What I talk about when I talk about ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’
It’s been a while, hasn’t it? And yet it feels like no time at all. I’ve been in Montréal on my year abroad for almost two months now, but every so often it seems like two years or more.
It’s a very strange feeling when you uproot and replant yourself in a new place. No matter how near or how far I am from home, I tend to feel a few planets away. I felt like this when I moved to Bristol: a swift and simple hour and nineteen-minute journey by direct train which manages to traverse several lightyears in my own sense of time.
And now a dwarfing seven-hour flight duration later, and I’m in Montréal(!). Literally Canada(!!). Actually McGill(!!!). My long-awaited year abroad(!!!!). Even after these passing months, I still stumble back from the local supermarket, earphones half falling out and arms fully strained, with the echoing refrain of The Only Living Boy in New York (or something as existentially suiting) underscoring a bizarre sense of geographical- and self-consciousness. Or less pretentiously put…you know that moment when it hits you? Well, it keeps on hitting me, or rather gently prodding me, time and time again.
Though the addictive stitches of social media go most of the way to sewing together the tectonic plates of national borders, I knew that I wanted to communicate a more tangible documentation of my time in Canada (and meaningful? whatever that means). But the weeks launched from the start line back in August like bolting lightning, and haven’t let up since. My mental goal of a weekly or bi-weekly entry was a finish-line hidden over the horizon, one that my physical self could only pant after, like bandy legs on training wheels. But my basic and beloved blog has been gathering dust after a recent refurbishment, and it’s about time I brush the cobwebs away.
So I thought I would shift my goalposts, slightly. Instead of maintaining a blind track record of everything that chronologically crops up in Canada, I decided I would group these happenings into collected musings, bunches of balloons bursting with helium thoughts. These bumbling bouquets will hopefully orbit around a certain theme or arising idea that’s jumping to my attention from the messy masses of my daily routine. This means I can curate and filter my memories, which I guess will be at least a fraction more interesting than subjecting everyone to an arbitrary mélange of uncondensed mumbling.
Consider my goal as a series of letters from Montréal, sent with love.
This idea first came to me on a run (believe me – I’m just as shocked) and so, to honour the prospect of Phoebe Graham physically exerting herself, I would like to begin by talking to you about running.
Specifically, I would like to talk about What I talk about when I talk about running.
I’m reading a book about running at the moment, distilled from the exquisite ruminations of Haruki Murakami, to breath a bit of fresh air into the dusty gaps between assigned readings. It’s a series of memoirs about how running has affected Murakami’s life, more specifically his health, and most significantly, his creativity. My McGillian housemate recommended I read it, as I’ve recently been trying to push myself to go for relatively frequent real-life runs in *heaven forbid* the great outdoors.
Until now, running and exercise were things I felt I had to do to maintain my weight, a mindset which inevitably couldn’t travel further than the rotating conveyor belts of the treadmill – never going backward, but not really going forwards either. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing – a machine, as with most technological utility, will always provide the convenience if you just want to let off some steam. But this approach to running meant that I would refuse to run outside in the fresh landscapes that I am lucky to be surrounded by. Running was inherently tied to my sense of self-consciousness, and so I felt it was a private activity that should be hidden as much as possible.
So coming to Montréal and McGill, and immediately facing the unrelenting conveyor belt of continual assessment, I came to realise that I wasn’t seeing as much of the city as I would have liked to in the aftermath of care-free ‘frosh’ week orientations. So I decided to make a new system to free myself from the monotony of the conveyor belt approach – academically, socially and physically. Every week, I aim to complete a normal jog to Beaver Lake (see pictures) and/or up the steep incline of Mont-Royal (see top picture) and then another run which will expand my mental Montréal map and take me to new places.
Beaver Lake is a beautiful place to visit in Montréal. There’s a little waterfall that I like to sit next to and allow the hum of gushing water to fill my ears and drown out anything that might be nagging my mind. The water is clear and refracts the colours of its lining trees, currently an autumnal blush of bursting sunrises – a paint palette impression of its surrounding environment. Being able to take in the naturally occurring surroundings with my naturally occurring legs feels as natural and satisfying as the completion of a jigsaw puzzle, and I can feel myself getting stronger each time.
Murakami writes about how he doesn’t really think about anything as he runs. Here’s a bit I really liked:
“As I run I tell myself to think of a river. And clouds. But essentially I’m not thinking of a thing. All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing”
It’s a really wonderful thing. The blankness I feel is blanket-like. The homemade void is sky-blue, and gives the brain breathing space for thoughts to gently float in and out again, like clouds.
This beautifully reassuring idea made sense to me in light of a podcast I recently listened to on the history of thoughts, and how we deal with them. Murakami seems to pretty much agree with the ethos of third wave cognitive/behavioral therapy, which focuses on mindfulness. It encourages you to disregard uselessly negative thought processes, as opposed to countering or making meaning from them. Rain clouds in the running void aren’t given space to linger for long; the “homemade void” provides an outlet to take hold of your worries, trivialise them and push them aside.
Ok, let’s pause for a second and get my breath back.
I’m not claiming to be a running fanatic now (I have the pace and rhythm of a large-footed clown). I’m really not very good, and I probably look like every reason which stops those from physically exerting themselves: ridiculous and irregular and like Phoebe in Friends. But I think I’m getting better; I’m gaining more stamina, and it’s giving me a greater clarity of mind. I’m pushing myself in a physical and mindful sense; I’m setting goals and achieving them. For my mind to exercise well and to absorb and analyze the minds of others in books and poetry and plays, it feels good for my body to be up to speed too.
Anyway…going running, and thinking about going running, got me thinking about other kinds of running we do in life.
And the first kind to come to mind was the idea of running away, because I feel like this is what I’ve done by coming to Canada. I didn’t have anything to run away from by any means, but thinking of my year abroad in this way gave me the excuse to revitalize – to get new glasses, cut my hair, get a ticket to see Arcade Fire in MTL (who were INCENDIARY), to eat well and to start running. The little mundanities can make a huge difference to how you see yourself and the world around you.
I think we should feel comfortable in the inevitability of change, and sometimes it can be healthy to consciously help that along from time to time. So it’s not so much that I’m running away from something, but rather running towards something else, something that I will shape and discover and become as I go along, but can only really distinguish once I look back on the route I’ve taken.
I think external distances create breathing space inside, so if anyone also feels like running away ever, I’m only a face-time away. Seriously, I can talk to you about the abundance of squirrels I ponder over every day – what could put you in a better frame of mind?!
In running away, I’m learning how better to run my life and organise my time. The educational culture in McGill is kind of vastly different to England. Assessment is smaller but more frequently given, as opposed to less frequently given, but more in-depth. One way is no better than the other (it depends on what suits you), but by being forced to keep on top of these smaller assignments, I find that I can motivate myself to keep on top of things.
I’m taking classes in Aboriginal Contemporary Theatre, Post-War American Poetry, the English Novel of the 19th Century and an Introduction to Modern Art. The eclecticism gifts endless fascination, and I’m beginning to draw new and exciting connections between these disciplines and my own way of thinking. I’ve always worked efficiently by cramming my timetable with as much variety as I can muster: a jack of quite a few trades, and a master of absolutely nothing at all. But these short-term achievements of little and varied goals energizes me and helps to keep pushing myself that bit further, running a little harder each time to catch up with things.
And as I run on, I cannot escape a lingering sense of running out of time. I miss home, Devon and Bristol, by the bucket load every day. But a part of me is hoping that this isn’t going to end, probably as a means of preserving the company of all the wonderful, brave, clever, considerate and kind people with whom I am sharing this awfully big adventure. Many of those who live with me at 3653 Rue University are only here for the semester, when they will return to their homes all over the world and keep on stringing their timelines after briefly tangling with mine (the picture above gives you a glimpse of some of them, at what apparently looks like my baby shower?)
This sense of their continuation following this brief encounter fills me with such excitement for their very bright futures, but also a great sadness for the ephemerality of this year abroad. But I’m thinking in a very linear way. Time doesn’t really run out – that’s only if you think of it as a line. Many of the indigenous cultures of Turtle Island like to think in circles. And I like that manner of thinking – the idea that we don’t start and end, we aren’t one or the other, we connect, memories and bodies, in past, present and future.
The first two years at Bristol University have sprinted by, and I can inevitably feel the sandy days of Canada slipping through my fingers. But I hope that I can catch the falling grains with these words, pictures, songs, and letters.
Today, I write this letter from Café Osmo, about a 20-minute walk from home. The air is crisp and the leaves are crinkling and there’s not a cloud in the sky. It’s pretty artisan and the chairs are a sharp, google-headquarters turquoise but look kind of uncomfortable. I avoid their judgment by sitting on a stool by the window, beside a now luke-warm black Americano and I am on eye-level with the green, green grassy ground outside. I think I might go and see the McGill Symphony orchestra tonight (I did). I’m thinking about going cardigan and sweater shopping this afternoon in preparation for the cooling days ahead (I did). Over the next month or so, my runs will get shorter and the circumference of my daily life will spiral inward to the nucleus of my home on 3653 University. But there’s still plenty of running to be done, before these days runs out.
Things I’m up to over the next few weeks: joining the McGill radio station, seeing Hillary Clinton talk, finding a jazz bar, attending a Leonard Cohen Tribute concert, going to a Leonard Cohen museum exhibition, having a Halloween party, getting lost, watching the Rocky Horror Picture Show live, running.
p.s. shout-out to my dear friend Ellana Bishop who I miss very much, and who asked me to say this.