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Friday, 29 June 2012

Do something amazing today...



Today, for the first time in my life, I donated blood. I've been signed up to the organ donor register since I first got my driving licence. It seems like a no-brainer to me. If I die, and any bit of me is any good, and could help someone out, then please, by all means, help yourselves... But donating blood is different. Donating blood means letting someone stick a needle in your vein, and then having to lie there for I-don't-know-how-long, whilst the stuff that keeps you alive is pumped into a little plastic bag. Not, I'm sure you'll agree, the most appealing prospect. In fact, I'm feeling slightly light-headed just writing about it.

Nonetheless, I'd always been secretly ashamed of the fact that I was basically too scared to go and face the needle, and 30@Thirty seemed like a good opportunity to put that right. But I cheated. I put a vote at the bottom of this blog page, offering people three options. Should I: A) Go and recite a piece of a poetry at a poetry evening? B) Give blood? or C) Pose naked for a life drawing class? I knew perfectly well what was going to win the most votes, and getting my kit off seemed a lot more appealing than facing the needle. And then, a few days ago, something amazing happened. Someone I didn't know, a Canadian woman called Kirsty, wrote me an email about my blog. She'd seen it, she'd liked it, and, at 49 years old, she had been inspired to have a crack at 50@Fifty. She wrote to me asking if I'd mind. If I'd MIND! I was delighted. I was incredibly touched. The intramaweb had sprinkled a little of its fairy dust on me. It was quite a feeling. Just before Kirsty signed off her email she said this:

Also, I voted for giving blood--it's really not that hard, and makes you feel so good afterwards!

At that moment, I decided I wasn't going to let my fear of the needle hold me back anymore. I registered as a blood donor that evening, and found an appointment for myself at the end of the week. I was nervous, but excited. I texted my friend Julia (she of triathlon fame), to tell her about it. I would like to state now, for the record, that she was slightly less helpful than Kirsty. Please see the below text message, and tell me if you don't agree...


I gave blood once. My veins were 
really uncooperative and 
kept collapsing 
so they only got half a bag. 
Then I fainted from the loss 
of blood when I stood up. 
I still think it's a really 
important thing to do!


Thanks for that. Anyway. Today, after lunch (I had been firmly instructed to eat lunch) I made my way to the imposing Freemasons' Hall near Covent Garden. At the back entrance about four people were already perched on the stone steps, waiting for the afternoon donation session to open.

A nervous wait outside the Freemasons' Hall in Covent Garden

At last the doors were unlocked and in we trooped. No one else looked at all nervous, so I kept my smile plastered on and pretended that I was fine too. There was a health questionnaire to fill in, in which I had to confirm that I had never injected illegal drugs or been paid for sex. And no, before you suggest it, I have no intention of adding either of those to the 30@Thirty list. Behave yourselves.

My fellow donors were a mix of sexes, and mostly, but not exclusively, white. I was a bit surprised to see so many young men in suits show up. Why was I surprised about that? I'm still not sure. I was asked some extra questions by a young 'donor carer' called Ali, who distracted me with chatter whilst he pricked my finger and used a tiny teat pipette to dribble drops of my blood into a magical blue liquid that told him if I was OK to donate. When the red blob sank to the bottom of the test tube, and Ali told me that I was "confirmed to join the save-a-life club", I was both happy and horrified. Apparently, despite the dubious fact that my mother had been born in a South American country rife with blood diseases passed matrilineally, I was good to go. They would have to take a bit extra, in order to screen me for said blood diseases, but that wasn't going to stop them getting their bag of blood from me now. Oh no.

A few minutes later I found myself on a blue gurney-type-thing, reading once again about the exercises I should do to keep the blood flowing nicely, and having the crook of my elbow vigorously disinfected by a nurse named Carlos. I was incredibly, incredibly relieved when the needle at last went into my vein. It was the moment I had been dreading since I first made the appointment, and increasingly since I'd arrived. I'm not ashamed to say that I did not watch. 

Over the next seven minutes I read a few pages of a book on my telephone, and asked one of the other nurses to take a photograph of me, much to the amusement of several staff members. At one stage I forgot to keep clenching my fist, and the blood flow slowed enough to set the machine beeping. I learn fast, and didn't stop wriggling my fingers until Carlos came back and slipped the needle out with a friendly "c'est fini". I have no idea why he spoke to me in French, but I replied in French. Over the next few minutes we spoke a strange mixture of French, Portuguese, and Spanish, all of which he spoke impeccably (and only one of which I really speak). It was completely surreal, and I loved it. I was already feeling the heady elation of having faced a fear, and done something good. Something really good.

Proof!!

Once I was done I sat at a nearby table and munched my way happily through a packet of cheese & onion crisps and a small mountain of custard creams. Completely unabashedly I took the proffered sticker saying 'Be nice to me, I gave blood today' and stuck it on my chest. I even asked for another one. I cannot tell you how wonderful I felt. 

Only one thing really struck me as strange. In all the time I had been there, waiting outside, queueing to collect my form, sitting on the waiting area chairs before being called, sitting again in a holding space before going to the gurney, and afterwards at the snack station: In all that time I did not exchange one single word with any of my fellow donors. Nor did I see any of them talking to each other. We were terribly British about the whole thing, each of us in our own little world, facing our fears and our demons alone, enjoying our little personal triumphs alone. So I have come away wondering: why were the others there? What drove them to give blood today? What personal tragedies or miracles inspired their donations. Or are they simply, decent, kind people, who want to put something back in, for no reason other than that it is a good thing to do? I will never know. But I do know this. My pint of blood (assuming, of course, that it is clear of the aforementioned Venezuelan lurgy) will most likely reach someone who is very ill, and might just help to save their life. One day the thing that keeps me alive will, I hope, do the same for someone else. And I am extraordinarily proud of that fact. But I also know that it is not enough. One tiny unit of blood is not enough. So I will be going back later this year, joining the queue, looking away as the needle slips silently into my vein. And if just one of you reading this does the same, well, wouldn't that be bloody marvellous?


Four down, twenty-six to go...

Friday, 22 June 2012

A Simple Thing.





My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace. 
            From ‘The Hug’ by Thom Gunn


It is two days after my 30th birthday party. We are standing on a platform at St. Pancras Station, waiting for the train that will take mum to the airport, and back home. My heart is full and heavy, as it always is when she leaves, or when I leave her. I am wearing my favourite coat, a silky blue-green patchwork affair that I hesitated to splash-out on, but have never once regretted. The ticket inspector let me though ticketless, knowing that she will recognise me on my way back out, alone.

A train has just departed and the platform is almost empty, but to our right are a group of six-or-so middle-aged men with small suitcases. They are sober but jolly, and I guess that they are going on a stag-do. As a voice announces the next train I slide my arms around mum and abandon myself to a hug. We hold each other hard, properly, and let the seconds tick away. When we finally pull apart, both smiling, one of the stag-do detaches himself from his group and jokes: “me next!”  Mum laughs, but the man has kind eyes, and I am so full of thankfulness for the wonderful weekend I have just experienced, that – without thinking for even a second – I step towards him with open arms. For the first time in my life, I am hugging a total stranger. We do not hold back and the hug is perfect. Not to long or too short. Not too firm or too weak. A simple, spontaneous act of comfort and mutual kindness. It ends at precisely the second that it should, a few moments before the train pulls into the station.

Mum boards the train and I run down the platform waving as it pulls slowly away again. I make the other people in the carriage laugh as I flutter my tissue at her. I don’t notice where the stag-do got on, I don’t see them again, but I wonder if they spot me, a flash of blue and green as the train picks up speed.

I carry that hug home with me, as I carry all the hugs I shared with mum over the weekend, and with all the wonderful friends and family who came to celebrate my birthday. I feel, for a little while, like the richest, luckiest girl in the world. I don’t remember anything about my hugger's  appearance, apart from that he had a small, neat beard. Perhaps he remembers my curly hair, or more likely my coat. But I feel absolutely sure that he will remember me to the day he dies, and keep our hug somewhere, as I will, in a little corner of his heart. A simple, precious thing.

Three down, twenty seven to go…

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Swim, Cycle, Run: The Triathlon Challenge.


Trying on westuits at Cycle Surgery

The first time I mentioned my 30@Thirty idea to my friend Julia, she suggested that I do a triathlon. Now, I'm not saying that she had an agenda, but I'm pretty sure that she was looking for someone to do a triathlon with... This was months before my birthday, and I was gung-ho about the whole idea, so of course I said yes. Not long later, Julia came round for lunch and I found myself  in front of my laptop, debit card in hand, basically being signed up. To this day I'm not entirely sure how it all happened. She's a crafty one. Anyway, Julia had decided on the Nuffield Health Human Race Triathon Challenge, at the beautiful Dorney Lake, and we booked in for the Women's Sprint Tri: a mere 750m swim, followed by 20k on the bike and a 5k run. Child's play.

Most people think of me as an organised person, but I have a confession to make: I'm at LOT better at organising things for other people than I am for myself. If I ask you round for a meal, expect plenty of food, a clean house and a candle on the table. If you ask for my help buying something, expect me to spend hours online researching the best deals, before I drive you to the shop. And please don't ask me to edit anything unless you want it to come back covered in red pen. BUT, ask me the truth about every single exam I have ever taken, every challenge I have ever faced, and I will tell you honestly that 'wings' and 'prayers' have featured heavily in my approach. When it comes to me, I always figure I'll just muddle through somehow. Well, that might have worked back in my younger days, but I think I'm starting to realise that it just doesn't cut it now.

For me, the triathlon was HELL. I didn't train enough. There are no excuses for it, I knew I wasn't doing as much as I should be, and I didn't do anything about it. So, on the day, I suffered.

The swim started badly. The wetsuit was digging in to my neck, almost certainly because I'd failed to put it on properly, and after about three minutes it became clear that I had three options: Give up, undo the wetsuit, or drown. Options one and three being unappealing at that stage, I thrashed about for a while until I found the long ribbon attached to my zip, and I undid the wetsuit about halfway. I could now breathe, but was already at the back of the pack of swimmers. Less than a quarter of the way round the swim, I was wondering seriously if I was going to make it. I came to shore last, almost hyperventilating, and already feeling like a failure.

My transition (the bit where you move from one discipline to another) wasn't too bad. I already had the wetsuit half off, so, you see, silver lining! I got my trainers and helmet on, and grabbed my bike (a truly gorgeous steed, hired from the wonderful Cycle Surgery in Kings Cross - THE place for all your triathlon needs). I started riding. I had always counted on the bike section being the easiest, happiest part of the triathlon for me. I've cycled to work for the last five-odd years, and I was using a beautiful bike, far superior to my commuter. I wasn't wrong about this bit. The cycle WAS the highlight. But it was still pretty awful.

I ALWAYS smile for the camera...
The awfulness stemmed, I think, from the overwhelming sense of alone-ness I felt. The women's sprint was the last triathlon of the day. Pretty much everyone else was packing up and going home. And, having exited the water significantly behind my fellow competitors, I seemed to spend most of my time on the cycle track on my own. It was a strange experience. I had expected tiredness, pain, heat, thirst. I had not expected to be lonely. At one stage, Julia lapped me, shouting cheery encouragement. As I watched her bright pink cycling top disappear into the distance, it really hit me how I had let myself down with the training. She was rocking it, and still had the energy to call out to me. My heart was still thudding from the swim (it took over 10k of cycling before I felt that I really had my breathing under control), and I had NO IDEA how the hell I was going to run 5k. Running any kind of distance has never been my forte.

My dad still remembers coming to watch me cross country running  in Alexandra Park, when I was about 11 years old. (Running cross country in winter is one of the many tortures experienced by most British schoolchildren, I believe). He says that he vividly recalls my face, streaked with tears, a look of pure misery contorting my features. My stubbornness and determination to finish just won out over my desire to be swept up into his arms, bundled into the car and taken somewhere far, far away. Well, let me tell you that eleven year old Jojo was with me on that 5k run, and she wanted to cry just as badly as she had that day. My legs just didn't work, and try as I might I couldn't run for more than a few minutes at a time without having to stop and walk. My attempts to drink water on the fly resulted in a lot of splashing and not much slaking of thirst. 5k might as well have been a million miles, the way it felt to me.

BUT. And here's the really, really important thing. I finished. Stumbling, walking, shuffling, barely jogging, not crying, I finished. And there were Julia and her husband Tom (manager of aforementioned Cycle Surgery and all round athlete extraordinaire) cheering me on. "Sprint finish!" they yelled, and do you know what? I did. I sprinted the last 20 or so meters as if my life depended on it. And, despite everything, I'd caught up a couple of places. I wasn't last. There were others who found it even harder than I did.

I've learned a few things from this experience. For starters, I've learned that triathlons probably aren't my thing. I'm unlikely to ever be a strong distance runner, and I far prefer a leisurely breaststroke on a summer's day to near annihilation-by-wetsuit. I've got the message loud and clear that if I set myself a physical challenge, I'd damn well better train properly for it. But I've also learned that determination to finish can take you an awfully long way. That what feels like crushing loneliness will pass when your friends pat you on the back and tell you that you "rock" just for being there with them.


Jojo, Tom and Julia, triathletes all!

So THANK YOU to the wonderful Julia and Tom for all their support, as well as to Rita and Peter, who came to watch and massively boosted morale. Thanks to everyone who emailed or called me to pledge their support and find out how it went. And thank you to Julia for the idea. Next time she kicks a triathlon's ass, I will be there, cheering her on. I will remember this experience forever, and always cherish the fact that I made it to the finish line.
Two down, twenty-eight to go...

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Getting off my backside: The 30 at Thirty Challenge

On May 11th, 2012, I turned thirty. (That's me on the right, ready to celebrate).  I guess I'd always supposed that by the age of thirty I'd be sorted. I'd know exactly what I was doing and where I was going with my life. Hell, I'd probably already be there. I figured I'd be married, a published author, probably already a mother. It's not that I stuffed up, exactly, but I'm not where I thought I'd be, and I can't entirely escape the feeling that I'm letting my life slip through my fingers. I've always been a bit old before my time, generally preferring nights in with a board game or a book to going out and getting drunk but, when thirty finally loomed, it all felt a bit scary. What have I really achieved? Why am I just sitting around waiting for that magical day when life suddenly makes sense? How am I supposed to achieve any of my dreams if I don't get off my backside and make something happen? Anyway, I was listening to Radio 4 one day (see what I mean?) and some sixty year-old women were talking about how they'd set themselves the challenge of doing sixty brand new things before their sixty-first birthdays. Some of the things were very small, and some of them were pretty big. It didn't really seem to matter. The point was to relish life just a little bit more. To live just a little bit harder. To say 'yes' or 'why not' slightly more often. I figured I might do the same thing when I turned sixty. And then I wondered why the heck I should wait. I was a few months from turning thirty, and I decided to stop being nervous about the whole thing and set myself a challenge. From the day I turned thirty to the day I turned thirty one I was going to try 30 brand-spanking-new things. I was gonna shake myself up a little. And I was going to blog about them all. So, finally, I'm getting off my backside and posting my first ever blog post. One down, twenty nine brand new things to go... Send your ideas for things I can do (not too expensive please!) to 30atThirty@gmail.com, and feel free to join me on my journey. The more the merrier!