Alone in a boat.

A study of me, as a child:

I’m in a canoe.

Every summer I’m out here, on an island within an island. I’m alone with my grandmother who cannot swim, yet somehow gives me the ultimate freedom to disappear on the water every day for hours.  She doesn’t seem to worry or fret; she’s just this benign presence who makes me food when I appear.  We watch the same tv programmes together every evening, out there in the pitch black, where there is always the sound of water.  She scratches my back lightly while I fall asleep, and I am happy.

In this canoe, I go the places she probably expects I’ll go.  This place is full of endless canals, off a channel of water big enough to hold huge freighters and the occasional navy ship.  This water is the border between two countries, full of waves and depth and wind.

I learn the canals, intimately.  I know which bridges require me to actually lay down in the bottom on the boat, and which I can just squeak through by bending over as flat as I can. I know which banks have rusty, inexplicable metal sticking out of the sand far enough to scrape the canoe.  I go and I go and I go.  I make up stories in my head as I circle old houses, built long before I was born, and everything smells sort of green and fishy.

But I go places she doesn’t expect.  I go into the channel.  I’m alone, I’m eight years old, I’ve never worn a life jacket.  I think nothing of taking my canoe into the channel.  I stick near the sides, away from the racing speed boats, away from the sucking power of the freighters, but I don’t go too close to the breakwalls, because I know too well that a few big waves can make for a scary couple of minutes when you’re being pushed into a steel wall and no one knows where you are.

Sometimes I stay in the channel only long enough to break into the next series of canals.  Sometimes I go out there just for the exhilaration of it, paddling till I’ve had enough, then turning around to head back.  Sometimes I go out there to sit in the canoe that should be too large for a young child, rising and falling deliciously, boat rocking from side to side.

I know how to angle the canoe (and my grandfather’s motorboat, for that matter!) into the waves to minimise risk of being plunged into the rough, cold water.  I know how to turn, how to manoeuvre, how to get through tight spots without touching either side. No one taught me.

In that boat, the little me knew what it was to steer through a dark, aluminium tunnel and shout to hear the echo.  I took nothing.  No food, no toys.  And while the younger me was always glued to a book, I took no book with me.  It was hours alone, and I was never lonely, and it was perfect.  A shining memory that I can still feel, decades after all the other memories are clouded and tear filled.

Sometimes I worry about a child I know, who seems to struggle with friendships and self-identity and, quite simply, too many people.

But today I remembered me.  Me that was alone, that was so happy, that had that one woman back on the island.  That island, and my grandmother, both my safe harbours.  School playground me was alone, or verbally fighting with whoever my best friend was at the minute.  She was alone, and she was lonely.  She knew she was different, but she couldn’t figure out why. But island me? She was wild, and free. She trusted her body, she trusted the boat, she needed nothing other than a paddle and her own thoughts.

She grew up okay.  She’s got friends.  She is good with people.  She is funny and trusting and vulnerable.  Little me would be proud.  And I think this other child I know, they need a lot of alone time and me….I think I need to allow that space.  I’ll be there to provide food, to read books with, to be there when I am needed.  That kid reminds me of me, and I’ll tell you a secret I didn’t really understand until right this minute: little me was pretty fucking amazing. Just the way she was.

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A love letter.

I see you.

I see that getting out of bed is a victory sometimes, how these small-yet-huge tasks you do make you into an isolated hero.  I see you making tough decisions between financially supporting your family and emotionally supporting them; you weigh things up, you are doing your best.

I see how you try to sort out your own complications without passing them onto your children; your smile is so beautiful and I wonder if you realise that.  I see you, brave enough to start a life across the world, and brave enough to start a new life within that country. Possibilities surround you because you are strong enough to create them, even when you cry alone in the night.

I see your questions, your doubts, your deep desire to do the right thing;  I see your questioning is so fierce because it matches the weight of your love.  I see how you fought to expand your family, and how you fight to make sure every member of your family is supported and thriving.  Even when it tears you apart.

I see you with your young child, struggling to fit the skin of your evolving identity; you will get there, you are getting there, things will change and expand. Your mind is a joy to get to know.

I see your patience and humour and gentleness, even when you might feel frustrated; you’re always there with quiet encouragement and ready laughter. I see you with your hands full of homemade food, children, and the books that help you be so thoughtful about the sort of person you are. The sort of person who teaches me a lot.

I see your anxiety, your struggle to do what’s best, all the while wondering what ‘best’ looks like and somehow getting it right even when you worry you are not. I see you juggling professional and personal and doing both so incredibly well, and still making time to give of yourself for others. I see you, hanging on in your marriage to me, even though there’s so little time to be us instead of loosely connected islands. I admire your growth and new green shoots, fresh after all this time.

I see you all; I love you all.  

I notice how it makes me feel when we circle around the one who needs it.  When we offer thumbs up messages when there’s no time for more, when we hug without being asked, when we hide notes of power and positivity.  I feel the privilege of being able to blurt out my hurts and triumphs, big and small, without worrying I’ll get anything but support – or kind and honest challenging, if I need it.

I love that the warmth of huddling together in a kitchen on a windy day stays with me long after the wind has stopped blowing. I know how it makes me feel to walk into a house filled to the brim with you all wearing silly hats, coming together with curry and questionable games to celebrate my birthday.

I am still feeling what it’s like to be driving, to hear a song, to think of all of you and how you bring richness to my life, how at times I’ve longed to hold one or two or all of you because sometimes words aren’t enough, and to park my car at the side of the road and get this laptop out.  To finally write again, after so long, and all because I see how powerful and brave and beautiful you all are. And I love you, and you love me, and we are always just one text away from tears or laughter.

For this night, that is enough.  That is everything.

Thank you.

Who would I be?

What might I be if I’d been allowed, or allowed myself, free reign to follow childhood passions?

A pianist, a singer? A meteorologist? A camp counsellor? A writer, an explorer? A witch?

Would I be writing fabulous hit musicals, or composing more serious music?

I think back to those old days of writing songs in my head, putting the notes on paper, then playing them on the piano. Of old notebooks full of scenes – practicing my storytelling, yes, but also practicing being a heterosexual.

I think of hours alone in a canoe, knowing every twist and turn of the water, the paddle just an extension of my body. Swimming for days, in lakes and channels and the ocean and my swimming pool.

I remember believing I could control the weather with my magic ring (and who knows? Perhaps I could!), hours spent with playing cards that turned into a tarot deck soon enough, the instinctive hunting for amber on the trees in our front yard.

Many of these childhood things are still with me now. Either they’ve been there all along, or they are freshly flexing and burgeoning now, or still some place buried…but just beneath the skin. I can see the bulge, the urge to grow, to luxuriate in serious play.

Who would I be if I allowed myself that courage now?

Stay tuned. We may both find out, and hopefully soon.

(But until then, I read. Back to how I spent a huge portion of my childhood, happy and quiet and alone in my head.)

From behind.

behindharbour

So many of my pictures are taken from behind.

I follow as you explore. Sometimes you are running full pelt, bare feet pounding against long grass, laughing. Sometimes you are just leading the way – your memories and directional sense so much better than mine.

Often it’s just a practical sort of thing. Sometimes I’m in front, sometimes you are. You have places to be and you trust you can get there.

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I trust, too. Most of the time, anyway.

I try to trust myself most of all, because trusting the two of you has been one of the easiest things I’ve ever had to do. Not just with street smarts – though you both are savvy when out and about. (I guess the hellish few months when we started going on ‘walks’ at about eighteen months paid off – though the literal blood, sweat, and tears were intense at the time! We’ve never looked back, and neither of you has been in a pushchair or sling since, except when ill.)

But I remember when M was less than a year old, crying and crying. Neither of you ever cried for no reason, but on this one occasion I wondered. I could not figure out what was wrong, but I kept trying. And weirdly, I discovered a full sized spoon had slipped down the back of his onesie and was trapped.

That was the moment I think I consciously realised how much I trusted you both to know your own minds, to cry or shout or speak them out, for them to be logical and believeable.

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And I don’t mind being behind you – literally and figuratively. I don’t need to always lead the way. I know if you have a question or a thought you’ll let me know. I know that you often discover things more vivid than I would have been able to lead you to, because you notice things I don’t. You make connections I marvel at.

So I sit back as you throw rocks. As you poke sticks into deep muddy puddles. I am sometimes right behind you, sometimes a bit further back.

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My favourite picture of the two of you from when you were younger, that I must dig out, is when you were about nineteen months old. We were at a local private nature reserve, and you both just walked off. No fear, only joy, and you took exploration as your birth right. Your mummy and I sort of froze for a moment, and then this blistering joy spread through me, marking me forever.

Watching you confident in the world, witnessing your first major breaking away that was not uncontrollable toddler running/adult panic, well, it was powerful.

Don’t get me wrong. I like your faces.

I like when you want to be close to me, when you show so much consideration and place so much value on what I say.

But I think you do that, you listen when I speak, because I listen to you, too. Because I step back and just allow you to be the people you are, to wonder about the things you wonder about, because I don’t rush in with all the ‘answers’ and tell you how the world is. You can figure that sort of stuff on your own, much of the time.

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S called the place above ‘the edge of the ocean.’ You guys are poets, astronauts, artists. Engineers, extreme hikers, dancers.

While I suppose most of my pictures are of your faces, it is often these pictures from out and about, these pictures from behind, that I am drawn to. Is it accurate to call you leaders, because I’ll tell you the secret of what I really think:

You are who you are.

You are not practicing for ‘real’ life, for adulthood. You are not people in waiting.

You are here, now. You are yourself, and that is the most powerful secret, the best goal I think any human can aspire to. Authenticity, honouring the self (while respecting others and nature), being brave enough to claim your own creative space with no apologies.

May you keep in possession of your self, even when you are wondering who that is. I will be here, sometimes close enough to wrap my arms around you and lift you up, spinning you while you laugh and squeal my name. Sometimes further away – and sometimes you will feel uneasy and run back to me, and sometimes you will be too busy with your discoveries and your friends to wonder where I am.

I love you either way.

I will be here, watching and wishing I had half the knowledge and confidence of self that each of you has. I am learning how to be more me from watching you be you.

So thanks for that.

I mean it.

behindfaces