A Literal Girl

Leaf

Summer

Today while I was out running I noticed that the leaves are already falling from some of the keener trees. If I think about it, this is no surprise: it’s early September, still warm, but sunsets come early and violently, the rose hips are bright on the bush, and I can hear pop music pumping out of the house next door, which means we have new neighbors. This is the true signal of Autumn here. I hear their footsteps and their doors slamming and yesterday they took a parcel for me while I was out, but my guess is I will probably never learn their names and I certainly wouldn’t know them if I saw them on the street; we just share walls, that’s all.

It was a shitty run, which happens sometimes, and I felt very strange out there on my own. Usually when I’m having a good run the feeling I get is one of intense belonging, intimacy with the city. Things feel very close together. Oxford is round and bowl-like and it’s actually quite difficult to run any distance here and not butt up against the ring road, not have to climb and descend hills. Today when things went wrong and I stopped running I felt very far from home, even though I was only a few miles away. I felt out of place. I think it’s good to feel this sometimes. I noticed it the other day when I was out taking photos with my SLR, for work, and people were treating me – well, I was treating myself – like a tourist. I was waiting for things to line up in just the right way and meanwhile people were trying not to walk across my shot and maybe thinking well, it is a beautiful city, but god damn, will you get out of the way already? Which is a thing I often think when I’m in a hurry to get somewhere and people are stopped in the middle of the street with their cameras trained on something. But there I was, walking around with a camera hung around my neck, feeling intensely unlike myself. I’d thought maybe it would give me a sense of purpose, an excuse to behave in a way I don’t often give myself permission to behave (lingering, looking, getting in the way) but I just couldn’t wait to get back to being my usual self. I was practically dizzy after half an hour.

Anyhow today, on my run, I walked for about five or ten minutes and I swear those five or ten minutes lasted far longer than any other five or ten minutes I experienced all day. And during this vast expanse of time I looked up and saw that the leaves were not just turning but falling. At a junction I waited for the light and there was a sea of papery yellow leaves at my feet.

So: it was a good summer, hot and busy, and it’s pretty much over now. Here are some photos of it.

More lake swimming

Late summer light

Evening light

Lake swimming

Snowdonia

On the way to London

Clyro

Leaves

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Recent writing: Leave to Remain

I have a new essay up at Vela. It’s about the process of acquiring indefinite leave to remain in the UK, and becoming a permanent resident – though really it’s more about the process of waiting for this to happen, and the sense of feeling somehow trapped during this extended period of application and not-quite-residency. It’s also (perhaps as everything I write ends up being) partly about what I’ve called “the wild in the banal”, the way everyday life can seem so strange if you look at it closely enough:

When I was younger I used to fantasize about having a button I could press that would pause the world around me while I caught my breath, had a nap, figured out a solution, came up with something witty to say. My current situation is the opposite of that fantasy – someone has pressed the pause button on my life, and I am suspended, watching the rest of the world go by.

The pause button on my life was pressed by the UK Border Agency. Three months ago I applied for indefinite leave to remain here in the UK, where I have lived with my British partner for the past seven years. I have held, over the course of these years, a student visa, a post-study work visa, and an unmarried partner visa, and I am now, at last, eligible to apply to settle permanently.

The application process is like taking a leap of faith into an abyss. You take the “Life in the UK” test (“Is the statement below TRUE or FALSE? Getting to know your neighbours can help you to become part of the community”). You fill out a 50-page application form. You send a large envelope containing bank statements and pay slips and utility bills and your passport and, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, a photocopy of every enclosed document. You pay a £1,051 fee. And then you wait.

Read the full piece…

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Recent writing

My latest post for Vela went up last week. It’s about running, fear (of failure, of limits), and exploration (of a sort):

In this way running is actually just an effort to do something new – or, rather, to see the same things from a slightly different perspective. What does this street feel like at the end of a 10k run? What does it do to my conception of the city to shorten the time it takes to get from here to there on my own two feet, to discover a new route, to think of that particular street corner as the place I had to walk for a bit, or that stretch of road as the place that everything felt effortless and good?

Read the whole thing

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February

February: a month on the edge of hope – sharp, bright, cold, short. A kind of counterpart to Keats’ “season of mist and mellow fruitfulness!”. Daffodils are exploding in the garden in what seems to me to be a fit of unseasonably early optimism; we haven’t even had our annual dusting of snow yet. But meanwhile time marches on. The morning routine is soothing and rhythmic. I know almost to the minute how long the ride to the pool is, when I’ll be done with my swim, when I’ll be home, when I’ll be having my first cup of coffee.

***

On night I cycle out to Horspath via the Cowley Road and Hollow Way. This is unfamiliar territory. Out by the Mini plant it’s pitch black and deserted but for a few cars whizzing by, and the road suddenly becomes unwelcoming. I find a bike lane, eventually, on the other side of the road, and teeter in almost complete darkness towards, I hope, the athletics track. At a certain point the blinking light of a cyclist ahead of me is the only thing that stops me turning round in fear of dropping off the edge of the earth, but once there the journey feels short again; I know where I am on a map of Oxford and it’s not very far from home at all. I enjoy the sensation of being somewhere unfamiliar in a familiar place. There’s always a moment of almost dreamlike disconcertion, followed by fizz of excitement and possibility: it’s good to still be surprised by a place, to still find new things, and the longer you are somewhere, the stronger your habits become, the more likely it is that these new things exist just on the edge of your consciousness, close by but hidden, and you have to make an effort to see them.

I haven’t been on a track in years. I quit my high school track team halfway through my first season because one morning I woke up and realized that the feeling of dread I carried with me all the time had a cause, and that cause was daily two hour sessions at the track, and that in spite of all the motivational speeches I’d heard in movies, quitting really was an option. At the time I was proud of myself for making this discovery, for getting my own way. Now I wonder if maybe I should have toughed it out. I probably could have learned a thing or two. I would never have been a star, but I wasn’t an awful athlete; I was certainly capable, in theory, of doing everything that was asked of me. We all warmed up at meets in matching t-shirts that said, in black block capitals against a red background: “TRACK AND FIELD: THE ONLY TRUE SPORT. EVERYTHING ELSE IS JUST A GAME” (I held on to mine for years, as a reminder of my two months of toughness, but eventually it became the casualty of a breakup, which seemed a fitting fate). There was a certain pride in being a member of this group of people, even if I was a straggler, an outsider, still, at 14, largely uncomfortable in my own skin. But I didn’t tough it out. I went to play a game instead, and for years thereafter my relationship to the track as a place was characterized largely by the memory of pain: physical pain, yes, but also another, less tangible kind of pain: the pain of not winning, or even being in the vicinity of winning; the pain of learning your limitations; the pain of giving up.

That was almost fifteen years ago. Tonight the air is cold and clear – no rain, for what feels like the first time in weeks – and the darkness, the chill, the floodlights, the heavy breaths of the serious runners as they pound past, lend the evening an electric atmosphere. Like February, which is so close to the mania of springtime, so ripe, so carefully balanced on the edge. And true, there are moments, tonight, of intense boredom, moments of intense discomfort, moments of intense frustration. I’d forgotten that the thing about running around a track, as opposed to running through a city, is that there’s really nowhere to go to hide from boredom, discomfort, and frustration. It’s much more an exercise in meditation than an exercise of the heart or lungs or legs, in some senses. But there are also pleasurable moments, too. The way I feel light and unfettered (not, for once, running with keys, and iPod, and headphones, and more layers than I need, not distracted by indecision about which route to take or jolted out of reveries by aimless pedestrians veering into my path or whistling men in vans stopped at lights). The color and texture of the ground, the coolness of the air on my arms when I take my sweatshirt off. Yes, I am slower than I’d like to be, but I will always be slower than I’d like to be, and there are moments when this seems okay: I have nothing to prove.

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Pause

The last time I posted anything on this blog, I was sitting in California drinking a Firestone DBA, probably in a t-shirt, glowing with post-run-on-the-beach-in-winter smugness. And now I’m sitting on my couch in yoga pants and a sweatshirt, with a giant box of tissues at my elbow, willing myself not to turn the heating on because if last winter’s gas bill was anything to go by, we can’t really afford to have the heating on.

We’ve become one, this couch and I. But now I’ve run out of “quirky independent comedies with a strong female lead” on Netflix and I have that antsy-ness that comes when you’re on the cusp of feeling better but not quite feeling better yet. It’s in this state that you might start to think that going for a run is a good idea, or that a few beers will heal you completely, but then you’d get your sports bra on and collapse on the bed in exhaustion, or a few sips into a pint and start wishing it was juice.

Anyway, we came back from California on new year’s eve. We landed in the morning, disoriented and buzzing. While we waited for his father to pick us up from Heathrow we sat and drank coffee and talked at each other, about the films we’d watched when we should have been sleeping, about the Instapaper-ed articles we’d read, and about the things we’d do this week, this month, this year. And then we got home and crawled into bed and slept for hours, until it was dark outside and the rain had ceased.

On new year’s day we went for a walk, just as it was turning dusky outside. It’s becoming a tradition, this particular kind of new year’s day walk: I suggest it, he protests but ultimately agrees, and then he complains for the entire length of the Iffley Road. The complaining makes him feel better, and me a bit more subdued, so that ten minutes in we’re both in a similarly mellow state. This year, like most years, it was misting and the sky was ice blue. I put my hood up to keep the rain off my face. I wore two sweaters and a heavy winter coat. “See?” I said. “Isn’t this fun?”
“This kind of walking is pointless,” he said.
“What kind of walking has a point?”
“Well,” he said. “If we were climbing Mount Kilimanjaro…”
“Which is actually something I wouldn’t mind doing someday,” I said, half serious.
“Me either,” he said, half joking, and I remembered that after he asked me to marry him he’d said, “I’m sorry we weren’t somewhere spectacular, like the top of Mount Kilimanjaro,” which I thought was funny, and then a few days later, at a dinner, some family friends told us about their daughter, who’d also recently gotten engaged. “They climbed Kilimanjaro,” they told us. “And he proposed at the top. It wasn’t a big surprise, though.”

On this particular pointless new year’s day walk Christ Church Meadow was almost entirely flooded. As we floated out past Merton, the bells began to ring and ring: 7500 changes to commemorate Merton’s 750th anniversary. The wind felt wild, and the streetlamps glowed a hot orange.

***

For a few weeks I still had tan lines from swimming in an outdoor pool, and a fresh resolve that comes from taking actual time off work, from thinking and assessing. The tan lines have faded now. The resolve is still there, somewhere. In a sense I feel that this has already been a long year. Already I have done things: I’ve started re-learning how to drive a stick shift, joined the local triathlon club so that I can go along to the coached swim sessions, gotten my first ever prescription for glasses, booked a trip to Berlin, filed my tax return weeks early, cleaned out the garden shed. Last year feels blurry and far away. It doesn’t feel big, or momentous, though I guess big, momentous things happened: Book published. Got engaged. But it sort of felt like those things – nice as they are – were really just the start of something. Like the sum of last year is the building blocks for a slower, subtler, more meaningful change.

I took my time over resolutions this year. I don’t really do them – not in the insidious women’s magazine sense, anyway (“Take myself out on a date once a week. Lose that pesky five pounds. Be more accepting of who I am.”) But over the last few years I’ve taken to jotting down a few notes for myself at the beginning of each year, to varying degrees of prescriptiveness. This year I ended up with just one thing. It’s vague, maybe more like a mantra than a resolution, but I was feeling vague at the time, and vaguely excited, and anyway vague can nurture lots of smaller, more specific things.

Next month is my birthday month, so in a sense I always feel like the start of the year really comes in March. January and February are punctuation marks – the pause between the frenetic end of one year and the we’re really plunging in now start of the next. For the duration of that pause we’re still half-frozen. We sit in our cold front rooms, looking at the weary floorboards, playing games with ourselves to avoid switching the heating on, listening to the incessant rain beating the windowpanes, wondering when, when, when will it be lighter out? I don’t mind the cold as much as the light, though I’m no great fan of the cold, either – it’s just that I can bundle myself up, insulate against a biting wind, whereas there’s no antidote to the gloomy grey days that end sharply at 4:30pm and become long black nights. No antidote except to wait. And anyway sometimes even the misery of a cold can be a kind of pleasure. I watch six films in one day and don’t feel guilty. I feel sorry for myself, but I don’t feel guilty. “Go ahead,” he tells me. “Feel sorry for yourself today. You’re sick. You’re allowed to feel sorry for yourself.” And I am, so I do, and it makes me feel better, and less sorry for myself.

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About Miranda Ward

California-born, UK-based author and PhD student. Read more...

Miranda Ward

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Water taxiuploadMisty evening in Dittisham.South Devon coastlineFound a lovely cove.Brief burst of sunshine on our walkAgatha Christie's libraryAgatha Christie's hallwayRunning along the south west coast path...

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