Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Travelogue 745 – March 28
Counting Steps

And so I lick my wounds after the half marathon, and I return to my routine in Holland, even as spring dawns. The weather has been a sudden tonic for winter, and people have been beside themselves, making every step a celebration. The skies are alarmingly blue, and the sun brings us warmth.

And so a winter training season ends with a spring run. The skies have broken open. When I ride the bike into work in the morning, the sun has risen. The birds are singing. By the time I get a chance to run, the pavements beyond the protection of shadows is warm. I regret the long sleeves. I have company in new runners, lured by the spring into fleeting hopes of sweaty fun.

I bring the injury back into training, and slowly it disappears, a Cheshire grin of pain. I have slowed the training down, but I must continue. I am scheduled to run another distance for charity, this time as part of a relay team of colleagues in the Rotterdam Marathon. It will, thankfully, be a shorter run.

Running is an opportunity for reflection. I reflect on the long stretches of road in Bath, unusual for England in their straight lines of sight, chosen by the marathon committee to unnerve native-born Brits, who would rarely have run a straight line for miles in this way. There’s something like achievement in turning corners. The sight of distance can drain away momentum.

I had made it to the final straightaway, leading back into town on the second loop, when my hip went into meltdown. In that circumstance, the distance ahead was taunting. I started walking.

I think of the winding roads outside Bath, riding along them in Pey’s car, struggling with car sickness. I’m sitting on what should be the driver’s side, and I’m watching whatever I can see in the high beams of the little auto. Most of what I see is alarmingly close. The landscape is as compact as the car, the little stone walls racing by just beyond the bumper, other cars breezing bay with inches to spare. We are turning, rising and falling, all at once, and I am battling to keep my stomach in place.

We are traveling to Trowbridge, where we will sit in a poetry group. I will sip tea with some desperation for the first half hour, hoping to calm my tummy. But as the nausea recedes and I listen, I discover with some delight that this is good stuff being shared. My memories of poetry readings from my youth has prepared me for embarrassment and boredom. These people are good. They are lively and intelligent, and they know their poetry.

I leave inspired, even if a little disheartened by the prospect of another harrowing ride home. I write every day, even without much faith in writing. This renews my faith. Their faith is contagious.

I write every day, and lately I am rounding off the editing work on a book I hope to self-publish within a matter of weeks. This book forms the second and connecting link among three works that capture some themes from my life, specifically from what forms now the middle part of my narrative, those years begun in Minnesota and carrying me to Ethiopia.

It’s funny. The more I try to narrate ‘life’, the more I think there is no such thing. There are only details. And, as I’ve recently said about sport, one can only take detail lightly in order to take it seriously. It makes no sense as meaning unless dismissed as meaning. One writes and reads about detail simply for the fun of it, and then somehow a sense of import dawns on one. But it rarely unfolds, blooms, (like spring,) into an explicit, simple, readable text.

I’ve returned home with blue skies commencing. I ask the Gryphon to lead me to someone with a story. The Mock Turtle looks at us with large eyes full of tears, saying nothing.

'He wants for to know your history, she do,' says the Gryphon.

'I'll tell it her,' says the Mock Turtle in a deep, hollow tone. 'Sit down, both of you, and don't speak a word till I've finished. When we were little,' the Mock Turtle is still sobbing, 'we went to school in the sea. The master was an old Turtle — we used to call him Tortoise — .'

Monday, March 13, 2017

Travelogue 744 – March 13
Halted Steps

There are those moments in a long road race when you are empowered to make time stand still. You are compelled to make time stand still. It’s meditation forged in a furnace, a deep mining of the present moment by agency of pain.

Except for the first mile and the last mile, the course of the Bath Half pursues a loop west to a bridge that crosses the Avon out past the city limits, where the town has given way to open fields, and following another road back into town. The race completes that loop twice before running by the train station, through Widcombe, and down Great Pulteney Street to the finish. That loop makes for four long straightaways, first west and then east, long and flat stretches of road that test the will.

‘It's always six o'clock now,' says the Mad Hatter mournfully. Time (Him, not It, the Hatter has clarified,) Time won’t allow the hour to advance past six. ‘It’s always tea-time, and we've no time to wash the things between whiles.'

This is the chosen curse of Mr. Time, in the mad science of the Hatter. Make him mad and he will stop the clock. Why do we (more or less) sane mortals daydream about stopping time? Maybe it’s simply because we want to sleep, or read more than headlines. But in Wonderland, this is a punishment particularly galling, especially when you can’t complete tea time to satisfaction.

In our world, runners stop time in order to complete the race. It’s a paradox among endurance sports: we perform feats that are measured by time, so we must dismantle time. The race becomes a set of steps. And each one is a still shot of the asphalt underneath, of that guy just ahead of you, of the furthest visible point ahead. It becomes a chronicle of single, noisy breaths. For an older runner like me, it’s like a medical file, monitoring a variety of systems. How are those ankles, those knees? Lungs, heart, stomach?

And then there’s the recurring question, ‘What am I doing here?’ That needs constant contemplation. There are so many angles to explore. When is sport trivial? When is sport madness? The answers are almost universally matters of perspective. Take it lightly, and sport has merit and meaning. Take it seriously, and become ridiculous. Yes, it’s madness.

They say Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the nineteenth-century Oxford don writing as Lewis Carroll, had a special sympathy for children, particularly little girls. It could be that ‘sympathy’ was not the right word. Either way, he enjoyed the company of children, and enjoyed the kind of repartee that children partake in, the word play, the irreverence, the quick moods and emphatic declarations, the will to subjectivity.

‘We’re all mad here,’ says the Cheshire Cat. ‘I’m mad. You’re mad.’

"How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice.

"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.”

I’m keeping a decent pace. I’m not on course to break my record, but I’m not far off it, either. Then comes Mile Ten. Every long race has its wall. For the half marathon, it’s Mile Ten. I put in many long training runs before the race with nothing more than the spectre of Mile Ten to goad me forward, the anxiety of the imagined pain. But no preparation will save me this time. My hip suddenly starts in with a steady and deep, debilitating ache. I have to stop.

I stop, and I calculate. What am I capable of doing now? The time is gone, but is the race? I walk, testing the hip. I slowly start running again. It’s painful, but if I keep it slow, maybe. I carry on for no more than half a kilometre before I have to stop again. I won’t let myself pull out of the race. I think of my athletes in Ethiopia, and I’m ashamed. I have to finish.

So this is how I make it to the finish line, some 15 minutes off the time I should have had. But I arrive in one piece, and I celebrate nonetheless. Anything less would be madness.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Travelogue 743 – March 12
Many Steps

‘It’s HIM,’ the Mad Hatter says. ‘If you knew Time as well as I do, ….’

I began the day of the race with some drills out in the rain. At seven, I jogged up to Alexandria Park and did a few circuits, alternating between fast and slow, warming up for the ordeal of the race. The park occupies the top of a hill, and there is a circular drive there, about half a kilometre in length. It climbs steeply, then drops. Running round it is a good warm-up. I build up to some speed. Time is, after all, the measure of today’s success.

I’ve been re-reading Alice(‘s Adventures) in Wonderland. The Tim Burton film was on TV before I left for England. Alice’s story seemed rather liberally re-interpreted in the film, but it had been many years since I read the book. In point of fact, I didn’t remember there being much of a story to Alice in Wonderland at all. Hadn’t that been one of its charms?

After my morning drills, I ate with Pey and her family. I took an hour to rest, completely off my feet. I read a few pages from Alice. ‘I dare say,’ the Mad Hatter objected, `I dare say you never even spoke to Time!' The little girl wasn’t sure how to answer.

Lewis Carroll – actual name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson -- published this little story in 1865. Before it was ever written down, the story was told to entertain the three young Liddell sisters (including Alice) while rowing one summer day up the Isis River in Oxford. Mr. Dodgson was a professor in mathematics and logic at the university. That a logician should come up with the age’s nonsense tale seems to me lovely.

I’m here to raise money for my athletes in Addis Ababa, a place far down the rabbit hole of north-south disparity. I’ve set a nonsense goal, a new time to beat an old time. Nonsensically, I allow it to rattle me, to make me nervous. I’ve been training toward this nonsense time for months, and it’s been strangely effective in motivating me. I’m in very good shape.

‘I know I have to beat time when I learn music,’ Alice says. The Hatter warns her, ‘He won't stand beating.’

Pey and I start down the hill toward town. She’s accompanying me to the race start. I’m feeling fragile as we approach the steep staircase down Beechen Cliff. ‘Maybe I could do this thing tomorrow?’ I wonder. Pey advises me that they will disqualify me. Why this day? Why this distance? I ask all the questions that make sport seem genuinely silly. And not only am I running, but raising money for runners and perpetuating the nonsense. So it goes. Life is a very serious matter until one attends the details.

I’m safe among the crowds of runners in the starting gate. The race will begin in five. We stretch and jump to keep warm. We joke with each other and wave to spectators. Phones are raised high to snap pictures of the thousands of competitors. It will take us almost five minutes to reach the starting line, slowly surging forward, and we’re among the first groups to start. In an hour, the same people bouncing left to right and smiling in anticipation will be lost somewhere in the second loop of the course, suffering and urging him- or herself forward with every step, perhaps with a mantra like mine, ‘Never again.’ Every so often, police will wave them to the side to allow passage of an ambulance.

‘Suppose it were nine o'clock in the morning, just time to begin lessons,’ says the Hatter. ‘You'd only have to whisper a hint to Time, and round goes the clock in a twinkling! Half-past one, time for dinner!’

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Travelogue 742 – March 11
High Steps

The youngest trees are budding here on Beechen Cliff in Bath. It’s spring. The morning air is still, fresh and damp. I have to stop at the head of the stairs. I pause because the stone staircase down the steep hillside is daunting, I know, from years’ experience how jarring they are, the steps spaced unnaturally. I want to take a breath. I want to stretch. I set my back pack down and exercise my aching back. I’m only freshly out of bed. I was so eager to enjoy the morning, I set out immediately after waking.

I take a deep breath, exercising my lungs. They are going to be put to the test tomorrow, when I run the half marathon. I’ve been having some trouble with those trusty old organs of breathing. I have asked a lot from them in this long life. They have lived in some of the planet’s most polluted cities. They have run. They have performed quite faithfully despite debilitation in childhood, due to asthma and repeated illness. This week, it feels like I have some minor infection, inhibiting full expansion. I stand at the head of the stairs and I fill my lungs. I undertake some easy stretches.

My senses are sharp. I am aware of the miracle of this morning, the concatenation of miracles. For one thing, I am back. I have been writing about return, in my piece about Grace. At my age, life seems like stories of return and recurrence. This place, both Bath and the cliff above it, are sacred places of return. I have been here so many times, standing under the high pines, pausing just like this, to catch my breath on the stairs, to listen to the birds, to absorb the stillness of the small wood, so often free of human disturbance, a place made for pause among the activities and travels.

Another miracle is the sensation of being rested. I have slept eight hours straight! If I didn’t have the race tomorrow, I wouldn’t know what to do with this renewed energy. With twenty-one kilometres to run on the morrow, the answer is, conserve it. Tuck it away and protect it, like gold. And what to do with this clarity of mind? The answer is, calculate how long it’s been since I had eight hours of sleep. I try and I can’t. I will need another eight hours to have full brain power. I’m content to enjoy the hushed scene of slender tree trunks soaring past me into the fog of the early morning. That seems the best use of heightened perceptions.

I pick up the old rucksack again, throwing it over my shoulder. I start carefully down the decline, employing a kind of sideways, swinging gait to minimize the impact of the high steps. I remember the days when I could jog all the way down. Reaching further, I remember days when I could jog up. Age is measured in pain.

At the bottom, I’ll follow the walkway down, through the old churchyard and then to the river. Pey has told me about a great new bakery by the bus station. I will have a huge pain aux raisins with an espresso.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Travelogue 741 – March 2

I’ve been editing. I’ve been a long time editing. As the atmosphere condenses, as late winter broods and struggles with itself, wrestles with its shadows and its showers, I’m reading and revising. I have another book to get out the door. Most of the stories I wrote years ago. There’s been so much to do.

The spring birds have begun singing in the courtyard of my apartment complex. I hear them when I leave the flat, as I take my first breaths of the day’s fresh air. I love that one moment of the day. It is unique, and it’s precious, the taste of fresh morning air. It’s the taste of being alive. It renews my choice for this place by the sea, even during times of trial. Now the birds of spring have returned.

It’s less often that I’m leaving the house in darkness. Night is retreating.

I hear the cry of ‘Boek!’ Baby has developed a passion for books. She cries for them, cries if we don’t have time to read them aloud. She sits and recites from them for her stuffed animals, jabbing one chubby finger at the open page.

‘Where is the boek?’ Mama asks, and Baby stops, suddenly alert. She runs to the cabinet where we keep her books. She pulls at the door. We laugh. ‘Panda, panda,’ we read. ‘Wat zie jij daar?’

There are more words. They wrap round me when I’m tired. I want this done by month’s end. I am editing the final piece, a short memoir piece about my mother. Three brothers are there. They stand above the wild surf in Oregon, and they are releasing ashes into the waves, releasing words in memoriam into the salty spray and the roar of the violent ocean. It is all I can do to make this scene cohere.

I’ve written a lot about survival. ‘Survive’ is a transitive verb, whether one uses it as such or not. One survives something, and that something is meant to harm. One survives someone, and that someone did not survive the things that harm. Survival, when treated as an intransitive, is a celebration. I have not overcome its transitive nature. That is survival’s shadow. It casts one in darkness, and in that darkness it can be difficult to concentrate.

The ocean spray, water’s intention cast upon stone, waves disintegrated, lines the boulders with slick sea water. I remember that much. Those stones underfoot have uneven and sharp edges, and the brothers are struggling for balance. In quick flashes, they may observe themselves. It is comic. And it’s also unbearably sad. The one occasion for remembrance is rendered another silly story. It is freighted with detail. But detail is the stuff of living, and it makes fools of us all. There is beauty in being a fool.

It is all I can do to make this scene cohere. That’s the truth, while it’s happening. It never did cohere. The written word gathers the shards and splinters of it, lovingly places them in neat rows and catalogues them. The order achieved is no order. So why?

The rivers surface is choppy. One sees the wind cross over the rippling puddles. And the spray from the sky, leaving ephemeral patterns there, drops quickly passing. The spring is born from such turmoil. I am tired. The wind on my shoulders requires so much effort. I bend to it; I set myself to the day’s mundane journeys. The afternoon is gloomy. It darkens so. The rain catches me before I’m home. I stand outside one extra minute, too tired even to get out of the weather. The birds have retreated to their nests. Inside mine, I stand a moment without shedding even my backpack. Baby comes to look up into my face.

It’s evening. The lights inside are yellow, a low flame held in stasis. We hear the wind outside. Tiny Baby’s fingers are cold.

‘Boek!’ She says. Her voice is sure. Okay, Baby. Come close. ‘Panda, panda, wat zie jij daar?’