The centre cannot hold

There are some lines that get into my blood and under my skin as soon as I read them.  I think of them at particular points in my life.  “The centre cannot hold”, I think, when I recognise that I’m getting close to breaking point.  It sort of comes to me, over and over, starting as a quite hum, then playing out in my head louder and louder, like a mantra.

It’s from The Second Coming by Yeats and was written in the aftermath of the first World War.  The poem is apocalyptic in scale.  The sentiment doesn’t stand alone; the full line in the poem is “Things fall apart; The centre cannot hold;”.

One is a natural consequence of another.  Anything breaks with enough pressure applied in the right places.

The trick is to know where you’re weakest.

*****

“Mum.  MUM.  Why is she crying?”

There was a little girl standing on the side of the pool maybe five years old.  Knock-kneed, wearing a pink swimming costume, ears poking out the sides of her hat.

“She wants to jump in but she’s scared”.

“Why?”

The teacher was in the water, arms outstretched, gently encouraging.  The girl was pale.  She stepped back.

I looked down at Ellie.  “Well…  Everyone’s different.  Some people just need a bit of encouragement.  Some people just take a wh…”

SPLASH.  She was in, in the teacher’s arms.

Ellie burst into a round of applause.  “See Mum?  She was scared.  But the important thing is, she jumped”. 

I’ve heard it said before that having children is like having your heart outside your body.  I disagree.  I think having children is like having an enormous magnifying mirror following you around,  every step you take.  You don’t want to look in it but it’s there, right in front of your face, every day of your life.  You see the very best and the absolute worst of yourself reflected in your kids’ words and actions.  And in Ellie saying that, I saw with absolute clarity the disparity between what I say and what I do.

Then important thing is to jump.

All I have done since I can remember is stay on the side of the pool.

*****

Sometimes, you know something needs to change, and sometimes you are lucky enough to know what that change needs to be.  But most of the time, you don’t, all you know is the water level is rising and you’re trapped and you need to think about the problem differently, you need to kick a hole in the wall to divert the water.  But the sheer pissing energy you know you have to expend to make that change happen, to kick that hole in the wall, is just unfathomable.  Especially when you’ve been up since fuck o’clock for the best part of a year and can’t remember when you last slept more than two hours at a time.

Change, real, proper change, requires energy, resilience, drive.

And kids, as life-affirming as they are, just suck a lot of that right out of you.  Especially in their first year.

*****

I daydream a lot, and often in my daydreams I have conversations with Billie, my grandmother who passed away over ten years ago but who is always in my head, lurking, piping up on occasion.  She’s my spirit animal, if spirit animals continually tell you to stop faffing and get on with it.  I most often hear her voice when I’m making pastry: “Don’t overwork it, Annie!  Do you want to give people indigestion?”

I spoke to her.

“I don’t think I can do this anymore, Gran.  I can’t work full-time and raise two kids and do the washing and manage to shower every day”.

The answer came back, quick as a whip.

“Of course you can.  You’re just going to be very, very tired for a while”

Right, I thought.  That’s not the answer, then.  I’m going to have to look elsewhere.

*****

It’s an accepted fact that sometimes, the Universe tells you that something needs to change.  You think the sign is going to be crystal clear.  A burning bush.  Armageddon.  But sometimes the sign comes in the shape of being curled up on the bedroom floor talking to your kid about how you’re sorry you’re not the mother they need and you have to work out for yourself that that’s a huge flashing neon sign, when it feels like the most reasonable thing to do in the world.

And you have to remember who you are, and why you know you’re exactly the mother they need, and then you realise you have to show them, because words mean nothing without action.  Except a three-year-old and a baby aren’t going to get the nuances of this situation, when really all they want is to watch Peter Rabbit and/or hit you in the shin with a chew toy.  And you think, well, what do I want them to be more than anything?  Curious. Compassionate. Brave.  And what are you showing them to get them there, to show them that brave is a choice, not something that just lands in their lap?

Not a lot, actually.  So pick a thing, a small thing, that scares you, and do it.  And show them that it scared you, and that you did it anyway.

Oh look, Anna, you got there, via the bedroom floor and the kids and the chew toy.  No-one ever said the Universe would make it obvious.

So, I thought; what is my life right now?  Sedentary, dark, closing in.  What is the opposite of that?  Light.  Movement.  Exhilaration.

*****

So I decided to do something I have wanted to do for years, but didn’t think I could.  A triathlon.

Just to be clear, the thought of doing a triathlon sends me into a stress blackout.  An open-water swim, in freezing temperatures, with people kicking me in the face.  Wearing neoprene.  Removing said neoprene from one’s body and mounting a bike.  A BIKE.  That has GEARS.  That I have to MANIPULATE.  Against the clock.  Then get off the bike, and run, at pace, further than to the next bus stop.

I knew Katielase had done a triathlon.  Against my better judgement, I sent her a text.  Then I disappeared down some kind of wormhole, and before I knew what was happening I had signed up for a triathlon in September.

I sent another text.  “You’d better not have a triathlon bike, with fancy wheels.  If you have a fancy bike, I’m pulling out”

She replied.  “Last time I checked, my bike had a toddler seat on it”

That, thought I,  that I can do.

*****

I have an enormous problem with the phrase “face your fears”.  Facing your fear is one thing.  But no-one tells you what to do once you’ve faced it.  It’s all very well staring your fear in the face and acknowledging it.  I’m sure that’s half the battle.  But it’s not the full battle, is it?  You can’t just leave it there, facing down your fear for eternity.  There is where the real work begins.  You have to do the thing that scares you.

And the thing is, to make a change, you think it needs to be a big grand gesture.  But it doesn’t.  It takes a small step.  That’s all you need to do.

My small step was to put on a wetsuit, jump off the side of a jetty with my eyes squeezed shut, and stay afloat.

It was cold.  So cold.  The sun was on my back, but it wasn’t getting through the bloody neoprene.  There was no filter system, no lifeguards, no side of the pool.  Just me, and the water, and looking down into murky green, and breathing hard, and the cold turning to warm, and the faint taste of salt, and realising I couldn’t hear anyone, and that no-one was talking to me, that it was me and only me and the only thing I had to do was take another stroke, and another stroke, and that I was moving, that I was making myself move.

Light.  Movement.  Exhilaration.

And then it struck me.  Changing your life is exactly like this.  You hate the first, small change that you make.  And it’s hard, and you want to be back on the side of the pool, on dry land.  And you hate the next one, and the next one, but soon, new becomes the new normal, and you start to taste the way your life could be, and the voices calling you back to your old life start to dim, and you take another step, and another, and really, that’s all it is.

And of course it’s going to take more than a triathlon to make the kind of change I need.  But it’s a beginning.

Categories: Life Experience, Written By Anna
10 interesting thoughts on this

10 Comments

  1. Linsey
    Posted July 14, 2017 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Reading this at my desk because I came in to work early but am procrastinating, thinking about what I could be doing instead…
    Hit the nail on the head Anna, I’ve often felt the desire for ‘change’ but not really been able to identify what that change looks like. Unfortunately for me it looks much more like eating cake than donning neoprene!

    • Posted July 14, 2017 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      Eating cake and donning neoprene are not mutually exclusive…

  2. Katielase
    Posted July 14, 2017 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Oh, do you even recognise your own power, lady? You’re an absolute inspiration, and not only have you challenged yourself and not only will you smash that challenge, your drive and your fierce commitment to being better have done something even more.

    You’ve taken someone else, who was also feeling stuck, tired, and broken, but isn’t nearly so eloquent, and you’ve given them, me, a way back to myself. I feel alive this morning, after reading this. So, thank you, you unstoppable phenomenal woman.

    See you on the finish line,

    KL xx

    • Posted July 14, 2017 at 9:24 am | Permalink

      And on the start line. I may need some help zipping up the damn wetsuit.

      Can’t wait to do it with you x

  3. Gemma
    Posted July 14, 2017 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    There’s no doubt those kids are going to grow up curious, compassionate and brave – I’d add ballsy to that description, too. My sister and I used to follow our dad around on the triathlon circuit when we were little – I’ve never done anything even close to one. Maybe I should look out the neoprene! xxx

  4. Fee
    Posted July 14, 2017 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    So wonderful to start the day with some Anna K writing. This resonated with me on so many levels and it’s exactly this feeling that had me poised to dive into Lake Windermere in June and Swim
    2 miles. Unfortunately due to boring medical reasons I’ve had to postpone until next year but I WILL do it.

    I’m completely in awe of the fact that you manage to hold down a serious full time job and have two small children – I’m at home a lot with the boys and I still feel like I’m drowning in life admin and washing.

    As always, this is just marvellous, uplifting and inspiring. As are you my friend xxx

  5. Posted July 14, 2017 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    This is great writing. I have been living in change for the past year, almost against my will and though it has been scary I feel like each and every part of it has made me stronger, more resilient or at least given me a good story (like the very senior consultant who took me to McDonalds, on expenses, on a date).

    The thing you miss is having your first child was a big change, having your second another, but with those you just took one step after another and did it. That is not standing by the side of the pool at all.

    And with this you are proving to yourself you can do it which makes me happy, as in the time I have been reading you I have always known you can.

  6. Anita
    Posted August 8, 2017 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    Late to this but god, I love some Anna K drivel. Not that this is drivel. Actually it’s fabulous and I love the fact that you’re getting out there and making things happen xx

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Hello! We're Clare, Aisling and Anna and welcome to a corner of the world where smart, flawed, real women talk about the bigger picture; about their experiences, stories and opinions on all aspects of being a woman today, from marriage to feminism to pretty, too.

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