Before any journey it is important to take a breath, a pause. Check your pack, your tickets, your passport, your fitness, your contacts, those notes you’ve made, that map you’ve printed — all these things we do by habit. Or mostly do, I’ve known people forget or overlook one or the other — and that’s fine too, they somehow get away with it, still enjoy the ride.

But, for me, I am a planner. I like lists. I like notes and notebooks, the scent of the paper and ink, the gentle scratch of the pencil or, increasingly, the new folder in my Scrivener binder.

The funny thing is — without the planning I would never be able to go off piste, to wander without destination or take a deliberate wrong turn. It is almost as though, by being thorough, I am giving myself permission to tear up the plan. I have thought ahead, I have looked at all the outcomes I can possibly visualise — now time to forget about them and walk out into the world…

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As I write this I do not know where my journey will lead — physically, emotionally, mentally — even geographically. It is an unknown quality, and I like that. Once upon a time it would have put me off — I would have made excuses, revelled in whatever safety net I had blanketed myself within. Now, though, the thrill of the unknown gains in importance day by day, its drum beat pounding in my ears and heart, more insistent, harder, faster. I am finding myself pushing at comfort zones, trying new things, daring myself. And the rewards are already exceeding any plan I had. I am being surprised, which is still a rare thing for me.

As I write this the leaves on the planes and wych elms are unfurling before my eyes. If I stand at the window and listen hard enough, I swear I can hear them as they sigh open, stretch after their budded confinement and reach to the sun. As they do so my room gets darker and darker with each leaf, the summer-dark has arrived, and it will remain until October. I realised this morning that I must drink this in, absorb the light filtering through — for this is likely to be the last time I sit typing at this desk, whilst outside the window spring is bursting into my world. By this time next year I am unlikely to be here. Knowing this gives every small thing an extra tangibility. An extra level of meaning. I memorise the calls of the goldfinches, the siskins. I wonder what birds I shall be listening to this time next year — where?

I do not know the future. This morning I sent a message to someone I care deeply about, saying almost exactly this — how terrible it would be to know what was to come. Imagine not having the mystery of life.

Salt on the edge of a rock pool, in Scotland.
Salt tide lines. As the sun dries the rockpools she leaves behind wonderful art.

But I can look at my past, and at my present.

And this is the first of my 39 Steps. Self assessment. A time to look at what has been, what is.

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This process must be honest. There is no point in lying to the self — or to others, for that matter. Only once I stopped trying to pull the proverbial wool over my own eyes did I start to see real personal progress.

Take the physical, for example. When I was a child, growing up in Orkney, I was fit and strong. I was small, yes, but I had a wiry strength, a speed and power akin to a whip. I was free range — walking, running, climbing, falling, leaping, dancing, throughout the hills, moors, and coast. I was lucky to have this upbringing — it set my body up well for the years of self-abuse that followed. I did little exercise, drank too much, smoked, and generally tried to batter my body into submission over the course of some fifteen years.

Then, when my marriage ended, I started to look at ways to regain and rebuild my strength and fitness. Some of them worked — living in the wilderness for months, for one. Some of them did not have as much impact as I had hoped, such as being a member of a gym. I carried on smoking, carried on drinking. It is now over five years since I last smoked. I am proud of this fact.

Lichen growing over letters on a headstone spells out LOVING
I was tempted to post before and after (or “now”) photos of my body, showing my physical improvement — but decided to spare you this. For now. Instead you get this amazing lichen, spelling out the truth on a gravestone in Rendall, Orkney.

Last year I realised I was running out of time. If I did not start to care for my body as it deserves to be cared for, then I ran too many risks. I started to work out in my room, reading about exercise and watching many (MANY) youtube videos, sorting, sifting, researching, winnowing. At the start of this process last year, I weighed 72kgs, had a body-fat approaching 24% and a bone mass of 7.7%. Today I weigh 200g less, have a body-fat of 13.7% and a bone mass of 7.9%. Boring statistics, I know, but they show a progression I am pleased with. I am not even bothered whether these figures are accurate — I am only measuring myself against myself over time, after all. What does it matter what the scales say, as long as I can see the route behind, then look forward?

But it was not easy, and it still isn’t. I assessed myself and built up to a point where I knew I could push myself without any damage or injury. This point is constantly changing as I get stronger, more powerful. I now challenge myself in ways I have not ever done. My body is hard, muscles strong and toned. I have more strength, increased stamina, I do not tire as easily, I sleep better. I have not really set any specific health or fitness goals at this point, simply increasing my exercises every few weeks, as I find my body can do more. I suspect this will continue indefinitely. I rest for periods, allow my body to heal, to sleep deeply, to recover. Then I work harder.

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Assess. Reassess. Assess. Reassess.

This is what our lives should be. We should always look deeply in at ourselves, ask searching, probing and, at times, painful questions. We should be honest — if you (or I) are not honest with ourselves, then how can we expect honesty from others, how can others expect it of us? Honesty is not always fun — it is not meant to be. But it shows truth, and with the truth we can do remarkable things.

Too many people do not do this. I was one of them. Potential goes untapped, a safe journey to a deathbed speckled with regrets over things not done. I am still weaning myself away from this, it is not something that I can safely do overnight, but the very fact I can do it proves it is possible, despite the obstacles.

In the next step I shall continue to discuss self-assessment, where I am creatively, logistically, emotionally, mentally. I shall talk of how it is healthy to examine the past, examine the self — as long as we do not dwell there. The past is a written page, it only needs reading, it can no longer be inhabited.

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Step One: Self Assessment Pt. I

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