Britons, Saxons, Danes and Romans; Blue, Yellow, Green and Red.
The Romans always won in the sports events at my school. Cups in the display cabinet on the stairs were expected to wear red ribbons. True to history the Saxons never did. Their yellow bows were only ever on the best sponge or apron awards and when I arrived at the grammar school aged 11 I was put into the Saxon house. It took me a term to work out who the winners were and then to create an aunt who had been a pupil of the school and a member of the Romans’ house. It was a tradition in our family I explained, and I was rewarded for this creativity with entry into the red house.
We had yearly galas in the local Olympic-sized swimming pool and I had been an early swimming star at my junior school by dint of having been taught to swim by my uncle whilst still at infants school. This was unusually early at that time and I took part in many swimming club galas in the backstroke events. However I had developed anxiety around swimming competitively* and stopped a number of years earlier but somewhere, in my head, my heart too perhaps, I was a good swimmer.
It was a part of me I could be proud of, that was considered to be of value to my school and my family. That part of me surfaced during a house meeting about the next gala day when I was in the Second Form. There were no takers for the Butterfly event in my year and I found myself offering to do it. Their grateful thanks gave me a warm glow in my otherwise dissatisfied stomach. I was a worthy Roman. I also couldn’t do the butterfly stroke.
Having volunteered for this a more focussed, less foolhardy person, dare I say a more mature person, would have actually found out how to perform this feat. But I didn’t. I don’t even remember worrying about it particularly, I think my thought process went a little like this:
Helpful part (HP): The gala is a month away, shouldn’t we be practicing in the pool?
Foolhardy rebellious part (FRP): That would mean actually attending school and not skiving off for the bits I don’t like, making friends with the PE teacher I’ve pissed off by not bringing my costume and having the longest periods known to womankind for the last term, and admitting that I might need help with this, so no, I don’t think so. (stares defiantly at HP)
HP: But how will we do it? We don’t know how to do the butterfly. (bottom lip trembles)
FRP: It will be OK, we’re good at swimming remember?
HP: That was a long time ago and then we got scared of it.
FRP: Don’t ever speak of that again. We’re good at swimming. Now let’s go and buy some sherbert dips.
This is how, dear reader, I found myself flailing away through an Olympic length doing a stroke I like to call the modified butterfly (think a combination of leaden arms with halfhearted leg action, with multiple gasps for air, many whilst actually having my face in the water). Bringing up the rear by a considerable distance but getting to the end of the pool accompanied by the shouts and laughter of the whole fucking school. My friends were shocked into silence by the depth of my public humiliation. I killed it, it killed me. I was officially not good at swimming in front of my friends and enemies and I had let down the sporty red Romans.
I think they went on to win the gala anyway, but that wasn’t the point. I was an imposter and everyone knew it including me. I had lied to get into the house and it had finally caught up with me. My understanding of that process now goes something like this – my image of myself wasn’t being updated and was leaving out significant portions of me and my life experience; ie those I didn’t like and was uncomfortable with. I had taken on my mother’s motto when faced with anything of difficulty or painful and that was “Just don’t think about it.” And just not thinking about it had left me jumping in at the deep end to pursue something I valued but wasn’t prepared to work for because I simply did not know how.
I recognise this impulse and the desire not to think about uncomfortable things is still at work in me now. I left my business with no other financial support in place, my home without any plan and I tumbled out of my marriage with only the sense that I needed to leave now or die. I am only now though am beginning to understand that working for things I value will necessarily involve thinking about difficult things, having uncomfortable conversations and feeling deeply painful emotions. I am a baby in this respect although I did develop some of these skills in my work role. I am hoping they are transferable. I recognise that this is probably the most important work of my whole life happening right here, in front of me and you, and worked out on twitter, in my blog, in my relationships and everyday as I try to navigate this new geography I find myself in.
I continue to jump in at the deep end but I now see that I do get to the end of the length. Maybe not in the style that is required to win the event but I will get there and I will cheer myself on for this instead of only valuing being the winner.
I will also continue to appreciate and hold close those who support and acknowledge my impetuousness, my foolhardy bravery and my commitment to change.
*this will have to get unpacked in a future blog, bet you can’t wait!