Learning 24-form Tai Chi

It’s taken a whole year but I have finally learned all 24 postures of the tai chi 24-form. This feels like a major achievement, after several false starts. Theoretically, I can now also practise at home. Theroretically.

The class

The weekly class lasts an hour and there are about 30 minutes of getting in the right frame of mind before we start practising ‘The Form’.  The structure of teacher Yang’s class is as follows:

  • self-massage, patting and stretching
  • basic stances and balances
  • qi gong exercises with breathing
  • make a new friend in the class and practise a qi gong movement together
  • practise The Form
  • break down a single movement and repeat over and over
  • do the form again with new knowledge
  • final stretches
  • floor relaxation and deep breathing.

The devil is in the detail

Attending every session is key to learning the precise nature of each posture: where the weight sits, are the feet turned in or out, are the hips in line, do you follow your movement with your eyes or look straight ahead, is the fist flat or turned upright, is the foot flat or raised, what is the height of the hand in relation to the body, is the step at an angle or directly ahead/behind…

Missing a class would be like skipping a book chapter. You can pick it up but there is a LOT of minutiae to take on board. Tai chi is a very mental practice as well as a physical one. And this is why I see people (often young students) start and not continue. It is slow and it is slow to learn. You need patience but the reward is that you can take this whole-body exercise with you throughout your life.

Calm mind paradox

If nothing else, tai chi calms the mind. For an hour, stress and anxiety dips or disappears.

The trouble is, a calm mind is needed to practise tai chi well and also to slow the movements right down.

Since I’m a fast person this is a big challenge (I have issues with yoga, too). I think and talk quickly, and can be easily distracted. So, while I’m very happy to have come full circle on my year of learning, I’m still not quite ready to leave the dojo.

I know this because whenever I try tai chi at home my monkey mind is just too busy and involved. I may have finally learnt The Form and can run through it in five minutes, but I still have to think about what move comes next and where my weight should be for balance and how many ‘repulse monkeys’ there are in the sequence and… well, you get the picture. It’s not meditative – yet.

Other barriers

For the 24-form of tai chi (and maybe others – there are other longer forms), you need enough space to practice, such as a garden or park. Unless you have a massive house, of course. The movements involve a fair amount of travelling – I’d guess around 10 metres forwards and back – especially when you start to stretch lower in the postures.

Other barriers are more personal. I think: ‘what if the neighbours are looking’? To be fair, I don’t care too much what they think, but being watched inhibits how relaxed I am.

Oh and sometimes the rabbits get in the way.

But outdoors tai chi is the best!

How I got started

I started learning tai chi on a free activity session in Cotteridge park (still running) three years ago. I had started a part-sabbatical partly because there was nothing more the physio could do for my chronic neck/shoulder issues so I knew I had to change my work-life balance and help myself.

It was quite peaceful and grounding to be moving outside, as if in sync with nature, swaying like a tree in the breeze or breathing deeply while watching birds circle far overhead.

But it has taken dedicated memorising and attendance to get to the end of a 24-move short form practice.

Initially I went to a local class, which was more of a hilarious social club for retired people. But I really started learning properly at the University of Birmingham’s Sport and Fitness centre with a very good teacher who goes over each new posture repeatedly, including the correct breathing, and how it fits into tai chi as a martial art.

Yang really is an excellent teacher and elegant practitioner. As well as learning some of the Chinese names of each move (white crane spreads wings, repulse monkey, grasp the tiger’s tail), Yang instilled precise hand positions by adding suggestions that we make a fist as if holding an ice cream, or offering a cake with palm facing up, or sticking a thumb in the pie for a downward thumb position. Food is a popular aide-memoire.

If you want to get an idea of what tai chi 24 form looks like, this ‘lady of the pink pyjamas’ (as she is known in our class) is a recommended watch.

Tai chi might seem an easy or even elderly option to those who do super-bendy yoga or athletic body pump, but it’s one of the hardest things I’ve done and one of the few exercise regimes that is mental, emotional, whole-body physical and spiritual. The only other one I can think of is bodyboarding/surfing, and living in Birmingham UK tends to put that one out of regular reach.

So, tai chi it is.

Digitising an old diary

diary cover

I have around 70 diaries and these are an ongoing project for exploration – see The Diary for more info.

Digitising them creates the opportunity for some creative hacks, such as running the text through a data extraction algorithm to create new outputs – some of which are quite poetic. Using code has also allowed me to extract all the swear words from 10,000 words of travel emails. That was fun!

I’m also fascinated by diaries generally and visited The Great Diary Project in London to read some of the submitted diaries from the 1980s. I’ve bequeathed my own diaries to this project – better than family and friends reading them! The problem is, most people’s handwriting is pretty awful and it makes reading and deciphering hard work.

There is also some part of me that thinks there might be a memoir in my own travel diaries somewhere, although I’m not sure I have the emotional distance, the staying power or the skill to write them up as such. Anonymous edits and extractions are far more likely.

For all these reasons, I put digitising a travel diary into my list of goals for this year.

I’m happy to say that the first one is done – 26,000 words all about criss-crossing India, west to east and south to north, for four months in 1996/7. I’ve already started extracting and playing with the text.

In all there are around three years’ worth of travel diaries, so it’s an epic challenge, of which this is just the first microchallenge.

For anyone out there thinking of doing anything that involves digital transcription, I highly recommend using speech recognition software or just the dictation facilities on your  phone or computer. It’s been a lifesaver and given me a few laughs with misheard typos. I’ll stick them in another post (and here it is!).

Splits challenge

I should do something big this year, I said. What would be unachievable and a bit ridiculous but maybe fun? I asked. I wrote a list of goals for 2019. And the splits challenge was born.

I’ve never been able to do the splits. I got to BAGA Award 4 (remember them?) in gymnastics at school. Doing the splits was in Award 1. How hard can it be though?

Very! Especially when you’re 50ish.

This is a challenge in progress, so I have until December to get there, but the reality is I haven’t done a scrap of effort towards achieving this goal so it’s unlikely. You never know though.  I’m pretty happy that I can do this much.

[Video of the ridiculousness to come in January 2020.]

splits challenge

Independent toes – flex individual toes on command

Independent toes goalI discovered the importance of having independent toes after reading Dynamic Ageing by Katy Bowman. Katy is a biomechanist and movement teacher and her book is co-written with four women over the age of 75 – although really it’s aimed at anyone sedentary.

Mobilising the feet improves both balance and basic movement. After all, no one wants to end up with the old person shuffle and yet it happens to the best of us: that hunched over, stare at your feet, short step, pavement scuffing walk.

It is the fear of falling that often leads to older people to adopt this type of restricted, unnatural movement. Ironically, it also makes it more likely they will lose balance, says Katy. Regaining command over one’s toes is a real confidence builder because it improves strength, mobility and biomechanics.

But … have you ever tried to flex individual toes on command? It is no easy feat (sorry).

Follow the instructions and the dream of independent toes could be yours, promised Katy. The exercises included rolling your feet over a cylinder (I used an empty pepper pot) to wake up the nerve endings so that your brain and toes can actually start talking again. Another involved a ‘handshake’ with your toes, interlocking fingers between each one to encourage their future separation. It’s amazing that something so small could change your whole life one day.

I did the exercises for a few weeks as part of my 2019 goals list. Having been prescribed orthotics several years ago, I’m basically interested in anything that will keep me walking and mobile. For years I worked in a sedentary screen-based job for 40 hours a week so I’ve got a lot of reversing to do.

It was both amusing and disturbing to stand upright, look at my toes and try to raise each one off the floor – the big toes understood and lifted up. Certain other naughty toes totally refused to move a millimetre let along an inch.

In the end I got the second  and fifth toes also lifting slightly. The third toe moved but never without the second one. And the fourth one now twitches slightly so at least it is a stubborn mule that is listening.

It’s now September and I’ve pretty much given up I have to admit. But I haven’t lost the movement I gained and I have done a lot of walking this year so it’s all good.

And I still like shaking hands/feet with my fingers/toes. Try it! It is strangely pleasant. Just me?

toe handshake
How do you do?

Inadvertently climbing a mountain – photo essay

patting the wrong mountain peak.
Also inadvertently patting the wrong mountain peak.

I’m a walker not a climber but high on Gwen Moffat’s autobiography Space Below My Feet, the mountains of Snowdonia beckoned and at Easter we headed for Birmingham-on-Sea: Barmouth.

You know that moment at the start of a walk? When you aren’t really planning on anything more than just going just a bit of the way? Perhaps just up to the viewpoint and then turn back because you haven’t got any sandwiches or a coat, because the peaks belong to the Berghausers and the sheep?

Lambing season on Cader Idris.
Lambing season on Cader Idris.

That. That was the plan when we pulled into Dôl Idris Car Park, starting point of the Minffordd Path for the Cader Idris climb/walk, the steepest route up Wales’ second highest peak. There was no way we were fit enough or prepared for a proper hike.

While Pete took photos of lichen and waterfalls, however, I carried on up the stone steps of the wooded gorge.

Exploring the gorge.
Exploring the gorge and waterfall, and pondering life.

I had rediscovered walking quite recently on my sabbatical break in 2016, around the houses and streets and canals of Brum. And this reminded me of a pilgrimage trek up Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, 20 years ago, when it was one long staircase to the summit and the smell of embrocation cream filled the air at junctions as Buddhist pilgrims stopped to massage cramped calves.

Rising slowly above the treeline on the Minffordd Path.
Rising slowly above the treeline on the Minffordd Path.

I’ll just get above the tree line, I thought; see if I can get into a good position to see a low-flying jet along the Mach Loop. (That morning we’d climbed up a gusty mountainside at Mach Bwlch but to no avail. Spotting them is pure luck as there is no timetable.)

Mach Bwlch
Looking for jets at Mach Bwlch.

I was alone. But a family of Russians was walking just ahead – parents, teens and children. They carried on, so I did too.

The ground levelled out above the tree line and contoured round the grassy hill into a large open valley surrounded by a horsehoe of steep slopes. It was hard to tell which was Cader Idris’s peak of 2930ft.

At this point I asked a returning walker how far it was to Llyn Cau, the lake below the summit and he said about an hour. With barely a bar of signal, I texted Pete to say I was going for it.

the terrain evened out eventually
After steep woodland gorge steps, the terrain evened out.

The hour rolled round but there was no sign of the lake. The legs started to go as the path rose ever upwards. I was so hot with exertion, all I wanted to do was jump in that damn lake. I literally inched my way onwards, getting tireder with each step but knowing I must be close. Around every turn and over every bluff I expected to see it but there was just more path.

And then there it was – suddenly a huge, dark, sparkling lake. A turning point. Most walkers carried on to the ridge so I had it to myself, barring a couple who collapsed immediately at the edge so it was no bother to walk a few minutes further on to my own triumphant flop by the water’s edge.

Llyn Cau lake at last.
Llyn Cau lake at last. Spot the tourist, sorry, I mean pioneering solo female adventurer.

I should have gone for a wild swim; I was hot enough even in the cold mountain air. But, worried that Pete was getting worried – I’d been gone two hours – I stripped off my walking boots to enjoy a paddle and some recovery time.

Selfie - In front of Cader Idris summit, or not. Hard to tell.
In front of Cader Idris summit, or not. Hard to tell.

Of course, there were some posed ‘adventure style’ selfies with the peak of Wales’ second highest mountain behind me. (Actually I got totally the wrong peak lined up – the photos are of a high ridge with the summit further along. Perspective from below a near vertical wall can be pretty screwy.)

Peaceful moment of reflection. Happiness that I could still walk that far and high. Astonishment at the fearsome landscape. Looking around, and across Snowdonia’s misty gradations, there was no doubt I’d climbed above the Faraway Tree into a magnificent other-world where the mountain is in charge of your destiny.

The danger signs at the seemingly tame start seemed perfectly reasonable now, warning of the risk of getting disoriented in bad weather and walking off the edge into oblivion.

Stoney toe-trippers.
Stoney toe-trippers on the descent.

Most accidents tend to happen on the way down, however – tiredness, lack of concentration, adrenaline drop maybe. Several times I nearly twisted my ankle as I skipped down the mountain for an hour’s fast descent. Running downhill is easier on the knees and muscles than walking slowly and carefully but probably not recommended.

Back at the car, I knocked on the window – Pete was just waking up from a long nap, not mad with worry about ‘the wife’. Which, frankly, was a relief. Wish I’d swum now.

Red face, back at base.
Hot! Red face, back at base.

Under cover of the woodland a jet plane rumbled in the distance and we glimpsed the outline of a transport plane as it flew directly over the canopy. I felt elated. This was my reward for inadvertently climbing a mountain.

That and, as is the British way, a pot of tea and a scone in nearby Tal-y-llyn, looking back up in wonder at the mountains of Southern Snowdonia and thinking: ‘Yes! I’ve been up there.’

Afternoon tea.
Afternoon tea? Don’t mind if I do.

Country to city solo walk – North Worcestershire to West Midlands

This Al Humphreys‘ inspired microadventure has been on my list of to dos for a while. His challenge to city folk in need of adventure is to catch a train out to the country and walk back home. So simple, yet why haven’t I done it?

The thing that has inspired me to actually get on this challenge is watching Poldark. I’ve just finished series three and those broiling seas and wild Cornish coastlines have got me thinking about doing a long-distance coastal walk later this year (as part of one of my many 2019 resolutions to do a challenge that I have to get fit for).

So this walk was like a test. Would I enjoy it? Could I even go the distance with my dodgy foot arches? Would I have the guts to get off the road and walk solo back into the city? Would I feel like doing it all again tomorrow or be seized up on the sofa?

Alvechurch marina
Alvechurch marina

My local train route shoots from Birmingham city centre out to Redditch and Worcester beyond. The first question was how far out do I go? Alvechurch was definitely a stretch with a certain search engine suggesting it was a 2.5-hour walk home – I usually walk for up to an hour – but it also felt doable… about five stops out on the train and seven miles on foot. I later discover Its B48 postcode is the highest and last of the proper Birmingham B postcodes.

With no plan but a window of sunshine, I sent out some callouts on Twitter and Facebook to see if anyone wanted to join me. Quite a few friends seemed up for it, given a bit more notice – you know who you are; I’ll be roping you in on a future walk.

The train out of town was nearly empty. From the comfort of my seat, walking the ever-lengthening distance back seemed impossible. But one thing I’ve learnt from my local walkabouts of the past two years is that everywhere seems too far until you actually walk to them. Places I used to hop to the car are now quite doable by shank’s pony.

Past Longbridge we go, past where the old Austin and British Leyland car factory used to be – now ironically a car park – and the edgelands of Birmingham before the green fields and pastures of Barnt Green and Alvechurch in North Worcestershire fill the train window.

Alvechurch to Stirchley walk
Similar route – but via canals on the first stretch from Alvechurch

I get off the train in full sunshine and check the route options. The search engine satnav offers a ‘walking’ route, which goes via busy A-roads and takes 2 hr 27 – so specific. But I can see there is a slightly longer canal route that veers east to Hopwood so I head for that, albeit with some trepidation – as a solo female I never feel that comfortable walking on canal towpaths. Still it is the weekend and there look to be quite a few people on their narrowboats at Alvechurch Marina so I duck down onto the path of the Worcester/Birmingham canal.

It’s a picturesque start to the walk and for the next 40 minutes, I fairly stride along the towpath, passing the occasional human – a mum with a buggy, several dogwalkers, a jogger. There are fishermen and reservoirs and teenage couples hanging out on humpback bridges. I pass underneath the M42 motorway bridge and the white noise of traffic is loud and invasive. I feel glad I’ve skipped the road route but don’t feel safe enough to put my music on, which is usually a big part of feeling uplifted and keeping the pace up on my walks.

Worcester Birmingham Canal

At Hopwood House pub, about a third of the way home, I check in my location on Twitter and review the next bit of the route. I’d assumed I’d get on the 60mph A-road as per the satnav as the canal is about to duck under a tunnel for nearly 3km. But it looks as if you can sort of go over the top of the canal and pick it up again at the city edgelands of Hawkesley – a bus terminus area for my local 35 bus. Phil B on Twitter confirms taking the scenic route and suddenly things get muddier and emptier, with barely a soul about.

Narrowboat near Bittell Reservoir

I pass two lots of two men walking – one possibly a father and son, the other pair equally unthreatening. I feel as if I’m getting strange looks but it could be that they don’t want to make me feel uncomfortable so are looking for cues from me first. I say hi, as any walker would, and stride on.

I suspect most women view the world through a certain lens of safety checks and risk assessment, and I notice how I adapt to my fears now. I walk tall, have my hands out of my pockets (ready), and try to look confident and alert and not like a victim – all things I learnt from life in south London and some free self-defence classes from Lewisham council.

When I see a solo man in the distance, I tie and tuck my blonde hair under an army green wool hat – a reaction to past experiences of showing my femininity in public and this being an invitation to being followed and approached. In case of mugging, I’ve hidden my cards and identifiers in a coat pocket, leaving just some cash and a water bottle in my bag. My keys are in my pocket and my phone ready to hand.

I feel a bit sad that I do these things but I also think of talks I’ve been to by RGS explorers, who do far, far riskier things than I, and how risk taking is about preparing for your expedition and trying to mitigate the things that can go wrong.

On a positive note, it’s the conquering of these fears and the ‘knowing’ what is out there and the ‘doing of things anyway’ that ultimately brings relief from the fear and anxiety. Take it from someone who is constantly fighting their comfort zone.

Wast Hills Tunnel – south entrance.

Now I’m growing in confidence. When the canal disappears into the 2.5km Wast Hills Tunnel, I head over the top to a country lane and turn immediately off it onto a North Worcestershire national footpath. I don’t even check my phone map. My sense of direction tells me I’m walking in parallel to the A441. I check for cows – which make me nervous – and then follow the route across several fields.

Without music I find myself coming up with an acronym for all the random shit I do, things that people have started commenting on and which I have found myself recently responding to with ‘This is what you do when you don’t have kids’. I am a ‘Woman Adventurer No Kids Early Retirement’. Or as my lovely friend Paul suggested ‘Tearaway Outgoing Surfer Sister Enjoying Rambling’. Either way, it keeps me humble without giving up bragging rights.

North Worcestershire Path.

There are a couple of surprises before I enter the city boundary. One, a sudden colourful sign on the country lane announcing ‘Welcome to the Wast Hills Autism Services’. Two, a random tower-like building with a face that looks like it is wearing a hard hat – this turns out to be the Birmingham University Observatory, for the teaching of physics, astrophysics and astronomy. They do events for the public (ooh!).

Observatory
Birmingham University Observatory

One minute there are green fields and woodlands, the next the sharp brick edge of the city. This is Hawkesley, which features one of those maze-like estates full of small disorienting veiny roads, curves and cul-de-sacs.  Twitter tells me there are no dead-ends and to follow a direct line pedestrian pathway straight through the maze. I ask a local to be sure. They wish me good luck like I’m a proper explorer. I cross at Seals Green, which bridges some small unnamed brook.

The bridge at Seals Green

I desperately need the loo, and sadly not in the way that involves nipping behind a bush. What would a Cornwall coastal path walker do? There are no pubs or cafes. Just endless suburban housing. I ponder knocking on a door and asking to use the loo but then think how utterly impolite it would be to leave such an aromatic gift with total strangers. I walk on in agony but eventually the pain goes away.

This is a strangely empty estate, devoid of people except for the occasional bus terminus drop-off and driving lessons taking place on the deserted roads. I’m amazed at how I’ve walked for two hours from country to city on a Saturday and only seen handful of people and moving cars. For the UK’s second city, it is so peaceful. Disconcertingly so.

Hawkesley edgelands

A line of blue pops up on the map. The Wast Hills Tunnel is at an end and the canal drifts slowly out into daylight again. The towpath here is sunken down with tower blocks overhead and the sound of lads somewhere in the dank distance behind me. I feel vulnerable again and, despite the tiredness in my legs, speed up my pace.

I’m nearly at Kings Norton and from there it is the home stretch down to Stirchley. I meet no one on the canal until I reach the junction with the Stratford canal, where a police dog van is in attendance after an arson attack on the historic tollhouse exactly a week ago.

From here it is another 20 minutes or so to walk home. I’m back on familiar ground and the canalside quinces are in full pink blossom over pink graffiti.

My legs are starting to seize up but I’m elated at having come so far and facing my fears. I remind myself that the reality is almost never as bad as the perception. Someone later points out that seven miles is like a walk to the shops for them; but that is how a change in your perspective can shorten distance. I’d never in a million years thought I could walk from Alvechurch, where my sister used to live and where I used to balk at going in the car.

Lush graffiti

It took two hours and 22 minutes to walk from Alvechurch to Stirchley, from Worcestershire to the West Midlands, from B48 to B30. I beat Google’s algorithm by 10 minutes.

Could I do it all again tomorrow? Luckily I’m saved from a follow-up walk by Storm Freya. Perhaps if this were Cape Cornwall and I had a tricorn hat and boots… but still I think I might need a bit more practice first.

Seconds from a cuppa

 

 

 

Return to solo backpacking

I’ve just discarded my initial 600 words on why it was such a challenge to get on a plane on my own and fly to Fuerteventura this winter. The less angsty, need-to-know summary is that I’ve been pretty conflicted about travelling in recent years. I was a frequent backpacker when I was younger, seeking out the cheapest huts, sleeping on one-inch mattresses, overlanding entire subcontinents for a fiver, etc, etc. I even turned my travel passion into something of a travel writing career.

But now I hate the flying, the research, the anxiety of going somewhere new and the suspicion that no one will talk to me if I do, being 50 and all that. Where did all this crippling angst come from? I don’t think it is age; I think it is the lack of risk-taking once you settle down. (I never thought I’d settle down.)

And so it was quite the emotional challenge to book a week in Fuerteventura at the end of November – one I’d spent nine months procrastinating over.

In the end, I booked two days before flying (in case I changed my mind) and snagged the last dorm bed in the only available cheap accommodation left in Corralejo – a surf lodge on the deserted edge of town for about £14 a night. I tried not to think about who I’d be sharing with but the thought that the mixed dorm might be all-male did freak me out. It’ll never happen I told myself.

SurfinTrip – turned out to be a really nice share house.

At least I’d been to Fuerteventura before (for a birthday surf and bodyboard) so I didn’t have to stress about going somewhere totally new. And my friend Kerry was flying out a few days later on her own trip so I would have someone to talk to for half the week.

Here are some snippets from my diary of what it was like, ending on the question: ‘Would I do it again..?’

++

Saturday

I’m in a surf house that sleeps 10 people at the edge of town where the signpost says you are now leaving Corralejo. It’s actually pretty nice. It has a pool and a terrace and a large kitchen, albeit no space in the fridge.

I’m in a mixed dorm but in reality I’m sharing a stifling, slightly smelly room with three men: Jon, a surfer from the Basque Country; Alex, a 50-year-old Italian boat captain and kite surfer who looks a bit like George Clooney, and another guy who didn’t come home last night but is now sleeping and snoring his way through the daytime.

I’m here for the chance to walk, swim, exercise and generally get outdoors in the sunshine. The first frost has landed back home. Here, the light here is beautiful; there’s a soft warmth in the blue sky, even if the sea requires a brave plunge.

The wild West coast of ‘Europe’s Hawaii’.

Over the past 10-15 years I realise I’ve been gradually upgrading my travel choices. I’ve paid ever higher amounts for comfort, privacy and location.

A dorm bed in a share house has brought me back down the earth. There was no door-to-door airport transfer, either: I had to walk down a dark, deserted street behind a walled-off hotel complex and use a torch to find SurfinTrip Academy and Camp house.

It’s been a thrill already, even if it is the thrill of risk. I want to still love all this; me, a middle-aged woman with a rather large comfort zone. It’s good that I did this by myself and see what it’s like to drop out of my life for a few days.

++

Sunday

It’s Mum’s 17th anniversary and I’m taking some time to remember her today. She would say ‘Go for it!’ – she always did.

I spend breakfast with the chainsmokers on the patio and the rest of the morning doing the chores of the self-catering budget backpacker: shopping at Hyperdinos and walking the long sweaty road home loaded down with heavy water and basic foodstuffs in the midday heat. Then I walk another hour to get to sunset, before realising I have my easts and wests mixed up and it’s on the other side of the island. So. Much. Walking.

Sunset shadow selfie.

It’s a pleasant evening at ‘home’, talking with a French Canadian surfergirl who’s become addicted to surfing and is 18-months into a backpacking trip with no return ticket, and a 27-year-old bubbly lady from Leeds who’s fresh off the plane. Later Captain Clooney points out Cassiopeia and other constellations in broken English like a scene from a John Cusack movie. I get no sense that he is going to make a move, though, thankfully; this is just a friendly ‘let’s look at the stars’ thing because the clouds have cleared away and a starry night sky remains one of the best things ever.

These people are my temporary family, made up of random strangers from around the world who are not so different from me, or at least who I used to be.

 

++

Monday

Today a classic ‘dirty old man’ at the beach made eye contact with my unfocused, unspectacled eyes while I was drying off from a swim, and took it as an invitation to lurk. No, no. no. I thought I’d be too old for this particular joy of lone female travel.

After dinner (Kerry has arrived!) we walk along the seafront for a nightcap tea and Tia Maria coffee at Waikiki Bar. I was dreading the long walk home and sure enough the busy road was now dark and deserted but for the occasional car.

I don’t mind the dark or the emptiness, it’s when there are potential opportunistic humans around that I get uptight. I pull out my Swiss army knife and thread the corkscrew through my fist. The massive closed Aqua Park is the worst, with its broken chainlink fences and large car parks and Scoobydoo-like giant galleon rearing out of the ground with lion leaping off it. I try not to picture being jumped and dragged in there to die in a deserted fairground.

‘It’s all about risk-reward’ – this line from the young trainer at the UoB gym kept going through my brain. The risk in that walk back didn’t seem worth the reward.

++

From this point on I moved to Kerry’s accomm. Although this has ended on a bit of a downer, I had a fantastic week’s break and I did get a lot from going back to budget backpacking if only for a few days.

It was fun, a bit uncomfortable but a good way to meet new likeminded people. I wasn’t the oldest person there, to my surprise, and no one was ageist in the slightest. In fact, I found myself remembering how open and considerate and up-for-life the average backpacker is.

As for my travel fears, the public bus to the airport was also way faster and cooler than the rammed and rambling airport shuttle – and it was cheaper. I didn’t take Valium on either plane journey for my fear of flying, and I was surprised at how little I fretted about these flights – an advantage of short-haul daytime flights and of booking last minute.

Would I do it again? I surely would.

Would I spend 11 months arguing with myself about booking it? Probably, but I’m working on it.

And look, I even look kind of happy.

Not relaxed but looking sort of happy.

 

My first (and second) art exhibition

An open call was issued by The Holodeck printmakers in Birmingham: submit an artwork for consideration for their new Riso book and exhibition on the theme of ‘Weird Science’. The exhibition was scheduled to run from 14 September to 13 October at Artefact in Stirchley.

I’ve never thought of myself as an artist but I had it in the back of my mind to do something with rabbits so I started playing around with some photomontaging one hot day during this summer’s heatwave.

I produced around 20 ‘weirded’ rabbits using black and white printouts of Joy, our rabbit who had died a couple of months earlier, mashed with creatures cut out from various books. In the end I submitted this simpler rabbit/volcanic island collage – and it was accepted, risoprinted and shown. My first artwork to be in an exhibition! As you can see, I looked pretty chuffed.

Emboldened, I decided to try for another open call, this time by the Edinburgh Collage Collective and Mark Murphy (moif_collage) on the theme of ‘postcards’. Once more I spent a very pleasant afternoon putting some options together and posted them under the #cutandpost hashtag to my @editoriat Instagram. As a collage beginner, it was no surprise that I didn’t make it into the final cut of 24 printed postcards but it was useful practice putting work together to a theme and a deadline.

In the end I framed one of the postcards and submitted it with another piece for the Artefact Winter Group Show. They were both accepted and were hung in pride of place by the toilet queue in the run-up to Christmas. Someone even offered to buy one of them. The Birmingham postcard still makes me laugh, though I’m tempted to collage something more into the bottom right panel. A work in progress maybe.

This all happened because of a) a local collage club that meets every month, b) having an ace local gallery space that is committed to its community, and c) putting my stuff out there when I could easily have left it in a folder in a cupboard at home and said ‘nah, they’re not good enough’. I’m glad various people encouraged me to go for it and grateful to those who accepted the work into their art spaces.

I still wouldn’t say I’m an artist but I enjoy making the artwork and being a part of something bigger. And I’ve learnt that if in doubt, go for it.

An Insta-fashionista for a month

Personally, I’m most at home in jeans and a t-shirt but I’m also fascinated by people who have an interesting style and who post it online. I’m not talking about big social media influencers necessarily but Instagram friends and accounts who post and pose in their outfits under ‘what I wore today’ #wiwt and other hashtags. Here are three examples of accounts I enjoy:

RhiannonBrum – a friend who is also a swishing, swirling dressmaker who makes and wears her own outfits.

GlacialGlow – an ethereal, elfin, silver-haired Alice in Wonderland who also has an awesome dog.

SashaEDavison – a fashion model who became pretty successful in the time I started following her. I used to dial up her Instagram as a brief to my local hairdressers and also bought some sparkly Top Shop shoes in the sale on her recommendation.

You get the picture. Anyway…

Earlier this summer, at the start of the heatwave, I decided to have another wardrobe clear out and had a sudden realisation – I buy dresses but don’t wear them and especially now that I work remotely in my metaphorical pyjamas most of the time. At least before bundling them up for the charity shop, I thought I should wear them. And so began a month of daily #wiwt poses and photoshoots – here’s the slideshow, and more info on what I learnt from the challenge below.

I never thought I’d end up doing a 30-day fashion challenge but perhaps there was something in me that wanted to document turning 50 this year. It would kind of be like a diary thing. In 10 years, I’d look back and go: Well, would you look at that – and be impressed, appalled or amused.

Along the way I learnt a few things:

1. Being your own photographer is good for a woman’s self-confidence – you only have to post the pics you like.

2. Being a daily Insta-fashion influencer is hard work – the staging, the variations, the bursts, the selection, editing, captioning and posting. I started off easy taking just a few minutes; the final shoot took an hour and a half to get the shot.

3. It was a bit of fun – and the feedback was like getting a reward. I looked forward to the reactions. I got loads of positive comments from ‘This is epic’ to ‘A___ said it was the highlight of her week (and she’d just given birth).’  And then someone took one of my pics – the kaftan one – and created a meme: the ultimate honour.

4. I can laugh at myself – I couldn’t resist posting a bloopers reel on my Instagram. You can’t take life too seriously.

5. Finally, turning 50 ain’t so bad.

Once more, here’s the full shoot. Enjoy! (Update: I’ve cleared out at least nine of these outfits, which leaves 21 things to wear. Turns out I quite like wearing dresses.)

 

 

 

Birthday surf and bodyboard in Europe’s Hawaii

It’s true, a few Atlantic Islands claim to be Europe’s Hawaii but Fuerteventura does lay a good claim to it as the north shore has massive waves and really does catch that laidback surfie vibe.

This was the whole reason I wanted to go to FV for my 50th – to bodyboard some waves. But I have to say I was pretty nervous, even though we were going out with a local surf school. The winds had been up for days and only a few brave souls were in the water.

Protest Surf School took us to Piedra Playa, south of El Cotillo – a well-known surf spot with long wild beaches and big fat Atlantic waves. We pulled up on the hill above the beach a few times before the boss settled on an area where we wouldn’t get too mashed.

I did try surfing a few times – but I really can’t do that Point Break ‘pop’ up on to the board. Never have been able to. Even when they showed me the sneak’s way to stand up (all fours first), I was just too tired to stay up. So I reverted to Plan A, which was to get my bodyboarding on, thanks to previous training at Bodyboard camp.

Despite the rips and strong undertow parallel to the beach,  I caught a few high-speed rides in on powerful white waves (the green ones were way too far out). Two hours of ‘woo’ and I felt fantastic. Swimming twice a week for the past eight months has really helped my fitness, even if my upper arms have a way to go yet.

It was fab to be in the surf in February in the sunshine, with Atlantic rollers rising up and breaking in the distance and regular ridable sets coming in. The last time I did this was Brexit Referendum result day – and like then, the overall physical commitment of surfing was enough to completely empty my mind of anxiety and bad stuff. I guess this is why surfing is such a spiritual sport.

I was a bit jealous of the surfers but I reckon I caught way more rides. Here’s one of them (pics by Pete Ashton). Hey surfer, no dropping in on my ride!

Awesome!