Wednesday, 27 February 2019

One Step at a Time: Walking for Wellness, Walking for Me

When I’m happy, I walk.
When I’m sad, or lonely or lost.
When I’m hurting, or numb.
When there’s too much to think about
Or nothing on my mind.
I walk.

Walking has played an important role in my life for as long as I can remember. So much so that it was one of the first things I included in the wellness tools section of my Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP). It’s also made its way into my writing more often than I’d realised until I began writing this article. (The idea for this piece came to me whilst, wait for it, walking into work one morning a few weeks ago.)

My family never owned a car, so when I was growing up in Liverpool if I wanted to go somewhere it was catch the bus or walk. From the age of eleven I walked thirty or forty minutes each way to and from school, lost in my thoughts about whatever was going on for me at the time. In my late teens I remember going for Sunday evening walks to West Derby village and back, a round trip of maybe an hour and a half at my ambling, contemplative pace.

About that time I started going on the Ramblers’ Association (now The Ramblers) public walks every couple of months with my aunt and her friend. I loved the exercise and the sense of freedom, being out on the hills. The people were lovely but I mostly kept my own counsel and walked separately the rest. There was one exception, a lady whose name escapes me some forty years on. Her spirit is captured, however, in one of my poems from that time.

Song to the high hills

Take my hand offered
across streams
we jump
that trickle your laughter
down the savage fen.
Share with me one day’s
journey
in this weird land,
where even the spring shuns
the mark of our
trespass
and unnamed birds cast down
forsaken echoes
from the high hills above us.
Do you not see
the whole earth bleeding …
distant mountains burn
a venous red
and at our feet
the bare rocks haemorrhage,
oozing lichen up from unseen wounds.
Believe me,
cares that clothe us
city-bound
will fall
today
like autumn leaves
       that colour in your hair
come winter’s purge.
And yet, in all of this,
a little rain might mark my sadness
sevenfold
to court you but a day
—surely inhibition falters
as we share the innocence
of exploration together.

Innocence tempting revelation.

From: Collected Poems: 1977–1984.

I joined the hiking club at university but didn’t keep it up. I do recall one hike with friends across Ilkley Moor during a thunderstorm that painted the sky in all manner of crazy hues. Instead, I took to taking urban walks on my own, mostly early in the morning. A favourite route took me out of town to a park where I would sit a while by the lake before making my way back for lectures. One day I went further than I intended and got myself a bit lost. I remember taking my shoes off and walking part of the way back barefoot across a golf course in the rain. A different early walk, along a derelict railway to the local park, was captured in another of my poems.

The Bunch of Wild Flowers

this morning
as you slept in his arms
I wandered,
picked you flowers white as sonnets
early in the morning
where the lonely go
and lovers wonder)

stirring in your arms he
tasted autumn in your hair
ascent of flowers,
brushed away the cobwebs or a dream
and (plucked one throbbing rose as red as
kisses
early in the garden
where the lovers grow
within each other’s arms

And bore you welcomes wild
of flowers truer than all orchids
my love
this morning as you slept
in his arms I wandered
gathering poems deep as daisies
early in the morning
where the lovers
go,

From: Collected Poems: 1977–1984.

Urban or rural, walking for me has always been about space: space in which to think or not think, depending on what I most need at the time. It is my instinctive response to uncertainty, challenge, and loss. When I got the news that PJ, a dear friend from university days, had died my instinctive reaction was to get out of the house and walk. It didn’t matter where, I just needed to be moving. (Years later, that one evening of loss is imprinted on these local streets, although I’ve added many overlying layers of other days, people and memories in the intervening years.) A week or so later I took the day off work and went to the coast for a solitary hike, long enough to try and process the fact that my friend was no longer here. After my mother died I walked by Crosby Marina the evening of her funeral. The words that came to me are, perhaps, a poem. If so, it is the first I’ve written in many years.

Wandering
Wondering

How do I feel
What do I feel

Release
Relief

Re birth

Stillness
Silence

Un known
Un homed

Un tethered

Still
Calm

Centred (thank you

— Liverpool, March 26, 2018

I mostly prefer to walk alone but there have been times when I’ve taken a trusted friend along. One of my dearest memories of PJ is of walking her home in the snow one dark winter night. Years later I recall another walk in the snow with a different friend, when we got seriously lost on Wimbledon Common. The walk Fran and I took around Beaulieu in 2013 when we met in person for the first time was, quite simply, precious.

We walked, and talked, and took photos of the Abbey and gardens, and went on the monorail and the old open-top bus, and walked some more, and sat, and talked some more. It was amazing—and the most natural thing in the world. If we were a little shy it didn’t show. We were just two friends out together enjoying the day.

From: High Tide, Low Tide, The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder.

Walks by the sea are special. I spent six months in Norwich on placement from university. One Sunday I drove to the coast with one of the other students for an hour or so walking on the shore.

(In the Depths of) Singing

Down the western reaches of the sea i
findme walking with a friend,
wind and seasalt wildly in the sky, you on
my mind. Late november: pebbles in a
wilderness of oceans and a fulling moon.

Something like the flesh of friends too
raw for touching walkwe. Two
investigating puddles. Our togetherness apart
we wander down our dreams while all the
waves one water can involve strike
sparks about our feet. From flints we
gather in the night.
We gather. In the

(o i love the waves that break upon
me like you)

nightly

From: Collected Poems: 1977–1984.

That memory sparks another. One morning long ago when I ought to have been at work but instead spent the day on the beach walking with a friend who understood that sometimes shared solitude is just what is needed.

A few years ago I paddled in the sea along Long Sands Beach at Whitley Bay here in the north-east. At first it was cold. Then my feet went numb. I probably should have come out at that point but I kept going to the point when my feet were hurting with cold. I got out of the water, dried my feet, and put my thick socks and boots on, expecting my feet to warm through within a few minutes. They took so long to thaw out I was beginning to think I had caused some serious damage. I have paddled in the sea several times since then, but not in quite such extreme conditions.

Over time, regular walking routes become saturated with memories. The best example of that is the walk I take each evening when on holiday at the Cumbrian cottage my family have rented for the past twenty years or so. So rich are the echoes of the people and situations I’ve brought with me in mind and heart over the years that I’ve named it Memory Lane. Fran has accompanied me on that walk many times via the magic of Skype. A few other friends have done the same.

I have done a few sponsored walks. When I was at school I organised a twenty mile walk for friends in aid of the World Wildlife Fund. I think only two of us completed the task but we did raise some money. More recently I have done the Alzheimer’s Society Memory Walk a couple of times, and taken part in the NAMI Maine Walk, accompanying Fran from 3,000 miles away. Last December I took part in the Jingle Bell Walk to raise money for children’s cancer charity The Chris Lucas Trust.

Returning to my solo walks and their place in my wellbeing, the best example is the walk I took almost every evening during the summer of 2013 when Fran was traveling in Europe. Those walks were part of my wellness plan for that period, which was the most challenging we’d faced as friends and one of the most traumatic Fran had ever experienced.

That wellness plan developed into the Wellness Recovery Action Plan I mentioned at the start of this article. It is a living document and will grow with me as my needs change, but I cannot imagine walking not being in there as one of my key wellness tools.

Well, this article has turned out to be rather long and rambling, much like many of my walks!

I will close with another passage from our book, because short or long every walk starts out as a single step, then another, then another. And where steps are concerned, size and speed are not always the most important things. The important thing is to keep moving.

As we like to say, baby steps are steps too.

This is one of our favourite [sayings]. It reminds us to stay focused in the present moment, to take life one step at a time, and to acknowledge that even the smallest advance counts as progress. Fran is very goal-oriented, and becomes frustrated if she seems to be straying off course or failing to make fast enough progress. In depression, this can reach a point where she despairs of ever achieving her targets or even progressing further towards them. At such times, “Baby steps are steps too” reminds her that she rarely stays stuck for long. She will try new ideas, or re-visit old ones, until something happens to move her forward.

From: High Tide, Low Tide, The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder.

 

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