I spent some time last week looking at a photograph. It’s a picture of a boy, on a beach, turning around to face the camera. His hair is a huge blond bowl being scattered by the sea breeze; his skin is pale and white. His teeth aren’t all there, so I guess he must be somewhere between five and ten. But what struck me, more than anything, was his body language: he was stretching his arms and legs out as wide as he could, as if to say “Look at me! Look at me!” and his smile is so huge, his eyes narrowed in the sun.
I wondered what had happened to that boy, over the next thirty or so years; I wondered what had changed him from that carefree, excitable, joyous little child into a sad, soft, gloomy adult. Where is the spark? Where did it go?
I’ve written before about how hard it is to return home sometimes. There are ghosts there, wherever you go: each childhood street holds memories and faces, a slight imprint in the back of your mind about another time you were there, with other people, some of whom are still around and some of whom are gone. And others… well, others just changed. We all changed. But why? Where did it go, and why? And can we get it back? Or is it gone forever?
I don’t remember that photograph being taken, not exactly. But I remember the feeling of my feet scampering over the warm soft sand, and the sand becoming stickier and wetter, then the foam of the water coming and covering it, and my feet getting cold and wet, and me still running, because it was the sea, and I wanted to be in the sea, and then my ankles and knees getting colder and wetter and me still running, into the waves, till I crashed into the water, upturned, salt in my nose and water in my eyes and mouth, but I could float, and I could swim, and I felt my freezing body falling into the water, but not being scared, just being happy, happy to be there again, back in the water.
Since then, I’ve swum in the Caribbean. I’ve snorkelled in coral reefs in the Sulu Sea, watched brightly coloured fish and felt the breathing in and out of the ocean. I’ve put my feet and my body in the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Mediterranean. But it has never felt quite the same. You can try and recreate the circumstances, but you never have the same feelings. There’s just a fragment of the memory that might escape, like smoke into air.
I remember stepping off the beach, onto a towel, back then when I was that boy on the beach, and feeling the warm sun against the seawater skin, and me lying in the sun, on a towel, with a towel over me. And a small glass bottle of lemonade with a striped straw in it, warm in the sun but refreshing. Closing my eyes and seeing the sun shine through orange and red through my eyelids.
And feeling… like there was nothing to worry about. Nothing to complain about. This was where I always wanted to be.
Summer holidays now are different, though of course I’m lucky to have them at all. But the weeks without something to do, or any way to get out there and work, change you. I find myself lying in bed until four in the morning, thinking, worrying. Worrying about the things that have gone wrong. Endlessly thinking about every small and large piece of criticism. All you get in some jobs is criticism, some of it helpful, some of it just insulting. Everything you could do could be better. Everything you do is wrong. Don’t do it like that, do it like this. Don’t do that. You shouldn’t have done that. You shouldn’t do that. You’re not good enough. You’re not as good as someone else. You’re not as good as anyone else. You aren’t doing what you’re supposed to be doing. Make it better. Make everything better. Change yourself. Make yourself different. Your personality isn’t right. You aren’t the right kind of person. You shouldn’t be yourself. Don’t be yourself. Be someone else. Be what you aren’t. The person you are is not good enough. Change. Change. Change.
And before you know where you are, you’re analysing every little thing that went wrong and every little thing that won’t go right. Every criticism multiplies, every faint word of praise gets fainter and fainter. And it begins again.
This pattern will be familiar to some of you.
Somewhere between the boy on the beach and the adult lying awake till four in the morning, something was lost. Something that I need to get back. Not swimming in the sea, but the freedom of swimming in the sea. Not being able to run along a beach, but being able to run along, and not care, and not think, and not wonder, and not analyse, and not consider, and not compare, and not any of that: just run, and feel the sand on your feet.
It’s there in me, somewhere.
And the person I am? I am that boy on the beach as much as the gloomy, sad, grumpy person that other people judge and dismiss and belittle. I am both, and both are me. Change happens, but not because you’re told to change. You change because the things around you change. You change when you’re ready. You change when it matters. You change because you want to. Not every day. And not in everything. But it can, and does, happen. Not always for the better, but sometimes it is. Head back towards that boy on the beach. Head back there. Do everything you can to go back there, and be back there. It’s you. It’s me.