Saturday, 23 January 2016

Open letter to my dance teacher

Dear Dance Teacher,

I was planning to come to pilates, but our washing machine is on the blink and had to give hubby moral support!

My third Parkrun today was 30:34, so 40 secs faster than last week. Managed to run 2 out of 3 laps, and walked twice in the final lap, but came in with a sprint, so inching closer to actually running the whole distance. Sorry to keep boring on with these times, but wanted to tell you! I am determined to keep going – it’s hard and painful, but I let myself walk when I really have to, and then find I can get started again. Doing it in honour of that seventeen-year-old girl who hurt herself so much. Now I can look after her better.

Thank you for the lovely, lovely, thoughtful, kind messages you have sent me this week. It’s actually been a very strange and rather horrible week, that includes the way the Mumsnet commentariat reacted to my story about letting our son keep walking to school, even though he was approached by a weirdo. 

Do you know, I found myself standing at the end of the road that leads up to son's school yesterday, clutching some fondant fancies, lurking for all the world like a weirdo myself, other parents walking past, eyeing me and wondering what I was doing, waiting for our boy, to surprise him (but there, in reality, because the Mumsnet comments made me feel so shit). 

When you think about it, the word ‘paedophile’ actually just means ‘lover of children’. So, by that definition, we are all paedophiles. We all love our kids and try to do the very best for them. 

I wouldn't like to be in the mind of a paedophile, who doesn't know when to stop.

We talked a lot about my father last week, you and I, but I know that my mother is in there too. She finds my 'search for happiness' difficult to cope with (too self-indulgent for her liking). When I finished my doctorate, I was just exhausted, and so much did not want to become an academic. I was in tears, and she told me I was having a 'nervous breakdown'. I wasn’t, I was just too tired not to get sucked into a career pathway I passionately knew was the wrong one for me. I allowed myself to be sucked in, because I just didn’t know how not to keep pleasing others, and I kept winning post-doctoral research funding, which is like gold dust. So I took the wise and sensible option, while dying inside. 

Plus I did need a job – let's not be too romantic here. How could I refuse to apply for and take a post at Cambridge, even though I felt terribly ambivalent, and mistrustful of the place, when everyone else thought it was the best thing for me? In the end, I went because you 'don’t turn Cambridge down', but I was right, it was a miserable experience. And so crushing, because it was the exact opposite of being an undergraduate there, which had been the happiest, most intense years of my life. Someone should do some change management in Cambridge – it's supposed to be the best university in the world, but there are an awful lot of very unhappy academics. Maybe they're just the ones I met. Maybe that's what I wanted to see. So I could let myself leave.

I had to go that way, the hard way. Doing the hardest qualification, a Phd, on the most difficult author in the French language, Marcel Proust, at the hardest university, Oxford, would prove to me whether I was a writer or not. And it did: even after all of that I still wanted to write. I just didn’t have the confidence or the strength or the income to keep going at the end of the Phd. 

I don’t actually regret leaving Cambridge and academia after the birth of my baby. I only regret not taking my bullying head of department to a tribunal. No one in a position of authority should get away with what she was doing. I only didn't because we were moving to Australia, and I wanted to write, and thought I might as well get on with it.

I didn't realise that her bullying was like a tapeworm that fed itself on the fact that I hated myself. 

When I was achieving academic success, it never meant anything to me, except insofar as it involved being out ahead on my own, where I couldn't be caught and hurt any more. Being kicked out of Cambridge really hurt, but now I know I can cope with being criticised.

That I could survive criticism (rather than suffer from it) was not something I learnt through being a critic.

I once saw a poster at our kids' school that terrified me. I felt it had looked into my very soul and seen my evil. It said, ‘Character is what you do when you think no one is watching’. 

I knew that a lot of my so-called 'brilliance' was actually a performance of deeply-held anger in sublimated form. Actually, anyone with an ounce of intuition who saw my acting back in the day could have told me what it's taken me thirty years to tell myself. But I digress. I think I was held together by anger. Controlled anger was key to my success as an academic, it was my body armour. 

After I had children, anger started to come out as what it is – uncontrolled reaction – and my god, how I hated myself then. I was no better than anyone else under pressure, despite all those fine exam results. No better than my enraged father. It turned out that I could only cope with one kind of pressure, and life, apparently, wasn't just a set of exams. But I had learnt no way to measure what was reasonable and what was not, where to draw the line – that a little anger, or angry thoughts, are perfectly acceptable if your kids are acting up, but that you are the adult and they are tiny, and you can terrify them with anger, unless you find a better way to express it than just yelling or spanking. 

Because I saw such a lot of anger (both expressed and repressed, both physical and verbal) growing up, it was so, so upsetting to see that coming out, helplessly, in me, in the next generation. I felt I had not been able to outrun my father. There he was, lurking inside me, waiting for his chance to come out in me. 

But. I have made many, many changes to how I live. The whole point in life, it seems to me, is the idea of both setting an intention, but going easy if you can’t match that intention at first. I have learnt this, very, very slowly, through the dance and then through pilates, then yoga, and now running – the running which takes me back to when it all went wrong, and I split myself in two, all those years ago, when I was trying to get into Cambridge. I have accepted that there are things I cannot do, as well as started to celebrate the things I know I can do well. I have accepted that there are limits to what I should expect myself to do, and that modelling this is the best gift I could give my kids (apart from loving them). I have come to love those limits, and see how they could work for me.

I think there are some lovely ways I am like my father. At his very best he had a quirky sense of humour. He adored Sinterklaas, and was always thinking up new ways for Sint to deliver the gifts. He was very intelligent, very good at systems, very loyal to my mother, and remarkably unprejudiced, given his life story. He walked around in his pants and didn't care, and he loved cats. The only time I ever saw him cry was when our cat Jackanory was hit by a car. I know that he loved me, I just wish he could have found it easier to express. 

My favourite memory of both my parents is the day I got into Cambridge, and we danced together round the sitting room. 

We danced.

With much love, and without any Dutch Courage,


Ingrid xx

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