Today, I feel that I have learnt one of life’s great secrets: do a somersault at least three times a week and preferably one every day, and lead a better and more fulfilled existence. The foolish and simple action of performing a somersault seems a sometimes necessary reminder of the essential joyfulness and frivolity of life, and reminds one of the powerful innate love of acrobatics and play that we all exhibit as children. (In saying this, I can’t help but hear myself echo the words of Gavin Maxwell and his own astonished analysis of the roguish and supremely playful spirit of otters.)
Since my spate as a teacher finished in late June, I have been filling my days with boat tasks, some menial, some not so menial (such as redecorating the inside and re-coating the exterior with thick, gummy blacking). This literally very material two weeks has also proselytized another form of material reawakening: my body’s of itself. This auto-reflex has been brought on by a sudden enthusiasm for physical conditioning, exacerbated – no doubt – by the sunny weather and the proximity of Victoria Park, on Hawisia’s very doorstep.
I have always had a very ambivalent relationship with jogging. I tried it once or twice in my teens, but found it laborious and anonymising. But now that everyone seems to have a gym membership, the simple physical expression of the ‘run’ seems quaint, even a little archaic; it is the cheap, ‘no-frills’ approach to keeping yourself fit.
Sitting on my cruiser stern, blasted by sunlight, I felt an encroaching sense of guilt at the sight of the joggers incessantly rolling passed the boat. Some of them seemed positively elated by a sense of their own body’s worth: brandishing toned torsos and buoyant biceps. Perhaps inspired by their own example and my sense of personal bodily weariness, and blessed by the serene weather; for the first time this week, I attempted a round of the park. It was during this experiment that I first became, almost painfully aware, of how long I had neglected the basic maintenance of my body and its functions; relying on youth and resilience to do it all the hard work for me. Now, performing my slow, almond-shaped jog around Victoria Park, I noticed how my whole respiratory tract ached and how singularly conscious I had become of my lungs and heart – constricted and needled with pain.
Today, has marked my third jog of the week and possibly fifth in my entire life. My bruised respiratory tract was no longer giving me cause for concern, and at certain points I spontaneously leapt up into the air, or capered, or performed a moving version of the yogic ‘tree’. I experienced, ridiculously, a kind of dynamic euphoria. Then, for my wind-down: three cartwheels, 3 somersaults, 10 press-ups and 10-push-ups.
The first time I did a somersault, I did so awkwardly and fearfully. I gradually lowered from a squatting into a crouching position, and hesitantly tucked my head beneath my knees. I caught myself wondering, is this how you do it? Has my instinct been mistaken? Surely it’s too dangerous to roll over, with your neck on the ground! Ah, it is in moments like these that you realise how incrementally but definitely old age is creeping up on you; when you begin to doubt the very actions that you thought of as gifts when you were young. When I finally overcame my own temerity and performed the roll I felt a foolish grin spreading across my face. A passerby, who stopped on the towpath and had observed the whole spectacle, suddenly made a warm but teasing comment. I was transported, and felt a vital reconnection established by virtue of this simple roll, between myself, the earth on which I was sitting and the rest of the world around me. I brushed off the dry leaves , bracken and debris from the ground from my hair and made my way back to the boat, this time smiling.