Friday, 23 December 2016

The Hollow Man (A Blog written for the 'Advent Blog' Series)

When I first thought about contributing again to Kate Griffiths-Lambe's wonderful annual Advent Blog series*, this year's theme, "Heights, Hearts & Hollows", initially had me ruminating on last year's cardiac bypass, my recovery, redundancy and further reflections thereon. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I had kind of done that to death, in a series of blogs, tweets and facebook posts. I'm on a continuing journey here, one that I'm being supported on by friends, family, my personal and professional networks and, critically, paid for - and revelatory - professional counselling. So that's 'Heights and Hearts' taken care of. I'm not going to revisit that stuff here. 

Instead, I've let the Universe slowly draw me towards the "Hollows" element of the theme. It's niggled away at me for a few days. I don't really know why. Maybe it's the onomatopoeic quality of the word. It conjours up dark, empty, echoing places for me, and not necessarily in a bad way either. There's a weird attraction in it. Something to explore.

And a particular phrase kept popping into my brain; an evocative, elusive, seductive whisper - 'The Hollow Man'.

I've been sitting with him for a few days now, not knowing who or what he is, or why he should be so insistent on being seen. I've conjoured images of scarecrows, robots (Westworld?), the Wizard of Oz (Scarecrow again, "If I only had a brain", and Tin Man, "If I only had a heart"). I remembered the 2000 film with Kevin Bacon, an alternative and darker modern take on HG Wells's "The Invisible Man".

Now, these are all fairly empty manifestations of The Hollow Man, suggesting something missing, something not whole. Something sad. So why was (am) I so taken with the name? I even Googled 'The Hollow Man' to see if I was digging up some long-forgotten or buried memory that would explain his presence. I wasn't.

But then, up popped TS Eliot's poem, "The Hollow Men".

I'm not good with poetry. Never really got it. Still don't, to be honest. Funny that, for someone who claims to love words and takes pride in good use of vocabulary, grammar, spelling, tries to write well and reads a lot. I kinda get Burns and Shakespeare, but most other poetry tends to leave me cold.

So imagine my surprise when, in the first few lines of Eliot's poem, I was presented with a vivid scarecrow image again, in the voice of one of his Hollow Men...

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

There's more and, to be honest, it's not the most uplifting read. I had to search further to get some academic insights into the background and some suggestions as to the themes and meanings of the work. But slowly I've started to understand why "the Hollow Man" has been clamouring for my attention - a) there's a lot of them about and b) I don't want to be one myself!

Men - OK, people, but for the most part, it is men - with a hole where their heart should be. With little or no compassion, no respect or feeling for 'other', no capacity to empathise, afraid to see or hear a different colour or opinion. Bigots, trolls, abusers, cowards - psychopaths, even. And then there's the passive, purposeless, complacent people, happy to go with the flow, devoid of ambition or desire to learn and experience new things. Heads full of straw. Stuck. Sad.

We've seen - and, in some cases, been - both types of Hollow Man this year. And next year we will have to live with the consequences. My challenge for 2017 is to not 'wallow in the hollow', but to be braver, to stand up and speak up, to challenge divisive, lazy, anti-intellectual intolerance, both professionally and personally. I posted a tweet in a recent #LDInsight tweetchat - "On this journey, have realised I could have been braver, am still carrying anger, am impatient & now I can do anything".

I shall try.

* Do visit Kate's blog site and wonder at the diversity of thinking and talent showcased by this annual guest blog series. I'm proud to have been a part of it again this year.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Running Commentary

I've never been 'sporty'. Never played football. Never done athletics or gymnastics. Hated 'gym' at school. Got out of it as soon as it became optional at age 13. Didn't learn to swim until I was 21 See my Blog "Fear of Swimming". Sometimes played squash. Enjoyed badminton. Never really took any of them seriously. Recognised early that I was not competitive. If someone else really wanted to win that badly, let them get on with it. Exercise, as a thing, was never a conscious part of my life.

Fortunately, I have always been healthy and never had any weight issues, else I might have had some problems. Always had a 'fast metabolism', or so I was told/told people myself. Walked a lot. Still do, particularly after my coronary bypass last year, as part of my recovery therapy. That taught me not to be complacent about my health and fitness.

So now I've started running. Decided I needed to do more exercise that played to my personal exercise style, i.e. only competing against myself. I'm following the 0-5k Runner programme, via an app on my phone. I checked with my GP first. He listened to my heart, took my blood pressure etc. Was encouraging. Turns out there's a weekly Worthing 5K parkrun at 9am on Saturday mornings. My GP runs it. He hopes to see me there one day. Seems I've got a target then.

I've never followed any kind of health/fitness plan. Didn't really know what to expect, other than that I might not enjoy it, find it too difficult, drop out.

But I'm still working my through the programme. Just earned the "Half Way to 5K" badge. That's taken me 6 weeks, when the programme suggests 4. But I'm going at my pace. If I haven't been able to run all the timed parts of each section as per the plan, I've done it again the next time, and again, until I've completed it. Week 4 Day 2 was a b*gger. Took 4 attempts (not 6 as I had previously thought) before I could move on to W4D3, which I breezed!

Do I feel better? Fitter? Dunno. But I'm developing calf muscles. My stamina is obviously increasing. I ran a full 16 minutes out of 34 on W4D3.

I'm surprised at how satisfying this feels. And even more surprised at how I'm prepared to do this every two days and how determined I have become to follow through. I expect it to get more challenging. I expect to get disheartened. But I'm finding some inner resilience and determination to achieve this. It's my intent to turn up to, and run, the Worthing 5k parkrun next year. I'll push through the programme, at my pace, until I can do that.

In the meantime, I'm not telling anyone that my goal is to have achieved this by the second anniversary of my first angina symptoms in April and heart bypass surgery in May. My little secret.

Oh, wait...