Acts of charity

I’m currently reading Khaled Hosseini (he of Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns fame)’s wonderful new book, And the Mountains Echoed. In it (don’t worry, no spoilers ahead) there’s a character who makes great gestures of kindness, but who only ever does so in a very public way. In other words, it could be said that were he not to get recognition and praise for his actions, he might not feel it worth doing them in the first place.

This morning I rose early to run from my flat in Clapham to the flat my boyfriend’s just moved out of in Camden. I needed to do the run as part of my half marathon training, but had selected the route as I’d been asked by my boyfriend to pick up the last of his things, and latterly also by his flatmate to pick up the sofa cushions from the dry cleaners. None of this was any trouble as far as I was concerned, I was happy to do them a favour and help out.

When I reached the dry cleaners and discovered there was an outstanding charge of £35 on the cushions, however, I’ll admit my spirit of generosity waned somewhat. Fortunately I had brought my cash card and was able to pay, after which I duly traipsed back to the flat to put the aforementioned covers back onto the cushions – which turned out to be far from an easy task given their size and the amount of feathers that flew out with every squeeze. Fifteen minutes and several swear words later I was standing in the living room triumphantly surveying my handiwork in successfully reintroducing the cushions to their covers – the downside being that I was now ankle deep in feathers and the living room looked like an illegal cock fighting ring. Cue an impromptu tidy up mission and more cursing, whilst the part of me that had so happily agreed to do the favour in the first place steadily began to regret the decision.

The main – rather uncharitable -thought that went through my head at that final moment was “they’d better appreciate this,” which is when I drew a parallel with the character in the novel I’m reading, and also when I wondered the following question: Is doing someone a favour any less charitable if it’s not the act of doing the favour that gratifies you but rather being thanked for having done it? Furthermore, do we as human beings have a deeper desire to help one another or to help ourselves? Which is the most prominent driver?

Those who do favours for others gladly and happily without grumbling or expecting thanks are clearly the most admirable. But surely there’s still something to be said for the rest of us mortal beings who do favours for others and do then expect thanks in return? After all, there are plenty of miserly souls out there who would rather stab themselves in the eye than do a favour for someone else in the first place….Right? Or wrong?

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The balance and the bliss

This afternoon, whilst working from home on a PR strategy document so complicated it made me want to repeatedly bang my head against a concrete wall, I began to ruminate on the importance of sometimes doing things we don’t want to do. When I became so frustrated with the document that a break was imperative I decided (somewhat irrationally, with hindsight) to do something else I didn’t want to do: Go for a run. And I’m not going to lie to you, every single step was horrendous. Beyond horrendous, actually, it being so humid the sweat was running in rivulets down my back before I’d even turned the corner of my own road.

But despite the discomfort of these activities, the important thing is that I did them – not with good grace and humour, admittedly (what do you want from me – blood?), but with something more resembling grim determination. And in doing them I managed to assuage the guilt I had been feeling about putting both activities off for the past few weeks.

It’s not just about assuaging guilt, however. One of my favourite singer-songwriters, Megan Henwood, wrote a beautiful song in which she explains why it’s important to endure harder times in our lives in order to appreciate the good ones: “Without the down and dark there would be no contrast between the high and light, the happy times, the balance and the bliss.” Now I’m not saying writing a PR strategy or going for a run when it’s humid are on a par with, say, a family bereavement or relationship break up, but no one could deny they place significantly lower on the scale of good times than winning the lottery or getting engaged.

So now my daily quota of ‘Things I Don’t Want To Do But Regrettably Have To’ has been filled, I’m off to view my new flat and spend the evening eating fine food in fine company. I might even treat myself to a glass of wine – it’s all about striking a balance, after all…

The art of procrastination

If there’s one thing I’m brilliant at, it’s procrastinating. I can spend hours mooching around doing precious little (whilst convincing myself that the precious little I am doing is of the utmost importance) as the things I really should be doing languish at the bottom of my to do list, gathering metaphorical dust.

But now that I’ve decided Monday is, for the short term at least, to be my day of creative writing rather than commissioned freelance work, it’s more vital than ever that I rein in the part of me that is so very proficient in the art of procrastination and make every minute count. Because a day can pass incredibly quickly when you’re drifting through it, only half aware of what you’re doing.

Today I feel I have been conscious of all that I’ve been doing, though it’s only now as I sit down in my local café at half past midday I’m able to focus on my writing. I decided to start the day with a run around Clapham Common, to try and kick the sore throat that’s been plaguing me on and off for the past week into touch. On the way home I did my weekly shop and by 10.30am I was at my desk having showered and breakfasted, ready to tie up the loose ends on my last commissioned freelance job.

Now that’s done all that stands between now and 5pm is an afternoon of story and character plotting, and I can’t wait to get started on deciphering all the notes I’ve made in recent days as ideas have begun to take shape. So without further ado I must bid you adieu, for there’ll be no procrastination this afternoon, thank you! (It’s a good job I’m writing fiction and not poetry).

When I think of procrastination, I think of Koh Tao, for it was here I spent two weeks in blissful procrastination wondering whether to stay longer or continue further on my travels. Anyone who’s been there will know why I found it so hard to leave. Happy memories indeed.

Welcome to a runner’s worst nightmare…

When my alarm went off at 6am this morning I was unimpressed (to say the least), and wondered momentarily just how bad it would be if I didn’t turn up to the Wholefoods run I’d spent the last ten weeks training for. But I somehow managed to peel myself out of bed and get my stuff together in time for the 7am taxi pick up.

As we drove towards Kingston I was naively optimistic that the weather may not be as bad as predicted after all, but by the time we pulled up in the market square the snow was falling and it was nothing short of freezing. Clusters of runners stood in every doorway, huddled together for warmth and staring at one another forlornly whispering, ‘why are we doing this again?’

By the time the 16 mile race started I could no longer feel my fingers and was starting to doubt my ability to complete the race (never a good thing at the very beginning), but before I knew it the horn had sounded and we were off. Once my body temperature began to rise I settled into a comfortable stride for the first eight or nine miles, quite enjoying the scenic part of the route beside the river (less so the rather more grim road section).

By mile ten, however, I was struggling – badly. The cold had crept into my bones and my hip joints were so sore I felt like a 90 year old. I’ve never felt pain like that in my hips before (in all of my training runs they’ve never so much as ached – mind you, if it was ever below five degrees in my training runs I tended to exercise in the gym. Oops) and was unsure what to do, so I slowed down for a couple of miles to try and ease the pain. When I realised it wasn’t going anywhere I changed tack and opted to run as fast as I could manage until the finish line, figuring I could at least then stop and rest.

Fortunately the strategy paid off and through gritty determination, sheer bullishness and an inordinately large amount of sugar-based stimulants I made it across the finish line – in a respectable 2 hours and 31 minutes and 29 seconds. I had hoped for a sub 2:30 time, but given the horrendous conditions I’ll let myself off.

It’s a miracle I’ve managed to drag myself to the computer to type this given how much pain I’m now in – walking up the stairs feels like as big a challenge as climbing Mount Everest right now, but it was worth it (I think). If not for the glory of completing the race, then for the huge amounts of roast lamb and chocolate cake I was treated to by my parents afterwards 🙂

Important lesson for next time (yes, I’ve already signed up for another race – this time a half marathon, Run to the Beat, which is at least in September so can’t possibly be as cold as it was today. RIGHT?): Train outdoors even if it’s cold so the unpredictable English weather doesn’t screw you over totally on race day. At this rate I may be loaded onto the plane to New York in a wheelchair on Tuesday (note to Jen: I won’t!!)…

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Run rabbit run…

In a little over ten hours from now I will be arriving in the market square in Kingston upon Thames dressed in my running gear and weather-appropriate additions such as hats, gloves, coats, scarves, double duvets etc (sadly I was joking about the duvet), in preparation for the Wholefoods Breakfast Run – a 16 mile jaunt from Kingston to Hampton Court Palace (twice). Despite being officially spring time in England the forecast is for below freezing temperatures and snow – wonderful. Needless to say I’m now regretting every night I chose to do a training run inside because conditions outside were too cold – not one of those occasions was as cold as this will be, so bravo me for having no practice of running in sub-zero temperatures whatsoever.

Still, if my past experience of competing in triathlons is anything to go by (and last September’s London Triathlon was pretty damn chilly let me tell you) the atmosphere and camaraderie (plus the massive bowl of rice pudding and banana I’m planning to consume at 6.30am, the packet of Dextro energy tables and Powerade I’ll be gobbling down throughout and the stonking dance play list I’ve compiled on my MP3 player especially for the occasion) will see me through – that and the thought of a nice relaxing afternoon in front of the fire afterwards.

My mother thinks I’ve taken leave of my senses with all these challenges, but, bless her, she (and my step father)’s still braving the elements to come and cheer me over the finish line. The night before a race I have to admit I do question the reason why I put myself through it, but as soon as I cross the finish line I always feel a sense of elation. There’s nothing quite like pushing yourself to the limit physically. I never, ever thought I’d say that, but it’s true. In my opinion it’s the best way to feel really and truly alive.

Wish me luck…

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This was taken after my second sprint distance triathlon in 2010. I didn’t actually win, it was an opportunistic photo, but nonetheless I was proud of my achievement! Something tells me I’m going to have to wrap up warmer than that tomorrow if I want to avoid hypothermia…

 

Time out

I probably shouldn’t admit to being short of inspiration today, but there you have it: My confession. It’s been a taxing start to the year, to say the least, and I’ve exhausted all of my energy stores – both mental and physical. Training for next weekend’s 16 mile run isn’t helping on the physical front, but it has at least given me a focus for which I’ve been grateful in my lower moments; hard as it is to get out and running when the axe of redundancy (or any other challenging life event) is hovering over your neck, it really is true what they say about exercise making you feel better. Though I’m still not convinced I’m going to enjoy tomorrow morning’s scheduled 12 mile run in the rain….

But this is not to be a negative post, far from it. I’ve found a new job that I’m itching to start, have already got some freelance irons in the fire and genuinely feel this period of change will be the making of me – I’m just looking forward to the change phase being over and the new phase being underway, because it’s the change phase itself that’s so very tiring.

Rather than go home and slump on the sofa this evening (as is my body’s inclination) I’ve decided to be proactive in beating the tiredness, and am planning a return to the Sivananda Yoga Centre in Putney for its evening Satsang class. The Centre is a branch of the ashram in Kerala (southern India) where I did a two week residential yoga course in 2011. Satsang is a free class which comprises a twenty to thirty minute group meditation session, followed by 45 minutes of mantra chanting and a talk on the philosophy of yoga. It sounds a bit crack pot, I’ll admit, but I actually find the whole thing very relaxing, and a great way to ‘switch off’ the mind after a long day or period of stress. To any disbelievers reading this post I will say only this: Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

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Writing this post reminded me of the few days post-ashram when I and two of my fellow ashramees [sic] spent a few days on the coast, in Kovalam. This pic was when we were still full of the enthusiasm of regular yoga practice – how times have changed (for me at least, I can’t speak for the others!)

Putting theory into practice

Tonight I unintentionally put Professor Daniel Gilbert’s theory (which I mentioned in yesterday’s Bea article about happiness) into practice. Having woken up with a sore throat I spent the whole day feeling increasingly less keen to go to my first running club session after work. As the day progressed I thought of every excuse under the sun to not have to go. The front runner (if you’ll excuse the pun) was the fact I felt worse after running 3k at the gym last night, so running 8k outside would almost certainly make me more ill. Fortunately my sensible Twitter followers coerced me by citing the ‘below the neck’ rule, and as my lurgy was most definitely above the neck I decided I had run out of excuses and would give the run a try (I can’t deny the scone and slice of cake consumed at a colleague’s leaving do in the afternoon was also a contributing factor to my need to exercise).

I digress. So how did I put Professor Gilbert’s theory into practice, exactly? Well, I did the run, and at the end of it I thought how much I had enjoyed it and how glad I was to have done it. I even wondered why I’d made such a big deal of it and spent so long trying to talk myself out of going. What Professor Gilbert would no doubt say about this is that when imagining the run – in what was then my present – I was feeling unwell, and was only able to imagine doing the run whilst feeling unwell, which led to me overestimating how bad I would feel whilst actually doing it. As it turned out I felt much better by the time I started the run anyway, and so when the run became my present I was able to enjoy it far more than I had imagined.

Realising this has been a revelation. I’m actually rather stunned!

By the way, in case you’re wondering, I’m thinking of amending the ‘past post’ rule of this blog so that I occasionally post something I’ve written before, but it doesn’t have to be every week. I’m delighted to say I’m enjoying writing something new every day so much I’m finding I don’t want to post old pieces of work (most of which I’m now viewing with a more critical eye anyway and deciding they’re not up to scratch for publication).

Tomorrow’s the last day of January – one month done and still going strong! Who says New Year’s Resolutions are hard to keep?

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Here’s the image that comes to mind when I think about things that weren’t as bad as I imagined. I’d built myself up into a frenzy of worry when I did my first triathlon in 2009, but on the day of the event (as you can see in this pic) I quite enjoyed it! Bar the swimming. I bloody hated that part.