Dear exercise-haters: you’re doing more than you think

Tim is running a marathon next year. I know, he is p r e t t y intense and very impressive.

I have no concept of what running 26.2 miles actually means (since for me it would only mean prolonged but certain asphyxiation) so I will leave the imagining to him. What it means for the moment is an exercise schedule including long runs, even longer bike rides, and the wearing of much lycra.

I am sort-of happy about the lycra, in that while lycra itself is a bit gross by definition, there is also so. much. leg.

What it also means is that he comes home starving and ready to eat like Henry VIII on weed. I join him in this endeavour, because I am a supportive wife. But I am not burning an extra 900 calories on a slow day, dear readers. So he’s eating a pig-inside-a-duck-inside-a-turkey and banging his mead goblet on the table, feeling revived, and I am eating the same and only feeling greasy and bloated and sad.

This is a problem. I love a marathon man, and I am an exercise-hater. We are basically the Romeo and Juliet of Sports Direct. The only exercise I ever enjoyed was dance class (a LONG time ago) and the yoga class I used to go to, pre-babies. I’ve never found a replacement. All other forms of exercise I have tried make my cells weep. I have done it, because I feel I should. But I hate it. Do you hear, Pinterest quotes superimposed over sweaty abs? I. HATE. IT.

It seems deeply unfashionable to be an exercise-hater at the moment. My Facebook feed is full of Zumba enthusiasts and excited spinners. There’s also, you know, the science (heart health! endorphins! ability to punch robbers in face!). Don’t worry, fellow exercise-haters: I am unlikely to start posting about My Fitness Journey any time soon. But all this proximity to sweating and good health has made me realise that, busy or not, exercise-hater or not, I need to start earning my own goblets of mead.

And I will. In October (probably). When things settle down. When I don’t have quite so many Doctor Who episode blogs to read at 11pm. Until then, to ease the guilt, I have compiled a list of STEALTH EXERCISES I’m doing right at the moment. If you are a fellow hater, you might find these helpful.

- carrying fifty pounds of boy up and down the stairs when they’ve both mysteriously lost the use of their legs at the same time

- continual manhandling, assembling and lifting of the HEAVIEST PUSHCHAIR KNOWN TO MAN

- sprinting up a flight of stairs after hearing an unmistakable ‘face in toilet’ kind of splash

- elevating heart rate by holding breath during abominable nappy changes

- elevating heart rate by stumbling over a silent toddler in the dark hallway at 1am on my way back from the bathroom

- using all possible muscle strength to prevent the Tesco trolley that always veers to the right from crashing into the Pringles aisle

- full-body-wrestling Teddy, the human demolition ball, into a set of clothes every morning

- squeezing self onto toddler-sized slide and pulling self out by sheer force

- 5pm – 6pm, where NO ONE WANTS TO BE PUT DOWN, EVER.

Doesn’t that make you feel better? I should put this on Pinterest. If anyone would like to apply to be my sweaty abs, send cover letters to the usual address.

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I do jumping too, sometimes. Jumping counts, right?

I eat my feelings, and maybe you do too

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I am the sort of person who thinks a lot about food. You might be able to tell. Most of my jokes are about biscuits, aren’t they? I maintain forever and always that a good biscuit joke sets most people at ease and, an additional benefit, encourages them to think more about biscuits.

Lately I’ve been wondering whether my relationship to food is as healthy as it could be. My goodness, food and I are complex, intertwined, weirdly co-dependent creatures. Here are a few things that are true for me (are any of them true for you too?):

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I am northern. My cooking tends to be on the heavy, meat-and-potatoes side of things. I like meat and potatoes best when it’s in a pie. DO NOT EVEN GET ME STARTED ON PIE.

I do not smoke, drink or take drugs, but I use chocolate ice cream in a way that resembles all of these things.

I like good food, whole food, expensive food…and down-and-dirty food, greasy food, delivered-to-your-door-in-a-damp-paper-bag food. I eat unhealthily often, and gleefully, but with a sad sense of grossness afterwards.

I tried counting calories once, and it bored the freaking pants off me. I would never, ever consider giving up dairy, wheat or meat unless I were actually dying. I mean, CHEESE.

I come from a family where our genes run small and skinny. I have a vastly skewed sense of ‘normal’ size and weight as a result. I place far, far too much emphasis on how much I weigh, rather than how I feel. If you ever asked me my weight, I could tell you and the number would be accurate to within 48 hours.

I would rather spend money eating out at a restaurant than buying almost anything else.

I don’t enjoy being pregnant, and I think maybe one of the reasons is that my body shape is out of my own control.

I often go days or weeks between fizzy drinks, but I have to close my eyes in intense appreciation after the first gulp of cold Coke. Every time.

I use food as reward and emotional salve: the times I’m eating for other reasons – exhaustion, boredom, stress, sadness – far outnumber the times I’m eating because I’m hungry. And by the way I talk about it (‘will some fruit snacks make you feel better?’), I think I encourage my children to do the same.

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Doesn’t that make me sound seriously unbalanced? I’m not, I promise. But this is hard: food is energy and health and a delight in its own right, a bringer-together of families and friends, delicious in its earthiness and physicality. You should love it, we say, but not the bad parts and not too much and not in a weird way. There has to be a line you can walk between ‘I like to eat’ and ‘I am unhealthily dependent on liking to eat, and use it to propel myself emotionally through the day’. I want to find that line. I think it would do me some good.

So I’ve been trying to make some changes around here – not so much in what we’re eating, but in how we eat it. These are not refined theories at all, and I’m really just feeling my way to some better habits. What do you think?

one,

I’m trying to be a little more aware of why I’m opening the  kitchen cupboard, and organising the continual grazing into structured meals and snack times. Ben & Jerry’s after the boys go to bed and before I start work? Reasonable. Ben & Jerry’s at 9.30am because drying my hair took less time than expected? Unreasonable.

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two,

I’m trying to eliminate the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ eating (adults talking about ‘naughty’ food is a cringey bug-bear of mine), and consider instead what my body might need to take in, and how much it needs before it’s full. I can appreciate the iron in our beef lasagne and the vitamins in my salad…while also accepting that sometimes a whacking great burger and fries is exactly what I need, because it tastes nice and I enjoy it.

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three,

I’m trying to make our daily family meals more of an event, particularly dinner time. Flowers, place mats, fancy napkins and serving bowls, little side dishes to round out the main course…we usually saved these for guests, but why should we? I am a big believer in forging our family links around a dinner table. This is where the boys learn to talk about their day and listen to someone else’s. They need patience and social graces to make it through a meal. And I’ve noticed that when I make it feel a little more fancy, Henry is more excited to be there, and more inclined to raise his game.

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four,

I’m trying not to make quite so many jokes about biscuits. KIDDING, AS IF I WOULD EVER.

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I ate Ben & Jerry’s while writing this, and I can’t decide whether this is ironic or whether ice cream and blogging is a perfectly reasonable combination. But here’s to food in its proper place: on our plates, in our bellies, making us happy but not, somehow, needing to. I’ll clink our cheeseburgers together to that.

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I have told the boy listening in the dark that I love him, and closed his door. Tonight I think he’ll stay in there. A click of the door, then, and quiet in front and behind.

I grab the bag of dirty nappies that represent my day’s work and take it downstairs, out of the door, up the steps, across the little car park and over to the bin. I don’t put shoes on. I swing the nappies into the bin and then turn back, a few steps away, and stop. I want to stand for a minute and feel the gravelly asphalt under my bare feet and the sky over my head. The sun is setting behind clouds, the light cool. I breathe in. Out. Feel the pull of my bladder, as usual, and wonder how long I’ve needed to pee.

I look at our house, standing there peacefully with shuttered blinds, as though it’s always this quiet and composed. Half an hour ago, Henry screamed so loud over having his teeth brushed that I worried the neighbours might think we were branding him with an iron. No sign of that now. Just the little gabled entryway, the skylights open to the heavens, the blackout blind keeping two boys in sleep.

I don’t know how much longer we’ll be here. I am aching with anxiety about it all, but, looking at it now, I am suddenly aware of how hard it will be to leave. This house, this life. I cannot imagine bringing this to an end.

I walk back across the car park to the front door, and think about what Hilary Mantel wrote once.

‘There are no endings.

If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings.

Here is one.’

Why I’ll be sending my kids to camp

I’ve just got back from girls’ camp – well, not just: I’ve been back long enough to sleep for a couple of hours, to unpack all my moss-covered, grease-covered things, and to realise I’ll be doing a full-body cringe for the rest of this week while my fiery sunburn dies down. I’ve only been involved in a few camp activities this year, but the feeling is always the same, and it made me think of this post I wrote the last time I was there.

Here’s to helping our girls feel their bright, brilliant, ferocious worth, right to the ends of their muddy fingers. 

the penguins say -

that August is a month worth camping in.

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Yesterday I came back from girls’ camp. Forty-eight teenage girls, thirty-ish adults, twenty-seven million clumps of knee-high, prickly grass. It’s been a long, hard, exhilarating week we’ve been planning obsessively all year. I’ve sat in a smelly marquee eating dinner from a tin plate, sung ridiculous songs in the heat of a campfire, listened and talked and run around like a lunatic, and all of it surrounded by talking, shrieking, singing, laughing girls.

I think there must be nothing on earth like this. I watched them arrive on Monday morning and wanted to reach out for them because I remembered being in their place – impatient, self-conscious, unsure of myself, my place in life, my body. Making decisions that would affect the rest of my life and frightened to death of doing it wrong. I wanted so much and didn’t know how to get it. What do they hear from the adult world we inhabit, these girls? You must be beautiful. You must be popular. Don’t be stupid and don’t be clever. Be funny. Be skinny. Wear this. Take this off for the camera. There, now you’re something. They see a hard, bright world of boxes we created for them to fit in, and they’re lost in it. How could we do it to them? How could we?

We spent last week making spaces to tell them something different. You are something, and somebody, and valued on your own terms. You have potential. You can make decisions that bring you self-respect. You are a daughter of God, and there is so much happiness ahead of you. Not one of you, not ever, needs to be lost.

As I sat with these girls, I knew I’d be entrusting my children to them in fifteen years or so. I want my boy, my girls and boys to come, my girls yet unthought-of, to know the truth: that they are worth more than their skin, that their destiny is their own, that they are loved more than they can comprehend. I do not want them lost. So I’ll be sending them to camp.

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We drove back towards town and I told them we’d find a playground. Nursery visits are necessary things, but not much fun for either of them: look at all these children and new toys! Nah, just kidding, let’s go. We’ve been doing it all week, and we’ve still got some to go, and we’re tired.

I told them we’d find a playground, and thought again about certainties. This has been a bruising week, dear friends: the sort of week where I drink too much vanilla Coke and stay up far too late in internet trivialities, because getting my mind to settle in one place for sleep is too ambitious. We are on the springboard of some change. Change I can handle, but I can’t stand not knowing what type of change it will be. I think a lot about being a thirty-year-old woman. I think a lot about being a person of faith and about what that means, about having boys and raising them well. I think about how I can possibly get a legal copy of Life on Mars now the unmentionables at Netflix have taken it away from me (WHY WHY WHY). I would also like to know where we will live, where Henry will go to nursery and roughly what my life will look like in the near future. I keep thinking self-pitying things like ‘that doesn’t seem like too much to ask’, like people don’t spend their whole lives grappling with stuff like this and worse.

I thought again about certainties, because I cannot breathe for grey area, muddy waters, out-of-focus plans. So we drove down a leafy road that might-or-might-not be our new home turf, and I looked for a playground. I don’t know where the playgrounds are around here yet. I couldn’t find one.

Do children crave certainties too, with the same kind of need? Yes, I think so. But smaller ones. Henry’s favourite question at the moment is ‘Mama, what-a we do now?’ I give him a list of our next four actions, but only four. That’s as far ahead as he can make himself see. Teddy’s absolutes are smaller still: the presence of one of his three best people, and a good clear floor.

Some colourful bars flashed in my peripheral vision, and I pulled the car around. We couldn’t see it properly till we’d piled into the pushchair, crossed the road and opened a green gate set into the high hedge. But there it was, a playground. Squeaky clean and deserted, mostly hidden from the street. It was small but brightly coloured and thoughtfully planned. The grass was clean and warm. I let them roam happily around, unworried for once about broken glass or broken bones. And for half an hour we were enclosed and safe in a green space that held, for the moment, everything we needed. I couldn’t see any further than the high hedge, and just now I didn’t want to. The restfulness and relief of it nearly knocked me over.

‘Survey large fields’, someone once told me. ‘Cultivate small ones’. Well, I don’t get out much in fields.

‘Adventure in large playgrounds’, I would say back, nodding all sagely. ‘But keep your heart in small ones’.

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Superpowers, for dads

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The boys in my house wore matching ties today, all three of them. Halfway through the morning rush Henry got upset that his tie wouldn’t lie flat like Timothy’s. From the bathroom I watched Tim take him on his lap and convince him how fine his tie was, how smart, and most importantly, how incredibly flat: it falls down just like a waterfall, Henry. It’s perfect.

Later Henry was practising lunges while I put on my make up, and stopped to admire his tie. He was beaming all over his face, glowing with it. ‘This tie is so smart, Mummy. It like a waterfall’.

I have noticed that this is what happens between Daddy and these boys. He gives them a better way to see things, and they believe him. I’ve watched him convince Teddy that playing a made-up game is more fun than being hungry and cross. He can make our old playground exciting, over and over again, while I faint with boredom on the bench. He’s made Henry terribly severe about road safety without saying anything at all, just by showing him how it’s done. Woe betide you if you cross without pressing the button for the green man. That’s not how Daddy does it.  

If it’s sappy metaphors you’re after, try this: if I order their universe around them, then it’s Timothy who lights up their sky. Timothy, too, who straps on their wings and pushes them off the cliff. He tells them they can fly, and then they do.

It is something special to watch the person you married love the babies you made. One day I’ll look at my grown-up boys, and realise he’s helped them see a better way to be a man. And they will believe him, I hope, because damn. He knows what he’s talking about.

I never want to not feel this. Happy Father’s Day, my love.

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The desert, and other stories

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You are in Arizona. There is something odd about Arizona. A huge, open valley ringed with mountains you never reach. Burning heat. It feels like the ends of your hair are crisping up, like every tiny part of your skin sits under a magnifying glass held by a curious, ant-killing giant.

The intense flatness of the vivid blue sky: no clouds, no sense of perspective. Beautiful, and pitiless.

The Aztec-style decorations on bridges and highways: spirals and lizards etched out in chalk.

The cacti loitering by the freeway and in people’s gardens, playing it cool, like it’s not the weirdest thing ever. You text home. ‘THERE ARE CACTI ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD, ALL CASUAL. Like we’re in the Wild West or something?’ ‘Um, you ARE in the Wild West’, they text back. Good point. Where else would it be but here?

The knowledge that every plant has been put there on purpose, because almost nothing grows spontaneously except those enormous lordly cacti. Then seeing how the city planners got carried away with the plant thing and started disguising non-plant items as plants, like mobile phone masts dressed up as palm trees. It feels like a sixties Bond film. Are there Russians dressed up as palm trees too? It’s brilliant.

Citrus fruit trees, with their trunks painted white to stop them shrivelling. The flash of acid yellow lemons between the leaves looking as foreign as anything you’ve ever seen.

The dust in the back of your throat. The point at which your winter-ready English feet get tired of sandals, so you take them off, and last about half a second before you have to leap for some shade, soles singeing.

Hunting for scorpions at night on the wall. Watching them glow blue under torchlight. Spending some time afterwards imagining scorpions leaving the wall for a jaunt into your bed. Sleeping with the duvet tucked in.

The m.e.x.i.c.a.n f.o.o.o.o.o.d. (Pause for sobbing.)

The family whose conversation you slide back into like you’ve seen them every day for the seven years they’ve been gone. A wedding full of lovely details. A ceremony you cry through, a reception where you eat burritos until your dress is straining, and then dance hard and hilariously, sweating into your hair, through the orangey evening and into the night.

Walking out into a city anchored onto desert, and never being able to forget the desert just a few feet underneath, hustling around the edges, whipping into your hair and mouth on the back of a hot wind.

The wind always hot. Even at night. When there’s any wind at all.

There is something odd about Arizona. You belong back with the tangled weedy hedgerows and narrow roads, the drizzle and the dry humour. As soon as you land you feel the rightness of it. But you miss the desert.

You are in Arizona, and then you are not, and you don’t think you will ever get it out of your head.

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2014 06 James and Hannah's wedding

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