this too
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
  Ninety-nine, one hundred

At around 7 pm, about a mile from the office, I clocked up one hundred miles walked in January. So I went to have a celebratory drink. Feeling good about this. An eminently reachable, but worthwhile goal. Gonna get healthier. A fine thing. Then I saw the open front page of someone’s evening paper, saw the words ‘one hundred’ echoed there. Yesterday the one-hundredth British soldier died in Iraq. I knew this. So how did I forget, and focus on my private satisfaction? Because that’s what we do. We foreground the smaller trials and victories of our personal lives. Hardly wicked. Only natural. But it’s how they get away with it. Why we aren’t all out there screaming right now, rolling on the ground outside the Houses of Parliament, violating the brand-new law that bans unauthorised demonstrations within one mile of Westminster. ‘Not in my name’, as they say. It is, though, isn’t it? In my name. I’m the one who danced in the street in 1997 when this government was elected after all those long years of the other lot. Damn.
  Keeping on Walking

I've been standing for 45 minutes on a crowded bus and when I get off I'm like an old, tired tortoise, stiff and hunched on the pavement with my bag on my back. So I shake out my hands and let my shoulders and my tail-bone drop, and I think of the puppet-strings lifting my head and my knees, and my joints loosen and clank as though they were wood and metal. And then I can feel my soft clothes against my skin and the cold air nipping my nose and ears and see my breath steaming in front of my face. And then I can walk.

Walking a thousand miles in 2006 - Week 4
Miles walked: 20.5 (target: 20)
Total miles walked: 93.5 (target: 80)
Miles remaining: 906.5
Sunday, January 29, 2006

My father used to call him Pop – the Americanism learned in wartime and a joke, for there were only a few years between them and Harry, my mother’s father, was a boyish figure half his size. He was a small man, my Grandad, with a bald head and a nut-brown outdoors face. He wore collarless shirts with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and braces. He’d be out on his vegetable patch or pouring over the horse-racing pages, his yellow-stained fingers constantly rolling his own with Rizlas and Golden Virginia.

He was my pal, my flirt, always up for long leaping squealing games of volleyball over the washing-line, teaching me tenderly about his plants, telling jokes and riddles, teasing and laughing. A countryman from the Midlands, he fought overseas as a youngster in World War One and never spoke of it, then learned horses and gardens as groom and gardener on a large estate. He married Flo, who was the cook there, and they left for London where he worked as a labourer on the railways. Living in rented rooms with three small children, they qualified for one of the first council houses, ugly grey stucco but spacious with a large back garden. They stayed there through the Second War, the Blitz, with nights in the metal Anderson shelter that still in the 1960s squatted half-buried next to his runner beans and cabbages.

After thirty years in London, they still seemed country people, he and my plump rosy Gran, as short as him but twice as wide, her eternal respectable hats firmly anchored with a huge pin. Over their broad voices lay a soft measured primness quite unlike their city neighbours, learned, I suppose, from the land-owning family with whom they’d been ‘in service’.

He died, my playmate and my history, when I was eleven from lung cancer – glum and scared and losing interest in his garden, his bright blue eyes growing paler and paler. Dying eyes, once seen never forgotten. I didn’t attend his funeral. Sparing me this was kindly meant, but wasn’t kind. I wish my last memory wasn’t his scared dying eyes, that I’d kissed his bald head and seen that he was gone and cried - but tears, we used to say, were for crocodiles. It still makes me sad, forty years later. I was glad, then, to read this.
Friday, January 27, 2006

Such strange light in this photo that I hesitated to post it when I took it, back in July. It was probably just the inadequate artificial basement lighting, but I couldn't shake off the idea that he was emanating something... Retrospectively, I'm less spooked by this - even if he was.
Thursday, January 26, 2006
  Back to front

Wednesday, January 25, 2006
  No Woman's Land

I’m looking at the comments left here yesterday, when I said I never saw the same people twice on my walk to work. “I'm amazed you don't begin to recognise anyone.” “This will change: didn't you have ‘nodding acquaintances’ with people on buses and the tube who rode the same route at the same time every day?”. Well, no. Really. I examine my perceptions, all too aware of my negative prejudices and the ease with which I edit out what doesn’t conform to them. But no, really.

This is London. Four years of exactly this daily bus-journey to work and back. Every day the same bus-stop at precisely the same time. I can count on the fingers of one hand the people seen more than once. And god knows I’d notice – not much else to do at a bus-stop. There’s an elderly woman who gets my bus perhaps once a month. A mother and her chubby son who started secondary school back in September. They chat nervously. He doesn’t like the new school, clearly. She goes with him to make sure he gets there. I’ve seen them 5 or 6 times over the months. Another mother and her teenage daughter: half a dozen times over as many years, the girl transmuting from spindly schoolgirl to fashion-model elegance, while the mother disappears in spreading clumps of flesh and anorak.

That’s all. For this is the megalopolis. Even it’s small corners have no edges. We drift like particles and never coalesce. Only the most structured intersections bring people together for long enough to call it a meeting.

And now, walking to work, I get to know the timing of the traffic lights, the reflections in certain windows, the handful of leaves left on a tree, the crooked manhole cover that threatens to trip me. But not the people. Many of them walk the pavements between 8 and 9 am, though fewer in the evening. People live as well as work in this central district I walk through, just South of the Thames. Estates of social housing. Student residences. South-Asian, Cypriot and Italian shop- and cafe-keepers. I notice them, watch them. Many races. Many costumes. The way they bump together in pairs and groups. But I never see the same ones twice. It’s all too big. They are too many. We do not intersect. It’s not hostility. Not even deliberate indifference. We’re just not very present – or present perhaps to a conceptual entity called London, but not to a physical spot within it.

And there's freedom, of course, in this floating existence. That's what brings and keeps people here - the ones who have a choice. It's been pretty joyless at times, but I've grown here, while I might have withered somewhere more constricting.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006
  Extra miles

I'm walking a thousand miles in 2006 - that's just under 20 miles a week. Most of this will be by walking 2 miles each way of my daily weekday commute.

Week 3
Miles walked: 30.5 (target: 20)
Total walked: 73 (target: 60)
Miles remaining: 927

This was an atypical week. A welcome sunny weekend, the first for ages, lured me out for long walks on Saturday and Sunday, making up for the two weekdays when I only walked 2 of the planned 4 miles. I need to get ahead now. I worry about hot weather and my inability to walk then. But this isn't meant to be an extra source of worry. Hold the goal lightly; be motivated, but not fixated.

I like the rhythm, the pavement passing under my feet. It gets easier, the 2 miles morning and evening seem shorter. Some mornings, though, I feel tired, slowed by the steep trudge out of the Waterloo underpass and onto the bridge.

There's no scope for varying my route - only one direct road from Elephant to the river. So it grows in a way familiar - the shops, the office and college facades, the cracks and bumps in the pavement surface, the shapes of things and the shapes between things. Never, in the fluctuating, fast-paced blur of the city, do I see the same people twice. No one sees me pass or says Good Morning. I make no impression; the impression made on me is shallow.

It feels good to walk fast, take in energy, take on pace. Dave, Loren and Zinnia wrote comments last week about the value and pleasure too of slow and meditative walking. Oh yes, I like to dawdle, dawdled on Sunday in the woods, sensing the scurrying and flapping of crowds of creatures in the undergrowth on a briefly warmer day and the soft, drying mud under my feet, blinking up at the blue-black trees against the pink, misty sky. And I'm familiar with walking meditation - the studied, formal kind, as practised in the zendo and the monastery cloister, and its less formal cousin, as practised in the gardens at Gaia House. The city-centre streets are not for this, I feel. And the aging, overweight and office-bound like me do need some aerobic exercise. But it was a good reminder to return, whatever the speed, to the body and the breath, not always to the goal. This step. Now. And the next.
Friday, January 20, 2006
  No title

Thursday, January 19, 2006
  Naïve expectations?

This is a poke around inside a moment’s feelings, not a reasoned consideration, which would require much more time and thought.

I only catch up on the global news a couple of times a week now. It’s so horrifying and dispiriting. I don’t think I could go on if I listened, as I did for many years, before getting out of bed every morning. So anything that qualifies as ‘good news’ is precious, cradled, pondered over. Such was my immediate reaction to the election of Michelle Bachelet as President of Chile. Wow, a woman – and an unconventional one at that, in such a conservative country - and a member of the Socialist Party! And in Chile: like South Africa, always in the heart of all who grieved and campaigned from afar for the return of democracy.

Then I wondered at my impulsive reaction, since it’s a long time (well, 1997, probably) since I expected anything much from politicians. And anyone who expects a politician to be more humane or radical just because she’s a woman… well, where have they been for the past 30 years? And I don’t mean just Right-wingers. I tend to feel that the kind of person who can survive in politics (hyper-energetic, skin like a rhinoceros, love of the limelight) is just not likely to share many of my perceptions and priorities, not deep down or long term, even if they start out principled and well-intentioned. Back in the early 1980s, I had the opportunity to work for a few days with the first Minister for Women to be appointed in a European country – perhaps the most overtly feminist minister and ministry there has been. She was emphatically NOT a nice person. She shook up some assumptions in her country, though, in ways that have partially stuck. So does it matter if she was a nice person? I guess I think it does.

Why would women politicians, just because they’ve not been at it as long as men, be more humane or idealistic? Expecting this is similar to having different, higher, expectations of women bosses. My closest friend at work and I have talked a lot about how we always expect more of women in authority because we identify with them and unconsciously look to get the same kind of empathy back.

It’s a naïve assumption that we should perhaps let go of - just like the naïve assumption that a woman politician and someone who defines herself as Left of Centre will strive for a real impact on social and economic polarisation in Chile, or anywhere else. But I’m never sure, really, whether I should try to let go of it. Perhaps not to let go of it, but to cherish its origins in hope and solidarity, whilst nonetheless cultivating a wider and more realistic awareness. There is something to be said for naïvety. There are other, less condescending, words for it: simplicity? optimism?

Of course, I don’t think a Centre-Left coalition government in Chile is the same thing as a government of the Right - ANY degree of interest in defending freedom and democracy and trying to mitigate the hardships of the poorest is worth having, worth voting for.

And I’ll always owe a certain gut-level solidarity to Michelle Bachelet JUST because she’s a woman – if only because of those niggling paragraphs I find in every news report, like the last in
this (ugh!!!).
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
  Walking a thousand miles

I’ve been inspired by Tom Montag, The Middlewesterner. Well, I’m usually inspired by Tom – by his writing and his love of home. But this time I was inspired by his exercise programme. He and his marathon-runner daughter, Jess, who walked a marathon together last year, had a brilliantly motivating idea. They’ve made a commitment to walking (Tom) or running (Jess) one thousand miles in 2006.

That’s just less than 20 miles a week, and it got me thinking. For several months now I’ve been aiming to walk some of the way to and from work each day. From Elephant and Castle , the concrete-jungle roundabout at the South-Eastern edge of Central London, to my office just North of Waterloo Bridge (worth waiting if this takes a minute to download) is about 2 miles each way. In practice, I’ve only been walking it a couple of times a week. But, hey: 4 miles a day, 5 days a week, that’s… Yes, I could very feasibly do one thousand miles in a year! There’ll surely be days when I don’t walk it both ways, because I’m ill or late or have a lot to carry. But there’ll be all the weekends, when I also walk a lot, since I don’t have a car. I COULD DO THIS.

So on my return to work after the long Christmas/New Year holiday, I began.
Stats so far (to be updated weekly):

Week 1

miles walked: 18 (target: 20)
miles remaining: 982

Week 2
miles walked: 24.5
total walked: 42.5 (target: 40)
miles remaining: 957.5

I was tired and took a day off from walking on Sunday. I missed it. I feel my body falling into the rhythm, just as it falls into the stillness of meditation.

I’m slow! Two miles take me 35 minutes. But it was even slower when I started two weeks ago. I’d rather be walking on quiet open roads, like Tom. But London is a good city for walking – decent pavements everywhere, though much time is spent waiting at crossing lights.

So, what with the walking and the meditation and the diet, it’s all rampant self-improvement. This gives me pause. After all, meditation, my primary commitment, is about self-acceptance, not self-improvement; being present, not constantly aspiring; believing that I’m fine as I am and everything’s fine as it is, and thus, paradoxically, creating space for movement as well as for stillness. The potential for self-absorption is alarming also. I hope awareness of these contradictions will mitigate them. I hope this is about feeling better - not different, not fixated on the future, but more present and more me; not more in-turned, but lighter and more available to life. We’ll see. I hope I can do this. One thousand miles in 2006.
  In the details

Passed on Waterloo Bridge this morning: a fat pale-faced man in a black tracksuit, head shaven apart from two red, gel-stiffened horns. Still wishing I’d looked back to see if he had a tail. Just as well not to know, perhaps.
Sunday, January 15, 2006

In the beautiful old glasshouse at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden
I hope the current restoration work will leave its charm intact.
Friday, January 13, 2006

We’re on the bus.
It’s after 8 pm
and everyone is tired,
heads leaning, banging
on the window panes,
and mobile phones compete
like slanting lasers:
nasty travesties
of well-known tunes.

and drifting off
and coming to

Loud voices here:
two young black men
in woolly hats
disputing evil. ‘Christ’, I hear,
and ‘snake’ and ‘serpents’ teeth’.
Arms wave in overemphasis.

Quite mad, they sound,
or off their heads
on something strong.

and drifting off
and coming to

Some older men,
handshakes all round,
eye contact and intensity.
Short, fair-skinned, dark-haired men -
where are they from?
A language I don’t know.
I crave that place – or…
no, such male bonds
would shut me out.

and drifting off
and coming to

The disputatious pair
are up and swaying
off, and now the others –
gone. From where? To where?
Such feelings, questions,
random tired thoughts
while sitting rocking slowly home
and drifting off
and coming to again.

  Soaring in the blogosphere

Do mermaids soar? oh well, I liked the photo...

Among the chronicles of everydayness, often beguilingly well evoked, stand out some stunning full-blown literary and photographic works that take the breath away: MB Whitaker’s poem on Home at Quarrtsiluni, Teju Cole’s temporary blog about his recent return home to Nigeria and qB’s photos of her trip to Cyprus.

Thursday, January 12, 2006
  Not today

Wednesday, January 11, 2006
  Nearly dark

Sunday, January 08, 2006
  Looking forward, shakily

Difficult emotions, to say the least, in facing this past first week of the new year back at work. When you don’t like your job it’s always painful and dispiriting to return after a substantial break. Then there’s the fact that back in June I set myself a deadline ‘for ending this craziness, for leaving the job. I’m setting it for the end of 2005. I don’t like deadlines. Self-imposed ones seem like pointless stress. But I have to make this solid and real, so I can believe in it, see it and touch it.’ Ha. So real and tangible did this turn out to be that it had no effect at all, and here I still am more than six months later in exactly the same place. If I was immortal, this degree of inertia might be excusable.

For the past several years, I’d escaped the Christmas/New Year binge and inevitable accompanying burst of self-pity for my family-less state by going to a Buddhist retreat. This time it was going to be a new Buddhist centre in South-West France. But the journey, just before Christmas, turned out to be so expensive and difficult – there didn’t seem to be any way I could get there in one day – that I ended up cancelling and staying at home. After a frantic round of socialising in December (well frantic for me, which I suppose is not actually all that frantic), things were very quiet over the 11-day break from work. Dinner with friends on Christmas Day and that was it, really. A time for lots of sleep, meditation, walking, reading and thinking.

If nothing else, this was physically hugely beneficial. After a week of it, gosh, I slept all night and woke up without a headache. Is it reasonable to find this shocking? Almost everyone I know has some kind of chronic pain or illness pretty certainly related to their chronically hyperactive and stressful lifestyle. Every one of them seems to feel it is there own fault and not indicative of generalised stupid social assumptions. I find it hard to agree, but perhaps my expectations are unfeasibly high. Perhaps, too, masochism is a fundamental, ineradicable human trait. Anyway, I stopped striving to be ‘normal’ a long time ago, didn’t I? If feeling lousy all the time is normal, it’s not a decision I can regret.

Oh dear, I don’t mean to sound such a misanthropic grouch. On the whole, though a somewhat introverted and prickly type, I do tend to like people and, looking at the strained faces and hearing the plaintive voices around me, I just wince with compassion and feel sad. And these, my friends and colleagues, are not poor or lonely or unsuccessful people; on the contrary.

One of my friends at work, for example, has not returned after the break. Not long before Christmas, her knee started seizing up, got steadily worse and now she can barely walk a few steps and is on extended sick leave pending probable surgery. I wouldn’t automatically attribute this to stress. But this time last year it was her neck. And the time before…, but the details are beside the point. I see a gentle, sensitive, talented person who works relentlessly long hours, undertakes a lot of international travel with no time to get over the jet-lag and socialises furiously at the behest of her restlessly sociable partner. Living at this pace suits some people, but not everybody. I see someone who, despite being successful and beloved, feels exhausted and victimised. I see her getting sick because it’s the only way she feels ‘allowed’ to stop. I find myself wanting to scream at her. Of course, I don’t scream at her. I’m calm and sympathetic and will only ever say any of this with caution and at a moment that seems appropriate (I hope).

No, obviously, I can’t change other people. Only myself. The only thing to do is to choose to live differently, to be something different - demonstrate it, not talk about it. Some of us, if we’re free to do so, not constrained by the financial or practical needs of dependents, can say: ‘I want to do less. My mind and body don’t thrive on hyperactivity and sleep-deprivation. This makes me hurt, it makes me tired and ill and eventually it’s probably going to kill me. I’m prepared to have less in order to do less’. It’s not easy. The social pressure and disapproval. The prevalent deeply internalised sense of obligation to keep doing and keep consuming. These are not negligible. They are, after all, how control is kept in our supposedly free society. No one’s going to tell me: ‘yes, it’s ok, you can stop’. But I can see that some people have stopped. And I could join them, become another visible marker of the alternative.

After the decision – that one so many former drop-outs and hippies and radicals took in the late 70s – to join the mainstream, work for the political opposition, try to make changes slowly from within, after doing all that for years and years, and achieving nothing but a social environment of unprecedented cynicism, here I am back with what we preached as youthful subversives: the politics of prefigurative forms. Go out and create something different, on however small a scale, all by yourself if necessary. That’s all you can do. Be quieter and poorer and kinder yourself, and hope it may be contagious.

Yes, I want OUT. I have nothing to lose: no partner, no family, no professional status, minimal financial security. Probably not all the way out, but quite a long way out. I can certainly envisage living in a fairly minimal structure (be specific – alright, caravan? yurt?), consuming much less, buying only second-hand, reducing requirements enough to be able to work quite a lot less. I’m entirely serious and realistic about this – old enough to have few illusions, which is all to the good.

This is what I believe, but not what I do. What I do is think about it and long for it and keep on working and commuting and consuming and getting exhausted and getting up each day and doing it all again. And think about it and long for it…

And yet, I don’t quite rise and bang my head on the wall at this point. Perhaps this isn’t all. I avidly follow the accounts of people who chuck it all in and look for something else. And, as well as successful migrations to new places and livelihoods, I see the repeated story of the poor soul who escapes from everything only to be shocked by the realisation that you can’t escape from yourself. Any journey that doesn’t begin with this firmly in mind is not worth undertaking. Any journey that doesn’t begin from a place where you’re basically okay already is not going to lead anywhere fruitful.

So this is how I feel at this point, what I’ve been pondering in the quiet Christmas and New Year’s break: I haven’t been doing nothing all these months. I’ve been looking for a steadier place inside myself, for ways to be okay right here and now. And only then can I leave with the tools, with half a chance at trying to live differently. I cannot leave until I’m really here. And becoming ‘really here’ is a long journey in itself because as far back as I can remember I’ve been withdrawing, protecting myself, trying to pretend I wasn’t here. No wonder it’s been difficult. Writing, taking photographs, establishing a stable meditation practice, cultivating habits of more exercise, better eating, better energy flow, and above all of greater calm and kindness: perhaps these have been not putting off the journey, but the beginning of the journey.

This may be an entirely self-deceiving optimism. But on good days I think it isn’t and look forward, somewhat shakily but determinedly, to the next step.
Friday, January 06, 2006
  Molecules of winter

Tuesday, January 03, 2006
  Go together like

Sunday, January 01, 2006
  Day one

To be here now in silence for a few minutes every day. And perhaps in time find yourself touching the here and now a little more often in daily life - just being, instead of reacting, jumping up, flinching away, keeping busy. Being just a little more alive - that's what regular meditation practice means to me. Since first attending a meditation class some seven years ago, I've known that I'd found something more powerful than psychotherapy, more powerful than force of will, truly known from time to time small intimations of change, small openings to greater peace, more connection, more kindness. Uncomfortable with fervent positivity, I look around at this point for something cynical to say. Really, I have nothing. It's not easy to hold the daily practice, though, amidst busyness and weariness and ever-changing moods. I've lost it many times and come back to it, most recently when Dale had the brilliant idea of a meditation blog, 100 days, a daily check-in point for anyone wanting to practice sitting meditation. Five minutes daily or 50. All backgrounds and traditions welcome - anyone who'd like to start or strengthen a daily meditation practice. A new 100-day commitment begins today, but you can join in at any time.

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Location: London, UK

Freelance copy-editor and translator. Keen on language, literature, photography, art, music, buddhist meditation and the countryside.

February 2005 / March 2005 / April 2005 / May 2005 / June 2005 / July 2005 / August 2005 / September 2005 / October 2005 / November 2005 / December 2005 / January 2006 / February 2006 / March 2006 / April 2006 / May 2006 /

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