Johnny Clegg's Stone

  • Friday, August 30, 2019
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And we are the scatterlings of Africa
On a journey to the stars
Far below, we leave forever
Dreams of what we were.

There is a heatwave in my garden. There is no breeze unless you count the great rising thermals of hot air snagging beneath the brim of my torn sombrero and pushing the butterflies upwards in erratic flight. High above a buzzard is circling, a lone sentinel maintaining an aerial reconnaissance of the far below while I sit surrounded by flowers of orange and yellow, bending beneath the weight of the bees, my bare feet pushed into the cool grass and a tall spinach smoothie frosting by my hand.
This is where I start and end my runs.
Most of the summer I’ve run with the words and the tune of John Denver singing sunshine on my shoulders repeating in my heart for the people I love and have loved, most of whom I’ve known and a few I’ve never met, people I take with me in spirit, my only companions in a summer of running solitude.

If I had a day that I could give you
 I’d give to you the day just like today
If I had a song that I could sing for you
I'd sing a song to make you feel this way,

A simple song by an simple man, appreciating the blessings of love and the profundity of a simple life.
Yesterday I ran with the ghost of Johnny Clegg, a complex man and iconoclast who gave us unique music and the humanity and courage to look for holes in the fences that divide people. In one hand he carried a Zulu fighting stick and I could hear him singing with the poetic cadence that only the truly passionate possess and that relegates the rest of us to positions of mere mortals and cultural serfdom,

O Siyeza, o siyeza , sizofika webaba noma
(we are coming, we are coming, we will arrive soon)
O siyeza, o siyeza, siyagudle lomhlaba
(we are coming, we are coming, we are moving across this earth)
Siyawela lapheshaya lulezontaba ezimnyama
(we are crossing over those dark mountains)
Lapha sobheka phansi konke ukhulupheka
(where we will lay down our troubles)

I was carrying a stone of blue and grey which I had inscribed with the lyrics of a song. I stopped at the river flowing clear and bright over the brown pebbles as the evening breeze riffled the surface into Venetian ripples of silver and black. Squatting in the stream I scooped up handfuls of cold pebbles into a small island and placed my stone there because rivers rise, flow and empty to be absorbed into the vastness at their journeys end. It was another fragment of my life gone like the sparks thrown skyward by a bonfire that burn momentarily bright, die and disappear forever, just the memory remains, vivid and bright and imbued with meaning that exceeds our understanding. I stood for a moment absorbed by the tranquility of the shadows flickering like ciphers across my face before scrambling up the bank to continue my run alone, the spaces around me empty of apparitions and the songs silent, all that remained were the other things that sustain and motivate my run, the sound of my feet on the earth, the rasp of the breath in my chest and running hard to keep the smile from sliding off the side of my face.
 Johnny Clegg, June 1953-July 2019
Lyrics from the song, The Crossing

I must harvest the Sun

  • Tuesday, April 30, 2019
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He aint gettin' nowhere and he's losin' his share, He must have gone crazy out there. 
(Michael Burton, Night Riders Lament)

It is Spring in England. This is always a time of significance for me, it is the end of the arduous and hated Winter and the aperitif to Summer. It is the time of year when I have run into the woods to listen for and hear the Woodpeckers and watch for the lengthening of the days. Spring ushers in the months where I must harvest the Sun, storing it in my skin and my bones, allowing me to replenish and renew what was leached away by the long dark. Spring brings the flowers too. The Japanese have an ancient tradition called Hanami which celebrates the blooming of the Cherry Blossoms, they sit under the trees and enjoy the transient beauty of the flowers while they last, acknowledging the idea of mono no aware - nothing is forever. My other Spring rite is running for the Bluebells which like the Cherry Blossom arrive in Spring and quickly bloom, dressing the woods in a garment of brilliant colour and then quickly disappear. Every year at this time I set off on Hanami runs to search out and enjoy these beautiful and intense flowers while I can, it is a habit of joy that binds it's hands with those of the sun to plant the perennial seeds of life in my soul. I absolutely need this.
I have also been reading a book.
It is a standard size paperback by Johann Hari called Lost Connections. The book is about depression, it's possible causes and the antidote to these causes. In the pages Johann muses about medication, the possibility that the effect of anti depressants has been given to much credence and puts forward the view that depression is not caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Johann argues that it is the lost connections of humanity that have allowed depression to take root in peoples lives. Some examples of these lost connections are things such as the disconnection from community, childhood trauma, lack of meaningful purpose and losing touch with nature.
While I believe that medication can play a role and be beneficial there is a lot in the book that makes sense to me.
Reading it reminded me of a quote by Ivan Illich, the Austrian philosopher priest who said that, "Traditional society was more like a set of concentric circles of meaningful structures, while modern man must learn how to find meaning in many structures to which he is only marginally related. In the village, language and architecture and religion and work and family customs were consistent with one another, mutually explanatory and reinforcing. To grow into one implied a growth into others."
These are wise and prophetic words that seem to confirm Hari's thinking.
The connections Illich refers to have great power and many of them have broken down in contemporary society. I believe that depression and anxiety are rising to epidemic levels especially in young people and the breakdown of traditional connections could be a big part of the cause.
Watching the sunrise in silence, Buzzards stretching their wings above a rising thermal or running amongst the Bluebells tell me that we are connected, threads in the same fabric. The door is open. Somewhere lies healing.
Ah but they've never seen the Northern Lights 
They've never seen a hawk on the wing 
They've never spent spring on the Great Divide 
And they've never heard ole' camp cookie sing

What I think of as The Dead Poets Friday Runners

  • Friday, December 28, 2018
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“The eye should learn to listen before it looks.”
Robert Frank
Coming in from a run and drinking a mug of Rooibos tea under a hot shower I was idly wondering how to frame my retrospective of the running year. As the mud turned to brown rivulets running down my legs and swirling across the porcelain I realised that If I took a bald look at the last 12 months it would appear boring, beige or vanilla or any of those descriptions of bland one may care to use. If one is inclined to graphs then mine is fairly flat. It’s true, there are a few obvious high points, Australia being the standout with its tangled bush, its dunes, the endless coast and big sky and of course the magic valedictory dolphins but otherwise a cursory look back appears repetitive and dull.
I’m left then having to try and tell a story using broad strokes.
Psalm 42 talks about deep calling out to deep and this phrase is hooked in my heart as I wonder what to write. The psalm goes on to say all your waves and billows have gone over me and I suggest this is how the year has been for me, I have been enveloped by running and the gravitational pull of it’s moon tide. As I scratch the surface and dig deeper I become aware that this has actually been a great running year. My runs have come as wave after wave, consistent and regular and if the psalm also alludes to communion then that is also appropriate. I’ve run my regular routes through the woods and developed an ever deeper intimacy with what I described to a colleague as my cathedral than I could ever have imagined.
Actually this is the best running year I’ve ever had and I’ve now been running ten years.
I have fragments of memories and impressions, so in no particular order:
The rising mist delivering three teenage boys, hooded like death monks in Adidas and GAP, sharp nosed with hidden eyes, trailing menace like feral things of the night.
Running with Annie on a crisp morning, our breath whooshing from our mouths like freshly extinguished dragons.
The inappropriateness of neon running gear in the midst of nature.
The absolute necessity of running in red underwear.
How there is something awful about trees in winter.
Drinking Swedish Cider in the garden after a hot run.
Giving up Swedish Cider and indeed all alcohol and flipping my eating habits on their head.
Feeling happier.
The peal of church bells in Summer as I ran across the common.
The clarity and purity of birdsong.
How I love ending a run by bounding across the Common towards the pond.
The eerie healing moment in the snow, brokenness and light juxtaposed and threaded together by the formation of ducks above my head. It changed me as the kiss of the divine should.
The mindfulness of straining Kefir every evening.
Silver sweat slicking off my Maori skin in the heat.
The earth cracked apart by the sun.
Running with my laaitie, my son who at 14 already has a zest for life that surpasses most people and laid aside his bass to run with me. Thanks bud for introducing me to the wonderful Vulfpeck.
The incredible heat that took me home.
Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo lifting my heart as they always do.
Cold Chisel and Foy Vance. First Aid Kit.
Running conversations. Lots of them. Some serious, some profane but all infused with quality. I’ve never been so stimulated by talking and listening.
Which brings me to…
What I think of as The Dead Poets Friday Runners.
Kate who has given me a better level of self esteem by bestowing what appears to be sincere value upon me and faithfully tapping what I think of as the blessing tree each time she passes it.
Annie who takes no shit from me ever and seems to be able to look right into my soul with specific intensity. Eish. She has no idea how valuable this is to me.
So 2018 was running as I wish it, there was contrast and texture, colour and conversation. It was poetry and music and art. It was Divine and profane. There was evolution. I’ve never felt so in love with running, so consumed but so at peace with it. It was alive.
And it’s an important conversation I’ll finish on. Running down a rocky road with Annie and Kate I mentioned that the sunset was worth a photo but that I wouldn’t because I would rather just enjoy it for what it was in the moment. I said that it was unique and we would never see another sunset like it ever again in our lives and that made it special. Annie said that each of us saw it in a different way from our own perspective and Kate agreeing said it was what John Mayer wrote about in his song 3X5

“Today I finally overcame
tryin' to fit the world inside a picture frame
Maybe I will tell you all about it when I'm in the mood to
lose my way but let me say

You should have seen that sunrise with your own eyes
it brought me back to life
You'll be with me next time I go outside
no more 3x5's
just no more 3x5's”

So if you are reading this I say enjoy every moment. They are fleeting and we don’t get them back. Make your lives extraordinary even when they appear mundane. Love. Listen and talk. Create.

Preparing for the long dark.

  • Monday, October 22, 2018
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Catch a cannon ball now to take me down the line
My bag is sinkin' low and I do believe it's time
To get back to Miss Annie, you know she's the only one
Who sent me here with her regards for everyone

Take a load off, Annie
Take a load for free
Take a load off, Annie
And (and, and) you put the load right on me
(You put the load right on me) 
The Band, The Weight

Notes from the trail:
Preparing for the long dark. Rods of sunlight slanting through the treetops. The leaves green and gold, lit by divine spark, falling to the ground in slow cursive loops. The trees black against the sun, solid and vertical filled with the last of the birds whose song defiant in the face of a setting sun was beautiful and undying.
We stopped in this clearing which was unusual. Not the clearing, that was like a thousand others, pristine and beautiful, it was the stopping that was unusual. We never stop. We talk for sure, always moving stride by stride, our words and feet with rhythmic, matching cadence but this time we stopped. Who made the decision? I believe it was an instinct, just as the creatures know when to start preparing for the long dark by storing food and making burrows and nests. We took communion there, not with bread and wine but with words, the song of birds and peace. Annie all in priestly black, her brown eyes lit by internal fire and intense, Kate in her braids and banded white vest, her smile dimpling her cheeks. And I, the narrator, my glasses fogged up, in a shirt stretched and worn and shuffling my feet in the leaves.
The conversation in rough draft:
Annie: “ We’ve stopped!” Annie hates stopping.
Kate: “ I don’t mind, look at how beautiful it is”
We all look at the effect of a perfect afternoon on the woods, it is astoundingly lovely.
Annie: “ I’m just having a celebrating life moment”
And that is how we spoke with soft voices on a soft wind, facing each other in the womb of nature as Annie told us about a friend who is grieving her husbands death at 48 from Pancreatic cancer. She told us that it could be any one of us. She went on to say that she was taking this moment, in the woods, to be appreciative and remember that She needs to make the most of every day. Kate and I nodded our amens recognising the truth in what she said.
This was not a sad run, thanking them both I told them that my turbulent soul had felt great peace and that I felt somehow different. in fact it was probably one of the most peaceful runs I’ve had. My vow to myself is to hold on to this and remember these conversations and moments because they will sustain me through winter when these woods become cold and skeletal. I am glad that I believe the long dark is followed by resurrection life.

Thrown like a star in my vast sleep
I opened my eyes to take a peek
To find that I was by the sea
Gazing with tranquillity
'Twas then when the Hurdy Gurdy Man
Came singing songs of love
Then when the Hurdy Gurdy Man
Came singing songs of love
(Donovan, Hurdy Gurdy Man)

I just feel freakin’ fit!

I have unexpected time. Normally most of my waking hours are allocated, I am busy with the nuts and bolts of work and family life with all the necessary obligation that those things bring. It is unusual to be alone with nothing that needs doing, so unusual that I feel a little disoriented, TS Elliot wrote about "the Still point of the turning world" the urge to be still when everything around you is constantly moving so I find myself staring out the window, into the weak autumn sun still struggling with yesterday’s rain. There is a couple walking up the road, he is darkly bearded and carrying a half finished bottle of cola, he wipes his face several times with his hand and I wonder if he is wiping away tears. The women is dressed in jeans and has a light blue handbag over her shoulder, I watch them until they climb into their car and drive away and find that I am still alone with nothing to do.
The solution to the paradox of stillness in movement is to think which is what I end up doing.
I have been giving a lot of thought to my life over the last three months, realising that I had to make positive changes I began to investigate how that might be achieved.
I have been in a low grade depression for too long, it’s wearied my soul and chipped away at life and when it drags on and on you begin to wonder what it is exactly we are living for. Albert Camus said that there is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is  or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.
My answer to this is that I love my kids beyond measure and I have to be better for them. Furthermore I deserve to live a life of quality, the sand is slipping through the hourglass and I want to live and experience life again.
I mentioned the film Finding Traction recently and in it Nikki Kimball speaks in a heartfelt way about struggling with depression and the value of being active and outdoors. She was so passionate about it that I looked her up and discovered how she had also changed her diet and how she felt it had benefited her emotionally. Nikki eats low carb, high fat and she feels that it has helped change her moods for the better. The idea behind this is to train the body’s metabolism so that it no longer depends on glucose for fuel but burns fat instead. High blood sugar levels in the brain can lead to excessive highs and lows, depression, confusion and anxiety. The theory is that reducing carbs can stabilise these mood swings.
To this end I have removed carbs, grains and cereals from my eating and replaced them with leafy greens, raw, colourful veggies and so called good fats. I’ve ditched alcohol. Fortunately for me protein is important so I can continue to enjoy things like chicken and steak. I have also started making my own Kefir which is fermented milk containing live cultures. It’s absolutely delicious and has possibly become my favourite thing. I was also suffering from bad acid reflux, causing me to sleep badly so I’ve added bitters like strong coffee, ginger and dark chocolate to my diet to further aid digestion.
Thus I can report after eight weeks that:

  •      I am happier, my moods are more stable and I’m feeling more positive.

  •         My thought processes are clearer and my brain sharper.
  •         My energy levels are up.

  •         I’m sleeping like a bomb because, broadly I no longer have heartburn.

  •         My poo is better although I seem to wee more.

  •         It’s not about weight loss for me but I am leaner.

  •         I’m less hungry during the day.

  •         My running has improved and I ache less post run.
  •         I just feel freakin’ fit!
I’ve always been careful not be become too evangelical about things, I don’t want to be a raving lunatic with strident voice, sandwich board and wild eyes shouting that YOU MUST REPENT BECAUSE I HAVE THE ANSWER, because I don’t. I can only share my experiences and let you decide because we are all different and what works for me may not work for you. This eating change of lifestyle seems to be of huge benefit to me but I’m only 8 weeks in and I have to sustain it. Curiously and encouragingly I am finding the pastries and deserts that I loved no longer have any attraction for me and I’m enjoying preparing different food.
Perhaps the most interesting change has been the apparent benefit to my running, I look forward to my run, anticipate it as the day goes on and have a hunger for it. I have greater energy for sure and I find that I’m running at a faster pace without feeling like I’m pushing hard. This will be another thing that I track over time to see if it is maintained.
For interest I include links to three people I came across in my research that I feel are sane, intelligent and balanced, they are all runners: – Tim Noakes I’ve never met but he has popped up in the background of my life since my twenties. Born in Zimbabwe, a doctor, sports scientist, deep thinker and runner. I trust him. He wrote a seminal book called the Lore of Running which is worth a read. He is not afraid to say he got it wrong.
If you want the science and the numbers he is your man.
I’ve bought his Real Food Revolution.   “Everything you buy is like a vote for what they stock for you “ A maverick. – Nikki Kimball. “The problem is, how do you get someone in the middle of a bout of depression to run? My friends come and literally drag me out of bed. I am screaming and swearing until about the third mile, then I start talking and smiling.”
Lunch - Spinach, Lettuce, Bacon, Olives, Greek Feta, Avocado. Sunshine. Yum.

The Tim Noakes book.

That night we owned the world and I’ve never forgotten it.

  • Saturday, September 29, 2018
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Yeah, the last plane out of Perth has almost gone
(Khe Sanh, with love and thanks to Cold Chisel.)
The last time I left Perth Gayle drove me to the airport in her old car, we had the windows down, the slipstream rushing past blowing her copper hair in mad tangles across her face freckled with the glow of eternal youth, in the cassette player JETS, the iconic Western Australian rock band played, the music distorted by the crap speakers and snatched away by the howling wind. She had driven me down this same highway months earlier to see them perform in a downtown hotel and we had bonded over life, enormous jugs of beer and pyrotechnic rock. That night we owned the world and I’ve never forgotten it.
I’ve learnt that we must cherish the special people we are given for however long we have them, the last memory I have is her standing by the open car door, lanky and a little angular, her eyes, soft, blue and deep and mirrored by the ageless sky. I left her there and by mutual agreement never looked back, not long after cancer killed her and I never saw her again.
I’ve just returned to Australia 30 years later without my mullet and my youth, a little fucked over by life and accompanied by two of my kids. I had many reasons for coming back. I came to think, to have conversations, ask questions and hopefully reset myself. I came for answers and I came to lie on the grass and look up at the Southern Cross. I came because I fell in love with Australia all those years ago and it’s never faded. On this trip I had space and time to go for long runs along the coast with the wind in my face and salty lips. I took time to stop on my runs and clamber over the rocks with the waves foaming at my feet to watch the cormorants fish and search the far horizon. I ran through the bush and dunes, the silver sand sliding beneath my feet like the passing of time and where numerous signs warned that I was running through snake habitat. Nothing venomous came out forming itself into the grim reapers scythe curling across my path and I was grateful.
And then there were the Dolphins.
Faith is strange. It works, at least in the small things or what we may be tempted to call small but may possibly be terribly profound. The big issues often remain, the things that are hard to accept or understand like the black depressions and the unending struggle to make ends meet. I went to the sea everyday for 17 days while I was in Perth. Every time I went with the hope and the expectation of seeing Dolphins and on the penultimate day in the setting sun of the late afternoon they came, their backs curving like Katanas and gleaming with the foamy surf.
It felt like a promise fulfilled.
Running through the bush and dunes.

I am home now and I feel a sweet sorrow that Summer is gone. Just this afternoon I’ve come in from a great run in beautiful Autumn sunshine and re enacted my Summer habit, sitting in the sun with my kids and drinking the last cider in the fridge. It felt like a valediction of what I feel has been my best summer of running ever. Australia was the high but there was also some great runs either solo or with Annie, Kate or both of them together.
I loved running in the heatwave, solo, gasping and brown, sweat silver against my skin and my heart pumping violently inside my chest, the earth so dry and cracked that I could put my feet into it up to my ankle. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so fit, alive and able to soar above myself.
I had a fabulous early morning go with Annie at the beginning of August, the mist was rising vertically from the damp vegetation, Annie was fresh off the plane from Vietnam and we had a long chat about developing countries and globalisation and the impact of unrestrained capitalism on poor people used to living simple lives. Kate and I ran a few days after I returned and we had a really deep and honest talk about work life balance, raising kids, education, guilt and marriage. Both of these women are bringing out the conversation in me and when you run and talk with people you comfortable with and trust the miles fly past with almost no effort, time as a concept almost disappears, that line gets blurred and you cross over into effortless freedom.
Recently I watched the documentary Finding Traction featuring ultra runner Nikki Kimball which featured a quote by Bernd Heinrich who wrote the great book Why We Run. He said, “ Running appeals to a lot of people now especially because we are more and more constrained. We can’t really be ourselves, we have to follow these rules and those rules. We have less and less freedom and freedom is what we need and running is an outlet for true freedom and letting loose “
Anyone who reads any of my posts will know this freedom is one of the true planks of my running.

 Snake country
Clambering over the rocks with the waves foaming at my feet

I am leaning my head against the splintery fence

  • Monday, June 11, 2018
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I limped into my half term break with holes in my shoes and stones in my soul, emotionally and physically exhausted and suffering from people overload. I was slightly surprised to find I got there at all. I needed to recharge so I locked my front door and retreated to my garden with books, buckets of chicken wings and bottles of beer. I hunched in the sun like a beardless garden gnome, shirtless and a little deranged, staring at the straw footed scarecrow with it’s stoners smile and wondered where the bees have gone, and the butterflies too. I thought the world may end soon and I half hoped I was right. The bees and butterflies may be scarce but the flies have survived, big, hairy arsed bastard things that dull buzzed around me in Vulturous circles and drank the sweat from my face. I listened to Miriam Makeba singing Pata Pata endlessly on repeat. In the recording it is 1967, her voice is clear, pure and powerful and she has already been in exile for seven years.
Post run on a warm afternoon and I am leaning my head against the splintery fence, in my left hand is a fruity Swedish Cider thick with sweetness and crushed ice. Closing my eyes I tilt my face toward the sun and feel the momentary tickle of a small spider or hairy arsed fly on my stubbly head. I ignore it and it goes away.
I had the pleasure of meeting a man called Mattie in the week prior to the break. Guy and I took our sixth form pupils to the local tennis centre, partly because the PE focus this term has been striking games and hitting a ball over a net and partly because we like to get our young people out into the community and expose them to different people, it’s a way of gently piercing the bubble that is school and introducing the reality of the wider world.
Mattie is Mauritian, a former international tennis player, coach and psychologist. He is also Autistic. People like this reignite me, acting as a mirror and reflecting back exactly why I used to love my job and reminding me that deeply hidden I probably still do. He was interesting, fiercely intelligent and the corners of his eyes were touched with humour. He was clearly passionate about working with young people with disabilities. Mattie had a great story of being 17 and volunteering at the so called Special Olympics – the forerunner of the Paralympics. It was his job to place the shot put within reach of a large Swedish lady competing in a wheelchair but placed them just out of arms reach. The lady leaned over, overbalanced and fell on top of Mattie. “She couldn’t move and I couldn’t move and my face was trapped between these giant Swedish boobs”
I’m glad he made it out so that I could meet him.
I’ve been running with my friends and colleagues Annie and Kate a fair amount recently, making scribbly lined routes through the woods on a Friday after work. These have become my favourite runs, they are smart, dynamic women who both run like stink.
I just stink like someone who runs…
Running during half term gave us the freedom to run in the morning when we were not drained by work. We didn’t have to collect children from band practice or go home to cook. We chose to run the other side of the road where the trails are stonier and the inclines longer. Late Spring mornings in England can be beautiful, the sun shines stratified by the mist like floating gold and the shadows lie long and angular in dark geometric patterns but on this occasion the sun is no more than a thought, refusing to untangle itself from the cloud. The morning to looks and feels Jurassic, the trees seem closer to the trail edge than normal and loom like ogres and the vegetation is heavy with moisture. The birds have hidden themselves with the sun but their song is beautiful and clear. Like all communal runs we talked as we ran, sometimes deeply and with eloquence, stringing words and ideas together threaded with birdsong and sometimes with short profane bursts, less divine and much more human and earthbound. We had a great run and when we eventually left the trees behind and ran down to the traffic lights they both bestowed kisses upon my cheeks. They have no idea how blessed They made me.