road trip notes iii: another country

In Lone Pine we find a saloon with swinging doors and escape the mind-numbing afternoon heat by having a beer at the bar. We’re served by a leathery blonde in tight black pants and there are two trucker types sitting to our left. “Where are ya’ll from then?” they say when my husband orders. The doors swing open and shut to admit a pair of thirsty backpackers. It’s perfect, it’s perfect, I think. You couldn’t make it up. 

We play pool for a while, but I get snappy because he keeps showing me what do to, because I’m terrible at pool, because there’s a group of guys hanging around at a nearby table watching, waiting for their chance to play, and they can see how terrible I am. It’s all of the things I hate: I hate losing, I hate asking for help, I hate being patronized, I hate being watched. He goes outside for a cigarette and I practice. The guys at the nearby table have raised eyebrows but I can’t tell if it’s because they see my point, which I’ve been making loudly: I’m fine when you’re not WATCHING me! or because they are watching me, and they are bemused, and they want their pool table back.


Later we drive back to the campground. I’m over the pool but cross now because darkness is falling too fast. For months I’ve been dreaming of seeing the mountains at sunset, I’m saying, as I roar down dirt roads, the camping stove rattling in the back of the car. I can’t believe we’re missing my mountain sunset! I say. But we see it anyway, a quick deep blush and then a slow fade. It feels like there’s no one else around: just a few RVs parked up, no voices carrying but smoke rising from fire pits. We are almost alone; it is almost terrifying. We cook steaks the size of our heads on the campfire and eat them in almost-darkness, the propane lamp buzzing, the firelight flickering. The air is alive with little flying beetles, flat as skipping stones and the colour of dust, and they settle in our hair, on our clothes, next to our skin. I read a few Adrienne Rich poems by the light of the headlamp - Summer was another country, where the birds/Woke us at dawn among the dripping leaves - before slipping into the fragile sleep of the camper. I wake pre-dawn to a wicked wind shaking the tent, ripping through the valley. I go outside to pee and the warmth on the horizon is palpable. The foothills look snow-capped but it’s just the colour of the rocks. 


I have been here before. The last time I was here, in this very campground, maybe even this very spot, I was sixteen, on a school backpacking trip, our last night before the drive back to civilization, via an In ’n’ Out in Bakersfield. We slept under the stars and, giddy after ten days of altitude, early starts, long hikes, drinking water tinged with the acid taste of iodine, we wrote notes about who we had secret crushes on and giggled hysterically, conspiratorially. Oh my god this is stupid but do you know who I think is SO hot? (Secretly, of course, and in that there-one-minute-gone-the-next way of teenage lust, I had a crush on the twentysomething group leader with the beard and the beanies who had said I had “some really cool CDs” on the drive up). 

I don’t know any of those people anymore, not really. When I was here then I was homesick: I’d been here as a child, too, with my parents, and I remembered sleeping near the creek, hearing it rush at night, and I missed the solidity of childhood, which in retrospect isn’t solid at all, it’s pure liquid, and yet which takes on a fixed form in memory, like something moulded out of stone. Now I’m here as a married woman, someone who breezes through in a dirt-encrusted SUV packed with borrowed camping equipment, who wakes up early and gets the stove going in spite of the wind and sits and waits, and waits, and waits for the water for coffee to boil while reading Jon Day’s account of being a bicycle courier in London. London, another country, another world. It seems like an unreachable place from here. I think of tube trips I’ve taken, of sweaty frantic walks, on my way somewhere, late, stuck behind some meandering couple. The last time I was in London I stopped by the Chanel counter at Selfridges to buy red lipstick for my wedding day before meeting my supervisor to formulate a plan for the summer. At this stage in the PhD I can imagine neither having the fortitude to finish nor the courage to not finish.

“Increasingly, the lives of our bodies have become disciplined, made to conform to the stranglehold of nine-to-five existence,” I read. “Couriering reminded me about the existence of my body.”

I was anxious to get here, I realize: this whole trip I have been rushing towards this, looking forward to being here again, and the fact is it’s deserted and eerie and I am not sixteen anymore. And yet, on returning, it does still have something, some pull, some power, though whether this is because of its essential familiarity or its dissonance I don’t know.

The wind pushes itself against me, blows the beetles from my hair, but the day, barely even light, is already hot. 


Later that morning we hike up to Lone Pine Lake, which is far up the Mount Whitney Trail as you can go without a permit. It’s hard going, harder than I think it should be, considering that we keep running into backpackers descending after making the summit, or, in one case, after traversing the entire 210-mile-long John Muir Trail. They’re all heavily burdened, taking careful downhill steps, breathing hard, and they keep saying, do you know how far it is to the bottom? We keep saying, oh, you’re so close, it’s just half a mile, a mile, which to them must feel like nothing and everything all at once. The altitude is palpable and the ascent to the lake, elevation 10,000 feet, is relentlessly steady: switchbacks, switchbacks, switchbacks. I remember the feeling of backpacking as a teenager, watching my feet fall for hours, choosing mantras or phrases to roll over in my mind as I walked. Repetition - of action, of landscape, of journeys, of thought - is what forms us, contains us. It gives the mind both a focus and a freedom, “both kindles and quenches”, as Thomas van Leeuwen wrote of how the form of the swimming pool, that fundamentally, wonderfully repetitious environment, influences the imagination of the swimmer.


I was skeptical about the idea of a road trip at first but now I do see a kind of logic in it. To drive through the landscape of the American west gives you a sense of how subtle and then sudden change is. For hours and hours everything is the same, a repeating pattern of low distant hills and shrubs, and then suddenly it’s not, you’re in an entirely new place: higher ground, winding roads, pine forests and shimmering lakes. But it’s not sudden, and because you’ve been moving with it for so long, at a speed which magnifies the change but doesn’t distort it or abstract it, you understand this: that the change is constant, the shift smooth and seamless and timeless. When, after a day of driving across Nevada, we reach the California border, it is marked only by a small station at which a woman flags us down and asks if we have any fruit in the car. “Some apples?” I say, wondering what the correct answer is, but she just waves us on, wordlessly, and we glide into a place which is home but not-home, familiar in its proximity to where I grew up but also utterly alien, more akin still to the desert highways we’ve been on than the golden rolling hills and deep Pacific of my youth. The road trip makes evident the fluidity of what’s apparently solid, animates the landscape.

“What appear to us as the fixed forms of the landscape, passive and unchanging unless acted upon from outside,” writes the anthropologist Tim Ingold, “are themselves in motion, albeit on a scale immeasurably slower and more majestic than that on which our own activities are conducted. Imagine a film of the landscape, shot over years, centuries, even millennia. Slightly speeded up, plants appear to engage in very animal-like movements, trees flex their limbs without any prompting from the winds. Speeded up rather more, glaciers flow like rivers and even the earth begins to move. At yet greater speeds solid rock bends, buckles and flows like molten metal. The world itself begins to breathe.”

road trip notes ii: a good story

 This is a story about Vegas but I promise not to quote Baudrillard.

This is a story about Vegas but I promise not to quote Baudrillard.

Poetic license is an age-old concept. Traditionally poets have been free to invoke place as a territory between invention and creation.

(Eavan Boland)


Day one: Santa Barbara to Las Vegas. We get a late start, but we drop into the desert at just the right time, as the light is glowing pinkest, on the edge of the edge of darkness’s swift descent. When we arrive we spend 45 minutes driving circles around the hotel parking garage, the air con giving me goosebumps, the sat nav spluttering. When we finally make it inside there’s a line 20-deep at the check-in desk, mostly men in wrinkled suits and small groups of women plotting the fastest route to drunken oblivion. “What happened,” the receptionist says when we finally make it up to the desk, “late flight?” As if you couldn’t possibly deliberately arrive at this hour: as if we might miss something. (At the time this makes me anxious and hurried – we must get up to our room as soon as possible and dump our things and get back out and see everything we can before it’s too late! – but by the morning this seems absurd, since it is virtually impossible to distinguish morning from night here.)

I put on a dress and we go for a walk down the strip. It turns out Vegas is exactly what you’d expect minus any glamor at all, which maybe is exactly what you’d expect. The Bellagio is in aggressively bad taste, all thick-carpeted casino floors, a fug of desperate smoke, $60 buffet dinners, stone-faced dealers in ill-fitting uniforms. It’s impossible to tell where one thing ends and another begins; even the distinction between outside and inside is not always clear, and we flit along like moths, drawn to the lights. Everything has a mechanical, industrial feel, the slot machines being worked like a production line, the constant procession of tourists like the shuffle of shift-workers at the end of the day.

Underpinning it all, though, is the sense that this is a child’s city, constructed in the imagination of a 10-year-old tycoon. “What would you like your city to look like?”, someone asks him, and the child points apparently at random: “the Eiffel Tower here - the Statue of Liberty there - Venice here - a Disney castle there - a pirate ship here - a giant candy store there…”

A friend tells a story of being in a cab once, heading back to the airport after a weekend in Vegas. His cab driver suddenly says - look - out there! - and points, and there are a couple of guys dragging suitcases along a desert road, in the remnants of their smart suits, sleeves rolled, collars stained, armpits seeping. They’re aimed, loosely, for the airport. Happens all the time, the cab driver says, reeling past. They come out here and they lose everything. All they have left in the world is a plane ticket back to wherever they came from.

I don’t know if this is true, but it’s a good story, which in a way is a metaphor for the city itself.

As we walk down the strip we pass a parade of loiterers with cardboard signs: homeless vet, please help; need money for food; need money for weed. One couple, 18 or 19, in old Doc Martens, sucking on fresh ice cream cones, have set up a sign that reads: “We need money for rent this month!” I don’t know if this is true, but it’s a good story. Maybe they are sitting there laughing at all of us, passing by: their hat is as full as anyone else’s, after all – fuller than the homeless vet’s, even. Maybe in an hour or so they will get up and spend the money on booze and new boots and then go home to their parents. Maybe they really do need the money and maybe if they sit here long enough, over the course of a week, or a month, they will make enough to cover their rent. Maybe that is not as stupid as it sounds, actually: crowdfunding, Vegas style. A child’s dream of the future: a kind of quasi-adulthood. (“The Eiffel Tower here…and a giant candy store there…and when you grow up you can sit outside and eat ice cream at midnight!”)


For some reason I’m reminded of all this 10 days later, in Ojai, the end of the trip. Within an hour of arriving at our motel we meet JJ and Moonblossom (“it’s not my birth name,” she says). For two days we’re neighbors and I never once see him in a shirt; she, meanwhile, wears a heavy black sweatshirt and radiates an unnerving calm with vaguely religious undertones. They sit on the terrace outside their room all day, smoking weed and sipping beer. Their story is that they both have kids with other partners and fucked up pasts but after all that they finally found each other and now they’re drifting around in a van stuffed to the gills with all their possessions, making a documentary, for which an anonymous donor in London has given them funding. They believe in past lives and one night JJ tells us about how his most recent past life was as a polygamous cult leader who died in the 1970s, just before he was born. Some of my wives are still alive, of course, he says. So I looked one up and found her phone number and decided to call her and tell her I was the reincarnation of her husband. She didn’t seem too surprised. She just said look, that may be, but you were a real asshole, so why the hell would I want to hear from you now?

I don’t know if this is true, I hope it is, but either way it sure is a good story.

road trip notes i: surface

In Utah I start reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, even though we’re in a completely different part of the state.

“It will be objected that the book deals too much with mere appearances,” Abbey writes in the introduction: “with the surface of things, and fails to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships which form the true underlying reality of existence. Here I must confess that I know nothing whatever about true underlying reality, having never met any. There are many people who say they have, I know, but they’ve been luckier than I. For my own part I am pleased enough with surfaces - in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of a friend or lover, the silk of a girl’s thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind – what else is there? What else do we need?”

This is a surface trip; for ten days I am on the surface, just rolling along. One night we exhaust all other options and sleep in the car, seats reclined and windows cracked for air, and when I close my eyes I see the road stretching out before me, feel myself moving along its humming surface. On Route 6 – endless, empty Route 6, lonelier, they say, than its brother to the north, the loneliest highway in America, which has become something of a tourist attraction – I use cruise control for the first time in twelve years of driving. At first it disturbs me, and I’m glad there is no one else on the road, glad that I can see literally for miles and that there is nothing ahead or behind me. For as long as I can remember I’ve had a recurring dream that I’m in the passenger seat of a car that, I gradually come to understand, is driving itself. It’s not an alarming dream except for the realization of powerlessness – nothing bad happens, I just glide along, being driven – but cruise control is the closest I’ve ever come to a waking experience of that dream. “I hate this!” I say to my husband, and my heart beats faster in panic, and Jenny Lewis sings through the tinny speakers, and then after awhile I start to tap my now-idle right foot to the beat of the music.

“I love this!” I say, feeling the effortlessness of it.

So it goes. He drives, I drive, he drives, I drive.

I take us up to Cape Royal at sunset. We’re hurried, racing the sun. The road is long and winding and narrow. I take it quickly but not too quickly: roads like this are ingrained in me, make me deeply homesick for the coast-hugging ranch on which I grew up. We are 8500 feet above sea level and yet with every twist in the road I expect the sea to be revealed. Instead there is canyon, sudden glimpses of it: a rift in the landscape, a pause, a mark on the surface. I let the wheel do the work mostly, and I turn the music up. We make it just in time to see the sun go down over the Grand Canyon, which is no bad thing to see in a lifetime. We share a beer, semi-chilled, from the cooler in the back of our car. There’s a French couple cooking dinner at their camping stove on a picnic table, and another couple sharing a joint, sitting hip-to-hip on the stairs down to the overlook. We stand at the edge of the overlook, leaning on the railings, with our beer, nonchalant, just having a beer while the sun sets over the Grand Canyon, no big deal.

Here in this high, dry country I think about the surface in relation to water: the frontier, the moment of entry, of submersion. “To enter water is, of course, to cross a border. You pass the lake’s edge, the sea’s shore, the river’s brink - and in so doing, you arrive at a different realm, in which you are differently minded because differently bodied,” writes Robert Macfarlane, echoing his friend Roger Deakin, who writes of crossing that border: “leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world, in which survival, not ambition or desire, is the dominant aim.” I’ve been obsessed with this particular surface, and its various meanings, for so long that I no longer know what to make of it. So for ten days on the road I don’t take a single stroke. In Yosemite we see some pretty fine lakes and I wade out to my hips, glad for the cold water on my hiking-damaged toes, but I’m not tempted to flop in, as we see one enthusiastic boy do, boots and all, and wallow; nor do I want to get in and do any kind of actual swimming, turning the lake into a stage for the performance of a daily ritual that only makes sense, I suddenly think, in the context of my day-to-day suburban existence. I only want to dip my toes in; that’s as much as I can bear to be in that different realm, that new world. Even in Las Vegas, where I wake and go to the window and am greeted with dawn in the desert and the sumptuous view of three massive, empty turquoise pools, I don’t go in.

He drives. I drive. He drives. I drive.

Back in California, we speed up and down the 395, trying to find somewhere, anywhere at all, to stay. There are no motels, no hotels, no hostels, no campsites with a vacancy. In Mammoth Lakes I’m laughed at by a girl at a Quality Inn; you won’t find anything here, she says, smugly. “I’m glad they don’t have a room,” I say too loudly as I exit, “it feels like the Bates Motel in there.” But it’s 8pm and she’s right. Who are these people, I rail? These people who plan so far ahead, who are sitting there all superior in the burger joints and bars of Lee Vining, June Lake, Mammoth Lakes, these people with rooms? We don’t even know how desperate it is then: all we know is that we’ve exhausted the options in the area and that we need gas. That gas station in Mammoth is a low point. I wonder if anyone would notice if we just slept there, in the car, next to the mini-mart. I think of the other couples I have known who have had extravagantly long honeymoons: they go to places like the Cayman Islands or Dubai; they travel first class and stay at all-inclusive resorts and lie on a beach with trashy novels and sugary cocktails, slowly turning a dark, even shade of smug. Whereas I am sitting in a dirty rented Chevy on a Saturday night in Mammoth, wearing a down vest I have owned since I was fifteen years old and trying to remember if sleeping in your car is illegal or just discouraged. Why can’t we just do what normal people do? I say to my husband. I realize that the people I am thinking of, the normal people, are people I don’t actually know: people I follow on Twitter or Instagram, of whose lives I get glimpses from which I extrapolate entire lives. I realize that if you looked at the Instagram version of our trip you would think that we were those kinds of people.

He kindly doesn’t point this out. “Because we’d be bored,” he says. He goes to the bathroom and I peel a banana and realize that we haven’t eaten for hours. The last meal we had was a whole state ago, back in Tonopah, Nevada, at a microbrewery with a giant smoker out back. After lunch I’d bought a beaten-up copy of Adrienne Rich’s selected poems from an unexpectedly well-stocked second hand bookshop. It was so hot outside that it felt like the street was burning through the soles of my shoes. Now it’s northern California cool, all trees and mountains. When he comes back we decide to drive south, to Bishop, which I remember from my childhood; an Autumn weekend spent there with my parents, hiking long loops, the dog running circles around us the whole time. It’s big-ish, I say, and hope I’m remembering it right. I am: there are plenty of motels. But there is not a single vacancy, and we follow other cars doing the same dance, pulling in to a Super 8 or a Comfort Inn or a La Quinta, spying the hastily handwritten “no vacancy” signs on the office windows, pulling back out. We are simultaneously competitors – god how pissed I’d be if one of them got the last room somewhere! – and comrades, sympathetically giving way even when it isn’t our turn to give way, inclining our heads at each other as we glide by: sooner or later we’ll all disperse into the nights and crank back our seats and nap fitfully until dawn.

The morning after – after we have found a spot on a dirt road just outside of Big Pine, under the relative protection of an oak tree, a hundred yards or so from another car – I drive us back up to Bishop, and we have the most magical huevos rancheros I have ever eaten at a vast diner full of keen outdoorsy types and weekending southern Californians. “Just have to go and have my morning bowel movement!” a large man at the table opposite us declares before ambling towards the toilets; he is gone a full fifteen minutes. From our table I go online and book the first room in the first motel I can find that’s anywhere near Yosemite, a victory which colors the rest of the morning, as we sail all the way back up towards Lee Vining. He falls asleep as I drive and I set the speed at 70 and tap my foot to Neko Case until we turn off onto the 120, at which point I suddenly need a level of alertness that surprises me, as the road curves and dips and climbs, climbs, climbs towards the park entrance. The car ahead of me is tentative, which gives me an excuse to go slower than I normally would, to actually look and exclaim, even though no one is listening: wow! wow! I keep saying.

Surface: beauty is surface. Skin deep on the earth. I don’t know but if I had to guess I’d say the word I use most often on this trip is wow! At first I think: how shallow. I may as well be on a beach in the Cayman Islands, sipping my daiquiri, staring at my raisin toes. All this beauty, and what? How many canyons can you possibly look at? Zion. Grand. Bryce. By the last one we both thought we were all canyon-ed out. We were grouchy from driving too much. We got there and we shouted and parked and shouted some more and then sulked and got on a shuttle bus, sullenly, and defiantly did our chosen hike in half the time the guidebook recommended because we knew we had to get back on the road and drive another god-knows-how-many hours to Ely, Nevada - and still, still, we were stopped in our tracks: wow, we said. Not an exclamation but a sigh. Isn’t it amazing, we said. We elbowed past droves of hikers, sprawling Mormon families, foot-dragging teenagers, and still felt like we were the only people on the planet who knew this place, who could feel its particular magic. How many times can you say wow, look at that! How amazing. How incredible. How beautiful. Wow. Look at that. Wow. I think of what Robert Macfarlane writes about language and the way it shapes our perception of place, our relationship to landscape. Even a book which takes this place-making power of words as its central theme acknowledges that words are not always enough. “Language is always late for its subject,” Macfarlane writes. “Sometimes on the top of a mountain I just say, ‘Wow.’”

I think too of another thing he writes in that same book – a note about the question, ever-present in writing about place, of “how to represent perception in language” when perception and place are so intimately linked; when, in other words, our bodies are the main instrument with which we have both to experience and to express place. “Our bodies archive experience,” writes the geographer J.D. Dewsbury. They are, he says, “fleshy machinic entities that grapple constantly with the matter and thought of the world.” The most intimate connection there is: between the surface of the skin and the surface of a place. What does the body know? How do we express it in words?

He drives. I drive. He drives. I drive.

We punctuate the driving with hikes: a sudden, severe change of speed. I like hikes with hills, hikes that make you really work for the reward, so that you feel the landscape not just in your legs but also in your lungs. Switchbacks become a kind of ritual: like a pilgrimage, he says, as we back-and-forth our way towards Angel’s Landing. Or like swimming laps, I say. Like any repetitive, meditative action: a kind of communion with place. What does my body know – climbing this hill, treading this path? My trail running shoes, purchased almost a decade ago, soles worn thin, give me close contact with rock and soil, and I prefer them to my hiking boots, even if I’m less protected, ankles occasionally twisting, giving out: somehow not a sign of precarity but an underline, an emphasis. This is the terrain, this is the topography. You feel it most keenly when you misjudge it, when the surface interferes with your inertia. Wow. So shallow. My raisin toes encased in these shoes, these sweaty socks, but I’m still staring down at them after all. “What else is there? What else do we need?”


In addition to my recent feature at Vela, I'm also now running a column there called Placed. Here's the general idea:

“Place,” writes the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, “exists at different scales. At one extreme a favorite armchair is a place, at the other extreme the whole earth.”
Curated by Miranda Ward, Placed will address relationships to place, very broadly defined: the body is a place, the earth is a place, a favorite chair is a place, a city, a café, a corner shop, a cubicle, a lake, a mountain, a road. Placed is interested in work that addresses place on any scale, from the banal to the sublime, and that stretches beyond simple description to use place as a springboard to explore or weave together other ideas and stories.
Essays are likely to address, in various ways, certain kinds of questions: how do we form and maintain and describe relationships to places? How do we develop a sense of place? How do we shape places, and how do places shape us?

The first piece went up on Wednesday, and while I'll be contributing regularly as well, I'm actively seeking contributions by other women writers for future installments - so please do get in touch if you have something or know someone you think might fit the bill!

Recent Writing: Dream Body

I wrote an essay for Vela (which, by the way, has a beautiful new website) on exercise, discipline, control, and the body:

"Geographers write, too, about the idea of place as something fluid, processual, always-becoming, “not a given but something immanent, forever forming, and in progress.” The body is a place – the first place, the place we must make peace with – and like any other place, it is in a constant state of flux; it changes from moment to moment, year to year, gets older, bigger, smaller, more and less capable of performing certain tasks."

Read the full piece here.


Recent writing: The Billfold

In a recent piece for The Billfold, I added up how much it's cost me to settle in the UK. I was surprised to discover that the actual total feels low, I guess partly because it doesn't include more abstract or tangential things like the cost of international travel, the time I've spent doing research, filling out forms, on the phone, in appointments, that I could have been working, the money I spent shipping all of my books cross the Atlantic ($900, if you're wondering), and so on — but also because this whole ongoing process has been such a huge presence in my life for so long, such a source of deep and constant anxiety. The precise impact of that is hard to convey in numbers. On the other hand, it's still a hell of a lot of money to spend on paperwork.

Anyway, here's an excerpt:

"I always knew that living 5,000 miles away from where I grew up would mean that my life took on a slightly different shape than the lives of friends back home. I knew, too, that no matter where my partner and I ultimately chose to live, we would have to jump through a series of convoluted bureaucratic hoops. But, I didn’t have any sense of what the privilege of jumping through those hoops actually cost."

Here's the full piece...

I was also very pleased to find out that my essay 'The Purest Form of Play,' which originally appeared on Vela, earned an Honorable Mention for nonfiction in the Winning Writers 2014 Sports Fiction & Essay Contest.


Today while I was out running I noticed that the leaves are already falling from some of the keener trees. If I think about it, this is no surprise: it's early September, still warm, but sunsets come early and violently, the rose hips are bright on the bush, and I can hear pop music pumping out of the house next door, which means we have new neighbors. This is the true signal of Autumn here. I hear their footsteps and their doors slamming and yesterday they took a parcel for me while I was out, but my guess is I will probably never learn their names and I certainly wouldn't know them if I saw them on the street; we just share walls, that's all. It was a shitty run, which happens sometimes, and I felt very strange out there on my own. Usually when I'm having a good run the feeling I get is one of intense belonging, intimacy with the city. Things feel very close together. Oxford is round and bowl-like and it's actually quite difficult to run any distance here and not butt up against the ring road, not have to climb and descend hills. Today when things went wrong and I stopped running I felt very far from home, even though I was only a few miles away. I felt out of place. I think it's good to feel this sometimes. I noticed it the other day when I was out taking photos with my SLR, for work, and people were treating me - well, I was treating myself - like a tourist. I was waiting for things to line up in just the right way and meanwhile people were trying not to walk across my shot and maybe thinking well, it is a beautiful city, but god damn, will you get out of the way already? Which is a thing I often think when I'm in a hurry to get somewhere and people are stopped in the middle of the street with their cameras trained on something. But there I was, walking around with a camera hung around my neck, feeling intensely unlike myself. I'd thought maybe it would give me a sense of purpose, an excuse to behave in a way I don't often give myself permission to behave (lingering, looking, getting in the way) but I just couldn't wait to get back to being my usual self. I was practically dizzy after half an hour.

Anyhow today, on my run, I walked for about five or ten minutes and I swear those five or ten minutes lasted far longer than any other five or ten minutes I experienced all day. And during this vast expanse of time I looked up and saw that the leaves were not just turning but falling. At a junction I waited for the light and there was a sea of papery yellow leaves at my feet.

So: it was a good summer, hot and busy, and it's pretty much over now. Here are some photos of it.

More lake swimming

Late summer light

Evening light

Lake swimming


On the way to London



Recent writing: Leave to Remain

I have a new essay up at Vela. It's about the process of acquiring indefinite leave to remain in the UK, and becoming a permanent resident - though really it's more about the process of waiting for this to happen, and the sense of feeling somehow trapped during this extended period of application and not-quite-residency. It's also (perhaps as everything I write ends up being) partly about what I've called "the wild in the banal", the way everyday life can seem so strange if you look at it closely enough:

When I was younger I used to fantasize about having a button I could press that would pause the world around me while I caught my breath, had a nap, figured out a solution, came up with something witty to say. My current situation is the opposite of that fantasy – someone has pressed the pause button on my life, and I am suspended, watching the rest of the world go by.

The pause button on my life was pressed by the UK Border Agency. Three months ago I applied for indefinite leave to remain here in the UK, where I have lived with my British partner for the past seven years. I have held, over the course of these years, a student visa, a post-study work visa, and an unmarried partner visa, and I am now, at last, eligible to apply to settle permanently.

The application process is like taking a leap of faith into an abyss. You take the “Life in the UK” test (“Is the statement below TRUE or FALSE? Getting to know your neighbours can help you to become part of the community”). You fill out a 50-page application form. You send a large envelope containing bank statements and pay slips and utility bills and your passport and, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, a photocopy of every enclosed document. You pay a £1,051 fee. And then you wait.

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Recent writing

My latest post for Vela went up last week. It's about running, fear (of failure, of limits), and exploration (of a sort):

In this way running is actually just an effort to do something new – or, rather, to see the same things from a slightly different perspective. What does this street feel like at the end of a 10k run? What does it do to my conception of the city to shorten the time it takes to get from here to there on my own two feet, to discover a new route, to think of that particular street corner as the place I had to walk for a bit, or that stretch of road as the place that everything felt effortless and good?

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February: a month on the edge of hope - sharp, bright, cold, short. A kind of counterpart to Keats' "season of mist and mellow fruitfulness!". Daffodils are exploding in the garden in what seems to me to be a fit of unseasonably early optimism; we haven't even had our annual dusting of snow yet. But meanwhile time marches on. The morning routine is soothing and rhythmic. I know almost to the minute how long the ride to the pool is, when I'll be done with my swim, when I'll be home, when I'll be having my first cup of coffee.


On night I cycle out to Horspath via the Cowley Road and Hollow Way. This is unfamiliar territory. Out by the Mini plant it's pitch black and deserted but for a few cars whizzing by, and the road suddenly becomes unwelcoming. I find a bike lane, eventually, on the other side of the road, and teeter in almost complete darkness towards, I hope, the athletics track. At a certain point the blinking light of a cyclist ahead of me is the only thing that stops me turning round in fear of dropping off the edge of the earth, but once there the journey feels short again; I know where I am on a map of Oxford and it's not very far from home at all. I enjoy the sensation of being somewhere unfamiliar in a familiar place. There's always a moment of almost dreamlike disconcertion, followed by fizz of excitement and possibility: it's good to still be surprised by a place, to still find new things, and the longer you are somewhere, the stronger your habits become, the more likely it is that these new things exist just on the edge of your consciousness, close by but hidden, and you have to make an effort to see them.

I haven't been on a track in years. I quit my high school track team halfway through my first season because one morning I woke up and realized that the feeling of dread I carried with me all the time had a cause, and that cause was daily two hour sessions at the track, and that in spite of all the motivational speeches I'd heard in movies, quitting really was an option. At the time I was proud of myself for making this discovery, for getting my own way. Now I wonder if maybe I should have toughed it out. I probably could have learned a thing or two. I would never have been a star, but I wasn't an awful athlete; I was certainly capable, in theory, of doing everything that was asked of me. We all warmed up at meets in matching t-shirts that said, in black block capitals against a red background: "TRACK AND FIELD: THE ONLY TRUE SPORT. EVERYTHING ELSE IS JUST A GAME" (I held on to mine for years, as a reminder of my two months of toughness, but eventually it became the casualty of a breakup, which seemed a fitting fate). There was a certain pride in being a member of this group of people, even if I was a straggler, an outsider, still, at 14, largely uncomfortable in my own skin. But I didn't tough it out. I went to play a game instead, and for years thereafter my relationship to the track as a place was characterized largely by the memory of pain: physical pain, yes, but also another, less tangible kind of pain: the pain of not winning, or even being in the vicinity of winning; the pain of learning your limitations; the pain of giving up.

That was almost fifteen years ago. Tonight the air is cold and clear - no rain, for what feels like the first time in weeks - and the darkness, the chill, the floodlights, the heavy breaths of the serious runners as they pound past, lend the evening an electric atmosphere. Like February, which is so close to the mania of springtime, so ripe, so carefully balanced on the edge. And true, there are moments, tonight, of intense boredom, moments of intense discomfort, moments of intense frustration. I'd forgotten that the thing about running around a track, as opposed to running through a city, is that there's really nowhere to go to hide from boredom, discomfort, and frustration. It's much more an exercise in meditation than an exercise of the heart or lungs or legs, in some senses. But there are also pleasurable moments, too. The way I feel light and unfettered (not, for once, running with keys, and iPod, and headphones, and more layers than I need, not distracted by indecision about which route to take or jolted out of reveries by aimless pedestrians veering into my path or whistling men in vans stopped at lights). The color and texture of the ground, the coolness of the air on my arms when I take my sweatshirt off. Yes, I am slower than I'd like to be, but I will always be slower than I'd like to be, and there are moments when this seems okay: I have nothing to prove.


Wet Streets
Wet Streets

The last time I posted anything on this blog, I was sitting in California drinking a Firestone DBA, probably in a t-shirt, glowing with post-run-on-the-beach-in-winter smugness. And now I'm sitting on my couch in yoga pants and a sweatshirt, with a giant box of tissues at my elbow, willing myself not to turn the heating on because if last winter's gas bill was anything to go by, we can't really afford to have the heating on.

We've become one, this couch and I. But now I've run out of "quirky independent comedies with a strong female lead" on Netflix and I have that antsy-ness that comes when you're on the cusp of feeling better but not quite feeling better yet. It's in this state that you might start to think that going for a run is a good idea, or that a few beers will heal you completely, but then you'd get your sports bra on and collapse on the bed in exhaustion, or a few sips into a pint and start wishing it was juice.

Anyway, we came back from California on new year's eve. We landed in the morning, disoriented and buzzing. While we waited for his father to pick us up from Heathrow we sat and drank coffee and talked at each other, about the films we'd watched when we should have been sleeping, about the Instapaper-ed articles we'd read, and about the things we'd do this week, this month, this year. And then we got home and crawled into bed and slept for hours, until it was dark outside and the rain had ceased.

On new year's day we went for a walk, just as it was turning dusky outside. It's becoming a tradition, this particular kind of new year's day walk: I suggest it, he protests but ultimately agrees, and then he complains for the entire length of the Iffley Road. The complaining makes him feel better, and me a bit more subdued, so that ten minutes in we're both in a similarly mellow state. This year, like most years, it was misting and the sky was ice blue. I put my hood up to keep the rain off my face. I wore two sweaters and a heavy winter coat. "See?" I said. "Isn't this fun?" "This kind of walking is pointless," he said. "What kind of walking has a point?" "Well," he said. "If we were climbing Mount Kilimanjaro…" "Which is actually something I wouldn't mind doing someday," I said, half serious. "Me either," he said, half joking, and I remembered that after he asked me to marry him he'd said, "I'm sorry we weren't somewhere spectacular, like the top of Mount Kilimanjaro," which I thought was funny, and then a few days later, at a dinner, some family friends told us about their daughter, who'd also recently gotten engaged. "They climbed Kilimanjaro," they told us. "And he proposed at the top. It wasn't a big surprise, though."

On this particular pointless new year's day walk Christ Church Meadow was almost entirely flooded. As we floated out past Merton, the bells began to ring and ring: 7500 changes to commemorate Merton's 750th anniversary. The wind felt wild, and the streetlamps glowed a hot orange.


For a few weeks I still had tan lines from swimming in an outdoor pool, and a fresh resolve that comes from taking actual time off work, from thinking and assessing. The tan lines have faded now. The resolve is still there, somewhere. In a sense I feel that this has already been a long year. Already I have done things: I've started re-learning how to drive a stick shift, joined the local triathlon club so that I can go along to the coached swim sessions, gotten my first ever prescription for glasses, booked a trip to Berlin, filed my tax return weeks early, cleaned out the garden shed. Last year feels blurry and far away. It doesn't feel big, or momentous, though I guess big, momentous things happened: Book published. Got engaged. But it sort of felt like those things - nice as they are - were really just the start of something. Like the sum of last year is the building blocks for a slower, subtler, more meaningful change.

I took my time over resolutions this year. I don't really do them - not in the insidious women's magazine sense, anyway ("Take myself out on a date once a week. Lose that pesky five pounds. Be more accepting of who I am.") But over the last few years I've taken to jotting down a few notes for myself at the beginning of each year, to varying degrees of prescriptiveness. This year I ended up with just one thing. It's vague, maybe more like a mantra than a resolution, but I was feeling vague at the time, and vaguely excited, and anyway vague can nurture lots of smaller, more specific things.

Next month is my birthday month, so in a sense I always feel like the start of the year really comes in March. January and February are punctuation marks - the pause between the frenetic end of one year and the we're really plunging in now start of the next. For the duration of that pause we're still half-frozen. We sit in our cold front rooms, looking at the weary floorboards, playing games with ourselves to avoid switching the heating on, listening to the incessant rain beating the windowpanes, wondering when, when, when will it be lighter out? I don't mind the cold as much as the light, though I'm no great fan of the cold, either - it's just that I can bundle myself up, insulate against a biting wind, whereas there's no antidote to the gloomy grey days that end sharply at 4:30pm and become long black nights. No antidote except to wait. And anyway sometimes even the misery of a cold can be a kind of pleasure. I watch six films in one day and don't feel guilty. I feel sorry for myself, but I don't feel guilty. "Go ahead," he tells me. "Feel sorry for yourself today. You're sick. You're allowed to feel sorry for yourself." And I am, so I do, and it makes me feel better, and less sorry for myself.

On the ranch


This is the view from my run yesterday. Out for 24 minutes, towards Government Point; back in a determined, if somewhat labored, 22. I can guess, but I don't know how far I ran, which is a new experience. In Oxford, or any other city, I can look my route up on Google maps after, calculate exact distances; here it's not possible - this is just a stretch of sand on the California coast. There aren't even any obvious landmarks, until you get to the point itself. I didn't get all the way to the point; I turned back near a craggy line of rocks that looked pretty similar to another craggy line of rocks up ahead and a few craggy lines of rocks I'd already passed. I want to say it was liberating running like this, but actually I found myself obsessing about it, wanting to know precisely how far I'd gone (this is a bad habit I've gotten into - not quite Quantified Self-levels of tracking, but recording how far I swim, making sure I research exactly how far I run). I think next time I might use an app.

It was also hot! It hadn't occurred to me, packing late at night with a winter fog resting over Oxford and temperatures unseasonably warm but still uncomfortably cold after dark, that I would want to run in anything other than leggings, with tall socks underneath to keep my calves warm. But now, in those same leggings (with short socks, luckily), and a heavy grey Emerson Athletics t-shirt from my brief stint as a volleyball player in college, I was way too hot. I'd borrowed a pair of lightweight sunglasses, at least, but as I ran further and further away from the small cluster of cars and surfers, as if heading out into the desert, I became sweatier and hotter and increasingly uncomfortable. In contrast, the ocean, when, after the run, I plunged in, was so cold it felt like it had only recently been solid ice.

On the other hand, this was a very pleasant way to spend some time. I headed west, based on the logic that I'd see fewer people if I went that way, and it's true, I saw not a soul, except for a couple of surfers hanging around a particular wave, and one boat heading up towards Cojo, but they may as well have been figments of my imagination. It was a funny change from the last run I'd taken - Oxford, at about 6 o'clock on Saturday evening, the city seeming to seethe with pedestrians, all of them walking seven abreast or staring down at their phones, oblivious to their surroundings.


Today I drove down to Goleta and went for a swim in the pool. The water was cold. "What does it feel like to you? 75?" the woman getting into the lane next to mine said. I didn't know. She pulled on a second cap. "Well," she said, "we'll just have to see what we can do." It was cold, but it wasn't uncomfortably cold, or maybe I'm just not used to swimming outside, maybe I was too distracted by the novelty of the situation. I slid into the lane with the most sunlight for the final 500 meters, so I would have pretty patterns to look at on the bottom of the pool and warmth on my back.


Now, post-sunset, I'm having a pre-dinner beer at the kitchen table, with Django Reinhardt playing in the background (a change from Friday night's soundtrack - "how did we come to be listening to Nirvana at dinner?" said my mother; "because I put the 90s grunge playlist on," said my father). I'm writing mostly to avoid reading: I don't want The Goldfinch to end quite yet. When it gets dark here it gets very dark, and the innocent rustling of wind in the macadamia trees sounds potentially threatening, because unknown, wild things happen after the late fades. But I guess that's one of the nice things about being here, that element of the unknown, even when it's familiar. And really, what difference does it make, to me or anyone else, to know the exact length of an impulsive Saturday afternoon run? There are other ways of measuring.


Over at the Landscape Surgery blog, I wrote a post about what being a cultural geographer means to me. This is part of great a series of posts by fellow students and researchers in the department of geography at Royal Holloway - "The Self Portrait series is a project designed to highlight the missing ‘I’ within geography." (And it was Freshly Pressed today!) Here's how it begins:

The truth? I’m still not sure I am a geographer.

Over the last year I’ve become more comfortable claiming to be one, or at least marginally less fearful of being exposed as a fraud. But at parties my go-to response to the dreaded question of “what do you do?” is: “oh, I’m a writer.” If the conversation survives this admission, and I happen to mention that I’m doing a PhD, and I happen to mention that the PhD is in cultural geography, I might make an attempt at explaining how these things are linked. I might say, “I write about geography.” This is not really an explanation, but if you say it confidently enough, it almost sounds like one.

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A day spent working in the library

Fish in fountain
Fish in fountain

Taking a rest. Reading is like exercise to me: I have to stop to catch my breath sometimes, and I can tell when I'm really enjoying it, doing it well, because my pulse actually quickens, or seems to, anyway - or maybe I'm just thinking this because of the subject matter of the book I happen to have just put down. I glance up at the pink ceiling, and then out the window at the blank white sky. Yes, we've reached the time of blank white skies. Soon all of the leaves will have fallen (in our garden they are stubbornly hanging on, which at first was admirable but now feels desperate) and the whole world will be in black and white until March.

The smell of the Upper Reading Room makes me nostalgic. I used to come here when I was casually employed as a research assistant, and I can't help thinking that, at least in terms of work, that was the most purpose-filled time of my life so far. I came here with such a clear sense of what I needed to accomplish. I flipped through books and old periodicals, trying to find forgotten short stories or columns or even just a mention, a review, a reference - something. I was always searching for something. What pleasurable, simple work. True, it was not my purpose, exactly, not my project, but just being part of it felt good. I know I glorify it - some of it was little more than mindless copying-down, photocopying, confirming, stuff a child could do. But all work is like that, made up as much of small bits as big. I just wish that I could figure out how to replicate this sense of serenity and trust in my own work. I guess the trouble now is that I'm almost wholly responsible for where it goes, which is a harder thing to negotiate. I have to make the decisions about what to look for, and then look for it, and then decide what it means when I find it - or don't - and that takes some of the pleasure out of the looking, because there's always a niggling sense of doubt. What if I'm wrong? What if this isn't the right direction? What if this is purposeless work?

And anyway this, today, is illicit work: no one is paying me for it, or expecting me to do it. It's invisible, which is what writing has become to me. I worry about this often nowadays: is it true labour if there's no remuneration? Am I not just here playing in the library?


In Charles Sprawson's Haunts of the Black Masseur, I read of the poet Rupert Brooke that, "When working at the Bodleian he would get up in his country cottage long before dawn and bathe as he walked down to Oxford in the streams among the Cumner [sic] hills once favoured by Clough."

I think about these young white men, striding across the land (land they seem to "own" as soon as they step on to it, whether or not they actually own it), suddenly having an urge, stripping down, getting wet, communing with nature: "bathing". I think: to read about the (romantic) history of swimming, as rendered by Sprawson, is fascinating enough, but it doesn't really get close to why I find it such a compelling subject. True, I've been known to plunge semi-impulsively into bodies of water - ice-melt lakes in the Sierras during camping trips, oceans, rivers, reservoirs - but I don't have quite the same reverence for these encounters that I do for the highly regulated experience of going to the pool. For me immersion is not the same thing as swimming, exactly, though there's obviously shared territory there. And surely man-made pool environments are as varied and compelling as the ponds and streams of the British countryside. Even ugly, reeking, creaking municipal buildings have their own particular charm. If nothing else the inhabitants of these environments invite interest: here the elderly, the very young, the fit, the fat, the disabled, the old pros, the just-learnings, are all united by a desire to transcend the apparent limitations of the human body. They're here to float, to breathe. This is where the fizz of excitement is, to me. Who are these people, how have they come to be here, what brings them back, again and again and again, repeating the same old routine in the same old ugly, reeking, creaking building?

The other thing, if I'm honest, is that sometimes the nature-ness of nature alarms me. The thought of fish or reeds brushing up against me as I swim makes me shudder. To read some of Roger Deakin's accounts in his "swimmer's journey through Britain" is a difficult exercise: "Reaching down, I felt soft mud and ancient fallen branches, and sensed giant pike and eels".

Perhaps mine is a "girly" reaction: perhaps I need to man up, strip down, learn to happily glide "downstream, brushed by fronds of water crowfoot that gave cover to trout". But I remember, as a child, paddling a surfboard across a saltwater pond that had formed near our local beach, and feeling the rush of a scaly fish-like creature moving against my submerged arm, and screaming, my body rigid on the board. My father came to the edge of the water with something like concern on his face. "A fish!" I wailed at him. "Help! There's a fish!" - and it wasn't so much the presence of the fish (I wasn't afraid of it in a conventional way, I wasn't worried about what it might do to me) as the thought of the encounter, a visceral memory playing over and over again - the way it slithered, the way it was unlike me. My father wandered away, down the beach again, bemused, and I paddled frantically to the sand and pulled the board out of the water. I don't much like the squishiness of riverbed beneath my feet, either - you never know what you might encounter. I remember walking in the shallow part of a river near a friend's house and treading on a dead fish; there went the same shiver of unknown fear down my back, the same sense of the body of water as haunted.

For swimming "in the wild", I prefer the ocean, my native habitat, the kind of open water with which, growing up on the California coast, I'm most intimately acquainted - but I respect it greatly, its fickleness, its waves and tides, and I'm not sure I can ever be a swimmer in the sea in the same way that I'm a swimmer in a pool. In the ocean I'm just briefly part of something much bigger. I'm intensely aware of the danger, and therefore of my self in relation to that danger. I'm treading lightly, paying constant attention to my (physical and emotional) limits. It's good, it's important, but it's different. (Though maybe not so different: what did I say I liked so well about the pool? Partly the limits, the controls…)


While the pool allows, even invites, intellectual wanderings, at the same time it prevents the wanderer from losing his way. However far his excursions may take him, the simplicity of the architectural object enables him to pick up the thread where he left it, leaving no room for confusion, bombast, or contrivedness. The architectural part - the artifact - is, from the outset, easy to define whereas its contents - the natural part - are highly complex. The container encloses but also retains, holds together, and keeps from spilling. While stirring the imagination, it also prevents it from rambling; the container both kindles and quenches.

(From Thomas A P Van Leeuwen's The Springboard in the Pond: An Intimate History of the Swimming Pool)


I stay in the library until seven. I could go on like this, probably for hours, but I'm ravenous, and at the back of my mind I'm aware of the cold ride home I have ahead of me, which diminishes the pleasure of staying here somewhat. Darkness fell fast at about 4 o'clock. About an hour ago the library began emptying, but there are still quite a few of us here, at our little desks. I'd forgotten how nice the unspoken, unacknowledged camaraderie of this is, and, though perhaps just because this is what I've spent the last few hours reading about, suddenly liken it in my mind to the unspoken, unacknowledged camaraderie of swimming laps. Everyone's there for the same purpose, putting the work (or the play) in. It's similar here. We look up every once in awhile and almost catch each other's eyes, but mostly we're in our own weird little universes. Sometimes it's enough just to be surrounded by others, to be near human bodies.

So I dread the exit: the sudden imposition of real life, whatever that is, the cold air, the struggle with my bike lock, the stop at the grocery store, the nagging yelps of the self-checkout machine: "Unexpected item in bagging area. Please insert your card into the chip and pin machine. Please take your items. Please take your items. Please take your items."

The other problem is that, once I got going, I was really enjoying my work this afternoon, and this seems to happen rarely enough that I don't want to let it go. But you have to - otherwise you burn out. You have to stop, and take a break, and then come back to it. That's the only way it works. So out I go.

What I Read This Week - 1st December

Attempting to revive this particular practice; sometimes a bit of discipline is necessary to counter the stupefying influence of winter's short grey days and long dark nights. - Night Life (Amy Liptrot at Aeon)

I am obsessed, seeing the world through the prism of corncrakes. I read scientific papers and follow research on their migration routes. They’re all that people ever ask me about. I accidentally replace other words with ‘corncrake’ when I’m typing; I change my ringtone to a corncrake’s call; I set a Google alert for corncrake references in the world’s media. Somehow this bird, this creature I grew up with but never really noticed, has become my ‘thing’. It is what I do with myself.

- Tablescapes (Leanne Shapton)

I began to photograph and paint these tablescapes when I realized I navigated my week and work based on the topography of my desk or tabletop.

- Towards hope, new conversations, carrying on (Hannah Nicklin)

I told her to remember to love what she does. To acknowledge that it’s much easier to feel the scared and overwhelmed, but to know in those big empty spaces which feel difficult to hold open are ripe for filling with whatever you want to. It won’t be predictable. It will be difficult. It shouldn’t be in some ways, and in others that slippery, sticky difficulty is precisely what making a thing is. Why it’s good. Don’t be desperate, be angry. I told her to get political. I told her to remember to love herself and not lose herself to what she does. Remember to enjoy it, especially when it’s easier to feel the other things.

- A Time-Lapse Detective: 25 Years of Agatha Christie’s "Poirot" (Molly McArdle at The Los Angeles Review of Books)

I think it has something to do with the competing forces of his ridiculousness — the spats, the mustache, the syntax inverted — and his brilliance. One would flatten him into a joke; the other, elevate him to inhuman heights. Together they make him human. The sheer volume of Christie’s writing, and now also a quarter century of Suchet’s performances, forces us to recognize in this dainty, dandied man a fundamental dignity. We want to protect him, just as he would protect us.

- Maps to Get Lost In: Visual Editions’ Where You Are (Shuan Pett at The Millions)

Dyer often performs autobiographical dissections in his essays, but rather than a contained whole this is a sprawling collage of youth filtered through forty years of hindsight. In mapping the homes and haunts, the sports, sex, trouble, and death of his youth, patterns emerge. For instance, there’s the link between geography and lust with Shane, an American girl that lived a few doors down – “First mouth kissed, breasts fondled, and (just once) first vagina touched.”

There is no single way to read this map – starting from the appendix or the grid or leaping through the cross-references – and as a consequence narrative time collapses. His mother is both dead in 2011 and alive playing badminton, while sex with Janice Adams unwinds to their original meeting at the model shop where they both worked. Maps contain all times: the past record, our present location, and future daydreams of movement.

On a Run

Bridge of Sighs
Bridge of Sighs

Gardening on Sunday led to sore hamstrings on Monday, which led me, in the evening, to consider attending a yoga class. But I dawdled, until I was running almost irrevocably late, and I thought maybe the best thing to do would be to run to the yoga class. So I stuffed some cash into my fleece pocket and laced up my shoes and started running. At two minutes to seven, I was there, or nearly there; I could have made it, I could have come in out of the cold and paid my five pounds and borrowed a mat and quietly tried to soothe my hamstrings and feel in touch with myself, or summon some hidden inner energy or whatever. But I was having such a nice time running that I just kept going.

It was cold but not too cold - not chest-achingly cold, just cold enough to make me feel like I had to keep going, or else. The sidewalks were wet, and the reflections of streetlights winked in shallow puddles. I was going at a really good pace, for me - down the Iffley Road and over Magdalen Bridge before I even knew it, and onto Longwall Street, and then Holywell, past the King's Arms, where a lone young man stood shivering outside with a cigarette, and up Parks Road, where it was dark and quiet. It was only here, on the edge of the night-black expanse of the University Parks, that I began to realise that my right hand, holding my phone, was numb from cold; I felt a twinge in my right calf; I slowed a little. Outside Keble, a boy and a girl and a bicycle stood. She was crying. He was holding the bicycle upright, saying very little.


I used to run quite a bit - never far, never seriously, but out of habit, and, to some extent, out of some fairly intense and persistent need: it felt like a regulating force, a way of maintaining congruity, balance, identity. One summer I worked down in Orange County. It was a hot summer, the sun trapped by chalk-white parking structures and grimy strip malls that all bled into one another, but I had a regular running route, along wide residential streets, across the train tracks, looping round the blessedly shaded center of old Orange. I suffered from bad anxiety that summer and sometimes, trying to ward off a nighttime panic attack, I would close my eyes and start to imagine the route; I would run it in my mind, and it would help. My first summer in Oxford it was a way to get to know the city, but it was also a way of maintaining a sense of other cities; sure it wasn't the Charles, but running along the Thames was not so different. They were still my feet carrying me down riverside paths, my eyes glancing up at other runners.

I run less now - a lot less, as in, hardly ever. Last night was the first time I'd run in - oh, six months, maybe, give or take. This is mainly because of aches and pains that weren't there five or six or ten years ago, and because as an activity necessary for the maintenance of my sanity, running has been supplanted by swimming. But every once in awhile the irrepressible urge takes me to run. And because I'm so used to walking places now, the first few minutes of a run always strike me as miraculous: how can I be moving this fast, on my own two feet? How can I feel so light and comfortable? The last few minutes always strike me as miraculous too: how can I have thought, not that long ago, that I could do this indefinitely? How can I have never noticed that part of myself, that particular complaining muscle?


On my way back home last night I paused in the center of town, under the Bridge of Sighs, to take a photo. I love this particular bit of Oxford and I love it perhaps best at night (but ask me tomorrow, I'll say something completely different), when people are only ever passing through, not loitering, when the shadows come alive. I've been thinking about this a lot lately - I've been thinking, having spent the last six years or so here, that thing that's great about living in Oxford is being on the outside, looking in. It's taken me awhile to come to this conclusion, but here's what I think now: better not to be one of the fresh-faced students, full of energy and desire to be elsewhere. Better not to be someone clinging on to a past, to glory days played out here. Better to be the person watching. What's special about this place is the energy that comes from all that hopefulness and angst. What's special is seeing it happen, being amongst it but not of it.

So I took my photo - not framed very carefully, because I was in a hurry to keep running. On the other side of the bridge a man was crouched with a bigger, more complex camera, setting up a far more elaborate, deliberate shot. And what does that shot look like? Are my feet, briefly planted, in it? (My own image, blurred and manipulated and Instagram-ed, isn't detailed enough to reveal the crouched photographer, though he is, in theory, somewhere there). Queen's Lane was full of cyclists, some of whom were whistling as they rode, perhaps as a way of asserting their presence before blind corners. The High Street was full of pedestrians, mostly alone, carrying backpacks and briefcases, on their way somewhere. Iffley Road was full of other runners, all of whom I was simultaneously in cahoots and in competition with.

What I Read This Week - 16th September

Or, more accurately: what I read last week, ish. - The day Harry Redknapp brought a fan on to play for West Ham (Jeff Maysh at the Guardian)

"Half-time I made five substitutions, and we only had the bare 11 out – I was running out of players. Then we got another injury, so I said to this guy in the crowd, 'Oi, can you play as good as you talk?'"

The rest of the tale is hallowed football folklore.

- You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids' Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem? (Luke Epplin at The Atlantic)

Through complicated plot machinations that involve a taco stand in Van Nuys, a quintet of sassy racing snails, and an arrogant French-Canadian racecar driver, Turbo qualifies for the Indianapolis 500. After a rocky start, Turbo surges to the lead in the last lap only to suffer a terrible crash that obstructs the other drivers and neutralizes Turbo's racing powers. Mere feet from the finish line, Turbo withdraws into his shell, uncertain that he has the inner strength to succeed. Now fully invested in his brother's quest, Chet yells at him: "It is in you! It's always been in you! ... My little brother never gives up. That's the best thing about you." Newly inspired, Turbo inches across the finish line, fulfilling his self-actualizing journey and proving that one needn't be human nor drive a car to win the country's most prestigious auto race.

- A job or a baby shouldn't be a choice (Lucy Mangan in Stylist)

One of the greatest marks, I think, of a civilised society is that it enables its members to make certain major life decisions free of external considerations. The NHS, for example, is a great and shining beacon on civilisation because it allows people to choose to go to the doctor, to maintain their health without having to worry about whether they can afford it or not. A society that has an NHS is saying, in essence, that some things are so important that a price cannot be put on them in the usual fashion. Instead, we will take collective responsibility for these things and together we will have something that makes life better for all.

Having children is one of those things. It’s not quite as clear-cut because, biology being what it is, only women give birth and it has been hard, historically, for us to keep in mind that a) men are involved at the beginning and, increasingly, after the labour bit, b) women are still people even when something is growing in their tum-tums and c) repopulation is quite important if you want your species and your sales to flourish

- On (not) growing up on Twitter (Sarah Wanenchak at Cyborgology)

My Twitter SN – dynamicsymmetry – is a name with a lot of personal meaning for me as well, and is my account name in a number of other places. Rather than establishing boundaries, I’m tearing down walls and letting everything mix. I’m drawing as many connections as I can. I’m trying to make it clear that this is all me.

What you need to understand about this is that it’s as much intentional as it is accidental – and yes, it is both of those things at once. Realizing early on what was happening with my Twitter account – which, incidentally, I only signed up for in order to play Spymaster – I elected to continue to erode borderlines as I saw more of my colleagues establishing them. I felt jumbled and confused, especially as my graduate school career careened along, and I decided to make my Twitter an experiment in owned unprofessionalism. When I have a opinion on pop culture or fandom, it goes there. When I have something to say related to academia, it goes there. When I attend writing conferences and academic conferences, livetweets go there. When I suffered a mental health crisis last summer – which, incidentally, was profoundly influenced by issues in my academic life – I tweeted about it relentlessly. Twitter became a confessional space, and then a supportive one. And because by then it was at least in part an account that I used to maintain professional academic connections, it felt like a political act as much as a personal one. I wanted to fight stigma. I wanted to talk openly about what happens to graduate students when things go badly awry.

- PLUS: Women We Read This Week at Vela (including Jenny Diski's "Learning How To Live", one of my favorite recent reads)


I can't get enough summer this year. I'm trying a new thing and swimming in the mornings, instead of the evenings, and the warm sun on my back as I cycle home in flipflops and a t-shirt, towards coffee, breakfast, a view of the leafy garden, is too nice. I love Autumn, but I don't want it yet - itchy jumpers, the crisp cold, the smell of tea and smoke, the leaves flapping and falling like fish. I have dresses that still need wearing. But the rose hips in the garden and the influx of new, impossibly young neighbors tell me that I better hurry up and get my coats mended and start wearing socks, so I'm attempting to adjust gracefully, to enjoy the fresh air on my evening walk down the Iffley Road and the golden light on the buildings just before dusk and the infectious sense of excitement that spreads through a university town in September.

As summers go, this one has been good, and not just weather-wise ("The best in years!" everyone keeps saying, which is true: certainly the warmest, driest summer I've seen in six years of living here). In retrospect it feels full of moments and feelings that I want to remember but can't find a home for, writing-wise, which is maybe how summer should be: bricolage, a series of discrete memories strung together by an imaginary thread. We went to California, New York, Wales. We went surfing, climbed peaks, drove for miles and miles, ate hot dogs in Manhattan and Vietnamese sandwiches in Brooklyn, stayed up late drinking too much port with friends, spent time with family, watched films. That sort of thing.

What I've Read Recently

I figured "what I've read recently" is more accurate than "what I read this week". I'm in California, and even though I'm basically working as usual, time has turned a bit funny. The other day (yesterday!) we drove into town, timing it so that I could avoid the two-hour period on weekday afternoons when the pool is occupied by kids, and it was only when we were at the gym, and I was about to get out of the car, that I realized it was Saturday, not Friday. I have written a bit though - here and here and here, if you're interested.

- Too much talk for one planet: why I'm reducing my word emissions (Charlie Brooker at the Guardian)

When it comes to comments, despite not being as funny as I never was in the first place, I get an incredibly easy ride from passing wellwishers compared with any woman who dares write anything on the internet anywhere about anything at all, the ugly bitch, boo, go home bitch go home.

- Field notes from Colombia, Part 6: Learning to need and needing to learn (Roxanne Krystalli)

With apologies to Ralph Waldo Emerson and his ode to self-reliance, there is beauty to needing others. It is in those moments that I realize the world is connected in ways that I cannot deny and in which I experience my own smallness not as a handicap, but as an opportunity to marvel.

- Yes, you have to choose. But can’t you choose everything? (Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Hastings’ advice makes me crazy because it reinforces the erroneous idea that writers have to be of the world yet never quite fully in it. That they don’t have to figure out how to make it all work because, well, writing’s just more important than anything: a healthy relationship, other hobbies and interests, and, possibly, the joys and, yes, the frustrations, of having kids.

- On Writing (and Evolving) Online (Cheri Lucas Rowlands)

So I wondered: What’s the point of setting up an account on another publishing platform? Am I saying anything new? Does this space offer a different angle of me — an extension of the Cheri you encounter here — or am I just repackaging my thoughts?

A writer who publishes on various platforms on the web is like an animal peeing in different places. I’m simply marking my territory — expanding the Cheri Lucas Rowlands brand far and wide. While this analogy makes me laugh, it also makes me feel rather dirty, but I get that that’s what we do these days.

- The Walls We Build Around Us (Nick Rowlands)

Writing, for me, was therefore a public act, and the words came into existence only so they could be released into the wild. I knew my mum kept a diary, but the idea of writing solely for myself had never crossed my mind. I had no real concept of the transformative power that the process of writing itself holds. Looking back now, this seems laughable: I have always been an avid reader, and if reading the words of others can be so moving as to elicit a strong emotional and intellectual response, it stands to reason that producing such words yourself could have a similar effect.

- Antidote for Personal Narrative (Lauren Quinn at Vela)

If my life as a writer sounds anticlimactic, it’s because it was. Sure, it gave me an excuse to get into adventures and to immerse myself in sketchy situations in the name of having a “cultural experience,” but in Cambodia those experiences grew increasingly unsettling. I got spooked. So I spent a lot of time alone in my apartment, with the AC off to save money, repeatedly checking my email to see if some editor had written me back. I did a lot of writing, but I also did a lot asking—asking to be heard, asking to be let in, asking for validation. I did a lot of reading, examining websites to determine what was publishable, and I did a lot of rewriting, trying to mold my voice into something publishable.

There was not, I should say, a lot of money involved in this scenario, but there was some. There were not a ton of clips garnered, but there were some. I wasn’t a dismal failure as a writer. I just wasn’t happy.

- The Startup as Manifesto (Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic)

What I love about all this is that it's so explicit: this is a hypothesis about people's relationship to their phones and the places around them. Is it a good hypothesis? Do people want to sketch-and-extend, rather than Instagramming or what have you? I don't know. But I'm glad someone is trying to find out.

- PLUS - Women We Read This Week at Vela

"Where does your writing live?"

[A]t least to the more mobile and networked of us, place has become less about our origins on some singular piece of blood soil, and more about forming connections with the many sites in our lives. We belong to several places and communities, partially by degree, and in ways that are mediated(Malcolm McCullough)

I keep imagining a kind of perfect online mobility: not having a website or a singular blog and trying to keep this one plot of web-land mine, but taking all of my content, all of my stuff, with me wherever I go. Finding a way of being on the Internet that better respects the fluidity of self.

I've been thinking about this, thinking that really the closest thing I have to a website that accurately reflects my online presence is my Twitter feed. It's where I post links to my own writing, to others' writing, where I post photos, thoughts, quotes. It's temporary, in a way that seems apt - because let's be honest, most of the stuff I post on Twitter won't matter in a few years or a few weeks or even a few days, and that which does will find a way of living on anyway; it will become part of memory, or conversation, or new work.

And then I was thinking about this: I was thinking about Medium, and Hi, and my continual struggle to find a home for my writing online that feels right (feels write?). The question is, as Nick Rowlands puts it: "How, exactly, do you organize your online presence? Where does your writing live; how is it compartmentalized; to what extent should you strive for an overarching coherence?" My own blog has become a wasteland, a weekly-when-I-can-be-arsed depository for other people's words, and at first I thought this was because I just didn't like the design or the name or the promises it made anymore - that design and that name and those promises belonged to a different, older version of me. When I started my blog I was about to graduate from college, about to move to a new country, about to try to get a job, or into grad school, or something. I was newly in love, and I couldn't see past the next six months of my life: I would graduate, I would move to England, I would move in with him, but then what? We were from different places, and logistics might at any moment demand that we live an ocean apart, and maybe I was too young to be in this kind of love, and... And I knew I wanted to write, but I didn't know what that meant, or would mean. And I read blogs to try to situate myself in the world, to try to find my place, and I posted things on my own blog for similar reasons.

Now, though, if I've written something polished enough to be publishable, it goes somewhere else. I've recently become a staff writer at Vela, which means I get to be part of something bigger than myself on my own. And my thinking goes: if it's not good enough to live somewhere else, somewhere other than this controlled blog-habitat that I've created, then it's just not good enough. In some ways that feels freeing - it's streamlined, simple - but in other ways it's worrying: what does "good enough" mean? Who gets to decide that? Where's the space to write without the pressure of an imagined audience or editor? (Should there even be one? Or is that what the scribbled-in-late-at-night notebook is for? If only I could read my own handwriting.)

So I've been trying to figure out what to do about this - whether to try to change my blog somehow, to redesign it and restructure it in a way that fits now but will probably feel uncomfortable later, or to start (yet another) Tumblr, or to just give up, or what. I don't have that much time to worry about this, to be honest, because there are all these other things vying for my attention: Book! and PhD! and Oh, I Want to Write Another Book! and Holy Crap That Gas Bill is Big! and Other Stuff! So it sort of occupies my thoughts late at night after a few beers as I'm sitting on the couch watching an episode of Criminal Minds or whatever other mindless good-guys-catch-bad-guys thing I can find on Netflix, and I think: I should figure this out. I'll figure it out tomorrow.

But the thing I keep coming back to is this: you know how you take the Internet with you now, on your phone? How you're just walking around with this thing in your pocket, interacting with it when you want to, and that interaction is often rooted in the place you're standing, but not tied to it? That's sort of how I want to be online, too: living in my imaginary Volkswagen bus, taking my possessions (my links, my pieces of writing, my faux-nostalgic photos) with me from place to place.

So maybe this is what Medium is, or what Hi is. This is where we write. This is where we write about place. And what we create here is tied to us, wherever we are. Maybe it's easier to be in the world, and to write about the world, when the tools for doing so are as mobile and networked as we are. "This is a hypothesis about people's relationship to their phones and the places around them," Alexis Madrigal writes. This is a hypothesis about people's relationship to the many sites in their lives, the multitude of polyvocal, perpetually in-process places and communities we belong to -

"World is crazier and more of it than we think, Incorrigibly plural."

Or - I don't know. Maybe I'll figure it out tomorrow.