Climbing the wrong mountain

25 10 2012


A few years ago I had the opportunity to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain. In preparation I bought a new pair of walking boots, a down sleeping bag and a lightweight inflatable mattress. I also made enquiries about borrowing a rucksack that had been on a trip to Everest base camp. Books on Kilimanjaro were stacked up on my bedside table.

Part of the training for the trip involved a weekend in the Brecon Beacons. We camped out for two nights in tents that we had to carry ourselves and put up and take down in the dark. I was not fast at this. Nor was I fast at trekking up the steep paths across the Welsh valleys. The new hi-tech boots rubbed a weeping blister on both heels and my energy was low due to being unable to sleep in the cold, damp tent. Added to this was the problem of a torn cartilage in my right knee. Each time I climbed a stile (and there are a lot of stiles in the Brecon Beacons) and put my weight on my right leg, it gave way. The rest of the team were nimbly scrambling up through the woods and bracken-covered slopes, but I was tentative and afraid that the weight of the rucksack would topple me.

On the second night, wide awake with the cold and a terrible dry fatigue, I overheard a team member say that I would slow down the expedition. I finished the weekend exercise knowing that I was climbing the wrong mountain.

It was hard to pull out. I had planned the trip and had been looking forward to the adventure. I’d told people I was going. I’d got excited about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and seeing something of the abundant wildlife of Tanzania. Even though I’d spent time in Africa, I’d never seen elephant in the wild or giraffe or lions. I had not been on a proper expedition before. All my previous travelling had been visits to family or friends with the exception of one trip to Australia.

I considered getting the knee fixed, but I didn’t want an operation, and there was no guarantee that it would heal strong enough to climb the mountain. It was, however, strong enough to climb a few Devon hills as long as was careful and I could still ride as long as I didn’t try to mount from the ground. On one long walk when I reflected on how I was not now going to climb Kilimanjaro, I felt neither disappointed nor defeated, but strangely euphoric.

The reason was that I’d been putting off trying something that I was afraid of. Kilimanjaro obscured a bigger mountain. That summer I began training a young Arabian colt. Had I been in Kilimanjaro, I would not have had enough time to do this well, and it turned out that training this young and highly spirited horse would start me on an adventure that has lasted ten years and is still taking me to new places.

Sometimes our failures are new expeditions.

Autumn berries

25 10 2012

Hawthorn berries: at last some brightness after the long dark days of rain. This morning I spotted these beauties gleaming in the hedgerow and couldn’t resist sharing them.

Day jobs

11 10 2012


This week I counted my number of day jobs. I have five. That’s more jobs than I have ever had. Writing is included in my day jobs even though I rarely write in daylight hours.  It’s a job I must slot in with the others.

Managing five jobs takes dexterity and planning. I’m still learning how to work my new portfolio existence. Sometimes it feels almost like another job in itself. The hardest part is remembering who I am when I wake up:  the Writer who sits in her dressing gown with a pot of coffee and a stack of pages to edit before lunch? The freelance journalist?

I don’t want to give up my other jobs.  Teaching Philosophy and Ethics to A Level students stretches my mind and keeps me in touch with young people. Teaching means I get properly dressed in the mornings and have to be organised. I like being part of a school: the routines, the predictability, the structure. I measure my life in terms.

You’d think a fiction writer would be able to handle being five people at once, but I can’t. I have to role play wholeheartedly. So when I’m the Teacher, I’m her one hundred percent. Over the past week I’ve been planning for lesson observation to the new Ofsted criteria, which means I’ve been the Teacher one hundred percent every day and at night I can’t even think about writing. If I do start to think about writing, it makes me want to weep, and I’ve got to hold myself together to be the Teacher, especially an Ofsted-approved one.

One of my other jobs involves working with horses and troubled young people. In my role as Horse Handler, I get up in the mornings and put on jeans that are still muddy from the day before. I take a flask of hot soup to a yard that has wonderful panoramic views and I get to ride as part of my duties. What a wonderful job it is. Seeing a young person transform through their connection with a chosen horse inspires me. I love going to work even when it is lashing down with rain. When I’m working with horses and young people, I am completely absorbed and utterly fulfilled. My other jobs don’t exist.

Driving back from one of my jobs, I design ideas for my other jobs. I’ve always done this. I work out what I need to do when I’m in the car, freewheeling between identities. It strikes me that driving would be a perfect job for me. I could take people where they wanted to go and earn a living out of it. I wouldn’t have to spend time planning or photocopying or reading or thinking. I could just drive and my mind would be free.

I wonder, though, how long it would take before I’d invented my way into another life?

One job feeds into another. My jobs enrich different parts of my being and keep me on my toes physically, emotionally and intellectually. At the moment I’m also working on writing projects around wild Dartmoor ponies and running creative writing and philosophy courses at a friend’s ancient house in Somerset. When I go to Sherwood, all I want to do is read and write. If I could, I would stay there for a month with a stack of books and white paper. I would write seamlessly with a fountain pen and ignore email. I’d take photographs daily and restart my year of poems. I’d read philosophy with proper attention. There would be space to stretch into those dance exercises I flex in my mind when I don’t have time to actually do them.

A month away?

I’d miss the horses and the rain and the driving around thinking about new ideas and how I can get time off to write.

Sometimes more is more.

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