Twice recently, in rambunctious social gatherings, dread has seized me, completely unbidden. I recall one specific thought: Armageddon is nigh. A dead weight settled over my chest.
Both times the sensation departed as quickly as it arose, but I’ve kept thinking about the topic. Like melancholy, dread is a therapeutic notion in small doses, an emotion preventing complacency.
My Dark Novel Big Year – a novel so dark my family should reject it – might slot into 2021, so it’s distant. But the book’s idea is a first page I drafted years ago, and it’s somehow always close to my heart. I felt it again this week. Welcome, blackness.
In the September issue of the Australian Birdlife magazine, Jonathan Franzen, my hero in more than one regard, was asked in interview (in Papua New Guinea of all places) about “the appeal of traveling the world birding.” I swooned over his response, here’s one angle:
And also it gets you to places that would otherwise not get to go. I spent the first half of my life going to churches and museums in Europe. Now I arrive in Italy and my first question is, “How do you get to the nearest sewage treatment plant?”
Oh, for a Birding Big Year!
Laraine Herring in her On Being Stuck: Tapping into the Creative Power of Writer’s Block:
Begin keeping a word bag. . . . These bags can contain any word you gather throughout your day: single words, phrases, sounds, textures, smells, tastes, experiences. You can keep them on your smartphone, record them in an old-fashioned notebook, or even write them on slips of paper and place them in an actual bag. You don’t have to know why you’re selecting the words. You don’t have to know where or if they’ll fit. You are just creating a nonlinear word record of your day.
August and September were hiking months with only sporadic opportunities to jog. I got out only twelve times, mostly in the first half of August. The overseas runs were invigorating and seemingly speedy enough, but I knew the terrains were mostly flat, so upon returning last Sunday, I wondered how I’d go. Well, the first jog soon after the plane trip was grinding and my slowest (on that route) since February! Had I really lost eight months’ worth of hard work? Monday’s jog on a different route was the slowest since May. Yesterday, on yet another route, energy surged and my pace was about the same as before the jogging holiday. Thank goodness!
I’ve posted a few times my ongoing observations from working through this book for the second time, little snippets that haven’t amounted to much. Today I finally conclude my rereading.
Do you have a habit you wish you could get rid of? Scoffing biscuits an hour before dinner might, for example, be one. Well, Duhigg does offer fresh insights. Gather research over a couple of weeks. What is the cue, the moment and the motivation that triggers needless eating? What is the reward? This research needs to be thorough, for the cue might be subtle. For example, the thought of impending dinner might not just trigger raw hunger but a desire to “call it quits for the day.” So: cue = 5 PM thoughts of dinner; routine = overeat; reward = relief from the stress of the day. Now, here’s what you do – replace the routine with something else that satisfies the same reward. In our case, we might set an alarm for 5 PM, grab a book and walk five minutes to read for fifteen, and the same reward results: aaah!. Systematically stick to the new routine and after a few weeks, bingo, the Tim-Tams rot in the pantry.
The trouble is, I don’t seem to have many really bad habits, at least in my own mind. At this point in my life, I’m more interested in creating “better” new habits, and here Duhigg’s book isn’t, for very good reasons, as helpful. It helps to appreciate how cue, routine, and reward combine to form a big new habit, but the hard part is determining exactly what the new habit should comprise, and having the motivation to instil it. That, I realise, is tough.
A Big Year is, it seems to me, a highly specific way of instituting new habits. The cue is a brute force one: do something every day for a year. The reward is whatever yearning or fascination impels the Big Year activity in the first place. After 365 cue/routine/reward repeats, on December 31, hopefully something of a new, intoxicating habit will have formed. Let’s see!
That’s me, trudging across one of the high fells in the Lakes District, as part of the 300-km Coast to Coast just completed in England. We took 16 days, we met one man doing it in 11, most seemed to hike from the Irish Sea to the North Sea in 12 to 17 days. This is my third fifteen-day-plus “through” hike. What did I learn about myself?
Do I appear to be enjoying myself? The two-and-a-half weeks were a kaleidoscope of British scenery, from cowshit farm fields to high tarns to rock scrambles to bleak moors to quaint villages. We were fortunate to have clement weather, although I had to admit that the isolated gloomy/rainy/misty days were thrilling, evoking something uniquely British. I felt a sense of journeying, gradually chewing up the miles across a country, spying what lay ahead while glancing over a shoulder at our conquered territory. One distinct pleasure was the progression of B&Bs/pubs/hostels, with their fulsome breakfasts, accompanied by nightly “reward” dinners, mostly in pubs, nearly always with wine or beer. The company was avuncular and easygoing. The hike was robust – on average we walked just over 20 kms a day, 5 to 10 hours depending on the terrain – and demanding at a very basic level, namely that of keeping leg and foot in shape. But only three of the days really taxed me, so by one reckoning the CtC was not a full challenge – how did that affect my experience?
Two days after scrubbing my boots clean, the ultimate conclusion to a hike, I’m plagued by an unreasonable disquiet. I cannot fault the journey, but here’s the rub: I’ve always yearned, or thought I was yearning, for the big challenges, what I’ve been labelling as a future Tough Hikes Big Year. We’re talking intense physical exertion, navigational intricacies, an element of riskiness verging on danger. Yet the Coast to Coast was quite manageable, thank you very much, and I loved it. Am I changing in what excites me about hiking?
Tom Foreman’s “My Year of Living Dangerously” is a rollicking read for anyone who runs or has run. Its premise is blurbed as: “Four half marathons, three full marathons, one 55-mile ultramarathon, and 2,000 miles of training all in one year. From a standstill.” The tale itself is thrilling but I was taken by this post-race reflection:
As people get older, life becomes all about playing it safe. We protect our jobs and our money. We guard our houses, and we try to make the world as risk-free as we can for our kids, because that is important. But along the way, you can lose yourself. You start thinking that the great adventures are all gone and that you’ve reached all the limits. . . . So, when I started this, I don’t know, it felt like something woke up inside me. I stopped getting through my days, and I started getting into them. I guess I ran this race because I didn’t want that to end.
I like to think my Jogging Big Year springs from the same impulse.
Claw your way back. Grope. Settle in. Chapter 3, with its plot points and old words, awaits.
Home . . . Melbourne