Community and Accountability

By Emma Pearson

October 21, 2021

25 September 2021

Main image by Hudson Hintze on Unsplash

When I took up swimming again for the first time, when I was about 23, it was after an approximatively 10-year hiatus. Until the age of 13, swimming (in a pool) was one of the three main sports I did, along with ice-skating and orienteering. I enjoyed all of them, was decent enough at all three, but nothing remarkable. But something was noticeable enough about my breaststroke legs – so much so that when I later joined a local Masters swimming club in east London, a trainer looked at me and simply stated, “You learned to swim in the late 70s in northern continental Europe, didn’t you?” 

“True fact”, as Julia would say. While it was my mum who first initiated all of us to the delights of both salty and chlorinated water, and I had had some lessons when we still lived in Wales, my swimming intensive years were in Brussels pools. (I am still unlearning my breaststroke leg kick which is, apparently, singularly ineffective). 

Roll on about three decades and I am still learning and unlearning tiny aspects of technique in the pool. Tiny, not because my stroke is so perfect that it just needs a tweak here and there. Tiny, not just because swimming technique evolves over time and eons, and you can still tell that I learned the baseline of what I know back in the 1970s. But tiny because that is all I can even focus on and practise at any one time.

From time to time in our Masters swimming sessions, the young, 20-something, trainer is kind enough to stop me and give me a tip or two to improve my stroke. Most recently, towards the end of last season, it was to practically reverse what I was doing with my arms on backstroke, and where I was allowing alternating arms to have a little “pause”. I seemed to manage to improve it decently over the remaining sessions, so much so that the other Masters trainer, when I asked him to observe if it was getting any better, said, (rather over the toppishly), “wow – that’s a better style than most swimming trainers”. And there the school year ended, club stopped, and I spent my summer swimming time in open water pools, with just the sky and clouds for guidance, and did very little backstroke. 

This week I got back in the pool and backstroke was on the menu. While I was swimming up and down leisurely, mindlessly, as opposed to mindfully, some neurones did a little about turn and I remembered that I had been practising something different in my backstroke. It took me a few up and downs to re-remember what the tip had been, and then to put it in place. So totally different to the technique embodied over getting on for 50 years. Almost opposite, in the mini resting position of each arm as it windmills its way up, back, down and around. So much concentration required to undo and redo something so apparently insignificant. So alternative, so other, than what my muscle memory and neurones are deeply wired to perform. It will be a continued work in progress. But at least I like the way it feels.

Image by Erin DeFuria on Unsplash

It occurred to me that I needed to be back in that particular swimming pool, in Masters swimming training, with a specific trainer and specific fellow swimmers, for the practice to be re-practised. That the environment, the specific container, was needed to jog my complacency when doing my new and improved backstroke. That I needed the support of my swimming environment and “community” to keep on the straight and narrow for something I had to work at.

And that is how it is with so many things in my new life, and in the new lives of fellow Grieflings. We need one another to hold us accountable, to keep an eye on us, to provide reminders and space to try out new things. A reliable “touchpoint” to provide support, encouragement, guidance, in what can feel like an unfathomably long, 24-hour stretch of time, each and every day.

One of my most special widbud friends, Charlotte, who lives in the Canadian Rockies, 8 timezones behind me, had been bemoaning her inability to get to bed at a decent time. It can be so hard for widows to retreat to an empty bed, night after night after night after night after night. To get into the new habits of undressing alone, brushing your teeth and washing your face alone. Getting into bed alone. Reading a book alone. Turning out the light alone, perhaps having uttered no words aloud for hours and hours and hours, or even more. The turning over to sleep, and needing to warm up the bed. Alone. I have often delayed and postponed bed-time these past years for that reason. It’s lonely, and of course full of memories and triggers of easier and happier times.

I suggested to Charlotte that I could send her a little Whatsapp note as I got up in the morning, any time from 5h30-7h30 my time, i.e., 21h30 to 23h30 her time, to wish her good night and sweet dreams. It’s been about two weeks and I have only forgotten to write once. Sometimes she has already gone to bed by the time I write her a note, but more often than not it seems to give her the kick up the bum she needs to pull herself away from whatever delaying tactic is in motion.

I am her accountability buddy for getting a good night’s sleep. I have heard of widbuds being one another’s accountability buddies for those dark moments when it is tempting to drive one’s car into oncoming traffic. Or to lie face-down in a stream, and breathe the water in, slowly. Or to down a bottle of wine, night after night.

Good Night & Good Morning Exchanges between me and Charlotte

I haven’t (yet) done any of those things, but such thoughts have come to me, now and again. And the one I am most at risk of acting on is the bottle of wine scenario. And noticing this, over the past weeks and months, I have put in place the intention of trying not to drink alone (which is a silly and unattainable aspiration for someone who lives alone in these Coronavirus times, and barely goes out); but also the more realistic aspiration of not drinking during the week, i.e., Monday to Thursday nights. It’s quite a challenge. Especially the daily “temptation slot” that is 19h00-21h00. Before 19h00, the thought doesn’t occur to me, and after 21h00 any compulsion has passed and a good book in bed starts to feel very attractive indeed.

So when my Canadian widbud said that my little notes were helping her, I asked if she would be my accountability partner for the “Wine is calling my name” slot. To (when it crosses her mind) send me a little note, late morning-early afternoon her time. To encourage me to stay clean and bright and healthy and alert and well away from temptation.

At risk of sounding like a total drunk and a procrastinator, we agreed to put the new practice in place ten days from now, when I am back from a last and late summer fling in the sun, sea and mountains of Montenegro with Medjool. A country known not just for its good Mediterranean food and wine, but also more challengingly, for being where I took the then three kids in summer 2017, just after Mike died.

It was such a hard holiday. I had intentionally chosen a new-to-us country, so that we didn’t have Mike triggers around every corner. But it was so tiring for me, widowed barely three months. Doing all the reading and research and planning and driving and shopping and cooking and accommodation booking. All of us zombies in our new life.

This week will no doubt be fraught with landmines and triggers. I will visit and simply catch sight of places I appeared to have already forgotten. Memories of Julia will jump up, unbidden and unexpectedly. Just thinking of what is to come, and starting to re-remember names of places, and having scenes come to mind, my throat constricts and I feel quite nauseous.  

It was only four years ago. No time ago at all. And a lifetime ago. A time when, despite Mike’s recent death, Julia, like the rest of us, “seemed” to be doing fine. Or at least OK. After all, she was breathing, eating, walking, going to bed, and waking up each day in her wholly unfamiliar life. A life that cannot have felt like it belonged to her. Numb. In shock. Going through the motions of living.

So I shall be kind to myself and postpone the start of my new practice. And enjoy having wine mid-week should Montenegrin wine deign to call my name. And Charlotte’s nudges for adopting a new self-care practice can commence on my return. Yet another unfamiliar practice in my unfamiliar life.

No wonder having an accountability partner, a community of kindred spirits, is a key condition for building a life post-loss. For staying alive. For thriving, not just surviving.

Game on, Charlotte. And thank you in advance.

About Emma Pearson

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