The Race


I’ve recently reconnected with an acquaintance – a friend to many of my friends, but someone I’ve met only on one messy weekend. It was a festival last year, and whilst bonding occurs, depth is rarely found – especially when, on the first night, you steal that person’s bed. She’s called Emma.

I’ve also recently started running. This was at the behest of a Swiss friend, Lucie, who like so many in this city, works for an NGO. It was a habit she wished to regain, but the mountains can be home to feral dogs or lonely farmers and shepherds, and a chaperone is required. An unlikely role for a 20-a-day idiot like myself, especially when it means a 6.20am start, but ever the hero, I stepped up. We’ve found a route along the side of one of the mountains that suits us fine, which drops on the way to the end of the track, but seems to rise mercilessly on the return. It takes 20 minutes, determination and all my breath. Today, I walked for only 5 yards before breaking back into my PB-setting pace.

And so to the final part of my triptych. Tom is an ex-con building an adventure playground in Halabja, a city 60 kilometres east of Suli, the setting for the chemical gas attack launched by Saddam in 1988. Tom’s reasons for being there are many and varied, and the project is of too great a scope to squash into here. I mention that Tom has done time for a reason. After spending the afternoon with him and the kids on the site that is slowly being transformed into the kind of playground we’d all love to have had access to as a child, we retired to his quarters and sat chatting on thin mattresses on the floor. Tom stretched and lit incense but this was just part of a routine for him, not a showy flirtation with Buddhism and yoga. He’s very open about his past, and after talking for a few hours, I feel I could have written his memoir for him. As one of a very small community of expats in Halabja, I got the sense that Tom doesn’t get the chance to unload his thoughts often. He has a keen mind, speaks enough Kurdish to get by, and seems to know almost everyone in the city. But that mind, last Friday evening at least, needed to express itself, so I learnt of his family, his motivations, and of course his time in prison. It was how he dealt with his time that left an impression on me.

I often have the feeling of “what next?” When will I finish this course with the students? When am I next returning to England? What am I doing after lessons today? I can’t wait to go to Burning Man next year. There is a concrete part of my psyche that is always thinking ahead, like the lure of an angler fish, or the carrot dangling just in front of the donkey – I’m driven to think forward and that of course leads to the end of the road.

A lot of prisoners, as Tom pointed out to me, live in the past. Inside it must be easy to reflect on past glories, past lovers. Equally it is tempting, even at the start of a long stretch, to dream of that first night in the pub, the first shag, a decent meal. Talking about all this, I mentioned that I try to live in the present. Probably, I was trying to emulate my new friend who had learnt to do this through necessity, but wasn’t trying to guide me (at least not with the directness of those who enjoy starting sentences, “As a Buddhist….”).

Emma got in touch with me after reading my scribbles about “Sarah” a couple of weeks ago. She, like a lot of people, appreciated my openness. We’ve thrown some emails back and forth, and we came to the subject of her art. I took to her life model watercolours and confessed a desire to be a model at some stage – it appeals to the vain naturist in me. Her next email was subject-headed “Do you think you have what it takes….?” and described it as “a pursuit for people happy to be with their thoughts”. Of course, was my reaction, of course I am. I could sit or stand there for an hour or two, not moving, just being. That was at 6.00am this morning, as I prepared to go for a run. I wrote some bleary-eyed nonsense, but promised to think on during the jog and to return with an answer of sorts. This is that answer.

Lucie and I were joined by our friend Kamaran today, and as we parked up at our usual spot, I looked out to the end of the track. It snakes around the ripples in the mountain, so you never truly know how much further there is to run, but you can see the end, which marks the half way point. We stretched and set off and I tried to force my internal dialogue to get onto the subject of life modelling. Much like trying to recapture a dream after waking up, I couldn’t focus on it. I just kept thinking about getting this 20 minutes of torture out of the way – “around four more turns, I’ll be halfway without having stopped, then I can turn and start getting back to the car.” I settled into my run, got my breath going how I like it and thought about how I managed to keep going on the return leg last time. I’d read an article about the siege of Leningrad, and how those poor bastards hadn’t given up. For some reason that managed to get me through the slight incline back to the car. Maybe I’d use the same tactic. And then it just occurred to me. Feel my breath, feel my lungs, feel my heart, feel my legs. Recognise these feelings separately and together and just those feelings. Just that instant. And for the most part, I lived in the moment for twenty minutes and felt better than ever before when I finished.

If I ever life model, or go to prison, that presence will be grand.

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