Dr Julie Carter

 

Writer

Thursday, 30 September 2021 16:49

Matters of Life and Death

Just time to fit in a short run before work. Along the road, through the wood down to the lakeshore path, usual route. Through the gate where the dog comes off the lead and then – oh, with a sudden involuntary intake of breath I was stopped in my tracks.

All I could do was stand, still. It was sort of silver, not just a silver light, or mist or water but all of these melting into each other. Sunshine seeped through. I stood like a plant absorbing warmth and felt melted, as if the blood in my veins had become a silver molten flow which was part of the smooth, silky, misty, sunlit lake.

Two white swans, S-shaped angels, floated through the mist. I wondered in this tranquil moment if this is what it will be like when I die. It could be, couldn’t it?

It could be in days or decades and odd that I should think of death now when I am neither worried nor unhappy. I am not frightened of death, or life, and especially now I know that, when I do die, it will be silver.

 

I am moved to share the above piece from my book “Is It Serious?” because I think I still struggle sometimes, despite a willingness on my part, to find ways of talking about death. I realise the common phrases we resort to can feel trite or that there can be a tendency to want to sweep our mortality under the carpet altogether for fear of being depressingly “morbid”. But maybe if we could talk about death, we would be less fearful of our own ending, and when we are grieving for someone perhaps it can be good to feel understood rather avoided. Not talking about our pain and sadness does not mean it does not exist.

Tuesday, 31 August 2021 14:04

A Wild Thing

 

Many people I know say they just don't like poetry and mostly I agree with them. It's like olives, or anchovies, or jazz or something else that tastes or sounds weird, and it just doesn't float their boat. Life is too short and precious after all, to waste anytime on something which leaves you cold - or worse - with a bad taste. I wholeheartedly agree. There's far more interesting things to do in life.

"Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself", goes the hugely famous Walt Whitman quote. Here is an excerpt from my book "Is It Serious?"......

To create a poem is to pick a slow ripened fruit at the perfect moment. It gives life meaning through symbolism and word, rhyme and rhythm. A poem is a transmission. It is not thought, it is made. Like a creation of dreamtime, sung into existence by spirit.

Poetry is not clever. When it tries to be clever it is not poetry but a fabrication, an affectation, vain frivolity or sometimes something so bound up with its own cleverness that no useful meaning is poured out. The thing is arid and dry as dead bone, void of nourishment it leaves me empty. Poetry flows and bathes, it gushes. It is the river which runs through me.

Most of my substance is water but water does not need me for its own flowing existence. As with water so it is with poetry – all I can ever be is a vessel. I must pour out to be refilled and pour out again and again even knowing I cannot engineer the filling. The river runs through me, the sacred river. Measureless to my mind.

Poetry is a wild thing which cannot be tamed.

 

Wednesday, 28 July 2021 08:18

The Perfect Woman

Skiddaw race, following the perfect Wendy Dodds

 

It’s amazing the things you overhear when out running in the fells. Quite often it’s things I wish I had not been privy to, and generally I just run on politely, trying to pretend I haven’t heard. Yet some comments are difficult to ignore and I find myself fighting a desire to mischievously chirp in.

It can happen even during races, and it is perhaps a testament to my not working enough if I can be distracted by the impulse to engage in conversation with a stranger. Mostly I do mange to resist, except when it’s a fellow runner. They seem to be fair game for reposts. Like the guy who was incredulous that an “old woman” was keeping up because he was “racing his dick off”. He got a bit aggressive when I tried to reassure him that a penis isn’t a crucial piece of equipment for fell running, so I legged it and quickly left him way behind.

In recent years I have done very little racing, mostly contenting myself with quiet runs with my dog, keeping my head down. Perhaps racing was a thing of the past for me? Maybe I need to move on. Yet the memories of how much I used to love it made me curious enough to sign up for the Skiddaw race at the beginning of this month. In June I had ducked out of the Ennerdale race to go climbing. Sooner or later, I would just have to try one to see how it felt.

What are the things which lead up to a wonderful wild experience? What are the ingredients which go into making a satisfying and successful adventure? Focus, commitment, training, a dogged determination not to be put off and distracted from the plan. Things don’t just happen – you have to make them happen. You have to figure out how to work up to your goal in a realistic time frame, step-by-step. So, when I was persuaded to enter the Ennerdale fell race, which took place on the 12th June, I made sure I that I upped my running distance, practiced the route, built up stamina and visualised in my mind enjoying the race. Plan, prepare, train and visualise – all very predictable. Then two weeks before the race when I went off to Scotland for a climbing trip with my partner Mandy. It was an exciting heady mix of being let free in Scotland with great weather and dry rock. By the end of the first weekend, we had done two exquisite climbs which I had been waiting for decades to do. I’d just never been in the right place at the right time with the right climbing partner for these climbs before. But there I was, and having to save my legs for a big race seemed a bit irrelevant. And our trip to paradise continued for climb after climb, day after day until I was driving home two days before Ennerdale with an exhausted body and a happy heart. I wondered what to do about the race. I checked the phone for the weather – still very warm. What came next felt ridiculous.

Friday, 21 May 2021 19:16

Fights, Fears and Flights of Fancy

A good friend of mine told me a story on the phone last night. As she spoke, I had a feeling, like when hearing a good poem, that I was taking in something profound but that my deductive mind had not yet unravelled its meaning. Sometimes stories or poems hit some kind of target within me and it’s a feeling worth taking note of. I think it happens when something has rung true at a deeper level than any kind of logic or deduction can achieve. Then afterwards, there can be new insights, new lines of thinking and knowing.

My friend was telling me how she went for a walk the other day on the North Pennines with her husband who is a good listener to birds. He can usually tell who is around by their tweets and calls.

“Sounds like a hen harrier” said Chris as he scanned excitedly to site the bird.

But no, on a post they located the source of the screech – a cuckoo under siege, being mobbed by a group of meadow pipits. Brave little warriors trying their best to see off the parasitic threat. They must be aware of cuckoo tactics. Like a big hungry capitalist, the cuckoo doesn’t do its own work but seeks out a surrogate home for its investments and relies on the little birds to hatch them and feed them. It can even lay its egg in another bird’s nest in colours which mimic the eggs of the chosen hapless host. But the little birds were trying to see it off before it counterfeited their families. And as my friend was detailing the scene I was thinking; “Good on you little pipits, don’t be exploited – you don’t have to slave away for the benefit of dishonest fat cuckoos”.

Wednesday, 28 April 2021 09:38

Maybe

"Maybe I Will, Maybe I Can."  (quote fromfrom Running the Red Line, The Lakeland Classics Chapter)

This is a dangerous piece of writing. It is the first time I have been so bold as to write about something I haven’t even done yet. Usually, I like to reflect on things afterwards, and since my plans often end in complete none-events, prior musings have the potential to be terrible embarrassments.

I might regret telling you this but it all started in the queue for the veterans’ COVID-19 vaccination. Just two days earlier a friend had asked me if I had entered the Ennerdale Fell Race, scheduled for June 12th. It is this summer’s big event. Who cares if Glastonbury is off – Ennerdale is on! My answer then was an honest, heartfelt, certain and sure “No. I am definitely not doing it”. But it seems this vaccination can have terrible side effects when the other people in the queue are all seasoned fell runners and they start up with their dangerous persuasive talk. I was still resolute,

“No, I’m not doing it, and anyway it’s too late, the entries are all taken”.

“Yes, but more will be released on Monday morning, come on, it’ll be great”.

I thought I had got away with the promise of just a recce, but the vaccine must have got into my brain. Perhaps the Fell Running Association had implanted a microchip in it which causes innocent people to sign up for humungous feats. Ennerdale – 23 miles and 7500 feet of up and down – I can’t do it, I’m too broken, I’ve been too ill, I’m too weak, too knackered, too scared. But now look – I’ve entered!

Friday, 26 March 2021 09:47

Swimming Lessons

 

Swimming Lessons – reflections of a faint-hearted aquaphile.

Lesson One – age seven years, in Northumberland.
The most triumphant day in all my life. Glorious sunshine beaming down on the North Sea. My mother's hands supported me in the water, while I learnt the strokes. Then, when the time was right, she let go and I was swimming with no arm bands or rubber ring, head-up breast stroke into the waves. The amazing feeling of rise as a swell came up from underneath my weightless body. It was the day that I leaned that the world is fantastic.

Lesson Two – forty-six years later in a small indoor pool.
I wanted finally to get beyond the feeling of panic whenever my head was underwater. I wanted to be a real swimmer and learn front crawl. My teacher's hands supported me in the water, while I learnt the strokes. Suddenly I stood up and cried for no reason that I could fathom. My body had remembered something. Then I got on with it and managed a whole length.

Lesson Three – another year later in Derwentwater.
It was ten days after an accident which gave me 3 big pelvic fractures, broken ribs and a bleed into my left lung. The painstaking palaver of getting on a wetsuit and going to the lakeshore on crutches was worth it. I swam my first mile of front crawl, alone in the calm cool lake with mist rising and morning sun filtering through. The water became a safe place where pain dissolved.
 

Thursday, 25 February 2021 18:48

Mysteries Yes!

wuli

Dancing Monk at the Mani Rimdu Festival, Tengboche, Nepal.     Photograph by Mandy Glanvill

 

A few weeks ago, I was getting worried and found myself poking about in the places I would expect to see snowdrops, finding nothing. Concerned that something had happened because they seemed a bit late, and I had been longing for them for ages, these pristine little symbols of newness. But now there’s nothing bashful about them and it’s a brilliant snowdrop year after all.

The world is recreating itself all the time, but especially now- in spring. It always makes me think of those times when I was about ten wondering what is beyond the edge of the universe, how it could be that time had a starting point and if everything if destined or is anything up to us. I know part of growing up is about weaning oneself off those questions and becoming concerned with more adult matters like making a living, being useful and generally fitting into the world. Since everybody knows we’ve been at these young questions for millennia and as dear esteemed Mary Oliver observed:

“Truly, we live with mysteries too marvellous to be understood…...

Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say "Look!" and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads.” (From Mysteries – Yes!”)

Friday, 29 January 2021 16:57

So Much More Than Meets the Eye

I can remember mornings in spring, when the light is so bright, the air so easy to run through, it feels like the winter has done something to cleanse the world and make it all over, fresh. On such a morning a few years ago, I was running up Latrigg whose delights were then unfamiliar to me, with my friend Sam Ayers. We had taken the lane of Spooney Green, leaving tarmac for rough track and crossing the bridge over the constantly rumbling A66. Breathing harder as the path thinned and steepened through pine plantations and then as we emerged, just before jack-knifing back up the final gentle grassy slopes,

“Prepare yourself” says Sam.

And after the four or five strides it took to round the corner, I knew what she meant because we were running uphill and taking in what Alfred Wainwright described as "a panorama of crowded detail, all of it of great beauty: indeed, this scene is one of the gems of the district...The far horizon is a jumbled upheaval of peaks, with many dear old friends standing up proudly”.

We took it all in, we breathed it in, we absorbed it through our skins like lizards imbibing warmth. A modest moment of perfection that has stuck in my memory. Not long after that run with Sam I moved to a house within a mile of Latrigg’s base and I have run up there hundreds of times since. You would not think such a small hill could be responsible for so much.

Saturday, 26 December 2020 18:20

Not Just Passing Through

 

"What she taught me was that you are part of this place, not a visitor. That's a huge difference."

- Craig Foster, in the film "My Octopus Teacher"
 

In this amazing and love-filled film a human becomes part of this place, through the wild teachings of an octopus of Africa's southern cape. The film entirely dismantles and defies the idea of life as a quest, an effort to fit the mythology of a flawed hero's journey, understandable in the manner of a travelogue. And after the dismantling, what is left is no disappointment. What the film portrays, with stunning beauty and simplicity, is what it means to be a participant in an ecosystem much larger than oneself.
 I have reflected a great deal on what it means to be "a part of this place, not a visitor". I don't just mean this place here where I live, but this place in all it's bigger meanings. So much of literature is tied up with progression, of life as a journey, and it occurs to me that this framework sometimes magnifies my feeling of being a visitor on the earth. What if I began to think I was not a traveller but a resident? And this year, this very sad and frightening year, has also been asking me the same question. Am I alone, or am I part?

Saturday, 28 November 2020 10:04

Do You Believe in Rainbows?

 

The first time my attention was drawn to rainbows was in primary school paintings. We memorised the order of colours and we all produced our own great masterworks for the classroom walls. I’m not sure if I believed in rainbows then. I thought they were like fairies or witches; things that you get told about but do not actually exist. Until one day – we actually saw one from the upstairs of a bus. A real rainbow. And my Mam told me there would be a pot of gold at the end of it. I was mesmerised and then I felt a terrible longing inside when the rainbow faded and disappeared.

I was not convinced about the pot of gold. Surely if that were true Mam would have jumped off that bus and been after it like Jack Flash. As the bus rumbled downhill into town, I kept my eyes on the sky, but the rainbow was definitely gone. Yet I had seen it with my own eyes, as bright as anything, and no one could say I hadn’t.

Tuesday, 27 October 2020 17:38

Time for Trees

For the last three weeks I have woken up to a firework display. There’s been nothing quiet or demur going on. The Rowan outside our window has been a wild red fiesta of starry explosions. There’s a maple standing ablaze in burning orange and ash trees shooting up deep yellow sparks like Roman candles. The hug Oak stands watching at a safe distance and rustling under a golden coat. I begin to feel like they are doing it just to cheer us up. As if they have had a conference about the humans and noticing that we have been all edgy and out of sorts they have decided to throw a party as an act of generosity. Of course, it is no such thing. It is not even a “display” at all in the visual sense. It’s a preparation for winter, an adaptation for survival. And not just their own.

Trees can live without me but the converse is not true. And they do have conferences, airborne and soilborne conversations are happening all the time. I suspect that benevolent concern for the state of health and happiness of that troublesome, sometimes poisonous, and invasive animal which invented the chainsaw is not top of their agenda.

In Borrowdale there are lots of Oaks and as I run along the Cat Bells terrace I feel like royalty, as if the rich and regal of carpet of colours had been laid out just for me. Even the bracken looks beautiful, a frizzled brown mop now gleaming with golden highlights, brushed over by Midas. Sheep cannot eat bracken and humans eat sheep. Consequently, there is lots of bracken.

Heading down into the woods I am shot in the skull by plopping acorns and I begin to get over myself. I begin to get over my sense of good fortune, my joy, my overwhelm from the sheer astonishing splendour of it all. Like it or not, I am more than a witness. I may feel like I have just been treated to a seat in the royal box but I am not simply an audience. I begin to realise that the woods are needing some other response, not only my applause.

The trees stand well carrying such huge responsibilities in their boughs. It is not Atlas but the trees who bear the world up. And when it comes to their list of concerns, in 2020, humans must be getting pretty high on their agenda.

Friday, 25 September 2020 10:32

Who Do I Think I Am?

 

You can tell by the way I dedicate myself to sartorial elegance, always having perfect hair and makeup, and carefully chosen matching outfits – I must have style in my genes. It’s true that my grandfather was a hairdresser, as was my great-grandfather and my great- great-grandfather. And who knows how much further back. What I did not know until relatively recently is that the middle of these grandfathers, Jack Nowell, founded Gateshead Harries in 1904. This knowledge came as a shock to me and forced me reconsider my background - maybe there was some good in it? And one day I had the idea that I must run to Gateshead to pay homage to Jack Nowell. But it was one of those ideas that is like poem, you don’t really have it - it has you. 

Tuesday, 25 August 2020 16:24

Does this involve me?

I emerge from a restless broken sleep to condensation on the inside of the windscreen and see that I am neither too early nor too late. The dawn is still a work in progress. It is a luxury to laze in the back of the van with a mug of tea and bowl of porridge without having to stir from the comfort of my sleeping bag. But I didn’t linger for too long. My life was in chaos and I had not really planned this run. I just had a vague idea that it would be good to park up on my late-night journey home, to close my struggling eyes, and hope that morning would present an opportunity.

My half-ill body was stirred into action, and soon I was trotting along the vale to the bottom of Stannah Gill. Surprised to find some strength in my legs, I bounded over the wooden bridge spanning the idyllic little waterfall. It was like an almost too perfect feature in a grand garden, and I thought that William Wordsworth, with his hankering to be a landscape gardener, would have strongly approved. The steep slope at the south side of the gill was clothed in the tangle of thigh high summer bracken. A thin trod on short grass through the thicket led up, and up, and up. Easy up. Breaking from steep to runnable over the fell’s rounded shoulder I pushed on in the most glorious of quiet mornings. Sticks Pass saddle, flat like a playing field was where I turned right to the main ridge path; a rubbly ribbon stretched out like a seam, stitching together the east and west sides of the Helvellyn hills. I ran over Raise and White side with their carefully built cairns on top, like alters. Places of veneration.

Monday, 22 June 2020 11:46

Reconnection

"...It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were."

 ― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

"For me, becoming isn't about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving.... The journey doesn't end."
Michelle Obama

Lately life has felt a little unreal. Conversations and meetings online, a virtual kind of life, and when off-line doing things largely alone. Looking for connections and struggling to remember what it feels like to give my friends a hug, and laugh until I cried. Trying to remember my hare-brained dreams and mad cap schemes but feeling that the plotting of things exciting and thrilling, which have no purpose other than the experience, should be relegated to the unnecessary.  I should be doing useful things – at a time like this.
Monday, 25 May 2020 05:35

Bodywork

I woke this morning to the sound of gusting wind and lashing rain, to the sensation of aching ankles especially the left one, and a satisfied weariness after yesterday’s twenty-mile trot over the Borrowdale fells. It being Sunday, a day when sloth can creep in a little less guilt laden, I stayed in bed for a while enjoying the feeling of clean linen, the smell of fresh air through the open window and the sound of chirping birds, who continued singing despite the storm. I wondered how they manage in the wind. Perhaps they are like us humans, recently confined to essential journeys only. Locked down for survival - no flying with friends just for the freedom and the feeling. My well used body needs its breakfast, so I am spurred to get up.

The educator Ken Robinson talks beautifully about the relationship we develop with our bodies and how as we grow up, we become more disembodied. Concentrating on the intellect, or the brain, and even then, mostly one side of it, our kinaesthetic, blood-filled being is denied expression until we begin to feel that our bodies are a mere utility. Ken parodies University Professors experiencing their bodies as “a mode of transport for the head. A way of getting their heads to meetings”.

Tuesday, 21 April 2020 18:37

Of Joy and Sorrow

Of Joy and Sorrow.

It has been said that the global pandemic has its upsides. It is good for the environment, the air, the wildlife, and it has made us more mindful, more community spirited and less materialistic. It has been countered that speaking of such things is heartless, while people are dying without loved ones present. While people are imprisoned in one room flats with little money, no fresh air and no hope. Jobs gone, friends out of reach; leaving stress, violence and nowhere to go. Let’s get real – people are suffering, badly. And therefore, I am sad even as I rejoice in small things that I have never noticed so closely before. How many particular kinds of daffodil there are along the lakeside road as I enjoy a traffic free cycle ride in the sunshine.
Friday, 20 March 2020 10:12

Freedom - No Matter What

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”   Viktor Frankl

Dr Frankl’s words written in his wonderful book, Man’s Search for Meaning, were a reflection on his remarkable story of holocaust survival in four different concentration camps during WW2. He went on to live a rich and productive life and his reflections, particularly this book, are amongst the most astonishing, joyous and hopeful writing I have ever come across. At the moment, we are all worried and feeling insecure about the coronavirus threat and its consequences, and here I am recommending a book about the holocaust – you might think I really want to make you miserable! But bear with me, because truly, it is about how to live hopefully and purposefully, no matter what. I’m not talking about the ‘there’s always somebody worse off’ perspective here – it is about how to make ourselves better off, while facing the unique and genuine challenges we each struggle with.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020 21:49

Just Wondering

“I know the world’s a mess, but, there’s so much that’s gorgeous in it. I wish everybody could have what I have.” So said Alice Walker.

As I understand her, what this wonderful wordsmith was referring to was wonder itself. Knowing how minute, how unimaginably insignificant, we are and at the same time feeling the force of life pulsing through our bodies.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020 11:47

This One Wild and Precious Life

I am sure there have been many pivot points in history when there was a pervasive feeling of insecurity, an awareness of being in extraordinary times. And here and now we find ourselves in one of those times - some may say the most monumentally challenging of them all. The climate crisis is, to some extent, galvanising us to wake up, and act. To live as if life really is precious and fragile – which of course has always been the magnificent truth. And we do not actually need crisis to provoke us to live as if what we do matters. There is another, much gentler friend, we can use to help guard us against complacency. She is Poetry.