“down south”

last time i wrote i was in transit, on my way “back home” after being “up north”. now i’m “down south”. which for me means sydney, or melbourne. simply put, it means the big smoke-the city. “back home” to this dyed-in-the-wool country rat is the regions.

i’m here in sydney to read at the launch of a journal i’ve been published in.

here is a link to that journal! TEXT

i have an ambivalent relationship to the city at the moment, so i feel blessed to have been offered a home and cat to mind. this is a necessary calm retreat for a fragile self, unprepared for the gritty energetic onslaught of sydney. i’m raw after time “up north” spent with my mother in the compassionate zone and after the dislocation of travel.

i spent a day or so back home before packing my running shoes and other items for my city sojourn and so i got to test drive the hills and the asphalt of the hinterland where i live. it was an interesting run, in that i had a level of anxiety around it. for a few reasons. there was a very simple fear of that much hill, which is a no-brainer to overcome. you simply put one foot in front of the other and you will arrive at the crest. “tricking the body” with continually deferred promises of respite. the other anxiety is a deeper, more pervasive and, for me, chronic anxiety. it is one i have always lived with. agoraphobia. fear of the market place. or of open spaces. fear of being far from safety. it’s very conceptual, because the idea of safety is not a fixed idea. it expands and contracts. its boundaries are things like the white road marker that is 1.5 km from home, or the distance from which you can still see home or the place where the deep forest begins. it’s always with me, but not always active. i try to embody the idea that safety is something i carry with me but that doesn’t always work. and yet i embark on the journey, with a level of trepidation, but also a level of trust that the run itself will ameliorate the effects of the anxiety. my logic around this is two-fold. exercise is calming, in that certain biochemicals are released that act in an anxiolytic fashion. secondly, that running “mimics” some of the signs of anxiety. sweating, increased heart rate, faster breathing and so on. i “run out” the anxiety, or the anxiety becomes subsumed by the run. in this case, about halfway through the run at the 4km mark or just beyond, i switched into a pretty full-blow panic. pretty predictable. i was at the farthest point from home. there was no “safe space” i could access easily. i became dissociated pretty quickly, ripped off my hat, my headphones (which in these situations serve only to alienate me further from myself and my environment), ran first one way, then the other before being able to talk myself down using pragmatic reasoning. if i wanted safety, then the only thing to do was head for home, as fast as i could get there. which probably helped me up the killer hills on the way back. of course i arrived home safe and sound-in pieces, but locatable. and happy to have managed a 6 – 7 km run around very hilly roads.

after an experience like that there is for me a level of trepidation about the next run-an anticipatory anxiety. it’s not ever enough to stop me, but it gives me pause. and then i remember that this activity, which is sometimes yoga and sometimes walking or climbing, but is for now running, is the thread which stitches me together every day.

(this idea of the drive to continue dominating over fear or reason is something that mark rowlands talks about here, referring to sartre: philosophical running)

on the way “down south” on the train i broke my journey at a small town called wingham. my dear friend sue lives there. on a cold morning around dawn i went down to the oval, which is on the outskirts of town past the dog pound and council depots, with a friend and 2 dogs and ran in the morning chill around the ovals. that kind of running is ultimately very unsatisfying-pounding a path around an unchanging oval. so i took to the road and ran home. my anticipatory anxiety was quite high, but i let my feet take control and let my visual field expand to take in the countryside, the lovely old houses, the causeways and railway crossings, the dew evaporating on the grasses, the horses in the fields. i ran easily up inclines and took the descents gently. it was an altogether pleasant run, and set me up for good experiences by obliterating, for now, the anxiety of running far from “safety”.

and now i’m in the city. in sydney. i’m procrastinating running, not because i don’t want to run, or i’m feeling lazy, but because i’m in the city, and i guess i don’t know how to run around a city. i’ve become used to uncrowded spaces. i’ve become used to running in nature. and this is an altogether different thing. i am not sure how to begin, how to negotiate the sidewalks, the people, the noise, the traffic and crossing the roads. i don’t know how to engage with the visual noise, and the difference of the city, in terms of how to integrate that into my run. we shall see.

10 km later.

well, it was lovely! i ran from pitt street in redfern to moore park along phillip street, then came to the huge thoroughfare that is south dowling street, ran to the overpass and reached moore park. from there i ran around the perimeter of the park. it’s a large swathe of the city, and it rolls on into centennial parklands, with a variety of golf courses, cricket grounds, sports ovals, lakes and recreational spaces integrated into the acreage. i ran along anzac parade and from there i just ran in a random fashion, at some point meeting up with dacey avenue, running again the perimeter of moore park around the north end , back over the footbridge and home. about an hour and 15 i guess. i met the city, and allowed it to act upon me and me it, and we rose and fell to meet one another. i loved the city, in all its cityness. i appreciated its green spaces and did a hop and step over the roots of the many gracious figs that line the city’s green spaces.

when i got back, i listened to a podcast from ABC radio national called “philosophical running”, in which 2 running philosophers speak about running and what running means to them, or how they think about running in relation to living, i guess. I’m reading a book by one of these philosophers, mark rowlands entitled Running with the Pack: Thoughts from the Road on Meaning and Mortality. rowlands talks about the “value” of running as being inherent or intrinsic as opposed to instrumental. that is, it is more than “useful”. the value of running does not lie outside of the run, or elsewhere, but the run is its own reward. for some, there is an instrumental value in running – for fitness for example. and rowlands acknowledges the difficulty in pinning down the idea of running’s inherent value, but i guess one has to be “running on the road to nowhere” to begin to understand. rowlands running companions are spinoza,  descartes, hume and sartre.

the other philosopher speaking about exercise and running on the podcast is damon young. his running companion is nietzsche, and he runs to the strains of “will to power”. i liked young’s ideas of “consistency”.  i find the idea resonates with my own daily life struggles. he refers to the philosopher alistair macintyre, and the 2 virtues he talks about “constancy and integrity – the sense of having a whole life that is not piecemeal that has to be continually knitted together through daily acts”  he explains that that exercising the “muscles of consistency” through regular exercise like running acts to encourage consistency in the rest of your life. personally, i find this to be true, given that i have a spectacularly strong relationship with a kind of bleak existentialism. the fabric of my life feels very fragile. overnight, the fabric can disintegrate. on a daily basis i need to invent my existence.  i don’t think this is in any way unique to me, but this sense of a piecemeal life, a life that is like a tattered quilt constantly being mended, pervades my existence. i have to remember how to eat breakfast, how to wash, how to start the day, how to carry on.

running has become the hook on which i hang my days, and then the structure which is holding it together, the thread which stitches the piecemeal whole. the constancy of running bleeds into other activities, and i find myself less obliterated because of that.

i guess that sounds bleak. but to me, it is hopeful.


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