‘We have to seize earth by the pole’

Robert Frost, 1959.

Robert Frost, 1959.

My mental image of the poet Robert Frost is of an elderly man shuffling through autumn leaves on a New England laneway, staring over a broken fence, or picking an apple and dropping it to the ground.

His work has always struck me as dense and a little too didactic, with life lessons deeply embedded in every stanza. I’ve long since passed him over in favor of other poets whose writing on the natural world seemed more attuned to my own ear.

Two of these are Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. To my surprise a joint work of theirs, the 1982 anthology ‘The Rattle Bag’, led me back to Frost this week.

Cometh the hour, cometh the curators. ‘The Rattle Bag’ is a collection of Heaney and Hughes’ favorite poems, and among the 350 or so are seven works by Frost.

One in particular spoke to me, and speaks to anyone undergoing changes and dealing with the occasional adversities that accompany them.

‘On A Tree Fallen Across A Road’ is a reality check, a sonnet which reminds us that, regardless of the circumstances, people will always find a way past. “The only thing I knew how to do was keep on keeping on,” Bob Dylan once advised. From one of those autumnal New England laneways Frost says something similar.

‘On A Tree Fallen Across A Road’

The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not bar
Our passage to our journey’s end for good,
But just to ask us who we think we are

Insisting always on our own way so.
She likes to halt us in our runner tracks,
And make us get down in a foot of snow
Debating what to do without an ax.

And yet she knows obstruction is in vain:
We will not be put off the final goal
We have it hidden in us to attain,
Not though we have to seize earth by the pole

And, tired of aimless circling in one place,
Steer straight off after something into space.

_____

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

A running lesson from a 70-something hiker

On Croagh Patrick

On Croagh Patrick

“It’s good for the soul.”

Not the words I expected to hear from a 70-something hiker as he ascended the tough scree slopes of Croagh Patrick, a mountain on Ireland’s western seaboard, on a rain and wind-lashed November afternoon.

The light was falling and I was coming off the mountain as quickly as my sodden boots could carry me. As I descended I was surprised to see, emerging from the mist ten minutes below the summit, a couple of men making their way up.

As they got closer I expected a brief conversation, above the howling wind, about conditions on top or how much longer they had to hike to get there. That’s if I even wanted to engage in conversation – my summit high had quickly faded and I was dreaming of taking off every piece of wet clothing once I got back to my car.

The lead climber, now just meters away, was 40 years older than me, moving slower than I was and clearly feeling the impact of a 700 meter ascent up a wet rock path.

Seconds before we passed he looked up and grimaced, before smiling briefly and giving me his words of advice. A second later we parted. I think we managed a mutual ‘best of luck’ – but I doubt either of us heard it above the wind.

This morning I awoke more than 4,400 miles from Croagh Patrick, to the sight of rain pouring down on the September streets of Portland, Oregon. It was before dawn, I was tired, my legs were sore, my rain-gear packed in a box still in transit from Ireland.

I could’ve provided myself with a dozen more excuses not to go for a morning run. But something in the rising light or the hanging clouds on the West Hills kicked me back to November 2008, to the slopes of Croagh Patrick and an old hiker who refused to quit on a hard mountain day.

My three miler was little compared to his daylong climb, though we probably wound up equally drenched afterwards.

Eight years on, the Croagh Patrick climber’s advice has stayed with me. Whether it’s climbing a weather-lashed mountain or pounding city streets through the rain, don’t think it, just do it – and keeping doing it. If nothing else, your soul will be fit.

A climber through the mist, Croagh Patrick, November 2008

A climber through the mist, Croagh Patrick, November 2008

____

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Creating great content – Hemingway style

Ernest Hemingway, 1939

Ernest Hemingway, 1939

The two habits of successful content creators are simple ones: write and cut.

It’s as easy – and as complicated – as that. Put as much of the good stuff down as you can, and then start paring it back. When you’re finished paring it back, rewrite it. Then repeat the process.

When you’re done, proofread it. Then proofread it again.

The process may sound mechanical, something which goes against the creative flow, but each revision will improve the work.

The ‘rinse, repeat’ strategy came to mind this week as I read Paul Hendrickson’s recent biography of Ernest Hemingway.

At one point Hendrickson recounts the guidance Hemingway gave to aspirant writer Arnold Samuelson.

“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it,” the author told his friend, before issuing his often-cited advice on revision.

“Every day go back to the beginning and rewrite the whole thing and when it gets too long, read at least two or three chapters before you start to write and at least once a week go back to the start. That way you make it one piece. And when you go over it, cut out everything you can.”

This may explain why Hemingway wrote 47 endings to A Farewell To Arms and revised the entirety of Across The River and Into The Trees 206 times (or so he wrote to a pal).

Whether you call it writing or authoring or content creation, and whether you’ve an hour, a day or a week to do it, the secret to the best content is fiendishly simple. Write, cut and repeat.

Ernest Hemingway's first-page draft for “A Farewell to Arms.” Pic: John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Ernest Hemingway’s first-page draft for A Farewell to Arms. Pic: John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

_____

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

The running advice that keeps me on track

Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami

One of the best insights I’ve encountered about running came not from a coach, or a sub-three hour marathon runner, or an athlete interviewed with a new medal.

Instead it came from a (then) 56-year-old man who I’d never met, and who’d made his name writing stories about – among other things – talking cats and alternate realities accessed through wells.

When Haruki Murkami wasn’t dreaming up his postmodern fables, he spent a lot of time running. And a lot of that time was spent running marathons (Murakami’s tackled the Boston Marathon six times).

His experiences led to his 2007 book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, a memoir which recounts how the Murakami-the-writer became Murakami-the-writer-and-obsessive-runner.

In his mid-50s at the time, Murakami was familiar with the highs all runners know. Given his age, and the strain marathons place on joints approaching their sixth decade, he knew the lows too, the tough days on the track.

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional…The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself,” Murakami writes.

When you’re running well – in my case 75% of the time – such thoughts never cross your mind.  But Murakami’s advice has become a critical mantra to get me through the hard sessions, the mornings when my plantar faciitis kicks off, or my shins begin to splint, or I simply find myself slogging through 45 minutes of steady wind and rain.

And pulling through those sessions is, to me, what the spirit of running is all about.

Dawn run, Galway, 2015

Dawn run, Galway, 2015

_____

 

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

What I learned from a towering wall of Alpine ice

Descending beneath an ice wall on the Parrotspitze.

Descending beneath an ice wall on the Parrotspitze.

Mountaineer Joe Simpson called it ‘the beckoning silence of high places’ – the lure that pulls people to the mountains, often to their most dangerous spots.

I’ve been to few places higher, or more silent, than the icy glacier that sits atop the Monte Rosa massif, the mountain chain which borders Switzerland and Italy, a sea of ice flowing down a frozen valley beneath the peaks of the Dufourspitze, Zumsteinspitze and Parrotspitze.

Six years ago this week I traversed the massif, climbing eight peaks in five days and pushing myself to limits I wasn’t even aware of.

Over the course of the week I came dangerously close to losing a glove in high winds on the Zumsteinspitze, assisted in bringing a fellow climber down after he was struck with altitude sickness, and – the payoff for repeated endurance tests – witnessed a series of incredible summit vistas.

Summit of Castor (4,228m)

Summit of Castor (4,228m)

I also took not-insignificant risks, one of which is pictured above. The picture was snapped as I descended from the Signalkuppe (4,554m), travelling by a hanging serac wall under the Parrotspitze (4,432m).

At the time the huge mass of ice above barely registered, despite it being mid-afternoon and a dangerous time for avalanches. I’d been climbing for 12 hours. Like the other members of the small group I was with, I just wanted to get down – and the route under the Parrotspitze was the most direct way.

In fact, given my tiredness, light supplies and the hour of the day it was the only option.

Perhaps that’s why the danger never registered at the time – when you’ve a single route forward and no way back it’s pointless to dwell on a concept like risk (or tiredness, or freezing feet, or an unquenchable thirst and a very finite amount of water in your flask).

Afterwards – if there’s an afterwards – you applaud yourself for your bravery, or dig up your photograph and write about it all.

I’m reluctant to draw life lessons from trips to the mountains, but when the Monte Rosa picture popped up on a social media feed this week it occurred to me that risk is a phenomenon that takes up as much space as you allow it to.

If you’re on a single path, to a single destination, it becomes – as it was under the Parrotspitze – simply part of the landscape.

Under the mountain - Parrotspitze, 2010

Under the mountain – Parrotspitze, 2010

_____

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Running into the City of the Roses

The Willamette River

The Willamette River, August 2016

After 8,000 kilometers, a number of farewell parties and all the work that’s involved in packing two lives into two dozen cardboard crates, I arrived in Portland this week in dire need of a mind cleanse.

When I’m jetlagged or feeling the strain of a heavy schedule one thing works for me – running. It doesn’t have to be a long distance or a great pace, or even a particularly enjoyable session. I just need to get out the door and start pounding it out.

My wife and I woke at 6am last Wednesday morning to a crystal clear sky over the City of the Roses. This was it, the first day of the Next Step, and the next step was getting outdoors.

We are staying in The Pearl district, close to the waterfront along the Willamette River – a circuit of which provides a spectacular dawn run. I had done this loop, around two of the 12 bridges which span the waterway, when we visited the city last December.

On the waterfront. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

On the waterfront. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Back then the weather was cold, with a freezing breeze off the river which blew away any jetlag cobwebs. This week it was warm, 19c at 7am, but a gentle late summer wind was just enough to ensure a comfortable run.

And so I started the next stage of my life much as I’d finished the last one, jogging along an expanse water as the day dawned. When much else is changing there’s comfort in maintaining some routines.

In busy and stressful times, periods of bereavement, heavy workloads, on days when it’s all gone right and others when I’ve hit a speedbump, up to this most recent move, to a new country, running has been a staple. At times it’s been easy, the 10k flying by; other times, every kilometer has been hard fought.

But every time the end result is the same. I walk back in the door in a better frame of  body and mind than when I stepped out.

Last Wednesday I entered our rented apartment, sweating and thirsty, tired and happy, dropped my keys and hat and told my wife something we already knew, “this is a great place”.

It is, and it’s best seen at 7am on a summer morning, crossing the Hawthorne Bridge with the sun on your face, the wind to your back, and the road rising to meet you.

_____

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Taking away some of that Bull Island zen

Dawn over Bull Island

Dawn over Howth Head, August 2016

My physiotherapist better look away now. Because this is a post about something that I really shouldn’t be doing much of but, despite all advice to the contrary, can’t give up.

It’s running. Or jogging, or slogging, or the next best word that describes my morning efforts around Bull Island.

On the mornings I can run that is. A burgeoning case of hallux limitus, a fairly common arthritic disorder that’s struck the big toe of my left foot.

A year ago I wrote about how the condition could eventually end my running altogether. Twelve months on and a canny regime of ice/walking/bicycling/rest has ensured that I can still get out for 5k twice a week. If I’m feeling utterly reckless I’ll stretch that to 10 – and pay for it afterwards.

But stopping is not an option. Most runners know the empty, distracted feeling when they miss a planned outing. Those who are injured know that they will do anything – make whatever time sacrifice, take whatever supplement, stretch whatever muscle – to get back out again.

Why? It’s not to get a physical workout – there are less painful ways to do that. It’s mental – or it certainly is in my case. When I’m off the track I miss the calming, clearing effect of a good run.

Running man

Running man

Over the years I’ve tried many things to quiet my mind. But nothing even comes close to the effect of 25 minutes running in the outdoors.

In recent weeks I’ve needed this more than ever. Planning, packing and preparing to leave Ireland has been exciting – but the flipside of the excitement, the anticipation and the bittersweet series of goodbyes has been my mind’s switch is jammed to ‘on’.

And so I’ve turned – despite the pain, which is manageable – back to jogging. Not just any jogging either, but a workout on Bull Island and Dollymount Strand, the sandspit that sits to the north of Dublin city centre.

This has been my gym in recent years, and it’s one I’ll miss. When my running ban was in effect I’d walk there, in any season and any weather.

But the best time to run in the area is on an August morning, shortly after a 6am sunrise. If you’re lucky you’ll catch dawn breaking over Howth Head, on one side, and over the city of a million slowly waking souls on the other. Most likely you’ll be alone, blank before the heavens, while your thoughts will have the decency not to intrude.

I’ve no idea where I’ll be running next month but – physios be damned – I will be. Whatever the location I do know one thing – I’ll take some of the Bull Island zen with me.

Dublin from Dollymount Strand

Dublin from Dollymount Strand, August 2016

_____

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

My Dublin is dozens of towns

Wooden Bridge at Bull Island

Wooden Bridge at Bull Island

Dublin made me.

There’s no doubt about it. It made wake up and grow up. It made me responsible, angry, happy, disillusioned, excited and proud – sometimes all at once.

I first came to the city at 17, as a student. My first night was spent (where else?) in a bar, Hartigan’s on Leeson Street, where I drank pints of Guinness with fellow first year students at Trinity College.

Back then, in an era before a proliferation of coffee shops, restaurants and gyms, the pub still reigned supreme as Dublin’s social hub. Over the years that would change, and so would I.

As I prepare to leave (not for the first time but likely for the longest) a spate of memories occur to me daily – of events, places and people.

I can’t pass Trinity College without thinking of the May evenings, which seemed endless then, spent outside the Ussher Library on breaks while studying for final exams.

James Street, Dublin

James Street, Dublin

Or the Phoenix Park without recalling the view over Kilmainham and along the Liffey, back to the city, that I’d encounter on mornings and afternoons when I’d jog around the Fifteen Acres and the Magazine Fort.

Or Talbot Street without remembering the 6am winter starts at the Evening Herald, where we worked furiously to get the first edition out by 9am.

Or, more recently, the long promenade running from The Sheds in Clontarf along the seafront to St Anne’s Park, as the sun shone over a high tide, across to Bull Island and the hill of Howth beyond.

More than 20 years after I first landed in Donagh MacDonagh’s “Dublin of old statutes, this arrogant city”, I’m departing. When I come back the city will have changed and I’ll be a stranger.

Or just more of a stranger, because the Dublin that I know is part 2016, part the emerging boomtown of 1995, part the battered crashtown of 2010 – and dozens of other towns in between.

I was never – and am still not –  quite sure which Dublin I lived in, which one lifted me and knocked me and lifted me again. The city has always been an amalgam, of the here-and now and the conversations I had over the years, the work I did, the people I met.

I don’t know Dublin and I don’t know anyone who can claim they do. But I know this town made me.
_____

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Route 66 of my own

Williams, Arizona, August 1999

Williams, Arizona, August 1999

It’s 31 years since Route 66 – the blacktop mythologized by John Steinbeck as ‘the mother road’ – was decommissioned.

The highway disappeared from maps but not, of course, from popular culture. The likes of John Steinbeck – who put his fictional Joad family on the road in The Grapes of Wrath – and Nat King Cole – whose (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66 became a rhythm and blues standard – took care of that, long before the last road sign was taken down in 1985.

The highway, established in 1926, ran almost 4,000km west from Chicago to Los Angeles. What started as a route for trucks became a path to a 20th century manifest destiny – the road to a place in the sun, in the golden groves of California.

It entered the American consciousness during the Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s, when thousands of families from Oklahoma and Texas drove or hiked west seeking work. Route 66’s mythology was sealed in those years – a byword for migration, freedom, escape and the loneliness of a vast country.

Family with broken down car, CA, 1937. Pic: Dorothea Lange/LIbrary of Congress

Family with broken down car, CA, 1937. Pic: Dorothea Lange/LIbrary of Congress

During the Second World War it became a key route for transporting munitions to the ports of the west coast. The road fell to leisure use in the 1950s – a convenient route to California that ran close to the Grand Canyon and across the vast southwestern desert.

By the time I came upon Route 66 – almost 20 years ago – it had ceased to exist.

I encountered it by accident. Driving across the US in 1999 my travelling companions and I stopped in Williams, Arizona, a small town on I-40, the interstate which replaced Route 66. We only discovered when we parked up that we were doing so on side of the famed highway itself.

Steinbeck’s “long concrete path across the country…the road of flight” was quiet that day, hosting the sporadic lunchtime traffic of a small southwestern town. The ghost of Tom Joad had long since moved on.

As all of us do. Next month I will set out on a Route 66 of my own, departing Ireland for the Pacific North West. While packing possessions this week I came across a photo I took in Williams on that day in August 1999. A fitting sign, as I step back onto the Mother Road.

Route 66, Gillespie, IL. Pic: Goodsamaritan1

Route 66, Gillespie, IL. Pic: Goodsamaritan1

 

_____

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Boxes, tape and a dread responsibility

Towering classics

Towering classics

This isn’t an easy post to write. Every aspect of it goes against my better nature – and my worst nature too.

It concerns an action that I’m not proud of, one that I will never repeat, a deed which has left me sick to the stomach, questioning my core values and reassessing my life’s direction.

I’ve purged my library.

It was my own decision, taken in a sober frame of mind and without coercion. And it was cold-blooded.

Over the years family and the odd (very odd – who suggest someone throw out books?) friend had advised me to do this. I ignored them of course. And the books continued to pile up.

Shelves had long since overflowed. Piles of paperbacks filled the bottoms of wardrobes and sprouted from the corners of bedrooms. When tripping over them became too much a simple solution presented itself: stuff the lot into empty suitcases. Which was fine, until it came time for a trip.

No part of me wishes I lived in a large mansion. In fact I’ve never lived in a house big enough to accommodate a library or even a small study. But sometimes it’s occurred to me that the only upshot of Jay Gatsby’s quiet desperation was the spare room at the West Egg mansion where he could ditch his unread books.

Empty shelves. 'Man Read at Lamplight', George Friedrich Kersting (1814)

Empty shelves. ‘Man Reading at Lamplight’, George Friedrich Kersting (1814)

After years of procrastinating, dodging requests from my better half, and generally burying my head in the sand (or in a newly acquired Penguin Classic) circumstances conspired to force me to face the inevitable.

And so, armed with a pile of cardboard boxes, tape and a sense of dread responsibility I started into the task – onerous but now unavoidable – of separating the ‘must keeps’ from the ‘must keep but this is cold reality’.

The keeper books needed no attention, they were going nowhere. But the others, each one assessed and re-assessed, maybe’d and if only’d, now stand in a series of small paper towers on the living room floor.

I can barely bring myself to look at them, including – as they do – books bought 30 years and a lifetime ago. Some were read and forgotten, some half read. others just held once every couple of years.

Adieu then to Don DeLillo’s magnum opus Underworld, the second copy I’ve owned and lost, with the plaintive image of the Twin Towers on the cover.

Farewell to Nietzsche‘s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, half-read, the product of a brief dalliance with existentialism.

Goodbye to William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, read as I dipped a toe into the world of steampunk.

These, and dozens more, are about to go. A friend’s offered to re-home some but most will be donated. At least someone else will, hopefully, read them – after our poignant parting I’m not sure I ever will.

And if this wasn’t heartbreaking enough worse lies around the corner – the opposite corner of the same room to be exact, where hundreds of CDs sit taking up space, unused, awaiting the purge.

Adieu DeLillo.

Adieu DeLillo

_____

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,