I haven’t posted anything for a long, long time because I’ve been busy birthing and growing a tiny human called Alfie who is now nearly four months old – what with the inevitable sleep deprivation and his disdain for daytime napping, there hasn’t been much time to blog. However, this morning I wanted to share some thoughts (more hurried than I’d like) about bodies, space, running and poetry, so here I am trying.
Today I took part in my local 5k park run with Alfie in his buggy. My body is aching and tired, full of the pregnancy hormone relaxin and running is hard work. But park run always offers a supportive atmosphere: it’s advertised as a run rather than a race and attended by huge number of runners (hundreds and hundreds in this case) young and old, fit and unfit. With my buggy, I have to be considerate of others. I keep to the side, look around me all the time and don’t overtake anyone unless there’s lots of room and I can shout to warn them I’m there. Today, in the scrum at the start of the run, I accidentally twice lightly caught the heels of a man who was running close in front of me. I apologised. He shouted aggressively at me. Then another man close by started telling me how I should run with my buggy.
I have been taking part in the park run for years and my PB is under 20 minutes, much faster than the cautious pace I run at with a baby. I’ve been involved in competitive running since I was 12. So I know that in all running events as busy as this one, it can be hard to avoid bumping into people around you. I’ve had my heels caught by many runners over the years and I’ve inadvertently bumped into other people – I’ve even been spiked by other runners’ shoes at cross country or taken tumbles in the melee at the start of a race. Obviously, a collision with a buggy would be much more serious. But I can’t help feeling that – if I’m running as considerately as possible – the onus for being spatially aware isn’t just on me. People have to be aware of my wheels and of giving us a bit of space too.
What interested me about this morning’s encounter was the aggression in his shout. It made me think about our entitlement to space and what we take for granted as we rush around (me included). In her superb, bittersweet memoir ‘Hunger’, Roxane Gay writes about her spatial relationship to her own body (‘I have presence, I am told. I take up space. I intimidate. I do not want to take up space…. I want to hide’), how the way people respond to her size and weight connects to how society treats women:
‘This what most girls are taught – that we should be slender and small. We should not take up space. We should be seen and not heard, and if we are seen, we should be pleasing to men, acceptable to society. And most women know this, that we are supposed to disappear, but it’s something that needs to be said, loudly, over and over again, so that we can resist surrendering to what is expected of us.’
Gay poignantly reflects on the paradox of her own physicality:
‘As a woman, as a fat woman, I am not supposed to take up space. And yet, as a feminist, I am encouraged to believe I can take up space. I live in a contradictory space where I am encouraged to take up space but not too much of it, and not in the wrong way.’
I know that I am occupying a space of extreme cultural privilege as I run round the park with my buggy: to be physically capable of running, to be white, to be middle class (more specifically, to be able to afford trainers and a running buggy)….these are all factors that influence my own sense of entitlement to space, to hurtling around Sheffield and getting a brief sense of freedom on a Saturday morning. There are more privileges I could list. It’s pathetic to be pushing a buggy over tree roots and up steps and imagining that I have empathy for someone in wheelchair because I can never fully know what that experience is like, I don’t occupy that physical reality. I will never know. But I hope the experience with running-with-wheels will make me more alert to the ways we occupy and negotiate space.
This week, thanks to Friends of the Peak, I also took part in a walk to commemorate 70 years since the National Parks Act and went up Mam Tor with a brilliant group of walkers, including almost 20 women from Peak District Mosaic, an organisation managed by Community Champions which aims to create sustained engagement between the Peak Park and new audiences, including BME communities. I hadn’t been on a walk with Peak District Mosaic before and it was fantastic talking to Chair Yvonne Witter about what they do (and about our running careers!). It was a glorious Derbyshire day and there were people taking part in the walk with wheels (prams and wheelchairs), with walking sticks, with dogs and ALL with smiles. Whenever there are discussions about the countryside and access, it goes without saying that we should be thinking about who has most access to those public spaces and how to open them up even more.
I’ll finish this post with a poem that muses on Empty Space by Anne Waldman – ‘There is a better way to say empty space / Turn yourself inside out and you might disappear’
Read the poem in full here.