Sleep hygiene for superheroes

Superheroes are vigilant and alert, always ready to leap into action. If, like me, you are blessed with the gift of hypervigilance – but not the cape and outside-in underwear habit – you probably struggle to sleep. Most nights, maybe every night, your mind will churn with plans, tasks, appointments, retreads of your day, ambitions, regrets. As the world lies quiet around you the pressure builds: to be better, do more, to make tomorrow a better day.

Needless to say, this anxiety fouls the spark-plugs of your brain. In the morning, it sputters and farts, never quite catching even as your pulse races in high gear.

Those of us who are, to quote Didion’s immaculate phrase: “lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss” often fight a losing battle to get the rest we need to stay sane and keep our feet on the ever-precarious ground.

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Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Sleep hygiene, defined by the National Sleep Foundation as “practices and habits that are necessary to have good nighttime sleep quality and full daytime alertness”, is as essential to us as tight-fitting spandex and avoiding Kryptonite.

The following seven strategies are essential to my sleep hygiene; your precise recipe may vary. What matters is that you identify things that help you rest at night, and ruthlessly protect the sanctity of sleep. Trust me, it makes saving the world the next day much easier.

Exercise in the morning

Studies show that exercise improves sleep. However, I know from personal experience it can also throw a spanner in the (clock) works. Running is one of my favorite activities: it clears my head, tones my body, and tunes my emotions. But the last time I ran in the evening, I tossed and turned for hours. The endorphin kick that lifts my spirits in the morning totally sabotaged my sleep. Lesson: beware of when and how you exercise.

Eat more carbs

A survey of scientific literature on the relationship between diet and sleep quality found that lower carbohydrate consumption negatively effected sleep, as did higher fat intake. The same study found that kiwi fruit, cherries, fatty fish and milk all had sleep-enhancing effects. Personally, I find that an evening meal of rice, beans, vegetables and greens is satisfying and sets me up for a good night’s rest.

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Photo by Jo Sonn on Unsplash

Don’t watch things in bed

There are some people who can unwind by watching TV or films in bed. I am not one of them. The speed of moving images, plus drama or pathos, plus my overactive imagination, means that if I watch something in bed it replays in my head long after the lights are out. Moving viewing to the living room creates a clearer divide between alertness and rest.

Read poetry

You know what does help me unwind? Poetry. My dear friend and mentor Paul Hendrickson once advised me to keep a book on the nightstand and read a poem or two every night. The density of language, the clarity of the images, the imagination and empathy imbued in each line, promote tranquility – an almost meditative state. If you’re not sure where to start, try Jack Gilbert or Mary Oliver.

Yoga nidra or meditation

Sometimes, the chatter in my head simply won’t let up. In these instances, replacing my own mental monologue with someone else’s words can be hugely helpful. Yoga teacher Paul Dobson recommends yoga nidra, a specific meditative practice designed to foster restful sleep.

I also love Positive Magazine Guided Meditations – the presenter has the loveliest, most soothing voice imaginable and the 10-15 minute guided meditations are the perfect length for dropping off to sleep.

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Cotton bedding

What you sleep on matters. After living in Spain, where polyester is considered a legitimate fabric for bedding, I refuse to purchase anything other than 100% cotton – the finer the weave the better. Nice linen can be ridiculously expensive, which is its own sort of worry-making, so I gravitate towards shops like TK Maxx, Ross or Nordstrom Rack. At a push, Target does decent all-cotton sheets and covers. If there is absolutely nothing else available, Amazon Basics are an option.

Lavender essential oil

Essential oils are touted as the cure for everything from unhappiness to indigestion. In the case of lavender and insomnia, though, there is actually evidence it works. A study reported on in the American Journal of Critical Care found inhaling pure lavender essential oil decreased blood pressure and improved sleep quality in hospital patients. It noted: “Sleep deprivation in hospitalized patients is common and can have serious detrimental effects on recovery from illness. Lavender aromatherapy has improved sleep in a variety of clinical settings.”

In a randomized control trial of healthy subjects, including lavender essential oil as part of a sleep hygiene routine got better results than the sleep hygiene practices alone, according to the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

Dabbing lavender essential oil on my wrists just before I switch out the light is a welcome signal that it is time to relax.

Orgasms

Getting off is an almost guaranteed way to drift off. Remember, our bodies need sex like they need food and sleep. Neglecting our sexual self is easy when we are worried or stressed (not to mention that anxiety is a stone mood killer) so then, more than ever, is the time to love yourself.

Sex is wonderful, but it it isn’t always available. Or it can come with expectations, hang-ups and emotional entanglement (happily married or not). Masturbation gives you total control which is, in itself, relaxing and empowering. I keep a bottle of lube in the nightstand by the lavender oil and a folder of photos on my phone for inspiration.

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Photo by Taras Chernus on Unsplash

Superheroes need shut-eye. Though it may be fashionable to brag about how little sleep you get, stinting on rest is a shortcut to long-term physical and mental fatigue – and worse.

Prioritizing routines and habits that promote sleep increases our personal well-being, and gives us the mental, physical and emotional energy to be better friends, lovers, creators, citizens and human beings

Do Less, Accomplish More

Sleeping in

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Photo by Zohre Nemati on Unsplash

Over the holiday period I’ve fallen into the habit of sleeping till 9 or 9:30 – some 90 minutes longer than my usual routine. For the pats few days, I set my alarm for the normal hour, but hit the off-button and go back to sleep. This feels indulgent, borderline sinful, most certainly lazy.

On the night of 1 January, my husband and I settled in to watch The Big Lebowski.

It was an individual favorite when we met; since then, it has become a totem for our relationship – a source of private idiom and in-jokes on loop.

The opening voice-over informs us that the Dude was a lazy man. What a contrast, I thought, to the expectations a new year brings.

Resolutions

New Year arrives with a cultural imperative to improve. What are your new year’s resolutions?

The noun resolution, in this sense, alludes to a determined wish, or decision.

It is worth remembering that another definition of resolution is ending, or conclusion.

Linguistically, all unwitting, we start the new year by demanding conclusions.

Is it any wonder they fail to materialize?

If there is one thing writing teaches it is that you cannot force a conclusion. They are reached by patience, effort and serendipity.

Let it be

The Big Lebowski is a tale of serendipity.

Sheer coincidence brings together two characters who clumsily try to exploit their chance encounter. The lostness of this cause is what makes the film funny; the universality of the impulse to connive and manipulate makes it poignant.

That The Dude comes off better in the end has nothing to do with effort and everything to do with his ability to, in moments of crisis, tune out and go bowling.

The other foot

As a stone type A, with a self-perpetuating to-do list I love Jeff Bridge’s character because The Dude is my antithesis.

Worry… it’s how I stay in shape, poet Maggie Smith writes in ‘Let’s not begin’.

Me too.

I crave resolutions – the conclusion kind – and if one isn’t plain I’ll fret all day and toss and turn all night, trying to wrestle one into being. If I can’t see how a thing will turn out, I’ll manufacture an ending, toss a match to see what sparks.

Wearing out

This leads to plenty of fractured nights, followed by days where tiredness clouds my senses like swamp gas. The demons of weariness are legion: irritability, forgetfulness, poor hand-eye coordination, binge eating, anxiety, tearfulness. If I get less than eight or, preferably, nine hours, they swarm – shattering my mood, judgment and productivity.

Given my love of ticking items off a list, you’d think that alone would be enough to ensure I got enough rest, but something in my wiring (Puritan genes + protestant upbringing perhaps) gibes me to try harder.

One of the first rational things lost when I’m tired is the ability to admit I need a break.

Instead, I try to fix myself by doing more.

I’m almost done…”

My husband has heard these words too many times to count. They are always a lie. He’s learned to spot them for what they are: a self-sabotaging effort to put my life and spirit in order by crossing off one more line on my to-do list.

Being the partner of a perpetual fixer must be a massive drag. The nearest I got was a long-running infatuation with a man who refused to date me because he had to much to do. At the time, I thought it was a terrible, bogus excuse. We stayed friends, though, and now I’m grateful to have someone who understands the ridiculous compulsion to seek solace in busy-ness.

Even The Dude falls into this trap, lamenting that his thinking had gotten very uptight.

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Photo by Tiago B on Unsplash

Corridors without doors

When I get tired, my brain ceases to create and wallows in endless grooves. Instead of romping through fields of possibility, it marches along grim, fluorescent-lit corridors without doors. Inspiration and joy are things that happen to other people, in other places; for me, the grindstone, the factory clock; the slow treadmill.

This is lethal for my writing, and sense of self.

As someone who struggles to stay ahead of clinical depression, self-care is essential. Skimping on sleep is the first domino; next come exercise, eating, socializing, work, creating. Then the need to do more panic kicks in and flattens what is left of a painstakingly built structure.

Do less, accomplish more

My guilt at “over”-sleeping is rooted in a real fear that it’ll turn me lazy, like my good friend The Dude. Life is no movie, my brain chides. In the real world, the other Lebowski was right – you gotta get a job.

Yet this fixation with being busy is, as many wise souls have remarked, antithetical to actual accomplishment. Presenteeism is malingering for suck-ups. Most of the things I busy myself with, from house cleaning to answering email, have little bearing on the things that bring me satisfaction and joy. These things – reading, writing, time with my husband – get shoved into corners and fed scraps of my energy and attention.

Fail again

Instead of resolutions, I made a list of new year’s goals. It felt good to write them down, better to fantasize about completing them.

The next day, I woke under a cloud: sad, drained, mind blank. After drinking coffee, I got back into bed and cried for no explicable reason.

It felt like I’d put too much of myself on that page. Once again, I was looking for validation in tasks, instead of being open to what a new year might bring.

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Photo by Stijn te Strake on Unsplash

Start simple

Later, my husband and I went for a walk. The sky was bright and the air smelled of wood smoke and bales of sweet straw. We said hello to cows and picked windfall apples. The world began to resume its correct proportions. Cresting another hill, I realized it was time to edit the new year’s goals: sleep, move, eat, love. Everything else will come.

How will you honor yourself this year? 

Rediscovering loneliness

Three years ago, if anyone had asked, I’d have said: I don’t get lonely.

Running away from it all

I’m a stone introvert – the kind who doesn’t just like to be alone but needs to be alone. In my 20s, I lived with friends or partners. Then, about the time most people start pairing up and shopping for pushchairs, I moved to Ibiza.

Time alone became the norm. Freelance writing, never the most social of professions, was a ticket to a lifestyle that, in retrospect, verged on isolation. But I was content. Or at least didn’t experience my situation as lonely.

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Photo by Marc Zimmer on Unsplash

A slow tide

Discovering my capacity for loneliness happened gradually. Prior to meeting Chris I was happy to be a leaf drifting in the wind. Alone but not lonely.

When we fell in love and started rearranging our lives to be together, and I found myself lonely without him.

Acknowledging that should have been scary. What about my hard-won freedom? But it was so obvious, so inevitable, that I accepted it without a tremor.

Loneliness is not finite or discrete though. Our need for companionship extends beyond intimate relationships. When my internal barricade of plausible deniability/wishful thinking/calling it something else came down it made way for a tide of emotion.

Losing the everyday

Our abrupt move across the country taught me that the loss of familiarity – even routine, irritating, rubbish-strewn familiarity – can trigger paralysing loneliness.

The longer Chris and I have together, the more I crave the unthinkable: roots.

One big reason for moving was that we didn’t feel our last home was where we wanted to be long term. That’s still true, but it hasn’t stopped an onslaught of anxiety.

There were many good things about where we lived and it was comfortable. We didn’t have close friends or a lively social circle, but we had amiable neighbours. We knew their routinesroutines, signed for their packages, petted their dogs.

The old men sipping sherry at the corner kiosk waved hello as I walked to work, when my cat jumped out the window the kids playing outside banged on my door to tell me, the delivery drivers knew my ID number by heart.

Mundane treasures

Ripping myself away from all that revealed just how much energy goes into every day life. Snug in my routine, I forgot how draining, and how lonely, it is to have to think about everything. Thankfully, my intimate relationships and close friendships are intact, but that soothing web of mundane friendliness and ordinary interaction is gone for good.

Acquaintance, basic community, depends on presence. When you’re there you are part of it by default. If you leave you can come back as a visitor, or guest, but you’re not a thread in that particular tapestry any more.

Rebuilding

On the one hand (what we were thinking of as we hired a van, gave away old clothes, packed our life into boxes) a new setting is freedom. We can, in theory, rebuild the network any way we like. If we’re lucky, there will be new work, different perspectives, people who become dear friends.

On the other, leaving a place is a hard, expensive, exhausting enterprise that has no guarantee of coming good. I am lucky to have never, in the long term, regretted a move. Even Glasgow, my nadir, brought me cherished friendships and self-awareness.

One can, and does, rebuild. I’ve done it before. But those muscles are atrophied and honestly, all I want to do is curl up with my newfound-friend loneliness and cry.

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Photo by AJ Yorio on Unsplash

Opening up to more

From an individual point of view, loneliness is maladaptive. Why face something that makes you miserable? (And stunts your health, motivation and productivity.)

Yet as people, we need loneliness. Otherwise, what becomes of empathy and cohesion?

Loneliness is fundamental to emotional development — along with heartbreak, happiness, disappointment, anger, and everything else that makes us human.

Maybe not in the short term (right now, I feel about as empathetic and giving as The Grinch) but over time, it inculcates an awareness of how fragile happiness is, and how much we can contribute to each others’ well-being.

When we open ourselves to loneliness we invite anxiety, insecurity and sadness – but we also, just possibly, make space for something new.

“It is not only indolence which causes human relationships to repeat themselves with such unspeakable monotony, unrenewed from one occasion to another, it is the shyness of any new, incalculable experience which we do not feel ourselves equal to facing.”

– Rainer Maria Rilke

Elements of Storytelling 11: Imagery

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 11: Imagery

Deft use of imagery creates indelible images and provokes powerful emotions.

Case study: Maggie Smith Poet

What it is:

Maggie Smith’s poem ‘Let’s Not Begin’ is a meditation on life, death and courage. These are dangerous topics (Rilke, no less, advised against such broad themes) but Ms Smith nails it with an unforgettable simile: “My heart’s galloping hell / and gone from the paddock…. But let’s not end / with the heart as horse, / fear-lathered, spooked deaf.” The use of a figurative phrase transforms the cliche of a racing heart into a concrete image so vivid I can see the horse’s flared nostrils and flying sweat.

Why it matters:

For millennia poetry was entertainment, education and historical record. Spoken or sung, it had to make an instant, lasting impression on its audience. So poets got very good at painting word pictures. They learned to compare unlike things in a way that seized people’s imaginations and seared images into their brains. Now, we’re drowning in a sea of information. Metaphors are life-rings; similes shine like beacons. From poetry to advertising, the most imaginative, compelling, memorable use of imagery always win.

In her own words:well

Maggie Smith is the author of three books of poetry: Weep Up (Tupelo Press, forthcoming 2018); The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press, 2015), winner of the 2012 Dorset Prize and the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards Gold Medal in Poetry; and Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005), winner of the 2003 Benjamin Saltman Award.

A 2011 recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Smith has also received fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council, the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and elsewhere. She works as a freelance writer and editor, and is a Consulting Editor to the Kenyon Review. Read more

Practice: Complete these sentences with vivid images. To really get the most of the exercise, don’t worry about coming up with something good, just write. The whole idea is to get your subconscious to make connections in a new, more creative way.

  1. Blue paint spilled on the road like___________________________.
  2. Canceled checks in the abandoned subway car

    seemed___________________________.

  3. A spider under the rug is like___________________________.
  4. Graffiti on the abandoned building like___________________________.”

via The Balance

Remember: “A metaphor is a kind o’ lie to help people understand what’s true.”
~Terry Pratchett

Elements of Storytelling 7: Belonging

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 7: Belonging

Good stories make the audience feel part of something special, feel a sense of kinship.

Case study: Agrotourismo Cas Gasi

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Cas Gasi

What it is:

Cas Gasi is an internationally famous boutique hotel in the heart of Ibiza that bucked the odds to become a success. Its  challenges included a converting an old farmhouse, stables and outbuilding into luxury rooms; and marketing an Ibiza destination located away from the clubs or beaches that are the island’s biggest attractions. It is also, to borrow the Stella Artois slogan, reassuringly expensive. Yet it thrives year-round, catering to a loyal audience of celebrities, aristocracy and captains of industry who come for a simple reason: at Cas Gasi they feel special.

Why it matters:

There are a few things every luxury hotel must do well: exquisite linen, top-of-the-range TVs, delicate room fragrances, weighty bathrobes, fine food and gracious service. Beyond that, success is down to who has the best story. Cas Gasi’s pitch is short and sweet: When you’re here, your family.

Everyone who visits from financiers and minor royalty to Hollywood stars, tax exiles, and well-heeled young couples is treated like part of an extended family. A cultured, urbane, educated family that has superb taste in food, wine and art and the means to indulge these interests.

Cas Gasi nurtures this sense of belonging by eschewing advertising (though friendly write-ups in Vogue, Conde Nast and Harper’s Bazaar are welcome) in favour of word-of-mouth recommendations. Guests are further encouraged to unwind by discreet service and an institutional obsession with privacy and quiet. Cleverly, the owners realised at the start that not everyone will like the hotel, so they created a space that a select group of people love.

In its own words:

Ibiza-born Luis Trigeros Juan grew up between Barcelona and the island, for which he developed a deep love. A lawyer and passionate sailor, Luis sailed around the world in 1986 before making Ibiza his permanent home alongside wife Margaret von Korff, Barcelona-born with German family roots in Baltic nobility and French, Austrian and Russian family connections.

Together they have found their niche, setting up a organic farming project, transforming their home into the beautiful boutique hotel to welcome guests from around the world – the Cas Gasi ‘extended family’ – and promoting their personal philosophy of fusing life’s luxuries with sustainable living.

Read more

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Clara, house dog

Practice: “The concept of a tribe transcends a customer merely liking or being satisfied with your brand or product. Your tribe is made up of your brand’s biggest fans – customers or prospects that will often take to Twitter and Facebook to share your praises or recommend your product….

Remember that word of mouth is still the best marketing. Consider setting up a referral program that rewards customers that deliver leads to your doorstep – in effect, have your existing fans recruit more tribe members.” via Wasp Buzz

Remember: “In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.” ~John Steinbeck

Elements of Storytelling 4: Heritage

Storytelling is the essence of communication. Whether you are a writer, entrepreneur or politician your story is how you connect with people.

The elements of storytelling are like the letters of the alphabet. Once you know them, you can put them together to tell your story in the best way possible.

Element 4: Heritage

Stories are how we connect to the past and make sense of the present. Heritage gives us a sense of shared lives, experiences, and memories.

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Case study: St. John & Dolly Smith’s Pickles

What it is:

Possibly Britain’s best pickles, sauces and chutneys. The first time I tried St. John & Dolly Smith’s ‘Scotch Bonnet Pickle’ my taste buds lit up like someone put 1000 volts through them. It was a blistering simultaneous hit of taste and sensation. The heat-wave receded leaving two questions: Who made this? And: Where can I get some more?

I tracked down founder and self-styled Pickleman Chris Smith and discovered a backstory as flavourful as his creations.

Why it matters:

The sauces, pickles and chutneys would be extraordinary, with or without the story of St. John and Dolly Smith. But by connecting his product to its heritage, Chris taps into a primal hunger for stories about love, belonging, success and navigating an ever-changing world. His heritage touches on history, empire, education, immigration, death, and the inevitable march of time. The details of our stories are different, but every one of us experiences equally big, scary, life events. I fell in love with the pickle and its promise that change can be beautiful and there is always another chapter to be written.

The St. John & Dolly Smith story:

St. John Smith taught at some of India’s best schools, some of which were boarding schools where Dolly’s role was that of house matron. When their two older sons left university they moved to England with 13-year-old Chris. It was the first time he’d left India and his abiding memory is of coming off the boat to see frost so thick on the ground it looked like snow. The utter foreignness of his new home was assuaged by the familiar foods of Bangalore.

“Friends were crazy about my parent’s cooking. They would come around with a list of requests for their favourites but my mum and dad were very modest,” Chris recalls fondly. “They always thought ‘oh, they’re just being polite.’”

As the son of gifted cooks, he admits to never doing much in the kitchen. “Why would I, when they could do it better?” One of Dolly’s traditions was taking jars of pickle to school reunions, a flavoursome evocation of shared memories. After his mother passed away, a chance meeting with one of her old friends encouraged Chris to dig out her recipes and revisit his culinary heritage.

Read more here

Practice: “Write down everything you can remember about every birthday or Christmas or Seder or Easter or whatever, every relative who was there. Write down all the stuff you swore you’d never tell another soul. What can you recall about your birthday parties — the disasters, the days of grace, your relatives’ faces lit up by birthday candles? Scratch around for details: what people ate, listened to, wore — those terrible petaled swim caps, the men’s awful trunks, the cocktail dress your voluptuous aunt wore that was so slinky she practically needed the Jaws of Life to get out of it.” ~Anne Lamott in Bird By Bird

Remember: Even if you were in a prison whose walls allowed none of the sounds of the world to reach your senses — would you not still have always your childhood, that precious, royal richness, that treasure house of memories?” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Poem of the Month – If by Rudyard Kipling

If is the poetic equivalent of “…Baby One More Time”: it’s naff, simplistic, brash and its politics don’t bear examination but Christ it’s catchy. I can’t remember when I first read or heard the poem, but fragments of it are buried in my brain like shrapnel.

Kipling was a jingoistic racist. If is patronising hooey. Still, the line “if you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run…” has gotten me up more hills than I can count. So there’s that.

Why memorise If? In part because I think it’ll come in handy over the next couple of months in Ibiza (“If you can keep your head when all about you/ are losing theirs…”) and partly to acknowledge the fact that bad poetry can be as useful, or meaningful, in the right context, as the most exquisite sonnet.

What’s your favourite bad poem? Share in the comments.
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If

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!