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Speed isn’t everything (a Little Mermaid story)

Running with the Little Mermaid

Illustration by the Little Mermaid.

Normally, when I go out for a run, I get a few looks of encouragement and support. Today, although it was my normal route, I suffered looks of pity instead.

It wasn’t that I had injured myself, or that I was running badly. The heavy breathing and pink cheeks are typical for me after running up the hill. If anything, I was moving faster than normal.

And it wasn’t like yesterday, where a class of French school children all wanted to pass along the narrow path and through the little gate into the church cemetery at the same moment as me. Their French accents as they apologised and got out of the way were all very sweet, but not at all pitying.

No, the pitying came because of the comparison

Today wasn’t a case of running along by myself looking brave against the backdrop of the Bronte’s moors. No, a light-footed young lady had darted past, most elegantly, moments before. Dressed in sleek black lycra – rather than an old second-hand hoodie – and running up the steep cobbles like they were a flat, freshly lain road, she was impressive.

The girl in question is my Little Mermaid

My cousin is half my age and it appears, twice as fast. She’s not yet as tall as me, but we share a shoe size and some genetic wonders that mean we both run with our feet pointing inward. She’s got better shoes and more experience racing than I have.

From her, I learn stretches that are particularly suited to my body and our shared inheritance. The Short Aunty joins in, proving that her legs bend in strange ways too.

However, the Little Mermaid is still categorised as a child

Even if she’s considerably taller than her mother, Short Aunty. For her age category, cross country racing is limited to 3 km. Although she also does 5km park runs – and her times are a good few minutes quicker than my own. Even so, her park run is somewhat flatter than my great hills and so she lacks practice on longer 5.7km runs with a 167m elevation gain.

Whereas I specialise in slowly running uphill

It started when I lived in a mountain village in northern Spain. Whilst my friends there would complain about how far away the beach was and how much effort it would take to go down the hill and run along the beautiful flat stretch beside the beach, I ran up.

And once I was back in Yorkshire, living in the bottom of a valley where the only way to go was up, I found myself running up more.

I’ve got experience of up.

And yet, without a doubt, the Little Mermaid beat me up the hill

She was impressively quick. She jogged on the spot as she waited for me to catch up. I gulped down air and shouted left and up, or right and up, as the next direction. We passed through the gate where the French school children had caused the delay the day before, and she darted ahead.

She skittered around a group of tourists going out for a walk on the moors, maps and rucksacks to hand. They apologised for getting in the way.

“No, it’s good, you hold her up,” I said laboriously.

“You should have shouted earlier!”

“Couldn’t.”

The Little Mermaid paused at the top of that bit of hill. I pointed to the highest point on the moor, and she set off again. The rough terrain had no effect.

Little Mermaid 1 : Aged Cousin 0

We carried on running. I pointed out the route and she sprinted off. I didn’t bother trying to keep up. Undoubtedly, I was running quick. When you’ve got someone to compared yourself to, and they’re making you look slow and out of shape, it’s an incentive to move your arse.

But then something funny happened

We reached the 3km mark. At this point in a run, I’ve warmed up. We’re on the moor which is gorgeous, the big open landscape is my landscape. This is home and it feels good. The Little Mermaid’s quick pace means I’m flying along, and since we’ve passed the top, we’re now running a gradual down. I know these paths, they’re all familiar to me. I feel surprisingly fresh.

We pass the same group of walkers, who in a jolly show of friendliness leap out at the Little Mermaid who’s still far ahead of me, pretending to slow her down. I tell them that they failed.

“It’ll do you good” one of the chaps calls as I run past.

He’s right of course. It is doing me good.

The Little Mermaid however has passed the point where she’d normally stop

She’s thinking about a glass of water, a sit down, a quiet stretch, a shower and something nice to eat as a reward for her hard work. However, she’s still got 2.7km to run.

She slows, and we run side by side for a while, then she’s running behind me.

“Can we pause at the next bench?”

I agree. My sister, the Midget, is always too proud to ask for a pause – she just internally bad mouths me when we run instead. Speaking out when you’re reaching your limits is a sign of strength.

I take off my hoodie and re-do my pony tail. My hair bobble snaps.

Which is annoying

But what’s also annoying is that I’m suddenly in the rhythm of things and we’re now heading downwards very slowly. We almost amble through the village. At the top of our road, the Little Mermaid decides that I should go on ahead. We can meet at the bottom.

Little Mermaid 1 : Aged Cousin 1

The tortoise wins.

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Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.

humility

What can be more humbling than a snow-capped mountain?

Humility is not thinking less of yourself,

it’s thinking of yourself less.

C. S. Lewis

Which shouldn’t be mistaken with not thinking for yourself, mindless following, or allowing yourself to be walked over.

It’s taken time, but I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t be humble without self-belief. This idea germinated in my mind from a lesson I learnt in meditation.

First you are a child, naïve and unknowing completely dependent on the world. Then you grow and learn. Seeing yourself in the mirror, you recognise that those eyes staring back are yours and yours alone. Nobody else is quite like you. You learn ‘I am’. This ‘I’ discovers that the world is full of others and sets out on a quest to define itself by the arts of copy and compare. We collect possessions, buy clothes, adhere to labels.  This continues until death. Unless of course, insecurities fall away and you begin to see yourself as not quite so individual after all. In some wise moment the individual realises that there is a bigger picture in which they are not quite so important as they previously felt.

Like the other 7 billion people in this world, I shy away from pain and gravitate towards comfort. We all want to belong.

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Literature and Mental Health: Poetry and Mindfulness

Poetry and mindfulness

What is poetry anyway?

I hated poetry at school. Mostly because I could become fascinated with a poem, and draw all over it, creating my own ideas about what it was about, and then the teacher would talk. I’d stare at the annotations I’d made wondering how it was that I couldn’t see the rhymes. Why was it that my syllables added up differently each time I counted? And I blamed the poet for not writing more explicitly what they were trying to say.

The silent pursuits of reading and writing are great. I just had a problem with sounds.

Over Christmas, my sister left a couple of poetry books lying in the living room. She is very much fond of spoken word poetry. I started reading and looked and saw that this poetry, which followed no obvious pattern, which sometimes makes less sense than my own diary, didn’t resemble the poetry I remembered from school.

And I didn’t like it. Or rather, I liked it, because it was soppy at times, emotional and poignant, but I didn’t regard it as poetry. It was more like the rubbish that I would like to tweet as my heart breaks, but hopefully judge it wiser not to. Of course, I love what I write, as I write it in that emotional splurge of a moment, and to me it feels real. Very real. Genius in fact. But I just don’t imagine anyone else quite understanding without a heart transplant.

Literature and Mental Health

So how come, that now, today, I’m thinking and writing about poetry? Well it comes down to my decision to do a free online course called Literature and Mental Health. There is little logic to how I chose what to study next. I have done multiple courses in the art and archaeology of Ancient Egypt which I picked because the course title began with an A. The gift of a wonderful curiosity.

But I read a lot. And I read a lot about how we think about ourselves, and how we as people might have brighter happier thoughts. So maybe it does make sense.

I read when I’m heartbroken. Specifically, books that can educate me in such a way as the pain I weep is logically and rationally assessed, a strategy put in place, and understanding found. I swear off repeating the same stupid, stupid mistakes.

Seeing a course on literature and mental health started me wondering whether there was an alternative, additional way to use reading to get me from numbness or fear back into that realm of bright happy thoughts. (Not in any way negating the success of my aggressive self-help reading strategy. For me at least, such a strategy is more effective than chocolate.)

Mindfulness, meditation, taking a walk or reading poetry

Week one, and Stephen Fry is talking about how ‘great poetry isn’t a tantrum’ which I get. And prosodics and enjambments and ottava, which I got momentarily, but have now forgotten.

Poetry can do something special to the mind. It can slow you down, pull you towards specific images: the calm of nature or the soothing familiarity of something as ridiculous as a child’s ball game or the shipping forecast. A bit like meditation. Except in poetry you have sounds and ink and with meditation you have that continuous inhale and exhale.

I’d never thought about poetry like this. For me, it’s always felt combative. As if the poet was challenging me to see why it’s great. Unsurprisingly, I only like a few poems. Normally only ones about hedgehogs.

Yet many other people have strong, positive experiences of poetry. So I’m slowly letting these uncountable syllables and mysterious rhymes into my life.

So, my question today, as a person ignorant to the world’s vast array of poetry, is whose poetry do you like?

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What do you see when you look in the mirror?

There are more ways to put yourself out of your comfort zone than getting on a plane and reaching for the unknown. When we say ‘comfort zone’, we’re rarely talking about physical comfort. It’s more likely to be a question of emotions.

Fear of embarrassment, that someone will see though us, that we will look and feel like a fraud. That we aren’t deserving. Aren’t good enough. We fear we won’t maintain our self-control. And losing it will alienate us from those we love. We will fail. They, those more perfect human beings whose validation we crave, will judge us and find us wanting.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Can I really go out in this?

These feelings keep us bound to our sense of the possible.

Consider this: when you ask a young child to choose their own clothes, they pick out clothes that give them a sense of fun – glittery princess dresses, Spiderman costumes and jumpers with lions on them. As an insecure adult, ‘fun’ rarely reaches high on the priority list. What matters is how you compare to your peers and how well you match your own image of perfection.

Perfection, with its flawless skin, humble manner and outstanding intelligence isn’t just something we conjure up in our minds. It’s the creature we compare ourselves to. We look in a mirror, right past ourselves and into a game of spot the difference. We look at adverts, with their shiny, white teeth and glossy hair. Envy at smooth, edited thighs and flat stomachs.

The boring jumper, that someone once said that you looked slim in, is suddenly a highly-prized possession. Despite knowing that the off-hand comment came from a place of insecurity and had nothing to do with you, or your jumper, you still remember it.

Alone, walking through some abandoned lemon groves, I came across a ruined building, and a mirror.

What do you see when you look in the mirror? What I see reminds me of Scrooge with his ghosts of the past, present and the yet to come. In the mirror, they’re all there, all at once. Challenging me.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had last week, where Midget, discussing coaching, explained that it’s not enough to give someone the belief to be themselves. You’ve got to do more than that, if they’re going to be the best them they can be. You’ve got to show them how to see themselves.

So yes, comfort zones might stretch with trips abroad: visits to new places, bright colours, contrasting attitudes, and raucous evenings. Explorations of the world  adventures make you reconsider what is important. For me, the perspectives I gain from travelling, that force me to question how I judge others, are invaluable.

But comfort zones can also be stretched in that moment where you stare in the mirror. The barriers I have are not out there, they’re in my mind.  It doesn’t matter whether I’m in Cairo or Coventry. My limiting beliefs are still dragging along behind me.

So, guess which jumper I’m wearing.

 

 

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Where I gloat about how wonderful it feels to be able to run.

Running on the moors

…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 realise 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.

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Just some things I did last year

last year

Last year I sat on the edge of Horemheb’s tomb – he’s the king that came shortly after Tutankhamun – and I shared tea with three Egyptian men. One invited me to be his third wife, I declined. We laughed about football and he told me about his kids.

Last year I said yes to a young Egyptian man who wanted to buy me coffee. I beat him at pool, and he took me out for dinner. I drove his horse through the villages on the west bank. We saw cows being slaughtered and he bought me chocolate even when I told him not to.

Last year I went to a beautiful club on a boat on the Nile. My dress was the longest dress of all the women. I wore the least makeup and had my shoulder’s covered. In the middle of the dance floor, I belly-danced, for the first time. I was never short of a partner.

Last year I danced on the beach after the sun had set, earphones in, feet bare, not caring who was watching, just because I could.

Last year I spent 9 days in noble silence, doing serious meditation, with more disciplined, more focused and more patience than I had ever imagined.

Last year I woke up early to run up the hill and watch the sun rising on the horizon.

Last year a guy stopped me as I was walking past and apologised for his impropriety, but he just needed to tell me that I was beautiful. I beat him at pool.

Last year I watched my sister stride across the stage, greet her chancellor as an equal and take her degree. No other woman showed such confidence.

Last year I watched my sister fall in love.

Last year I became fitter than I have ever been. I ran up my mountain and swam in the sea. I cycled up a 20% hill and almost fell off my bike at the top.

Last year I created a network of au pairs so that I’d always have someone to have coffee with. I learnt about Italian food, Irish fears of commitment, German heartbreaks, Swedish grit, American religion, philosophy and gynaecologists. We ate chocolate croissants that melted in your mouth.

Last year I ate carrot cake pancakes, and told my secrets. Even the ones that I didn’t want to tell.

Last year I did the grape harvest and made wine.

Last year I caught a black donkey in a dark wood.

Last year I designed, traced, sawed, sanded and painted Christmas lights for the centre of Palermo. I walked beneath them and realised I’d made something real.

Last year I taught nature studies in Catalan, babysat in French (in a really big castle), and did woodwork in Italian.

Last year I read 58 books.

Last year I watched the sun set, orange on a winter’s sky.

Last year I saw the milky way and hunted zombies in the vegetable patch.

Last year I was told thank you by more people, with more sincerity and for more reasons than I could have imagined.

For last year, I am truly grateful.

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