Saturday, 25 May 2013

Hello, breath

Today wasn't a good breathing day.  It's been a bad few weeks.  The home oxygen machine has been puffing on her behalf throughout the fluctuating weather.  The day it fluctuates will be cause for concern.  It's efficient but cold.  Standing to attention in the kitchen.  We cannot ignore its presence.  We appreciate its contribution.  But it's not the same.

Energy levels have been very low and, unsurprisingly, so too has the general mood.  Not being able to breathe has many nasty side effects.  The days can often seem dark, even in bright sunlight.  It's a horrid illness, and it's horrible to watch a parent deteriorate in its merciless hands.  

The fine weather this weekend counted for little as even the slightest movement was exhausting and draining.  Conversation seemed stunted, and I found myself lost for words in spite of a wonderfully invigorating morning spent with my best friend at the Lido.

I seek never to take my breath for granted.  I push it to the extreme, but never unknowingly.  My lungs are fully cooperative, and seem to enjoy the workout.  Breathing deeply is something I revel in.  I bathe in my breath, and delight in my ability to breathe.  I actively work to increase my lung capacity and train my breath to maximise my efficiency.  My breath is my friend.  Thank goodness.

This cruel illness not content with robbing the primary sufferer of their energy and joie de vivre insidiously takes its grip at the centre of our little family.  It seeks to dominate and consume.  From time to time, its destructive forces seem to reap havoc throughout our lives.

We cannot take a moment for granted.  It gives us not a moments peace.  It's there waiting, just beneath the surface, impeding and making impossible those things most people with a parent in their 60s might not think twice about.  We rarely leave the house together these days.  Getting around the house has itself become a challenging chore for Mummy but it is at least known, and familiar, and that feels safer.  Safe but far from sound.  Isolation is the breeding ground for rumination and brooding, reminiscing and wishful thinking - if only, what if and I wish... 

I wish it were different.  I wish it weren't so difficult.  But it is, and this is relentless.  There are no let ups.  A good day is cause for celebration.  Today, in spite of the sunshine, we could not celebrate - there was little available beyond the bare minimum.  

On leaving I felt small, and grossly inadequate, staring into the impossibly harsh face of this illness that had robbed me of the mother I want to relate to, the mother I hope to find every time I go round, the mother I assumed I'd have for years to come.

I felt beaten, jaded and terribly sad.  I knew I needed to connect with my own breath, and breathe deeply into, and through the many emotions that were running strong.  It being a wonderfully sunny evening my bike smiled at me from where it's been standing in my recently reinstated post flood bedroom.  8 miles, and I was at Sheen Gate, and in the Park.  Free to ride, as hard and as fast as I wished.  It was a glorious evening, and there were but a few of us lapping in the hazy sunshine.  'Hello, breath', I said to myself as I pedalled towards Richmond Gate.  It was, I knew immediately, exactly what I needed to do.      

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Weekend happenings

Weekends are important.  In my case they tend to arrive just when needed - after five rewarding and productive days.  This one was no exception, in that respect anyway.  The contents unfolded beautifully organically and were, to my mind at least, hard to beat.  Swimming in a 50m Lido on Saturday morning was an exceptional way to start off - particularly without a wetsuit!  My blueseventy purchased last year in advance of my Thames mile has yet to be dusted off and reacquainted with the element in which it is most comfortable.  Why I chose to leave it at home on the rather fresh day a morning dip took my fancy, I will be pondering for some time to come.  But I did.

And, as I made my way towards my lane of choice, I noticed a feint hint of amusement in the lifeguard's eye. Novice, he thought.  I think on finishing my fortieth length, albeit rather cold and (Charlotte now tells me) beginning to sound rather incoherent, he had re-evaluated his bias towards swimmers choosing to go 'naked'.  I was just a little proud of my achievements, and felt suitably rewarded by the delicious pastry and by then much needed hot cuppa which awaited us at the Blackbird Bakery.

Charlotte's stroke is coming along nicely and will, I'm confident, stand her in good stead at the upcoming Aquathlon and then the Shock Absorber WomenOnly Triathlon.  I was delighted to share a few observations as we swam in the great outdoors; she in appropriate attire, me not.  

Today's weather bore little, if any, relation to the forecast.  Which was a good thing.  It made for a splendid day to get out and get going a-round the Park a few times.  And I could not have asked for finer company to do so, bumping into Charlotte and Sam, and then reconnecting with my dear cousin for the first time in fifteen years.  Much has happened in between, but we've both picked up bikes and are putting them to good use.  A timely reminder of the significance of families:  those we are born into, and those we create for ourselves along the way.  All of us can have both - a family of origin, and a family of choice.  

"Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: 
Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one." 
Jane Howard, 'Families'

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Flushing through gender to see the rainbow more clearly

Most of us have rare cause to examine our gender.  We are born into bodies we take for granted, and only come to question when they no longer look as we'd like them to.  We might seek to change our bodies.  Investigating the next celebrity endorsed diet, for guaranteed weight loss or a smooth svelte outline.  We might take supplements, to enhance definition.  We may think about hopping on a sunbed, to achieve the perfect shade, or perhaps go for a spray tan when we're feeling deprived of Vitamin D.  We may enjoy modifying our bodies, with art, expressing ourselves and our views in ink or piercings, visible, or less visible to those we pass on the street.  

But for those among us who do not classify themselves as cisgendered, i.e. those individuals whose self-perception of their gender does not match the sex they were assigned at birth, the body can be the landscape of self hatred, as a territory in which a very real battle can play out.  

The cultural discourses that exist around gender are wide and varied.  I've become familiar with a fair few of them, and the scripts and narratives that contain them.  The way in which they are carried and promulgated does not have to be explicit.  So many of these messages are those we inherit, absorb and perhaps never have cause to think about; they lie beneath the surface, internalised and embedded.  Then there is taboo, those things that, simply by virtue of the fact that they are unspoken carry so much weight.  After all, even something spoken about disparagingly, is speakable.  

In my work with those courageously wishing to think about their gender, and their relationship with it, I see it as my role and function to sit on an often deeply uncomfortable fence.  There are possibilities aplenty.  This can happen, but so too can this.  And then there is always that...  I give opinion, based on experience and understanding I have gathered.  I offer information, in order that my clients are armed with the facts.  Feelings are central, but knowledge is power.  And we are all in the business of learning.  

All too often gender has a very straight-forward narrative that we swallow at primary school.  And there, at that stage in our lives and cognitive development, it may well broadly fit.  It is simple, and reduced into two packages - you are either this, or that.  And herein arises the problem - because we don't know what to do with the other - we lack a third hand on which to consider that which doesn't neatly fit into either of the aforementioned, apparently only available options.  

As we grow up, we come to understand that alongside North, South, East and West are many more possibilities - take for instance North by North West.  Our perspective broadens with age.  So long as we are offered the language, and our understanding is informed and underpinned by affirmation.  Masculine and feminine are the two most commonly talked about expressions of gender.  But they do not, we now know, comprise the full story.  I wonder how we might go about enlightening the next generation more effectively as to the reality of the rainbow, in the interests of preserving and promoting mental health and well-being. 



Monday, 13 May 2013

Going for Pink

Sunday 12 May 2013 will be a day I won't forget in a hurry.  It involved a ludicrously early start, to get to Blenheim before what would ordinarily be breakfast time.  At that point the sun shone.  But it wasn't to remain out for long.  The clouds conspired, and for those (few) of us tackling the 60 mile circuit, much of our afternoon was spent on two wheels in wet and windy conditions.  

I knew why I was there, and the inspiring talk given to us by a fantastically enthusiastic member of the Events Team imprinted it exactly where it needed to be - forefront of my mind - I was doing it in honour of a very special woman.  A woman who is solely responsible for me getting on a bike, for me buying my first road bike, and for my new found enthusiasm for apparently not insubstantial distances.  

Charlotte was there with me, in spirit, as I toured the very attractive Cotswold villages.  Her gentle, yet powerful words of encouragement that have (helpfully) been stored in my 'Random Access Memory' from our recent rides around Richmond Park reminded me that the only thing that realistically stood between me and the (pink) finish line was myself and my attitude to the task in hand.     

I rode as well as I could.  After 45 miles I was painfully stiff.  And hungry.  I have a lot to learn about the tricks of longish rides.  I need to find some energy releasing fuels that I can carry with me.  I needed all the energy I could muster, to keep my legs rolling whilst giving short shrift to my less than helpful thinking.

What goes up has to come down - right?  According to my GPS I climbed 10ft more than I descended yesterday.  A total of 4235.5ft, to be precise.  My mood undulated alongside the terrain.  I had to fight my own alien invasion.  At points I imagined what it might be like to be a cancer patient.  My body told me that it had a rough idea.  I thought only of Charlotte and of what she represents.  Courage.  Faith.  Strength.  Fight.  

I became emotional more than once.  This, I know today, isn't a bad thing.  Why wouldn't I? There was no coincidence that I was wearing vivid pink nail varnish, that my handlebars were newly adorned with hot pink tape and that this, my most intense ride to date, was organised by Breast Cancer Care.         

After 5 long hours and a painful further 17 minutes in the saddle, Rider No. 2013 reached the finish. My medal was hard earned.  It is, just like my best friend, both shiny and strong.  

Please visit my fundraising site and support my training efforts 
in advance of my even bigger ride in August...

Monday, 6 May 2013

In praise of solitude

There is, I have come to realise, a vast difference between solitude and loneliness.  Solitude is something I cherish, something I relish, and something I look forward to.  I plan it at regular intervals.  This week was one of those planned breaks.  Escapes from the busy-ness of my life in London, with a deliberate change of environment to enable re-calibration and adjustment of pace and routine. 

Solitude, differentiated from loneliness can be creative and uplifting.  Chosen, rather than imposed, it is in my experience often benign and fruitful - necessary, longed for space in which to reflect and take stock.  That is not to say it is always an easy option.  It is certainly not to everyone's taste but a little time apart can be a necessity - solitude is required if the inward eye is to be allowed to open fully - crowds and noise tend to make our senses shrink. 

Wordsworth compared solitude to a blissful state.  For me, solitude is realistic - it is about recognising and respecting our inner balance.  Getting away from ourselves, and taking ourselves away from those we love and care about is not an admission of any failing, but I think rather about separation and individuation.  Only by being apart and alone can we reconcile those different and sometimes competing or contradictory parts of ourselves.  To reach a state of one-ness where there is no other we need the spaciousness afforded by solitude.       

I have grown to enjoy my own company.  Interspersed with wonderful time spent in the company of the many special people in my life, I have come to value quality time spent toute seule.  It is, for me, the ultimate opportunity to re-fresh and re-charge.  Returning somewhere that is by now familiar is a pleasure and a treat - I can venture as far as I wish to, or remain still. 

There is a busy time ahead of me.  I have plenty planned, and my Monday to Friday existence is generally fairly full.  For a start, there is some serious bicycle riding to be done.  I have the Ribbonride at Blenheim Palace in a couple of weeks' time, and a series of mini challenges spread throughout June and July, in anticipation of the big one - my first ever cyclo-sportive (one hundred miles for the uninitiated) on Sunday 4 August.  I think that's at least 450 miles accounted for.  I'm putting my wheels to good use. 

I believe I am built for endurance.  My experience confirms this.  I push myself - hard - and enjoy the aftermath.  I am already looking forward to the sense of achievement I hope to derive from my Ride 100 in aid of Breast Cancer Care and the British Lung Foundation.  My efforts will be well worthwhile.  Every penny raised for the two organisations will count for something.   

Please visit my fundraising site and support my efforts...

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Swim. Ride. REST.

Such has been the pattern for me in recent days.  There are few things I enjoy doing more than driving on traffic free roads, riding on pleasantly winding roads without road markings and swimming in an uncrowded and beautifully maintained 50m pool.  Each of these activities have been enhanced by the fact that they have been engaged in for as long as I wish, without the need to clock-watch, or be interrupted by any form of modern communication.  I have been peacefully pacing myself, and getting in touch with my body and its fluctuating energy levels, maintaining maximum enthusiasm throughout. 

I have swum over 12k in the last four days.  But more to the point, I have enjoyed each and every length.  I have swum alongside some incredible fish-like swimmers.  True aquathletes.  I adore the pool at the Bath University Sports Training Village, and have written about its depth and fast water previously.  Something happens when I train, without the usual distractions of a busy weekday schedule into which a brief swim has been cleverly fitted (but only just) – I just swim, and swim on a little further.  I thought little of my 3.5k this morning.  It went swimmingly.  

I was barely aware of those I was sharing the lane with – there was ample room for each of us, and we maintained a steady pace, occasionally holding the wall for minibreak and a sip of our energy drink of choice (mine is usually of the Lucozade variety).  I was very aware of the pool – and quickly got into the zone I have fondly named mindful swimming.  I was focusing on my breath.  Each and every breath that came, and went.  Inhaling as I turned my head, before exhaling, slowly, mindfully, consciously, deliberately.  I swim with my mouth open throughout, Michael Phelps style(!)  Coming to the end of the length, I hold my breath, to tumble turn, and return back down the pool – taking a few power strokes to recommence my rhythm.  50m takes me 45 seconds.  The laps clock up, but I’m not really there to count.  I try to stay connected with my experience.  How I am feeling.  Body immersed.  Body being breathed.  

Friday, 3 May 2013


Destination Thursday:  Bath Abbey (and the Thermae Baths)
Destination Friday:  Wells Cathedral

These past few days have been quite simply heavenly.  I could not have been more fortunate, picking a week to take my break during which I have been blessed with a streak of weather better than I can remember for quite some time.  It has enabled me to do exactly what I set out to do – get out on my bike, and clock up some miles.  Riding alone on unfamiliar winding country roads, traversing this green and pleasant land, picking destinations and midpoints according to the attractiveness of the signposted place name has been terrific food for mind, body and soul.

It has reminded me a little of some of my earliest cycling memories.  Not learning to ride my first bike, on Clapham Common, but riding around Rutland, from my grandmother’s house on my prize possession, a beautiful metallic grey Raleigh that was bought for me one Christmas (I suspect it might have been something of a Christmas-Birthday combo).  It was but a 3-speed, which whilst perfectly serviceable in and around Oakham and the surrounding countryside, might not have fared so well in and around Somerset where the landscape has caught me (and my quads) by surprise.  

I’m pleased to report that I felt distinctly more comfortable with the regular undulations on my third outing, having acclimatised after about 50 miles of ups and downs.  A good metaphor really – that things do get easier, even if the territory doesn’t change much, but one’s endurance improves.  An important step along the way was probably the alteration of my expectations – I have learnt to expect not to fly around the villages, but progress in a gradual fashion.  My average cadence has been somewhat dismal, at sub 12 mph, but I have on occasion exceeded 36mph descending with a tailwind.  All in all, it has been a fantastic break with a complete change of scenery and a serious breath of very fresh air.      

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Slow down

This poem that was the prompt for my morning reflection really struck a chord with my intention this week.  It was apparently written by a young cancer patient being treated in a hospital in NYC who had been told that her condition was terminal, and that she had only months to live. 

"Have you ever watched kids on a merry-go-round, or listened to rain slapping the ground?
Ever followed a butterfly's erratic flight, or gazed at the sun fading into the night?
You better slow down, don't dance so fast, time is short, the music won't last.

Do you run through each day on the fly,
when you ask "How are you?", do you hear the reply?
When the day is done, do you lie in your bed,
with the next hundred chores running through your head?
You better slow down, don't dance so fast, time is short, the music won't last.

Ever told your child, we'll do it tomorrow, and in your haste, not see his sorrow?
Ever lost touch, let a friendship die, 'cause you never had time to call and say hi?
You better slow down, don't dance so fast, time is short, the music won't last.

When you run so fast to get somewhere, you miss half the fun of getting there.
When you worry and hurry through your day, it's like an unopened gift thrown away.
Life isn't a race, so take it slower, hear the music before your song is over."

Whilst the origins of the poem are disputed, the content resonates somewhere very deep within me and this morning served as a beautiful reminder of the precious-ness of life.  Life is nothing if we do not live it.  Each and every day is precious.  When we remain caught up, thinking about yesterdays, or coveting tomorrow, we are apt to miss what really matters.  This one unique day.