Category Archives: Observations

A brief selection of my stories about my body

On the one side there’s the issue of no pain no gain, and on the other is the Taoist notion of effortlessness – do without doing. For much of my life, my awkward body has meant that any kind of activity courted pain and I’m used to thinking in terms of having to push. Recently I’ve started questioning this.

The assumption that I needed to push through the pain has been with me for a long time, unquestioned. But, there are stories in my family about laziness and pushing, about not getting comfortable and not letting yourself off the hook. Or at least I’ve understood it that way.

How much pain for how much gain? And at what cost?

My fear is that if I don’t push myself hard all the time, I will be lazy and crap, and still fat. The relationship between fatness and assumed laziness has been an ongoing issue for me. The desire to prove that my body shape is not a consequence of lack of effort or lack of discipline on my part, has been with me since my teens.

Faced with the impression that there’s a crisis, my body stores fat. I am fantastically efficient in this regard. The impression of crisis can be created by missing meals, and otherwise reducing calorie intake. It can be created by sudden bouts of intense exercise, fuelled by shame and not sustained. Ironically it turns out that on a higher calorie diet, I am more likely to lose weight. No pain, no gain around the middle.

Do without doing suggests a state where how you are gets the job done. Getting more sleep has encouraged my body to think there isn’t some kind of emergency going on and to stop stocking up. There’s reason to think that stress caused by what happens when you’re fat can help keep you fat – again it’s about the feeling of emergency and what a body does with that. My physical survival method is clearly not to be able to run away easily, it is to be able to sit out the problem and have another go when things calm down. Doing without doing.

I’ve never really listened to my body. I’ve internalised the idea that expressing discomfort was just making a fuss, so when my body complains of pain or weariness, I have tended to over-ride that for as long as I can. Whatever gain there is seeming more important than the pain. Only in the last few years have I started listening to my body about what it might like to eat. Extra toast, and more protein have featured heavily. And yet I am not gaining flab. It’s almost as if my body knows what it needs to be a healthy size, and what it needs is not what I had been told it needs.

Trusting my body and going with it looks a lot like do without doing, to me. Not a big, sweaty push for change, but a softer acceptance of what actually works. Letting my soft animal body get on with things rather than trying to flog every last ounce of effort out of it. It’s possible that all the things I have done to try and overcome pain and fatness, have in fact been making the pain and fatness worse for me because it results in my body feeling threatened and under pressure all the time. But as a culture this is what we do to fat people, layering on the blame and shame and the pressure to force change and not asking why a specific body reacts as it does.

Fat, I am inclined to think, is really a symptom of other issues, and the key thing is to find out what the other issues are and deal with those. Comfort eating has emotional reasons driving it. Storing can be driven by all sorts of physical pressures. Body chemistry, malnutrition, stress… there are many reasons a person may store fat that have nothing to do with discipline and effort. Try to solve that by adding to the strain, and for some of us, there can be no winning.


The further adventures of the bouncing Druid

With anything there’s usually a honeymoon period when novelty and enthusiasm carry you through the tougher bits. I blogged at the start of March about being a bouncy Druid, having been at it a month. After three months of bouncing, here’s what I’ve learned.

On the good side – depression, anxiety, body pain down, energy levels up, concentration better. The swelling of the lymph glands is under control, I’ve a fitter heart and can walk up hills more easily.

On the downside – it isn’t a magic cure-all. While on the whole my energy levels are better, I still get the days when it feels like my bones have been coated with lead and reality is made of treacle. I still have to juggle my spoons. A long day at the computer or art board means having to bounce more, which means being really tired at the end of the day which can limit what’s viable in the evening. I’ve learned that I have to take rest days and I have to really pay attention to my body about those because if I get it wrong I’ll hurt a lot.

I’ve had to change my eating habits, and that’s been hard. A lifetime of being told that eating more would be a bad thing clashes with the reality that if I’m going to bounce, I need fats and carbs for energy and I need protein for muscle maintenance. If I am to be fitter and stronger, if I am to lose fat from my body, I have to eat more. It seems counter intuitive, emotionally it’s not easy for me, but the messages from my body on this score have been really clear.

Somewhere in the second month I became fit enough that bouncing alone wasn’t getting me much heart action. I started using my small hand weights (a kilo each) at the same time, which has helped with upper body strength. When that too stopped getting my heart moving enough (a couple of weeks ago) I added ankle weights to the mix (half a kilo each). I’m glad I started with the smallest, because those have been hard work, and I’m back to having to be alert to signs of pain and overdoing it.

Bouncing has taught me a lot about being in my body. It’s also helped me learn something about enjoying my body in motion. It is teaching me how to listen more carefully, how to think more constructively about food and activity in balance, and how to recognise when I need to rest. I’m seeing changes in my shape, I am a bit more toned than I was, and that cheers me, I’m able to do more than I could and that cheers me greatly. I’ve managed to keep going – I’m not great with routines so I’m pleased about the discipline side, too. It’s also required me to get out of my comfort zone musically – folk rock stopped being fast enough a while ago. I’m using dance music to power me, and as a consequence listening to an unfamiliar genre.

As I bounce, I gaze out of the window, think about my breathing and watch the wildlife – especially the nest of great tits. I find myself entering meditative states, and in longer sessions, more trance like states occur, it fulfils some of the role of ecstatic dancing.

I suspect the next lesson will be about recognising sufficiency. The point at which I don’t add more weights or extend my bouncing time, but accept that I’ve reached a ‘good enough’ zone. I haven’t yet decided what that will look like, but I’m wary of narratives of eternal progress, so at some point it will be a consideration.


Uncompetitive physical culture

At school, sports tend to mean competition. There’s no accident in this. A fair few activities have their roots in warrior skills – javelin is the most obvious, but all those combinations of running, riding and shooting are pretty suspicious too. Not that we did that at school! Games and tournaments are the traditional solution for keeping your army fit and keen when you haven’t got anyone to fight. Some sports – football being the most obvious here – come out of ritualised contests between villages. The strength, stamina, co-ordination and sometimes teamwork of sport all has military applications

Like many young people, I never got on with sport at school. The focus on competition was a big part of it. There have to be winners and losers, and when you are always, invariably the loser, there’s not a lot of incentive to keep investing effort. Only when out of school PE and able to explore swimming, walking and dancing on my own terms did I become interested in sweaty things I could do with my body.

I have no problem with the competitive stuff being there for people who want it. That’s no different from battles of the bands sessions, short story competitions, produce shows or bardic chairs… sometimes the people who are really good need the chance to test themselves against each other. But only in sport do young people find themselves obliged to do that testing week after week as they grow up. No one would give an English lesson a week over to slam poetry and rap battles.

Physical intelligence has far more going on in it that competition. There is more to building strength, stamina, fitness and skill than being better than someone else. What would happen to physical culture if we approached activity from the angle of health and capability rather than competition? How many young people would be spared from regular and pointless humiliation? How many would become interested in being fit and healthy rather than feeling alienated from physical culture?

But of course governments like team sports, because of the military applications. There’s a popular quote (of dubious origins) that The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. It’s that kind of thinking that puts competition ahead of health and embodiment.


The Bouncy Druid

I have a silly body. My circulation is poor, which makes chilblains a risk in winter, but this winter it ratcheted up a notch, and made sitting for long periods unbearable. I had a major editing project on and I needed to sit for long periods. I invested in a haemorrhoids cushion – these are great by the way, and make sitting less painful and as an unexpected side effect, solved lower back pain that has dogged me for more than a decade.

Eventually, I discovered that trampolines are good for circulation issues and for problems with lymph glands swelling up – an issue I’ve had my whole life. Exercise is tricky for me – aside from poor energy (no doubt in part due to the problems I have with exercise) most of my limbs bend the wrong way when under pressure, which hurts. This rules out a lot of things. Anything that jolts, hurts. Running hurts. I only recently figured out that this probably isn’t normal and that most people who run don’t experience pain as I do. My body doesn’t handle lactic acid well, so I get panic attack responses if there’s too much of it in the bloodstream.

I don’t believe in magic bullets, but in the trampoline, I have found something I can do to be active and increase my heart rate without causing me a lot of pain. Swimming worked before I buggered my shoulder, but walking to and from the pool can make it too tiring. Exercise is much easier for people who can drive to places to do things that suit them!

I bounce every hour. I play music to give me a rhythm and a timeframe. It reduces the pain that comes from sitting, and improves my concentration. On the days when I have little energy, it’s really, really hard getting started. However, I learned the hard way that not bouncing hurts far more overall than forcing myself to bounce. On the good days, it’s fun, and there were more good days when I started. The last week or so has been tough. I’ve had to change what I eat because I’m building muscle, and not eating enough protein when your body is trying to build muscle, hurts. On the whole it’s been a really good thing. I’ve used it on the hour every working day, and sometimes when suffering from poor circulation at the weekend, too, for a month now. It helps.

Why the Bouncing Druid? This. You’re welcome.


Rest Days

With ‘hard work’ held as a value and overstimulation being normal for down time, a day of rest can be a challenging thing to pull off. However, running flat out forever is not a viable option, and I’ve faced the truth repeatedly that if I don’t plan my stops, there will come a point of being forced to take them, and the timing then is often lousy.

I find physical rest days difficult in no small part because my feet are my primary form of transport. A day resting means not walking anywhere, which seriously limits my scope for being sociable. My down time has to be the sort of thing I can do in the flat. I find crafting works well for such days, although that does mean my hands are busy, if I take it gently I don’t put much extra strain on them.

Mental rest is a totally different process and I find it’s often best served by getting outside and doing something with my body. Long walks help me clear my head. Failing that, short walks are always a help.

I’m conscious that for many people, rest means flopping down in front of a screen. I’ve also noticed that for me, this isn’t always effective for brain rest, because I tend to think about what I’m watching, and it’s easy to over-stimulate my mind if I’m already overtired. Watching is an easy answer, and thus very tempting when knackered, but it’s worth keeping an eye on the effects and fettling accordingly.

I try to make sure that brain and body get sufficient rest time on a day to day basis, but even so, the whole day off needs to come round every now and then. Total rest for the brain is something I seldom want, but when I do, it’s a case of just lying in the duvet and making room for nothing to happen.

Of course it’s often possible to push through this and keep busy, putting the hard work as an imagined virtue ahead of wellness and moving myself towards physical illness and mental breakdown. It has been hard to pull away from that, to stop, to recognise that it’s not heroic to keep pushing on and it’s seldom necessary. Plus, if I rest when I need to I get more done when I’m working. While a focus on efficiency does keep me tied to the idea that work is everything, it is a way of fighting fire with fire. Should I stop now? Well, how is that going to affect my productivity tomorrow?


Life and clutter

De-cluttering, like weight loss is often presented as a universal good. The ideal – of the tranquil, stuff-free home has some curious assumptions underpinning it, though.

The first assumption is that we have a lot of stuff we don’t need. Set yourself the challenge of getting rid of a hundred things! The second assumption is that the ideal living environment doesn’t have much stuff in it.

I imagine I’m not alone in finding largely empty, pristine spaces a bit intimidating. I like having things to look at – colour and disarray enhances that experience for me. I like the friendly feeling of being surrounded by life.

Not all clutter is created equally, but for me, life is messy. The table we work and eat at is fairly cluttered because it is also home to art equipment and books.  There’s a pile of things people are reading, or intending to read on the footrest. By the sofa, is the mayhem of a yarn stash being turned into things. In the bedroom, there’s a fabric stash I use for making, and rather a lot of books. There’s musical instruments, shelves of crafting gear, and the kitchen is a tad chaotic not least because food from scratch happens most days.

When looking at ‘clutter’ I think it’s important to look at the lifestyle that goes with the clutter. If you’re surrounded by things you don’t use and that are in the way, that’s an issue. If the mayhem is the side-effect of creativity, of people doing stuff (games, toys etc) then to get rid of the clutter is to get rid of the life. In a perfectly tidy home, with no piles of work in progress stuff, what would I do?


Beauty is as beauty does

While I can and do appreciate the many forms in which physical human beauty can manifest, I’ve never found it terribly persuasive. A beautiful image has undeniable charm, and I’ll cheerfully look, but I’ve never acted on the power of visual beauty alone. I’m more interested in what a person does, who they are, how they are. The apparently beautiful face looks very different when sneering, or delivering a vicious putdown.

I’ve noticed over and over again how my sense of the beauty of a person comes far more from who they are than any pattern of physical characteristics. Generosity, humour, creativity, passion, honour, courage, integrity, intensity, compassion… these things cause people to be beautiful. If I see greed, cruelty, mean spiritedness, one upmanship, jealousy, and the like, there can be no real beauty in that face. Of course in practise we’re all complex mixes of feelings and we all run a broad spectrum and what matters is where a person spends most of their time.

I fell in love with Tom before I met him. I fell in love with him without hearing his voice, or having any idea what, if anything, the body chemistry would be like. On the day of posting this, we have been married 6 years, and I expect us to be together for life. I fell in love with his ideas, his art, his creativity and the person I came to know through emails. He fell in love with my writing first. I trust this more than I trust the appeal of a face, or a nice bum.

One of the problems with bodies is that they change. We tend to get older, we wrinkle, sag, blemish, illness and accident can change us dramatically. I’d rather wake up next to a person who is full of love, kindness and a desire to co-operate than the most perfectly toned abdomen in the world, if it’s attached to someone unkind. I’d rather the face into which time has carved laughter lines, or marked with grief, than a face augmented to show nothing at all.

If I love who someone is, and how they are, and what they do, then I will love the physical form they take. I will love the details of them – warts and all, in delight and acceptance. Equally, if I find someone unpleasant, no amount of the visual aspect will impact on me at all.


Novel society

It may seem odd to claim that the way we tell stories shapes our culture, but I am absolutely convinced it does.

A novel, as we generally understand it, is fundamentally about conflict resolution. That probably sounds like a good thing, but I think it isn’t. A novel sets up a situation a tension, or difficulty, a problem to solve, a challenge to overcome. Then the characters deal with it, and if the book is tragic, they may fail, or die succeeding. The default story is that the problem is solved.

What was confusing, is caused to make sense. What was inexplicable, is explained. What was obscure, becomes clear. What was wrong, is set right. Mysteries are solved. Crimes are thwarted, or punished. The tension of attraction resolves into the familiarity of a relationship.

A book, we are taught at school, has a beginning, a middle and an end. The ending has to round things up. At the end of a book, the world of the book is a clearer, simpler place. Of course there are exceptions.

Real life is not like books in that many things are never resolved or tidied up in this way. All too often, the consequence of the tidy plot ending is the loss of mystery, possibility and wonder. I have a problem with this.

As a writer of stories, I’ve explored a bit what happens when a novel opens up more possibilities than it shuts down. I tend to tell small coherent tales against a backdrop of expanding chaos. I’m somewhat influenced by Philip K Dick in this regard. It does not make for an easy sell, but it makes me happy. As a reader I prefer the worlds that aren’t tidied up – Mythago Wood, Earthsea, Winchette Dale – those places that leave me with far more questions than answers.

What does the story shape do to us? How much is our wider culture shaped by the idea of the tidy ending, and that all mysteries can and should be explained? What would happen to us if we told stories that expanded possibility rather than contracting it?


Working Sick

One of the good things about being self employed is that you do get some say (usually) over how and when you work. There are no paid sick days though, and while you can get insured against the impact of long term illness, a dose of the flu is something you just have to deal with. So, sleep deprived because I was ill in the night, and washed out for all the same reasons, and with something a long way short of perfect concentration, I rock up late to the computer.

It’s not too bad because my co-worker (husband) lives with me and is exposed to my germs anyway. If I had a ‘normal’ job, I might be hauling my sick, exhausted self into a car (I would not be a safe driver) and going to share my germs with my colleges, and possibly the public.

I know from friends who are employed, that many workplaces are intolerant of sick days. You are expected to go in, which of course means you get a culture of germ sharing where more people are working sick than could have happened. It invariably takes longer to recover from anything if you have to put extra stresses on your body. A day in the duvet can massively increase productivity for the rest of the week.

But no, what we have is a culture of macho toughing it out, drugging away the symptoms (let’s pause and ask why we may have the shits and wonder what the consequence is of not letting our bodies flush the bugs out…).

Pushing when sick or exhausted increases the risk of mental health issues. Depression is likely, so is panic, because when you push a body too far, that’s how it reacts. There is a rise in mental health difficulties that a Chief Medical Officer’s report of some years ago explicitly linked to work place stress. Everyone seems to have ignored this.

So, I managed the commute to the table, I won’t be doing much, I will likely spend a lot of the day curled up, recovering. I’m going to do the essential stuff, so that it doesn’t all build up and get more stressful. This is a luxury many people don’t have. It’s a funny thing, because work, workplaces, and working cultures are all human constructs, but they’re pretty inhuman in practice.


Until God

‘Adieu’ in French doesn’t simply mean goodbye, it means goodbye forever. One of the things I love about French as a language is this need for the dramatic farewell. ‘Until God’ – because we’re not going to see each other again before then.

Of course we often don’t know when we’re saying goodbye for the last time. Every farewell has the potential to be farewell forever.

Say ‘farewell forever’ in English, and most people will hear melodrama. It’s not the sort of thing we have a cultural habit of saying seriously. That’s true of all big, dramatic emotional expression. In this language, we find it hard to take big things seriously – we hear irony, fuss-making, silliness. Say ‘this is goodbye forever’ and most people probably won’t believe you.

There are of course times when ‘goodbye forever’ is necessary. Some people, and some situations are intolerable to the point whereby leaving and never coming back is really the only sensible thing to do. Having ‘goodbye forever’ heard in that context might help others take onboard how serious it is, which could in turn lead to change. If not for me, then for the person who comes into the same situation after me.

Because of course it is personal, and not broadly hypothetical as I write this post today. I didn’t say ‘goodbye forever’ but I doubt what I did say will be heard as it was meant. I’ve made choices that mean there are people I will probably never see again, and to whom I said goodbye in person not knowing then that it was most likely an ‘adieu’.

Would a change of language have changed anything? Would the enormity and finality of ‘adieu’ have shaken people up to take me seriously? Maybe. Maybe not. English lacks the words for some situations, and as speakers of this language, we lack the mental framework for dealing with emotionally serious situations.

Until God, then, for some of this. (Curiously, ‘adios’ in Spanish has the same literal meaning but not the connotation of finality.)

Which as a Maybeist, is a fairly weird thing for me to say anyway, because I have no gods. There will be no afterlife for me that has everyone I care about in it where people can be re-united and past wrongs overcome. If it doesn’t happen in this life, it doesn’t happen, most likely.