do, but because I’m grateful that, like the hill I’ve just run up, it’s behind me.

A way with words

I suppose that this is a promise to a mum who I can’t fully remember. She died before the iPhone, she never appeared in any Instagram story.

Although I can’t remember the way that her voice sounded, I do remember her saying, ‘You’ve a way with words, you have.’

One of the most painful of losses is that of memory. I can’t remember the way that my mum talked. It hurts. She died in 2004. I wish that I could still hear her voice.

I do remember some of the things that she said and this offers me moments of consolation, particularly when I want to pick up the phone and talk to her. I remember being a very nervous boy. One day, at around the age of four, I plucked up the courage to try and explain why I didn’t want to go the the playgroup because I’d rather stay in the library that we often visited beforehand. Unless my memory is playing tricks with me the library sat in the shadow of St Botolph’s Church, otherwise known as Boston Stump, and it was here that I’d spend as much time as I could getting my hands on books and getting my head elsewhere. My explanation must have been convincing, ‘You’ve a way with words, you have.’

I never saw it like that. I just wanted to be away with words: elsewhere, somewhere, detached, not here in my own life. Away with words. I still want this.

I’ve written a lot. It’s all hidden away in electronic documents that speak to my haunted sense of my own past. It’s electronic gothic. At some point I know that I’ll need to be away with words if I’m ever going to put them into some sort of order. There’s a book in there alongside notes about running and how I came to terms with my fear of death. There are reflections on teaching and memories that I’d rather stay away from. Of course, there are truths that I’d rather not tell. It’s all humdrum and banal, but it’s all I’ve got to show for my time spent with stiff shoulders staring at a screen.  I know that I need to do something with it all. Perhaps I knew all along and have been too scared to admit it.

I suppose that this is a promise to a mum who I can’t fully remember. She died before the iPhone, she never appeared in any Instagram story. But still… I can still make a promise to her that, yes, reluctantly I may indeed have a way with words and I should do something with them. I should shape, craft and mould them into some sort of order. I can’t promise her that they will be any good, but I’m at that stage of middle age where I’m liberated from all that angst and uncertainty. I might not be able to hear her voice clearly anymore, but I’m finally OK with my own. Perhaps her own endlessly loving words taught me that.

This used to be the future

I’m not crippled with anxiety any more. I have my moments, but I know how to manage it.

It’s Sunday. I’m walking over a shopping precinct in Swinton trying to remember where I’ve parked my car.

I’ve just finished recording the audio to a radio show in which I’ve been interviewed about running, mental health, happiness and, well, life. It’s sunny. It wasn’t when I arrived, but now, some ninety minutes later, the sun is warm enough to feel on my face and bright enough to illuminate the shady corners of this 1960s vision of what the future might be.

I find a Greggs and buy a coffee. I buy some water too as I’m thirsty after a morning of talking, thinking, and nervously worrying about what I’m going to say. Do I admit that I’m really a bundle of nervous anxiety? Do I give voice to the fear that I still succumb to of dying? And then I remember how far I’ve come since I laced up my running shoes and replaced nights on the booze with nights on the road, on the trails, the tracks and the treadmills. I’m not crippled with anxiety any more. I have my moments, but I know how to manage it. I’m not full of fear of the unknown anymore. I sometimes forget this.

I sip my coffee and take a photo. The sun is peeking through the February cloud cover. For the briefest of moments I realise that my anxiety is a relic: I’m not anxious without reason anymore. I’m happy. I’ve no idea what I used to be so fearful of. Many was the Sunday that I simply couldn’t face the world.

This used to be the future.

Burning the heather

I’m no longer consumed by dark nights in which I’d wake sweating in panic while wondering where it’s all going. Words help.

I am at the Doctor’s surgery. It’s full. Monday morning full.

I’m not here for myself, though. I’m here with my youngest who has a raging temperature, a rash, and most worryingly, is periodically struggling to breathe properly. He needs an inhaler to help him. He needs something stronger than Calpol to bring his temperature down, and I need to know he’s OK.

He rocks gently to and fro on his chair. A much older man is seated to my right. He too sounds like he needs help with his breathing: he rasps noisily and I repeatedly suppress the urge to cough on his behalf. Sat in the order that we are we look like a living, breathing, aching, wheezing timeline. Stuck as I am in the middle, I can’t help but think to myself that I’m not as young as I once was, nor as old as I could be. I’m immediately embarrassed by the banality of what I’m thinking.

Perhaps it’s all the fault of the Pet Shop Boys that I’m being overly reflective. They have a new album out in January and, by the sound of their newly released track ‘Burning the heather’ they could well be back to their lyrically mature and sombre best. Suede’s Bernard Butler plays guitar and Stuart Price’s production is subtle, almost muted. It’s certainly lacks the banging quality of the last two albums, which if I’m honest, is no bad thing. I’ve always wallowed in the beautifully engineered tracks of 1990’s Behaviour, while 2012’s Elysium saw me stop more than once while driving to cry with the sheer unbearable weight of grief.

My life isn’t shot through with the pain of loss anymore. I’ve accepted the fact that ‘autumn is here and time’s moving along’. I’m no longer consumed by dark nights in which I’d wake sweating in panic while wondering where it’s all going. Words help. The persona in the coda of the song finds that he’ll ‘consider staying’. I’m glad that I did too.