A Legion of Wasps

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood 
Its human position: how it takes place 
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; 
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting 
For the miraculous birth, there always must be 
Children who did not specially want it to happen,
(Auden – ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’)

2011. PECKHAM RYE in South East London, I am the quarry, and I am lost. As a child, William Blake had visions of angels in the trees, here. Today I see jewels of broken glass and queues outside the locksmiths because there have been riots. I am running, just about. I have slowed down like I’m negotiating speed bumps; my heartbeat is a sparrow’s. My asthma is not good, today. In south-east London many of the streets are lined with plane trees (platanus x acerifolia). Tall, with phosphorescent foliage in the sunlight, they are hostile to their immediate environment. They grow, tolerating root compaction, to over a hundred feet; their bark falls away from the trunk in great sharp scabs; and with their armoured fruit that falls from its branches, both are murderous to step on while barefoot (far more painful than broken glass). And which is worse, today they are in the throes of pumping their junk out into the air and my windpipes (and those of countless others, no doubt) are swelling up in response. The surface area of a runner’s lungs should roll out to the something like the size of a town garden. But with thousands of bronchioles only half a millimetre wide, even the tiniest swelling causes them to close entirely. And that hundred-metres squared of verdant space shrinks to a grubby sod of turf. So my lungs are singing, but it’s not a happy song, more like a legion of wasps trapped in a bell jar. Every pizzicato footstep expresses the continuity of my experience; the connectedness of one step with the next, of earth, of air, of what it is to be. Coleridge once wrote in a letter to his friend, Thomas Poole, ‘Those who have been led to the same truths step by step thro’ the constant testimony of their senses, seem to me to want a sense which I possess – They contemplate nothing but parts – and all parts are necessarily little – and the Universe to them is but a mass of little things.’

My body persists in its choral complaint; but I don’t. How can I? I love this.

These runs have become a constant reminder of so much that the good life has to offer; that living must be done through the mind and the body. An imprisoned Boethius in the sixth century urges us to remember our commonality, to remind us of what we all share, ‘Let not your spirit eat itself away for you are set in the sphere that is common to all, let your desire therefore be to live with your own lot of life, a subject of the kingdom of the world.’

This run should feel ‘little’ – marred as it is by this complaining and uncooperative body. It shouldn’t be a special run, just a functional one; I know roughly what it has to offer me. I don’t need the promise of neurogenesis that the great and unfamiliar runs so freely proffer. Neither, the electromagnetic fizz fructified by new sensory experience. Today. Here. Now. This run is the most divine way to be doing nothing, exercising the very purposelessness of life itself.

I am not lost like a Bermondsey woodpecker, I am adrift in a land that I know. The sun and the roaring traffic will always guide me home. Once I have looped around the park a couple of times I will find my bearings and will run the same route back. Later, on the map, this run looks like I have thrown a bright red lasso around Peckham Rye, vainly claiming it for myself.

Now, though, I am in the final couple of miles of the run. I know that I can manage two more miles, even with oxygen in such short supply. I am on one of the quiet side-streets off the park, where approaching me is a young, pre-school boy a few paces ahead of his mother. He moves aside to let me pass. I smile. As I do, he squints, the sun hard in his face; eyeing me, he calls out with his economically- toothed mouth, “Mum?”, his phrasing is musical, like he is singing the square-root symbol. “What’s that man running away from?”

‘Us adults’ both laugh like we share a joke; my Rolodex of responses begins to whirr.

It’s a good question; people run away from things all the time. I’m already gone so I quickly shout over my shoulder “old age”. But the question clings like I’ve trodden in chewing gum, clicking its stick with every step of my last two miles.

At home, I sit on the edge of the tub and bathe my reddened feet in cool running water, massaging loose the micro-grit that has a magical tendency to work its way below the surface of one’s skin like a dirt tattoo. I wonder what I would have said if the boy had asked why I wasn’t wearing anything on my feet. ‘I can’t afford shoes’? ‘I forgot to put them on’? Perhaps, running barefoot seemed more natural to him because he was at an age that still does it all the time. People are occasionally amused at the sight of someone skinning the streets, but they can be troubled, too. Only a couple of weeks before, on a warm and busy summer’s day in Blackheath village, one woman to another shouted as I passed ‘Look at that fucking
idiot.’ Odd, though, that I felt less perturbed by that comment than by this. ‘What’s that man running away from?’ has been rattling in my head like loose change in a deep pocket.
My breathing returns to normal with the help of some salbutamol – I am allergic to London. My body tingles with the relief and satiation that only a long run can bring. But I feel too mentally agitated by ‘running away’ to settle into a bath. So, I sit back down to some work in my study. And only then do I remember when it was that I last heard precisely the same question, and the implications of it between ‘then’ and ‘now’ scatter like a burst sack of marbles.

It was about three thousand miles ago when I had not the least idea what it was that I was running away from, where it would take me, or how far, or to what, to whom, to when. And neither did I see back then how running would, with difficulty, slowly suture the frayed and lacerated parts of my life back together. How first it would break me, but then would help me to write, to manage, better to feel, and to love, again.

This has happened to you, if not in the past, it is there waiting for you in the future. Your life will shudder from the tracks. You will reach a point where you can’t say yes anymore, or wait anymore, or be still anymore. From time to time, we all arrive at destinations that we never navigated our way to. I did. I walked deep into the forest without a map, and when I opened my eyes, I found the sun had set. Lost, for years I simply wandered until I found a deep and solid pace again. A susurrating and whispering rhythm that got me back on my feet and out into the air. 


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