I’m just not good enough, my son

I’m already explaining to him why I can’t win a marathon. Not now, not ever. I’m just not good enough, my son.

I go running with my 8 year old son. We walk, jog, run, sprint. We talk as we make our way down ‘secret’ paths and trails with the spring sun on our faces.

He asks me about the Bolton Marathon an event which he knows I am training for. Was training for.

I explain to him that the event has been cancelled because of the coronavirus and that it won’t be on until next year. I tell him that although I’m disappointed, I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. The health of him, his sister, my wife, our family. It’s a difficult time I tell him, but it’s just a race.

He looks at me earnestly and tells me that with an extra year I should be able to win it. I smile at his innocence and away we trot. He sprints ahead and wins the imaginary race that he’s now placed himself in. It is, however, a race of one because I falter and stop with his words ringing in my ears: you should be able to win it dad.

He’s only just turned 8. The world is still a bit win or lose for him. I find myself assessing my own position in a marathon that will not take place. I’m certainly not first. I default to the monologue that plays out at times like this: you’re just not good enough. Before I know it I’ve imagined myself on the finish line with a dull feeling of disappointment hovering somewhere between my head and stomach. I’ve been OK. I’ve not been bad. I’ve had a decent run. I’m in the results, somewhere. I’m already explaining to him why I can’t win a marathon. Not now, not ever. I’m just not good enough, my son.

Before I know it I’ve made a list of reasons why I can’t win a marathon. It’s a great list: I’m too old; I’ve not got the genetic potential; I’ve done too much damage to my body through previously smoking, drinking, being overweight; I’m just not that type of runner; I’m just not good enough; my work is too time demanding; I’m too busy; I’m just not good enough; I’m scared of really trying; I’m just not good enough; I’m frightened of having a go. It’s all true. It’s all lies. And it’s all true.

Ahead of me the path opens out on to a field and it is to this that my son and dog now charge on to. Before I take another step, habit forces me to scan the edges. I’m a careful parent and imagined danger lurks behind each bush and besides every tree. The field is expansive. It stretches away to my left. I’ve run on it many times and in the summer the dark, densely bladed green somehow feels cooler than the road that edges one side. With his arms raised in victory and his eyes raised to the sky my son proclaims that he is the winner. He’s done it. In his mind he’s already collected his medal and is busy celebrating his victory with the dog.

In that moment I know that I have to get out of my own way. I understand that I have to stop asking for permission. I have to promise to myself to stop making excuses however reasonable they may seem. I have to make this next year count. I have to make all this running mean something. I have to win my own race.

But mostly, I have to get off this well-trodden path and join him.

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.

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.

Candy floss of outrage

If you’re not angered by the smash and grab raid on our democracy, so be it. It’s not for me and my words to persuade you.

Today, in possibly the one of the most sycophantic interviews I’ve ever listened to, Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissed my (and possibly your) anger at the suspension of Parliament as ‘a candy floss of outrage’. Whatever that means.

What cannot be in doubt is the way in which Parliament and democracy is being trampled over in order to, ultimately, serve the needs of the few. Nobody can even pretend that this is anything other than a coup.

But, hey ho, it’s not anger that I’m feeling. It’s a candy floss of outrage… for Rees-Mogg has decreed it so. You get the feeling that he’s used to it.

It’s not so much that we are living in a post-truth, Trump world, but rather that we are living in a nightmare where the very relationship between language and the things to which our words refer is broken constantly by the far right. How else would terminally ill people be sent for work assessments? How else to explain that Trump can barely speak or Johnson’s use of English is vacuously inflated. The relationship between their language and the stuff that it refers to is twisted, perverted, subverted, and vandalised. Therefore, it’s not anger I’m feeling that my democratically elected MP will have a reduced (or almost non-existent) period of time to subject any preparations being made for Brexit to any parliamentary scrutiny – it’s a candy floss of outrage. Rees-Mogg has decreed it thus.

Of course, they get away with it because that’s the environment they have been born into. Has anyone ever told them to shut up, stop talking, and come back when they have meaningful sentence to utter? No. Not ever. 

And therein lies the secret of their popularist appeal: they keep on talking. It doesn’t matter that their words don’t refer to the truth (£350 million, anyone) because the popularist position is not to care about language, it’s to care about power. Example: did Johnson care about language when he referred to spending money on historical child abuse investigations as ‘spaffing it up the wall’? Clearly, no. Worse, not only did he not care, he verbalised contempt for the vulnerable in a classic popularist linguistic power grab. It’s anything goes, take me as I am, I tell it as it is, that’s just me init, ‘grab ‘em by the pussy’ (oops, Johnson didn’t say that, it was Trump).  You get me?

If you’re not angered by the smash and grab raid on our democracy, so be it. It’s not for me and my words to persuade you. You’ll be fine when they come for whatever you value – it’s all candy floss init.

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.’