But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Ikeep coming back to this line from Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation which seems true to me in oh-so-many ways. The present feels so permanent, and we live in it like it has the solidity of a house when really it’s a flimsy tent. In many ways that’s a terrifying thought, but it’s a liberating one as well.
Because, as Offill suggests, it’s true that we never know what is going to happen to us next in smaller, funnier ways too. Ways that mean that it’s best never to laugh at anyone because one day, not so very long from now, you may be them. I thought running was a suburban affliction of the thirty-something parent. Something highly contagious, like chicken pox, that I’d rather I didn’t catch.
I didn’t know that this was the year I’d become a runner. But here I am: a person who runs 5k twice a week. I don’t turn up to school drop off in my running clothes yet. I don’t join the small packs of parents who run from the school gate. But who knows? One day I might.
The cliché is true: putting on the running shoes is the hardest part. The rest just follows from that.
There’s a recurring dream I’ve had since childhood. I’m running, usually alone, through some dreamscape that I know well: the streets of my childhood, the back roads of Wimbledon. The running is easy — loose and fluid. I’m not out of breath. And when I notice that, in my dream, I know at once that it is a dream, and wake to a level of consciousness where I taste the disappointment that I can’t really run like that. This sounds like a dream that everyone has.
The reality isn’t quite like the dream. There’s sweat and a red face and for many weeks there was a fierce concentration simply on breathing in and out. I started back in the darkness of March, running for a minute and walking for a minute and a half to recover. The first time my neighbour, a very keen runner, saw me returning to my house in my running gear I threw my key into the daffodils as I waved and had to crawl around the front garden to retrieve it.
Twelve weeks later, I could run for thirty-five minutes. Thirty-five mintues is a long time to run. But perspectives shift. Thirty-five minutes, totally free of interruption, is a magnificently long time when you have children. Now I just run. Run and notice and listen and I don’t think about the running part at all.
I have two slots. Thursday morning at 6, Sunday evening at around 6. When I started it was dark in the morning & the evening. Week by week the light came. Daffodils, then magnolias and tulips, then the weeks of wisteria. Now there are roses climbing over old walls, the scent of honeysuckle in the evening. I’ve learnt new routes, new parts of our small city. One morning I startled two deer in the nature reserve. I know which weekends the cricket matches are at home and away. I know that if I go a day early for my morning run — Wednesday — I will meet my neighbour and his dog on the other side of the cathedral. I’ve run in a Paris park with a view of the Eiffel Tower ahead, and alongside the vines in the French countryside with an unknown dog by my side.
For the first few weeks every time I went out B would suggest a reason why I shouldn’t go. It was dark. I had a cold. I could stay in bed for another hour. We were on holiday. Somehow this helped. I had the same voices in my head & hearing them out loud made them easier to ignore. There’s something nice about having that trust in yourself. That sense of honouring one’s commitments even — maybe especially — to oneself. I wanted to show T what it looked like to exercise, to try, to get better at something, to keep going. I wanted to show myself.
3 June. Thirty minutes at 6am. Two separate foxes startled in the nature reserve. Fiery tails disappearing into the undergrowth. Flickering sunlight as I run through the trees.
11 June. Two pillows on the path ahead of me. One lifted its neck & resolved into a swan. Four fluffy grey blobs of down in front of them. A cygnet nestled into the side of the second swan. The adult raised its neck to hiss at me. I turned around, ran back along the path.
A body. The trust and strength of giving birth. And now this: it can run.
12 June. When I first started running upstream along the river it felt like I was going backwards, the fast current sweeping me along with it. When the water is high, ducks and swans shoot downstream without protest. There is no point trying to oppose the desire of the water. The mill race frothing, churning, white foam. The noise: deep and dark and thunderous.
When I started running, I just ran. I hoped to be Joyce Carol Oates-like in my ability to think about writing while running. But then I hit twenty minutes and it was just so hard to run that I couldn’t think. Podcasts were my salvation. For running they ideally need to be 45 minutes +, so that I can set them going as I warm up & they don’t finish before the end of the run. Here are my favourites:
- The New Yorker Fiction Podcast. A writer reads a short story from the magazine’s archives and then discusses it with the New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Triesman. Always excellent, and there are many I’ve listened to over & over. Try either of the short stories read by Antonya Nelson to start.
- I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: listen to Death, Sex and Money. Try the episode on siblings if you haven’t listened before.
- On Being. Another classic recommendation, but lovely deep and long conversations to listen to as you run (or walk, or wash-up or commute). Try the episode with Pico Iyer about the art of stillness, or listen to the wonderful episode with Mary Oliver.
- Finally, the Longform Podcast is another great listen. Each episode is an in depth interview with a non-fiction writer or editor. I loved the interview with Leslie Jamison and I have the episdode with Anna Sale (host of Death, Sex and Money) lined up to listen to next.