In what has regrettably become a yearly ritual, I recently found myself longing for a post-spring-break activity; something to rekindle the productive fires within. What normally befell upon my indulgent city breaks had been left, by dint of global pandemic, to my charming hometown of Coatbridge, North Lanarkshire. Coatbridge has its fair share of peculiarities: we once hosted Britney Spears for a game of bowling and, more recently, amidst widespread speculation and fanfare, forced Hooters into confirming that no, the raunchy restauranteur wasn’t actually opening its first Scottish branchin our town. God, I love Coatbridge.
As you can image, there isn’t a great deal to do in Coatbridge at the best of times. And we are far from the best of times. Finding a productivity booster has therefore been harder than ever. With a limited set of options and a matching bank balance, I begun jogging.
Beyond its costlessness, I chose pavement pounding for the physical and psychosomatic benefits too. In peeling myself off the sofa—if even just once daily, if even just for twenty minutes—I hoped to shake off some of the mental and intellectual inertness which had kept me in stasis.
Fast-forward a month and I can report that I am… not much fitter. Nor am I mentally better-equipped. Then, as before, I am an intellectual lost cause. Yet jogging has been a catharsis. On my evening expeditions, I have found room to reconsider my identity, develop a deeper affection for my hometown, and make an overarching realisation: jogging is, in many ways, a synecdochal extension of life itself.
In jogging, as in life, you are arrested in a perfect equipoise of action and inaction. In jogging, as in life, you act and are acted upon—the ruse being that the latter inevitably overpowers the former. In jogging, as in life, you must surrender yourself to the invisible forces of universe. Sometimes these forces are at your back, pushing you forward with a cosmic benevolence. Other times, your plans are in opposition, and you must face these forces head-on: as your lungs gasp for air you are slapped, beaten, and battered by this unseen insidiousness. In jogging, as in life, occasionally a car will swerve round a just-vacant bend. The road you were momentarily crossing is no longer feasible, and you must change direction. Sometimes—not always—your new direction is more pleasant, and you plod happily along this new route, delivered by the grace of a fleeting vehicle.
These connections may be mere platitudes: I don’t quite possess that amount of self-awareness or empathy to know for sure. All I know is that above any of my previous articles or essays, or writings, these connections were made in movement. I was not sat, stock still, behind a writing desk, but slopping sweatily along the streets of Coatbridge. Something about that makes them feel more genuine. Maybe it’s just that I had to work harder for them! Either way, I was left only with my own thoughts with which to occupy myself. Gone were the distractions of a bustling Rectors or the comings and goings of the library cafe. Without constant distraction, and with the simultaneous need to stay occupied, I felt better able and willing to appreciate and consider my thoughts—and my surroundings, too: blooming trees and verdant lawns, and the suspicious heat of these light springtime evenings (Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s man-made climate change.)
Amidst the lush greenery, I recalled the tacit wisdom of The Secret Garden, and the voracious reader I once was: ‘If you look the right way,’ says one character ‘you can see that the whole world is a garden.’ As a former winner of the Carbuncle award for Scotland’s most dismal place—no, really—seeing beauty in my place of origin was no mean feat.
There’s a line near the end of Lady Bird in which the title character tries to articulate this phenomenon. Lady Bird explains that in seeing your hometown from a new perspective is to have everything finally click into place. Imagine seeing only in black and white your whole life, to finally wake one day to a world of spectacular technicolour.
To have left the only home I had known, and return to see it at once familiar, and yet from a new perspective, was to feel welcomed once more into the open arms of the congregation—to be a born-again townfolk. Slowly but surely, jog after jog, I am shirking more and more of my identity as “student on an anthropological field trip to the outer reaches of civilization” and becoming once more a born and bred ’bridger. As I’m sure is the case with many of you, I’ve struggled a lot with my identity since moving to our Fife windscape. Trying to feel out this undefinable shapelessness is an impossibility and as such, we never truly know who we are. Only retrospectively, as we venture into who we are becoming can we truly, with enough distance, make sense of who we once were, and in that revelation can we feel closer to that former self. It was in moving to St Andrews, and creating a physical distance, that I could realise how much I was shaped by my place of origin, and how much of who I am is owed to where I came from. Coatbridge, North Lanarkshire. Where Britney Spears went bowling, and Hooters definitely ISN’T opening a Scottish outpost. This reclaiming of my roots has been an emancipation, of sorts. A revelation.
And then, on one of my jogs, a friendly townsfolk will make room on the pavement, or stand aside to let me pass by. Coatbridge, I think to myself. No place like home. Then I’ll open my mouth to thank this kindly denizen and ruefully, in that moment, out will come that awful, gentrified St Andrean accent I have unwillingly adopted. Instantly, I see friendly passerby change expression to perturbed horror. I am, once more, excommunicated from the congregation. I’ve since learned to give a thumbs up or a wave, and in doing so convey both my thanks and keep my awful secret.
Jogging has oddly impressed not just on the thoughts I think and the identity crises I sorely nurse. It has made its way into my Spotify playlist. I recently discovered, by grace of a New York Times article, a new song. This is the kind of song that retrospectively defines a time period: describes it so vividly and so effortlessly that you could listen to it two, five, ten years hence and it would still, from the first chord to the very last, transport you back into the moment in which you lived by it. Even now, in the moment, I just know it will have that effect. Like The Secret Garden and Lady Bird, this song serves a purpose beyond personal entertainment. With every listen, evermore depth and detail is added to the mental picture it is painting. The song, by Richard Dawson, just so happens to be titled Jogging.
‘There’s no such thing as a quick-fix,’ muses Dawson in his final, rambling verse, ‘but jogging has provided me/ a base on which to mould my time/ and let my worries go a while.’ Now more than ever we all need these ‘bases on which to mould our time.’ In this new, Dalí-esque world—melting clocks and all—we need these moments of detachment in which we can, as Dawson sings, let our worries go a while. We can’t run away from our problems, goes the aphorism, to which Dawson counters that perhaps we can jog by them. If only once daily, if only for twenty minutes, jogging builds for us this intertemporal safe space—at once beyond and behind our surreality—to which we can escape.
In my month of activity, I’ve made almost no physical progress. At the very least, however, jogging has offered me a good metaphor with which I can process and understand the world we inhabit: a weird, moving stasis where, as our interior faculties stutter and stop, the world still spins—as do our heads—at the scenes whizzing by us. Okay, I’m maybe not that fast!
Putting all these fragmented, half-baked thoughts together is to form a mural of realisation. What I have realised as I traverse (the award-winningly-dismal) Coatbridge is that life, at its most regular, is monotonous and mundane: the physical act of jogging evokes that repetitive banality to which I long to return.
When we eventually defeat this virus and open our doors to that boring old world, I will be giving up my new pastime. I’ll grow less fit, I’m sure, and in time forget the lessons I’ve learned. But that is a fair trade. Jogging, after all, is tiresome and tepid, and frankly not worth the effort. Besides, I’ve heard that eventually your knees buckle from the effort, and it’s all downhill from there. In jogging as in life…