A Literal Girl

Leaf

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?

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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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On the ranch

This is the view from my run yesterday. Out for 24 minutes, towards Government Point; back in a determined, if somewhat labored, 22. I can guess, but I don’t know how far I ran, which is a new experience. In Oxford, or any other city, I can look my route up on Google maps after, calculate exact distances; here it’s not possible – this is just a stretch of sand on the California coast. There aren’t even any obvious landmarks, until you get to the point itself. I didn’t get all the way to the point; I turned back near a craggy line of rocks that looked pretty similar to another craggy line of rocks up ahead and a few craggy lines of rocks I’d already passed. I want to say it was liberating running like this, but actually I found myself obsessing about it, wanting to know precisely how far I’d gone (this is a bad habit I’ve gotten into – not quite Quantified Self-levels of tracking, but recording how far I swim, making sure I research exactly how far I run). I think next time I might use an app.

It was also hot! It hadn’t occurred to me, packing late at night with a winter fog resting over Oxford and temperatures unseasonably warm but still uncomfortably cold after dark, that I would want to run in anything other than leggings, with tall socks underneath to keep my calves warm. But now, in those same leggings (with short socks, luckily), and a heavy grey Emerson Athletics t-shirt from my brief stint as a volleyball player in college, I was way too hot. I’d borrowed a pair of lightweight sunglasses, at least, but as I ran further and further away from the small cluster of cars and surfers, as if heading out into the desert, I became sweatier and hotter and increasingly uncomfortable. In contrast, the ocean, when, after the run, I plunged in, was so cold it felt like it had only recently been solid ice.

On the other hand, this was a very pleasant way to spend some time. I headed west, based on the logic that I’d see fewer people if I went that way, and it’s true, I saw not a soul, except for a couple of surfers hanging around a particular wave, and one boat heading up towards Cojo, but they may as well have been figments of my imagination. It was a funny change from the last run I’d taken – Oxford, at about 6 o’clock on Saturday evening, the city seeming to seethe with pedestrians, all of them walking seven abreast or staring down at their phones, oblivious to their surroundings.

***

Today I drove down to Goleta and went for a swim in the pool. The water was cold. “What does it feel like to you? 75?” the woman getting into the lane next to mine said. I didn’t know. She pulled on a second cap. “Well,” she said, “we’ll just have to see what we can do.” It was cold, but it wasn’t uncomfortably cold, or maybe I’m just not used to swimming outside, maybe I was too distracted by the novelty of the situation. I slid into the lane with the most sunlight for the final 500 meters, so I would have pretty patterns to look at on the bottom of the pool and warmth on my back.

***

Now, post-sunset, I’m having a pre-dinner beer at the kitchen table, with Django Reinhardt playing in the background (a change from Friday night’s soundtrack – “how did we come to be listening to Nirvana at dinner?” said my mother; “because I put the 90s grunge playlist on,” said my father). I’m writing mostly to avoid reading: I don’t want The Goldfinch to end quite yet. When it gets dark here it gets very dark, and the innocent rustling of wind in the macadamia trees sounds potentially threatening, because unknown, wild things happen after the late fades. But I guess that’s one of the nice things about being here, that element of the unknown, even when it’s familiar. And really, what difference does it make, to me or anyone else, to know the exact length of an impulsive Saturday afternoon run? There are other ways of measuring.

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Geographer-self

Over at the Landscape Surgery blog, I wrote a post about what being a cultural geographer means to me. This is part of great a series of posts by fellow students and researchers in the department of geography at Royal Holloway – “The Self Portrait series is a project designed to highlight the missing ‘I’ within geography.” (And it was Freshly Pressed today!)

Here’s how it begins:

The truth? I’m still not sure I am a geographer.

Over the last year I’ve become more comfortable claiming to be one, or at least marginally less fearful of being exposed as a fraud. But at parties my go-to response to the dreaded question of “what do you do?” is: “oh, I’m a writer.” If the conversation survives this admission, and I happen to mention that I’m doing a PhD, and I happen to mention that the PhD is in cultural geography, I might make an attempt at explaining how these things are linked. I might say, “I write about geography.” This is not really an explanation, but if you say it confidently enough, it almost sounds like one.

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About Miranda Ward

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

Miranda Ward

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