The week in words #18

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I'm writing this on the morning of my final day on holiday. The past two weeks have been an amazing time of great food, tons of sun and relaxation, first in my hometown, and then 5 days of Amsterdam. I'm well-fed, sun-soaked and happy. Both cities have shown themselves from their best sides, and I'm now convinced that Amsterdam is the most beautiful place I've ever been and I'm ready to move here. The LIGHT, you guys.

Since May has sort of creeped up on me I haven't done a reading wrap-up, but ... I don't really care? Over the course of April I kind of got a bit disenchanted with the whole of social media, and I've barely been checking any channels. Maybe I just needed some time off. Once I'm back in London and ready to face the real world again, I will get my head back in the game and post more on here.

But before that – one last sunny day in Amsterdam.

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Hot, Hotter, Oberelbe Half Marathon

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I can’t believe it’s only been a bit over a year since I started running. It was in March 2017 when my coworker showed me the route of a half marathon he was thinking of doing. It was in Winchester, a city I’d long heard of as being beautiful, and the course looked so green and lovely. This is my chance, I thought, and signed up. For years I’d been trying to start running, gotten injured a few weeks later, and given up again. This would force me to train properly, and actually get into running.

And it did. Winchester was beautiful, a beautiful hell of hills, with great weather and a sense of accomplishment that’s hard to replicate. (I’ve also never felt so entitled to a roast dinner before.)

So in December, I signed up for another one. This one in my hometown of Dresden, Germany. I was going to take my stepdad with me.

The Oberelbe Half Marathon at the end of April runs over the second half of the Oberelbe Marathon, which starts in the mountains of the Saxon Switzerland and follows the river into Dresden’s historical city centre. It’s a damn pretty course, and doing even half of it seemed like the thing to do in April, if it would keep me running through the winter months.

Reader, it did not keep me running through the winter months.

Well, it did, but not nearly with the same kind of motivation I’d had before my first race. I had no time to do the yoga that had served as my cross training last year. The weather was miserable, and so was I. I battled colds, aching feet and hips and mostly, my own laziness.

But hey, this was a completely flat course! I train on hills! This should be easy, right?

Reader, it was not easy.

As race day started to appear on the weather forecasts, it changed every time I checked. From a rainy 17 degrees it went to sunny intervals at 19, and then changed to a sunny 26. It did not change after that.

I’d trained in winter. I’d trained in rain and ice. I had literally tip-toed my way over icy sidewalks and slipped in puddles. Also, I cannot with heat. I’m not made for it. My body crumbles in the heat. If I’m ever out in the hot sun, I start walking faster just to get into the shade, and then sit there contemplating my life and my choices not to have moved to Norway.

Still, on Sunday 29th April, 2018 at 9.50am, we ran. The first 5k were a lovely breeze mostly under trees, and I went past the first water station taking a dainty sip and nothing else. At 6km, I regretted it. By then the sun was upon us. My legs felt heavy. My head was too hot. People around me were wheezing already.

After this, each time I got hold of a cup of water, I threw it at my head and back until my top was soaked and I started to worry about drowning my timing chip. And still, I felt okay about things. The distance markers along the route were counting down the kilometres left, and they made me feel like this was possible. 8km left? Pfft. I can do 8km! No problem.

And then came the green.

There are stretches by the river that are just green. All the buildings are on the opposite bank, as are the trees. This goes on for miles. No music. No water. Almost no spectators. In the heat.

Thank heavens I had a water bottle with me so I could sprinkle some drops on my face every now and then, but this was the Big Test. These are the moments when our human strength is tested, we face our limits, our demons. This is where heroes are made.

I am not a hero. I walked.

Over the final 5km I walked repeatedly, arguing with myself that it’s inefficient to run when it takes so much more energy than walking, at barely increased speed! What madness, what foolishness to attempt running when walking is perfectly fine. So I walked, and sometimes I jogged again only for my heart to begin stuttering, and walked again. As I said, I’m not made for heat.

Happier times, at around 9km

Happier times, at around 9km

I finished at 2 hours and 28 minutes, which I’m not happy about admitting, but here we are. I didn’t get heatstroke, and I didn’t pass out. That in itself is something. I finished a thing. I don’t do that often enough.

Despite what my Nike app guided audio runs say, I don’t consider myself an athlete. I don’t feed myself properly, I don’t cross train properly, and mostly I’m still wearing my 5-year old H&M gear (which is surprisingly good quality). I don’t think any of my times are worth writing home about.

But I run 3 times a week, and I can make it through 21km in the heat without collapsing. Running, if nothing else, has taught me that sticking with something will get you results, and if it doesn’t necessarily make me faster, I know it makes me stronger.

The week in words #17

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On Thursday morning, I woke up and nearly panicked. I’d woken up in full daylight, so clearly I’d massively overslept. I’m at home, and for such a long time I’ve only been here for Christmas, I haven’t seen daylight at 6am here in years.

I came to the UK first in 2010, for an internship at a magazine company. This week, at my dad’s place I threw away the magazines that listed my name under ‘Editorial Assistant’. That internship made me realise I wanted to work in publishing. A year later I started a publishing degree. After my graduation, I got a job at a publishing company not because of my degree, but because I’d taught myself HTML in my teens. I guess you’ll never know what’ll get you to the places you want to go.

Right now I don’t know where I want to go. London has tired me out, and each time I’m away from it I miss it less. It requires a lot of work to be happy there when you value certain things, like a nice living space, or time with your friends. It was the place to be in my 20s and I enjoyed it, but the closer I get to starting my 30s, the more I’m starting to wonder if it’s where I want to stay.

Being home in spring has been wonderful. It’s been years since I’ve seen my hometown in green and sunshine. On Friday evening my tram got redirected and went past the area I used to live, on my own, during my BA studies. It’s a quiet but well-connected area with a huge park in walking distance. I miss living on my own. On Sunday I ran a half-marathon along the riverbank in the blazing sunshine, soaking in the views and the atmosphere. I only have one more week left before it’s time to go back to London. I’ll do my best to enjoy them, aching legs and all.

The week in words #16

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It has been the kind of week I would euphemistically call a challenge.

On Tuesday, my mental health took a nosedive. Everything good I’d ever thought about myself, anything good anyone’s ever said about me, fell off me like snow off a tree, revealing the truth underneath: that I am nothing and nobody, have achieved nothing, will achieve nothing, and am nearly 30 years old so it’s too late anyway. I went to work, where I stared at my screen waiting for the day to end. There was no point to anything I was doing. I’d fucked it all up anyway, so why keep trying?

By Wednesday, a calm hopelessness had settled over me. When I went into a clothes shop for some retail therapy, it quickly became clear that there was no dress or shirt that could make me feel better. You know those days when you dislike yourself one hundred percent, head to toe, inside and out?

The week went on like this until Saturday brought sad news, and I spent the day listening to music and feeling numb. When these phases come around, I try to remind myself that nothing lasts and everything changes. It makes these days and weeks feel less like endless misery and more like a particularly rough part of the journey.

On Thursday, I made a list of all the things I didn’t like about myself – all the things that take up space in my head, things I am annoyed or bothered by, when I could be focussing on more productive topics. I prioritised the list, and set deadlines to fix those things. My hair is now so short I can stop being annoyed with all the ways it doesn’t behave. We’ll see what else I can make progress on soon.

I write this sitting in our garden as my flatmate makes a horribly greasy breakfast; the air smells of flowers and bacon. Bees are hovering. I have two more workdays left before I go home.

Review | HOW TO BREAK UP WITH YOUR PHONE by Catherine Price

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Have you ever found yourself with your phone in your hand without remembering how it got there?

Have you ever stopped what you were doing and picked up your phone because your lizard brain craved Instagram so suddenly the decision wasn’t even conscious? One minute you’re writing an email, and the next your fingers are tapping the access code into your phone while on your computer screen the cursor blinks on a half-finished sentence.

It’s not easy to admit all of this, but I suspect I’m not the only one with that kind of experience. I think most of us know on some level that our phones have more power over us than we’d like them to have; for me it’s those moments when I suddenly find myself scrolling through Instagram or Twitter, like I’ve blacked out for a second. And that happens several times a day!

I don’t want to live my life this way, and in early March, I bought How To Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price.

**

The book is split into two parts: part 1, the ‘wake-up’, is an info-dump designed to put the fear of technology in you. It explains what phones do to our brains, especially our attention spans, ability to multitask, and our mental health, including stress levels and sleep hygiene. Spoiler alert: it’s not good news.

Part 2, the ‘break-up’, is a 30-day programme designed to slowly wean you off your phone and, in week 4, reintroduce healthier habits. It encourages you to take a look at your phone use, introduces mindfulness habits, and, yes, asks you to delete your social media apps.

**

Tracking your phone use via an app (in my case, Moment) was an interesting experiment. According to Catherine Price, who quotes Moment itself, the average user spends about 4 hours a day on their phone. Think about that: FOUR of your waking hours. Of course not all of this is wasted (think maps, calculator, meditation apps, calendar apps, writing notes, chatting to lovely people), but let’s be honest: it’s so easy to get sucked into spending twenty minutes on Twitter when all you wanted to do is turn off your alarm.

**

My favourite part of the programme, however, has got to be the 24hr blackout, or ‘trial separation’. Yes, it’s what it sounds like: 24 hours without your phone. Without screens in general. No internet. No chatting. No Google Maps. Live like it’s 1991.

I did my 24hrs on Saturday last Easter weekend, which I’d decided to spend alone. I had a headache and no real capacity for being productive, so I just wandered the streets in an area that I know relatively well, given I hadn’t prepared for this at all and not looked up any maps. I’m not going to say this day changed my life (I actually found it quite concerning how much I twitched for my phone every time I waited for the bus or train. Habits, man), but somewhere in the early afternoon, a kind of calm settled on me. I got lost on my way to the bookshop, which hasn’t happened in forever. In the queue to the loos at the British Museum (it’s a very long queue) I suddenly got assaulted by very random unpleasant memories that seemed to have sensed I was without the protection of Instagram. But I dealt with them.

In the later afternoon, I settled in a café to read and write, and watch. Everybody was on their phone, hunched over their coffee, scrolling. Some people sat close enough that they could have belonged to each other, but it was hard to tell given that they didn’t interact with one another. The only ones in my immediate vicinity not on their phones were a group of well-off middle-aged women, who’d bought several slices of cake and cut them into four pieces each to share. They were having a blast. The whole picture reminded me how, as someone who likes writing, it’s so easy to get sucked into platforms like Instagram and Pinterest for ‘inspiration’, when the real inspiration (i.e. life) is often in front of us.

**

I’m done with my 30 days now. I don’t think my life has changed, really. Not dramatically. But I remember that day offline and how much time there was in it, how much capacity for attention I had. In the chapter on social media, Price talks about attention. ‘[O]ur attention is the most valuable thing we have,’ she says. ‘We only experience what we pay attention to. We remember only what we pay attention to.’

That quote has stuck with me. My phone background now says, ‘What do you want to pay attention to?’ (a tip from the book) Never stop asking this question. If your attention is the most important thing you have, do you want to spend it on your phone right now? Sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes, the question makes me put my phone back in my pocket, so I can focus my attention where I want it to be.

We’ve come to accept that there’s an app for everything, including our mental and physical wellbeing. It feels disorienting to put away all our apps in search for a solution when we’ve learned to see them as a lifeline, something to hold on to. It wouldn’t say this book has taught me anything I didn’t know already, but in the absence of picking up my phone, it was something else to hold on to. I enjoyed my morning ritual of reading the day’s challenge and have since replaced it with meditation. I still have a long way to go in how I use my phone, but this book has been a nudge in the right direction.


Author: Catherine Price
Publisher: Trapeze
Publication Date: March 2018
Rating: 4/5


Last but not least, I would also like to leave you with this video by Anthony Ongaro that just blew my mind. In case you needed more arguments.

All the books in March

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I know it’s been April for a while, but better late than never, right?!

Ann Veronica by H.G. Wells || 3/5
This book floored me a little. I’ve never read anything by H.G. Wells (yes, I know), so when I came across one of the most #relatable exchanges between a man and a woman since Cat Person, I was not prepared.
Ann Veronica, subtitled A Modern Love Story, is the story of our titular heroine who, in her early twenties at the turn of the 19th century, is still under the thumb of her father, who wants to decide over her comings and goings until he can marry her off. One day their disagreement escalates and Vee flees to London, where she realises that a young educated woman stands barely a chance to create a life that is independent of men. As we follow her on her struggle against a system that does not want her to succeed on her own, we encounter suffragettes, artists and scientists with varying attitudes towards life and the relationship between the sexes.
Ann Veronica makes some excellent observations of attitudes that are still around today (‘I respect and admire women too much to burden them with the ugliness of politics!’), but ultimately doesn’t go quite far enough for me. Ann Veronica’s time with the suffragette movement feels more like a confused phase than genuine conviction, and the ending seems like an indulgence for the author more than a gift to the reader. Altogether, not too bad for a book that is over 100 years old.

A Change Is Gonna Come by various authors || 4/5
This is a donation bin find from work – and what a find! A Change Is Gonna Come is a YA collection of 12 stories and poems by British BAME writers, aiming to ‘give creative space to those who have historically had their thoughts, ideas and experiences oppressed’. It’s an absolute treasure chest of stories dealing with race, racism, mental health, LGBTQ issues, history, the refugee crisis, disability and... time travel? Apart from being thoroughly enjoyable, this kind of book is the perfect argument for why we need diversity in writing and publishing – these are stories I’ve never encountered before, or not enough, and I really, really want more. I can’t wait to pass it on to the next happy reader.

I Still Dream by James Smythe || 3/5
I Still Dream is a (beautifully designed) book about artificial intelligence. The AI in this case is a system called Organon, created by Laura Bow in her teens during the 90s. The story follows Laura’s (and Organon’s) life as they follow the rise and development of another (commercialised) AI, SCION, as it worms its way into every part of everyday human life. I find it hard to describe what the book is about, because I couldn’t quite figure it out. The story spans Laura’s entire life (and some before and after), but I missed some sort of dramatic structure. While the narration mostly sticks with Laura, two or three chapters are inexplicably told from someone else’s perspective, but it takes pages to make clear who that person is. Neither Organon nor SCION are your average dangerous sci-fi AIs like HAL 9000 or VIKI, which is a nice change, but there is also no real sense of threat or stakes. The language seems geared towards people who know a thing or two about AI, so for me as a layperson who clearly didn’t get it, the overwhelming mood was ‘sounds like it’s gonna be okay, I guess’. Maybe the beautiful complexity I’ve read about in other reviews went right over my head. Who knows.

You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman || 4/5
A lives with B. B admires A and wishes she could be like her. A is dating C. A finds it more and more difficult to tell herself apart from B. Is B turning into A? Is A turning into B? Why have B and C never met? Would C prefer B to A if he met her?
I read this book in a bit over a day, which is a pretty intense experience. Afterwards I wrote in my journal: ‘It’s something I’m not sure I want to exist. I feel unclean, like I caught something.’
I find it hard to say what this book is about. It’s about consumer culture, about advertising, about body image and love and religion and identity. But overall, it’s just plain terrifying. I don’t think it is meant to be a horror novel and I wouldn’t classify it as such, but there is such a strong sense of displacement, of standing outside oneself watching the world like something completely alien and incomprehensible. As someone who experiences dissociation on a regular basis, this book touched something I’m not sure needed touching. One element that needs to be mentioned is the text design, at least in my edition: every chapter starts with a plain smiley emoticon. Like the book looking back at you. It’s fucking terrifying. I loved it.

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The week in words #14 – On running in the woods

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You know that cold I mentioned last week? It stayed. It’s one of those ugly ones that make you feel like your brain is trying to exit your skull through your face. I was the gross one at work this week, sneezing more than I talked, my desk cluttered with tissues I had to keep within sight and reach because my nose was out of control (Reader, are you in love with me yet?). It has not been fun.

I have been running in spite of it. This morning, after a week of illness, little sleep and going out twice (including yesterday), I picked up the water bottle I’ve never used, zipped up my running jacket, and headed off towards Hampstead Heath. My half marathon is in three weeks and this was my last chance to get some distance in before tapering, so damn the cold and the rain and my aching head, I thought, and hit the road.

I recently read about effort-based running, which is a mindful kind of running that disregards pace and heart rate and requires you to check in with yourself, and rate your effort on a scale of 10. For recovery and long runs, aim for a nice and easy 3-4. Ever since I started going by that, I have been both slower, and better. Running feels less like a chore and more like walking: a thing that I do with my body and enjoy while my brain is busy doing other things. I return feeling less like I want to die, and more like I want a shower, that weird post-run snack I’ve come up with*, and get on with my day.

Today’s aim was 15km, so, bored by my neighbourhood, I went for the Heath. I thought, if I can do 15k in hilly North London, I will breeze through that river half in a few weeks, and I can stop worrying about all the training time I missed.

It all started out innocently enough, walking some hills (because I’m sick, don’t judge me), running everything else while the remainder of my cold left my ears in little pops, until I got lost in the woods around Kenwood House. All of a sudden I found myself in a world of mud, surrounded by trees dripping heavily with rain, and all paths looked the same. I passed several people in running gear holding paper maps, and I felt silly and out of place with my phone, and a little bit like I’d crashed a race I hadn’t entered.

Once I made it to Kenwood House it was raining so heavily I decided to take the shortest route home, and – got lost again. My way home was one wrong turn after another. At one point I remembered food and popped into a Tesco, soaking wet, to buy a protein bar that I ate on the way up the next hill. Then I remembered that my running jacket is water resistant, not waterproof, panicked about my phone, and started to run. I am now the proud owner of my very first running injury caused by accident. (I slipped on the wet pavement and bumped my knee. It’s fine. Yes, it happened in front of people.)

I have never considered myself a runner. Not when I started, or when I ran my first 10k race, or when I finished my first half marathon last year. Only today – caked in mud, dripping with rain, nose running after a week with a horrendous cold, in the line at Tesco with my Graze Protein Bite – I thought: yes, running is a thing I do. I’m a runner. I like this.

The nap after lunch, though, was the best of all.


*My post-run snack for the past weeks has been a banana, cut in slices; a spoonful of peanut butter; and frozen raspberries. Microwaved for 40 seconds. Not good for Instagram, but great for your tastebuds.

The week in words #13

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I had so many plans for the Easter weekend, and then I got a headache. And a cold. All the stress of March seems to have caught up with me, in the form of a bad back, a stiff neck and aching jaw and head where I grind my teeth at night. It's not easy to be productive when your body is throwing a tantrum. Let's cross all fingers that the coming weeks will get better.

For April, my personal focus is running. I have a half marathon coming up at the end of the month, and I need to be in shape for that. So April is for eating and running. And, hopefully, some more creative work. I've been reading some pretty awesome books I'd like to have deeper thoughts about.

Speaking of deeper thoughts – I am, once again, trying to disentangle myself from my phone. This time I'm following a plan (more on that next week, when it's over), and yesterday I spent the entire day without screens. No phone, no laptop. I went outside, I watched other people on their phones, and I walked. I got lost. I had to deal with some strange memories that decided to attack me when I stood, vulnerable without a screen to look at, in the line to the loos in the British Museum. It was an interesting day.

But oh my god, did I read pages. And I wrote pages. And in the evening, I did use my phone: to listen to music.

I haven't properly listened to music in such a long time. I forgot how, when I lived alone, I could spend hours dancing through my flat. I forgot the feeling of having the window open at night, looking out into the darkness while listening to an epic orchestra piece. (Music always sounds best in the dark. It has more space then.)

Music is always first to go when I prioritise. (Of the many things I'd love to do but don't have time for, dance and playing the piano are my biggest regrets.) It's so easy to just put on a random Spotify playlist for 'concentration' to have in the background at work. And then, as soon as priorities shift, say, while walking, what goes into our ears needs to be more productive: audiobooks and podcasts, to educate and inspire us. Surely I'm not the only one who feels this pressure to always have their mind on something 'improving'?

I used to have a folder on my MP3 player named 'instrumentals' that I'd listen to on my way home from school. It was about an hour of epic orchestral and electronic pieces whose structures I knew by heart. I could walk to their rhythm, fast, carried by the sound.

Someone once asked me, 'If you don't drink, where do you get your fix?' The answer has always been music. I've made it through many brain crises thanks to the maximum volume setting. And still. I haven't properly listened in months.

I'm now working to recreate that 'instrumentals' playlist on Spotify, and add songs I've found over the years. Here's one of them. Enjoy.

The week in words #12 – On gratitude and limitations

One of my favourite pages in It's All Absolutely Fine by Ruby Elliot

A bit over three weeks ago I downloaded a gratitude app. Every night at 9.30pm, it reminds me to note down three things about my day that I’m grateful for. Gratitude is said to improve mental and physical health, sleep, relationships and life in general, so it felt like something I should get on board with. (Brené Brown recommends finding something to be grateful to counter moments of shame and anxiety, which I can vouch for.) And I don't know if it’s the app and the daily practice, or if it’s just how life is currently going, but more and more often these days I stop and think, Damn. This is nice.

One of the things I’m grateful for these days is the energy I have. The dark months are coming to an end, and with the daylight has come headspace; my mind suddenly feels free to think and reflect and plan.

It can be difficult for those of us who deal with depression and other mental health problems. So often, we spend all our energy on coping; just existing. Weeks and months can go by like that. And it’s easy to beat ourselves up over not being productive, especially once the fog clears and we realise what we can be capable of, on good days.

I’m learning to be okay with my limitations. I’ve often looked at other people my age and the things they have achieved — companies started, money earned, awards won, partners married — and felt angry with myself. Why haven’t I been able to do that? And the answer is, I was busy with other things. I was busy not giving up on myself. For many years, that was my main task. (Other life things happen, too. I lost two years between 16 and 18 because of wrong epilepsy medication that turned me into a walking vegetable. I was a fiction writer before that, and over ten years later I still haven’t remotely recovered the level of passion and commitment I once had.)

My mental health journey often reminds me of the Sisyphus myth — the Greek king who is forced by the gods to push an enormous boulder up a hill, only for the boulder to roll back down as soon as it nears the top of the hill. ‘Sisyphusarbeit’ (Sisyphean work) is a common term where I come from for a task that's both laborious and futile, and often my head feels like that.

My point is, if someone is busy pushing a boulder three times their size up a hill, you can’t expect them to wave at you. Or, Susan Sontag: ‘It’s hard to talk while one is gritting one’s teeth.’

We’ve been brought up to only see work where there are impressive results. But those of us who deal with mental health problems, physical illness, or disability, or any other kind of obstacle we didn’t choose: we too work really fucking hard, sometimes just to get through the day.

None of this is a new concept; but it’s different when applied to oneself, at least for me. It’s really, really difficult to admit my own limitations. It’s difficult to admit that some days I just won’t be able to work on a passion project. Some days I won’t even be able to do the work I get paid for. And other days, I’m not able to go to the pub with my coworkers or community group friends, because my battery is drained and I can’t be the person they need me to be.

If I’m learning to be grateful for the good days, then that comes with accepting that the bad days/weeks/months/years happen, too.

The week in words #11

And another week over that I can't seem to write anything about. Recently (i.e. over the past month), life just seems to have been a series of events that made me say 'Just this one, and then we can go back to normal' – there was unexpected travel, a leak in my roof that gave me 24/7 anxiety for two weeks straight, medical appointments... you name it.

This has been the first weekend in quite a while where I have not felt rushed. I have been reading a few pages of different books here and there, I've tidied my room, cooked food, and most of all, I have been writing fiction. After a month or so of feeling suspended in air, holding my breath, I'm cautiously optimistic that the time is near when I can plan things and get them done, rather than constantly rushing to catch up somehow.

I have plans for this blog, and plans for many different projects. It'll happen soon.