Sink or Swim
This summer I realised that I am not as immune as I has previously thought to the effects of ageing; I had not made the link between the greying hair, the permanent frown lines, the need to calorie count and now being in my mid-forties. I have been engaging in self-deception ... again. The summer holidays were so blissful, because we nearly forgot all about ballet - except for one slight nuisance. Our son needed to maintain his cardio-vascular fitness. The normal running around of a twelve year old is not sufficient apparently for someone in full time vocational ballet training. So, we went swimming. Especially towards the end of the holiday, we went nearly every day. We assumed the unnecessary habit of swimming together in the same lane - a watery convoy. He's a strong and elegant swimmer; efficient, sleek and graceful. And, I would swim behind.
Aside from swimming lengths, we would also play racing games and diving games, hiding plastic clam shells for one another under the water and then racing to find them. I'm not ashamed to admit that it gives me a tremendous sense of pride to be able to announce that I am the stronger swimmer. Even at 45, I am faster, more agile and I can hold my breath for far longer which gives me an unfair advantage in the diving competitions. This makes me want to punch the air, clench my back teeth and shout, 'Yessss!'
There is a reason behind this child-like celebration of a Pyrrhic victory. Before the father and son underwater Olympics commence, we would swim lengths in the way described. He would swim first and I would follow. He set the pace and I fell into line. He decided how many lengths we would swim, and I would. This swimming of lengths is what gave rise to the sense of time passing and my own mortality. I may be the faster and more experienced swimmer, but he is the the more resilient. After about twenty minutes or so of ploughing along the lane, I would begin to tire. As the end of each length approached, I would think, 'This is it. This has to be the last one.' And then, with the mechanical precision of a well tempered machine, he would begin the next. Each time, I would react as much as it is possible to breathe a sigh of regret when swimming front crawl. Every time I caught sight of him kicking off to continue our marathon of lengths, I'd silently plead, 'Please let this be the last one.' And so it would continue: the son effortless and steadily gliding along, length after length; the father hoping that each length would be the last.
Eventually he would stop. He'd turn to me with an exhausted expression and say, 'Sorry, Daddy, but I think I've had enough now.'
'That's fine, Son.' I would say. 'You're only young, of course that's enough.' I would be nonchalant, casual, deliberately patronising, and hope that he didn't notice every pore in my body exhaling with relief. We'd have a few minutes' rest, and then I'd beat him in all the games.
I'm impressed by the way he swims; tenacious, systematic and resolute. And once again, our son challenges me as he sets an example. My rhythm of swimming is different. I swim in bursts that are powerful and direct, but hard to sustain for longer than ten or at most fifteen minutes. Perhaps this applies to the way I live my life. I am very efficient at fulfilling the short-term needs of myself and those around me, but I neglect the long-term. My patterns of behaviour involve short sharp bursts of energy that get stuff done but leave me exhausted. Swimming in the pillion position has given me new knowledge of what it feels like to just keep going. This is perhaps the mind-set which makes him want to excel at something so difficult, and why my talent seems to lie in finding immediate solutions, and initiating flurries of activity. The thought of long-term projects make me gasp and splutter - almost as if drowning in panic. I need to learn how to keep going, inexhaustibly. For me, the concern has never been about whether I sink or swim, or about the distance that I can complete, but for how long I can keep afloat while simply treading water.
10 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Sending My Child to Boarding School
A couple of months ago, I celebrated my birthday. Despite it being a Sunday, it was the end of term at the Ballet School. So on the morning of my birthday, I got up early and drove to the school. I spent some time admiring other people's Cath Kidson laundry bags, while carrying his stuff to the car. There was also some new packing technology to admire - some of the children were ending their academic year by vacuum packing their stuff. Bed linen, duvets and pillows were sucked into a transparent plastic package which is a fraction on the original size; a NASA space meal of dehydrated laundry. Next year we will also be vacuum packing at the end of the summer term. Our son was in rehearsal. The dormitories were open for the parents to do this only between 8.30am and 9.30am. Our child is ridiculously organised for an eleven year old. He has clearly had to over-compensate for the chaos surrounding his father. I was in and out of the dorm in ten minutes. I felt sorry for the parents who had a four hour drive, and then had to spend their time fishing for lost items under the bed. I was not one of the parents scrabbling around for loose change or run-away playing cards. I spent no time matching socks. We then watched the final performance of the year - a sumptuous and ostentatious orchestral affair. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
This was the best way of spending my birthday I could possibly imagine. I am writing this entirely without irony. Getting up early doesn't bother me. Spending time in the dormitory of pre-adolescent boys is not be pleasant, but he was so organised - as expected - that I was hardly there. Even driving back in the heat was not irksome; not even if I am stuck in traffic in my beat-up old car, with no air-con and a window that doesn't open on the driver's side. Despite all this, it was a glorious way of spending my birthday.
It felt like I was being given a present - a huge child-sized box wrapped up in paper with ribbons and bows on the top; something to tear open and then discover my son is sitting inside grinning. He belongs to a tradition of people packages: the Velvet Underground track, The Gift, or Henry 'Box' Brown posting himself to freedom in nineteenth century Virginia. Honestly, this is the most welcome present I could possibly want. He was then home for nearly two months. It was luxurious. I had been waiting for this day for the last ten months. We had survived.
Indeed, it felt like the clichéd 'gift that keeps on giving'. The summer holidays delivered all that was expected. Ballet and boarding schools were gleefully absent. Our life was no longer defined by others' opinions of the quality of our son's physical contortions. There was chatting and laughter and days free of the pressure of timetables. We travelled, we ate, we walked and swam. The dog became accustomed to both children being around and howled whenever they left her - even for ten minutes. The Norfolk and Suffolk coastlines were extensively explored, and some treasured places were discovered. We were even lucky with the erratic British weather. We basked in the sunshine.
And all this began on my birthday. Please excuse the over-engineered pun, but the birthday present was each other's presence. Perhaps, we can only assess the quality of love in how available we are willing to make ourselves to each other. Love is a difficult thing to be aware of during mental or physical absence. The fact that our family is not complete during term time has taught me to value those times when we are all together. Distractions are put away, and I strive - as much as possible - to remain present when we are all together in. It was as if the scars left from the very difficult first year were healing.
He's now gone. School started this morning and I dropped him off. We chatted happily in the car, and there was an ease to leaving him there. The familiar despair is strangely absent. He's back at school, but oddly, it's as if I still have the birthday present with me.