It's a January afternoon in Brighton. One of the women with whom I am about to go swimming strips down to her knickers. Calmly, she walks out into the sea. She's gone a long time: out into the waves, walking through the water; a selkie incarnate. I wonder if this is what freedom looks like: acceptance, adventure, a silent 'fuck you' to conditioning. An open horizon - walking into it.
I've been trying to remember to breathe. Not just breathe (which obviously is a given) but breathe deeply and well. When we're frightened, some part of us believes we may die and so we respond with shallow inhalation and exhalation; holding on to our breath.
Lately I've been frightened, by some very real situations in my life which left me feeling semi destroyed. Now I have time out for a few weeks. Time (literally and metaphorically) to breathe. To process, assimilate, take walks by the sea and dips in it, look at a horizon. To figure out what next, the practical details of this. To attend to day to day details (hello tax return).
To expand. When I'm scared, I contract. When I'm stressed out I find it hard to keep a sense of perspective and can develop tunnel vision. None of this is unique to me; it's all probably just quite human.
Obviously the opposite of contraction is expansion. In breath: one's lungs filling deeply. In life: opening up to experiences, letting them permeate your body and entire being. This is my (ongoing) life learning. I spent so much of my life contracted, limited in my sense of self and who I was and that of which I was capable. Gradually, this changed.
Being open isn't always so hard when you're feeling great, happily, fulfilled. Those kind of feelings often lend to it. When you're feeling ill, though, scared, uncertain, lost...Then, I find (when perhaps the world feels threatening) it's rather harder to expand into new experiences, to let the world in.
There's not a right or wrong answer here, instead just a process, day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute. Lately, as I've said, I've been feeling pretty wrecked by a deeply unhealthy living situation. I've been taking it minute by minute, one foot in front of the other.
I don't yet fully know what's been going on there. Black mould poisoning? A boiler engineer is checking there hasn't been a carbon monoxide leak there. Something seemed to be poisoning me, but that's all I know.
The last few weeks, I existed in a haze of migraines and blurred vision, dizziness and raw fear. I'd get out of that flat as often as I could, but figuring out my next step didn't feel simple and immediate, especially when I felt like that. A friend invited me to come stay nights at his house when I needed to get away from there. You don't even have to be sociable if you don't feel like it, he offered. A few times, I took him up on it.
I've been hiding none of what's been happening. Which I suspect may have made me exhausting company. Yet this seems safer to me - when in a bad situation to acknowledge it, name it until you've found your path out of it. Take away its hold over you as much as you can.
It had always been my default to retreat, solo, into my own pain, physical, mental or emotional. This means I harbour some pretty stellar capability for endurance quietly inside me. It also means I'm quite capable of freezing in my own pain; stagnating in it.
Somewhere along the way in my life, I taught myself to be really, really open. Destigmatise. Speak about the difficult things. Turn sex and death and illness and whatever else into normal conversation topics. After a while it was no longer deliberate. I'm still aware of my audience, respectful of boundaries, and hell, my degree of openness varies according to where I'm at, how I am, on a given day. Still, though: I became really damn open.
Recently, in the midst of my own chaos, I had a couple of dates arranged. A few years ago, I'd have cancelled these. This time around, I simply pre-warned them I might all over the place; living with damp and thrown offkilter. Basically, I was giving them a get out card if they'd like to use it. Date one responded: 'Be a mess if you need to be.' Perhaps that's one of the kindest, best things a person can ever say to another.
Date two replied: It's fine. Said he wasn't feeling un-chaotic himself. Late in the evening I met him, I remarked to him how much I appreciated his acceptance of where I was at. He responded that he really liked my openness.
Life is chaos. It tears you open, throws you down unexpected pathways, knocks you offbalance again and again. I'm using my time out from my current chaos to plan my way forward, dream my way ahead. To be sensible and pragmatic and to hear myself deeply - soul, heart, gut instinct - on what I'm longing for, what needs to come next, what is actually possible.
Essentially, we always have two options, neither of which is necessarily easy. You can close down, contract, cease to feel. Or - as little or as much as you're able - you can accept. Accept what you can, make what changes are possible. In acceptance you can also allow yourself to feel. (Because feeling is almost always easier than not). You can feel and you can open and you can take baby steps or enormous strides into whatever makes your heart expand, makes you feel alive.
For me, that might take the form of saying the words I find hardest, speaking out and knowing the outcome could leave me un-met, may leave me emotionally bruised. It may be stripping off my clothes and walking into a cold, fresh sea on a January afternoon. Knowing I'll be cold. Knowing it's worth it.
That's all I've got. Expand. Contract. Feel. Or don't. Perhaps it's pretty simple.