Mortality

Full of life, walking through these days, I wandered into a graveyard.

I was not in search of any particular grave and this was not a picturesque place; it was in fact quite the opposite. It sits in the grounds of a neglected church. The windows broken or boarded, duvets in its covered doorway the only evidence of recent use.

I have often passed this place, running or walking, and noticed the sad sight of memorials once proudly standing but now laid flat in the interest of health and safety.

As I walked around its mossy path, a black marble stone caught my eye. It marked a grave, a quarter of a century old; its occupant, a wife and mother. She shared my date of birth. A life cut short, in her thirties; no chance to test the notion that life begins at 40.

It challenged me, made me reflect on life and living. I felt a responsibility to make the most of life whilst there is breath in me. I walked away, down the hill, back into town, aware of the changing season. It brought to mind the words of Ecclesiastes. For everything there is a time, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die. A time to celebrate life.

Remembrance

Week one of the second lockdown is done.

The 2020 US election results were declared and will be remembered for a gracious winner and accusations of fraud from the defeated incumbent. Many words have been written, I’m not going to increase their number.

It’s been a week of fresh autumn days, perfect for walking around the edges of town. I’ve taken over 100,000 steps and have covered another 50 miles of my virtual Camino. Red poppies and Christmas lights have been added to the colours of the season.

I’ve walked alone and with friends. On Remembrance Day, I walked with a new neighbour. We had good intentions of observing the silence at 11am; walking and talking, we missed the moment. She arrived in our street between lockdowns and we have discovered much in common. Not least a shared faith and a mutual love of reading. We thought it would be fun to start a book group and managed to get a legal meeting of five together on the eve of the second lockdown. Our first book: A man called Ove went down well, as did the red wine.

One of our number is not a reader, but she enjoyed the chat and she is a keen walker. So, for our next session (in early 2021, subject to lockdown laws) we’ll be talking of pilgrimages and long distance walking books. Simon Armitage’s ‘Walking Home’ and Raynor Win’s ‘The Salt Path’ are on the agenda. Lots of miles covered in each book, many purposeful steps taken and plenty of food for thought for these days of mindful walking from home.

Lockdown 2, day 1

Here we go again: four weeks of national lockdown in England.

There’s a sense of déjà vu. We set off back in March to do those three weeks of lockdown which staggered on for three months or more. We walked our way through Lent, celebrated Easter and family birthdays on Zoom; enjoyed the lighter evenings and lengthening days; saw leaves and blossom grow. We stayed close to home, talked more with our neighbours and celebrated VE day with a physically distanced street party.

I committed to get to the end of that first lockdown with no regrets as to how I’d used the time. For the most part I achieved that. I missed time spent with my daughters and granddaughters, but that was forbidden and out of my control. And it made their company very special throughout the late summer days.

Now it’s nearly Advent, the days are shorter again and the evenings are dark. Leaves are yellow, gold and brown; hawthorn trees are laden with crimson berries.

Whether it’s four weeks or more, I’m committed again to not wasting a day. I’ve challenged myself to walk the length of the Camino de Santiago. Over the last 25 days, I’ve walked 125 miles: an average of five miles per day. This morning, I walked out along the old railway line and clocked up another ten miles. If the autumn weather is kind, I will be adding to that total over the next month.

The weather was great today: this would have made a perfect night for the town’s bonfire and firework display if it was allowed.

Masked emotions

Many times we’ve sung a big hymn: Thine be the glory springs to mind now but the list is endless… and I’ve announced that I’m going to have it at my funeral. ‘It’s going to be a long service’ my daughters say, as I make yet another announcement. The fragility of such plans was in my mind this week as I attended a second online funeral. It’s a strange experience. Just 15 masked family members or close friends in attendance and no singing. No comforting touches from more distant friends or near neighbours.

Getting used to such restrictions, and wearing masks in public places, has been strange. Not least with the masks is working out how to avoid the steamed up glasses. This week, a friend said that she felt sad not to see people smiling. But what I have come to realise is that you really can’t hide a true smile just by covering your mouth and nose.

The wrinkles round our eyes are not called laughter lines without reason. A painted on smile sitting beneath cold emotionless eyes is not a smile at all. It can be a sinister reminder of a timeless villain: the child catcher, Hansel and Gretel’s witch, the Bond villain. A masquerade, a deception. Look at my eyes, count the laughter lines. You can usually see that I’m smiling, enjoying your company.

Occasionally I may be exhausted and ready to sleep, in which case I’m really sorry if the smile doesn’t show. You are still very interesting and amusing, but sometimes my sleepy introvert takes over and hides my smile behind the mask.

Virtual writers, not robots

September again, another academic year underway. It’s different this autumn with many activities remaining in the virtual world. The Friday writing class has now been re-branded as a virtual writers’ group.

‘What is a virtual writer?’ I pondered as I logged on this morning.  It seems the perfect excuse for not producing the homework or delivering the finished piece. I’m not a real writer, just a virtual one. It’s all there in my head, in that beautifully crafted sentence; carved out as I run or walk in the edge-lands of our town. Elusive when I have paper and pencil to hand.

This group has become a real source of inspiration, support and friendship. There are no guilt trips or judgements. Constructive critique moves us forward together and for that I am grateful. ‘Rambling Rose’ referred to my regular blogging this morning, nudging me to remember that it might have become more erratic of late.

That’s maybe just additional evidence that I am not a robot.  Along with many others, I had a bad experience with the Covid-19 testing site a couple of weeks ago. I managed to get the required test, which arrived late in the day, but failed in my efforts to convince the website that I was not a robot. With not much time to spare before the last post, I ended up in another call centre queue. If I had been a robot, I would probably not have suffered the same level of frustration with the website. Being human, I was yet again grateful for the understanding and helpfulness of a real person.

Autumn in the edge-lands

Call centre blues

I need to add a new signatory to a bank mandate. It’s a task to be completed before I can stand down from my volunteer treasurer role. It seems straightforward, easy enough to start the process online.

I go through the necessary hurdles to log on to the account. A message: we can’t do this online right now, call this number. I call the number. An immediate response. It’s not a person, it’s a recorded menu; I choose option 1. The music kicks in, a steady adrenaline inducing rhythm. No indication of how many are ahead of me in the queue. The occasional interruption of a recorded voice thanking me for waiting.

Forty minutes later, I can take no more. I hang up, wondering if it was nearly my turn.

I leave it a few days before I try again. Another immediate response. I remember it’s not real, select option 1, brace myself against the music. Twenty minutes pass. A real person offers to help me.

I pass the security tests. I congratulate myself on retrieving a texted code without inadvertently ending the call and returning to the back of the queue.

I explain my requirements. Casper, the friendly call handler, works through the process online. It takes another forty minutes to complete the forms and explain the next steps. He takes his time, makes sure he gets it right. I’m grateful for his time and patience. I thank him, and realise that his undivided attention is the reward for a long wait.

Free to be me

I read a friend’s blog. She spoke of harsh words running through her like a stick of rock, the core of her being as it were. She described them as invisible scars.

As I was running this morning (run #29/40 for the GNR solo) I thought about her words. I wondered first, how do they put the letters into a stick of rock? Then I began to ponder the words that run through me. Would the words which others read in me differ from the ones I feel myself?

Earlier this week, my mum described me as ‘independent’. She’s labelled me in many ways over the years: it didn’t necessarily feel like a compliment. She’s understandably angry and fed up at the loss of her own independence right now. There was a sense that she would like to maintain more control.

Sometimes it feels as though I’ve spent too much of my life trying not to rock the boat. Not always with success. Maybe I have occasionally felt that I have lost sight of myself, the person I was created to be. Now I’m thinking it will take a lifetime to fully become that person.

Not independent but interdependent: a tiny efficient cog working within a complex machine. Life is dynamic; we can’t stand still.

Feeling crimpled, but very brave

A moment of real confusion this week resulted in a big win for thisgranny. The prize: a whole day, an extra 24 hours of life recovered. It was like finding a treasure trove of emergency money, folded and forgotten in a pocket. It was always there, always mine, but felt worth so much more for its rediscovery.

A friend asked me ‘are you free on Thursday?’ I replied that I wasn’t sure, there was half a chance of a wild swim. Later in the day, I sent a text: no swimming, I can walk tomorrow. Her reply: tomorrow’s Wednesday, can you walk on Thursday?

Confusion sorted, we set off across the Crimple valley. We talked about its namesake crimplene, that synthetic fabric so beloved by older ladies in the 1960s. We remembered its strange texture and its tendency to generate unexpected static shocks. Not quite back to normal yet, we decided that it’s ok if we feel a little crimpled.

Heading back around the edge of town, we faced a field of cows. Not my favourite sort of walking, I confessed. Mr A calls it an irrational fear. I consider it to be quite rational. I have read that attacks by cows outnumber those by sharks; allegedly in a ratio of around 20:1. And he wouldn’t swim across a pool of sharks. Today we were both in agreement. We didn’t like it, but we would take it in our stride. And, maybe give them a slightly cautious wide berth, just in case.

Attaining safety on the far side of the gate, we felt relieved. We knew we had been brave.

Still seeking solitude

It’s been a strange couple of weeks.

Going into lockdown felt comparatively easy for me. Cancel everything, stay at home. Only go out to exercise or to do essential shopping. No traffic noise, lots of birdsong. Four months later, reversing lockdown feels loud and complex.

It’s been great to have family and friends to visit; good to get a haircut. #GNRsolo runs are fitting into a new schedule of coffee dates and appointments. I have to confess that, some days, I have felt a little overwhelmed by the existence of pre-planned events in the diary.

As a child, I was frequently accused of being too much of an introvert. As if it was something within my control. Self-conscious, I became quieter and retreated to the world of books. The craving for moments of solitude hasn’t gone away. When life gets too busy I still need space and downtime. I’m not a recluse, I enjoy the company of others but I draw my strength from an inner depth. Extroverts can drain me.

I describe myself now as an ambivert. I need time to get in touch with my introvert side, but I’m frequently surprised by the joy of meeting similar souls. Like my school gate friend, Mary. We met for a walk by the river and an open air coffee. She told me that she had willingly sacrificed time alone in an empty house to meet up with me; I felt privileged. We understand each other.

Running solo

On Sunday, a challenge appeared on a whatsapp message for #GNRSolo. The link’s not working for me, I replied. That’s because it’s just a picture, said my daughter. Once that was sorted, I was able to search on line to read the challenge.

Last Sunday, 28 June, was the 40th anniversary of the Great North Run. It’s a late summer event now, but it seems that was not always the case. The challenge, should I choose to accept it: forty runs in the 78 days between the 40th anniversary date and the date of the, now postponed, 2020 GNR. No specification on speed or distance of the runs. That will motivate me, I thought, as I entered my details online. One by one, my family all signed up for the solo event. I even set up a spreadsheet to record my progress. After 5 short runs, my spreadsheet tells me that I have run the equivalent of one half marathon this week.

Mr A managed to achieve this distance in fewer runs, and in considerably less time than me. However, he is now out of action for a while. He hobbled home, battered and bruised, after crashing to the ground on his 3rd run. He had the misfortune of encountering a small dog running out of control between his feet. A trip to A&E and an emergency dental appointment followed. Whilst he may now be able to see the funny side of the event; the pain of his bruised ribs prevents him from laughing.