Out of time: part one

Introduction: life and death

This one matters. If you, good reader, would spend time perusing one of my blogs, this is probably the wisest choice. Promise.

When discussing the importance, or otherwise, of sporting endeavours, one stock phrase comes back again and again. “It’s not life and death“. For me, this was.

For a number of months I was caught between the end of a life that meant so much to me and the uncertainty, trepidation and dizzying change that came with taking my own in a completely new direction.

I felt that ‘Out of Time’ needed some context: certainly, I needed a bit of a run up to take it on. I was afraid of what I’d have to face up to by starting it, never mind finishing. It was as hard as I expected. I started and then scrapped so many insufficient beginnings: nothing was good enough, but then that’s partly how I felt looking back at the season, too.

At the start of August, I sat in the stands at the Olympic stadium in London, knowing that just four seconds separated me from a spectator’s view of events and the incredible privilege of competing at the World Championships. It would have been my first Irish vest, and almost a month after my grandmother’s funeral, I felt that running there would somehow pull back the time that I felt had suddenly run away from me in her death. I know how much it would have meant to her, and this is something I’ll never entirely be able to let go of.

Ultimately, I now find myself pursuing my childhood dream of international sport, with hopes to run at major competitions over the next several years. That’s worth everything to me. I’m very lucky to have this chance, and I’m partly writing this to chase away a few ghosts that seem intent on holding me back.

It’s a long story, with a lot of light and a good deal of darkness, but I hope to be more succinct than usual. There’s a lot of ground to cover.

Part one: Lost for words

“One has to decide whether one’s fears or one’s hopes are what should matter most.”

(Atul Gawande, Being Mortal)

While sorting through a small pile of paper in a vaguely organised part of my room, a page written by a different hand fell to the floor. I so rarely receive written communication from other people, with the exception of my father, and time seems to have left that art behind. Most of my writing is on a screen.

That’s the thing with digital text. It doesn’t just drop out of a stack of mixed papers and leave you winded: lost for words. The letter was one of two that my granny had written to me in the last several months of her life, and it took me entirely by surprise. Often, when something happens unexpectedly, we have no chance to prepare appropriate, considered emotions, and are forced to face something that we’d rather not.

In organising our thoughts to react, we make them line up in a way that we’re progressively trained to do as adults. Not too much, not too little, and certainly not too public. Excessive emotions should be private, especially for men, and particularly for men brought up in a traditional, middle-class, educated way. Keep a stiff shirt collar and a stiff upper lip, we’re told.

Searching for a way to start this series, nothing seemed to work: I suppose I was waiting for the right moment, without any idea what that might entail. It might have passed already, or I might have spent an indeterminate period of time looking out for something that was never going to arrive. That’s the same with relationships, and while that’s a good story a lot of us might understand, it’s one for another time.

I had hoped it would be easy, that I might stumble on the right words by accident, and not have to dig too deep to find them. I also thought I could ignore the low points of my journey, and paint a bright tapestry that started with a first vest for my country in Manchester and carried onto a PB that puts me among the top 40 steeplechasers in Europe. No one really needed to know, right? Who really wanted to know? I didn’t tell my parents, and I only gave my friends a sense of what was going through my head, but in safe patches, just enough to digest in nice pieces, so it wasn’t too intense.

There were two periods where I told my coach I was giving up. The first lasted as long as my resolve, which was a day and a half. The second continued for a little longer, but ultimately I failed to give up then, too. I didn’t have the stubborn, bloody minded strength of will to make the change I was telling myself I could, and go back home, and I’m very grateful for that.

On many other occasions I wanted to throw in the towel, but I told myself ‘just one more day’, ‘see how it feels tomorrow‘. Often tomorrow would be better, sometimes it would be worse, but mostly I kept going, because I was afraid to give up, too. It wasn’t bravery, but a different kind of fear.

If I gave up before the track season, I’d never know whether I could have made it, and I’d never forgive myself for quitting early. I suppose it was both a fearful hope (aspiring with trepidation and self-doubt to perhaps succeed), and the kind of hopeful fear one experiences when placed precipitously atop the highest diving board. The opening quote poses a wonderful question, but I’m still too afraid and indecisive to answer it firmly.

Later on, after I got the first and even the second Commonwealth standard, I was worried about writing this. As much as I wrote other things, many of them witty, some jokes, some poems, some stories and a couple of speeches, this was admonishing me from the top of my to-do list.

Life in London has given me a great deal. I’ve got to a point where I can call myself a semi-professional athlete, on the verge of international competition, with two university degrees under my belt and a hopefully long life stretching out in exciting directions. I can’t complain, but I’ve always partly wanted to be at home, to be the centre of nobody’s attention apart from my own, and be there for my family when they need me, if I had the consistent mental and physical health to do so.

That was my responsibility. I always thought I’d have time to go home and spend time with my grandmother, whose funeral I went to in July, the day after the British championships. The day after I’d let another opportunity at the Commonwealth standard slip through my fingers.

Just as my window to dip once more under 8:43 was closing, my time with my grandmother had vanished completely. I couldn’t claw it back, but most days since the start of June, my thoughts have come back to her last words to me. Not once, but twice I thought I’d heard the final things she’d ever say to me.

The first, last sentence was, “health is the most important”. The second, “news from Adam“. On both occasions, I left in pieces, and had to pick myself up to keep going, to pick up training and carry on, knowing that the place I most wanted to be was the place I was leaving.

While I was off racing internationally in Belgium and Spain, other people were by granny’s bedside, there for her when she needed it. Was it worth it? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure I ever will be, but I told myself I had to try and find out.

So, after months of putting it off, I put pen to paper last week and started writing. Almost immediately I fell apart in tears, and decided that it was a bad idea. Too late though, I’d started, and I needed to make it lead somewhere. This was too important not to finish.

Now, having begun a new season, I think it’s time to open the door a little, and share some of what I’ve been keeping back.

To do that, I need to jump back a year and a half, and start at something like the beginning.

Part two continues the story.

IMG_2569

This photo was taken the day before I spoke to my granny for the last time. It looks like I’m winning – I came third, two people are ahead of me out of shot. The camera might lie, but, for the duration of this series, I’ll try not to.

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The space between the barriers, or, three hundred and seventy one days

22051693300
27051783762

They almost look like phone numbers, lists of digits preceded by a plausible commencement of code. They wouldn’t quite be the same area, but perhaps the two strings would share regional affiliation.

How we break numbers up is a huge part of their significance. I guess it works for words too.

22-05-16 93300 That’s a bank sort code, although followed by an implausibly short account number. Perhaps some digits have got lost in translation?

+22 051693300 Set like this, even without the plus, it’s a phone number. The eleven digits check out, if you call it you might even get through.

If I google the first code, the only result is an indecipherable list of numbers, headed in Mandarin or Cantonese script that I can’t begin to fathom. Any decryptions are welcome. http://www.chinxm.com/show7.asp?id=2205169

There are so many permutations, and they may mean absolutely nothing. For me, at least, this bizarre puzzle has a solution.

22.05.16: 9:33.0 27.05.17: 8:37.62

Three hundred and seventy one days separate two dates, and two performances. One was good enough to take me to the English championships a day after my lowest point of the year, and the second was a qualifying mark for the commonwealth games, the world university games (sadly not applicable), and thirteen hundredths of a second short of the mark required for the European Championships. It came, too, after a depth of hopelessness I don’t wish to return to again, and the number thirteen has a significance outside its culturally ominous portent that will be returned to at some stage. Perhaps.

In the space of time in between both races, I’ve written well over a hundred thousand words, perhaps closer to two, most of which lies in incomplete piles under a series of titles that I most recently counted at two hundred and fifteen. It’s impossible to quantify the depth of human experience in numbers, and by extension it’s impossible in words, as that’s all these are.

In writing on a screen, thoughts that take place in language switch form between nerve impulses from brain to finger into kinetic pops onto a digital keyboard, flipping rapidly from a numerical electronic signal to the standardised shapes we all recognise as letters. As in the subtext that accompanies those enticingly swish adverts, for narrative purposes steps have been removed and the sequence has been shortened.

I suppose I like to try. I sit down, sometimes in a spare moment on the tube, and often when travelling on more amenable aerated or rapid transports, and put pen to paper, or skin to screen. Inevitably these sorts of things fail, especially if they’re written on a Sunday evening and have drifted invariably off a topic that was originally quite simple.

The space between publishing posts often gnaws away at me. It wouldn’t if I felt nobody cared at all, and I was just writing for myself, but then I’d never end up finishing anything. I have a vague idea that some of what I write is for other people.

The things that actually go up on this blog are either pieces I’ve actually felt I’ve had to write (most recently before changing clubs, and subsequently to attempt to reverse stepping on toes, and in the clumsy attempt, I suspect, crushing more feet), or the throwing out of any piece of almost complete poetry to fill the space, and deprive silence of its empty power.

I’ve never set myself a deadline, and there’s so often been the excuse of work, training, or laziness (whether genuine or feigned I can never quite decide). I suppose I should have opened with an exciting account of a recent race, and goodness me there’s enough of that to be going on with. I might have produced an account of my first holiday since the summer of 2014, a trip to Slovenia that brought more new experiences than I could find words for.

That’s perhaps because my grasp of the language extends to basic courtesies, assorted fruit names and, aptly, the word for forest, gozd. There were a lot of forests, and I found being able to look out the window into dense woodland more restful and restorative even than the hours of sleep gloriously undisturbed by the noise and light of London. Like Tolkien, I have always had a love of trees and green space, and every return to London feels in some part like a betrayal of the desire to be apart from the compulsion to be conspicuously busy and ‘interesting’.

Sometimes when putting things off for long enough, we can be paralysed into inaction, or when returning to something after a long break, whether it’s a crossword, a painting or a friendship, the reunion can be underwhelming. That clue can still remain elusive, the colours and shapes flatter than we recall, or the communication more awkward and effortful than we remember.

There are so many things I could have written instead, but none of them were finished, and another poem would definitely have been a cop-out.

A clean slate seemed a fine place to start, but having painted all over it with words, I think it might have looked better empty. Much like the silence, the calmness of its surface ‘seemed to dislike being broken’, as Tolkien wrote of the quiet of Mirkwood.

I suppose I’ve also realised since returning that London isn’t as safe as even I’d thought, and we can’t know when our opportunity to break the silence, even ineptly, will leave us forever.

I’ve made an effort over the last week to contact friends and family more, and although that was simply an attempt to ground myself and stay focussed after the distractions of success unexpected both in its very arrival and its height, it now seems especially apt.

There’s so much more to write, and so much more to finish, but I think this will do for now. Thanks for reading, for I suspect at least someone has, and goodnight, good afternoon or good morning as appropriate.

Just a thought (time)

On a perfectly normal bus journey, on a regular day in London, a thought occurred. For the past two days, I had made my way in on the tube, a journey completed in a darkened, subterranean world. The supply of light, air and assorted visual stimuli journeying on the bus was comparatively gratuitous.

And yet I felt frustrated, anxious, jittery. It was too slow, almost unbearably arduous, and uncomfortably stop-start in its movement.

As the bus moved ponderously around another corner, I realised why. As I sat there, my time was wasting away, time I knew that I could spend in a thousand different ways, however I wished. The word displayed across the front of the building opposite read: ‘rapidity’. Speed. Time.

I was unwilling to accommodate anything in my day that was slower than the fastest possible option. Time takes the lead, at the cost of comfort, interest, and even cost. I couldn’t bear to sit for an hour, knowing that I could get there in less than half the time propelled underground in a metal cylinder.

As an aspiring journalist, this hit me quite profoundly. If I couldn’t stand any degree of delay in getting around, how could I permit it in that most valuable of commodities, my information? Why should anyone choose to wait for more refined accuracy and better quality information in basic news when a satisfactory product that does the job is available almost instantaneously?