Jo Olney is one of seven sisters, mother to 3 children and works as a digital marketer in the world of children’s publishing. She is also co-founder of The Muse.
As the fifth of seven children, I’m a natural born diplomat. Happier to maintain the order and keep all parties happy, than speak out at the risk of upsetting others. The last time I think I was actively engaged in a movement, was after watching Free Willy and finding myself enraged at the plight of the orca. I may have done a sponsored silence in their honour. So, it came as something of a surprise to find myself at the women’s march on London with tears pricking my eyes, seeing thousands of people united in love trumping hate, in upholding dignity and equality for all, and determined to safeguard our freedoms and our rights.
When I became a mother 5 and a half years ago, I looked my tiny girl in the eye and promised her, as I’m sure all parents do, that I would love her, care for her, give her the best I could in every way. The world was her oyster. Her gender never even crossed my mind to be a barrier to be overcome, that she’d ever grow up in a world where she had more to prove than her male counterparts to achieve the same – maybe I was naïve.
Being one of seven sisters I had a ready-made sisterhood. I don’t ever recall being aware of my gender in any way other than it being a fact – yes I am a woman, and? With so many kids, my parents were equally hands on, quite literally as I recall hair washing night! And beyond that early sisterhood, my career in publishing has been so female-dominated that 14 years in and I’m yet to report into a man. That gives a certain false sense of security perhaps. Until of course you attempt to work flexibly, and depressingly my sector was no more flexible than many others, at which point you see the talent haemorrhage out of the building at around the age of 35.
So it was with some embarrassment that I tried to explain to my 5 year old why I thought we needed to go and march in London on Saturday. To explain that a man who was publicly mean to women (massive understatement, clearly), to the disabled, to pretty much anyone not exactly like himself, so much so he wanted to build a wall to stop others coming in, was now President of the United States. To explain that some people think that women are not as good as men, that they shouldn’t earn the same money for doing the same job, that some girls don’t get to go to school and learn like she does and that we needed to march and say this is not ok. I was thinking she kind of got it, that all people are human and all humans are equal, until she countered, “No they’re not, statues are not human”. So yep, we still have some work to do.
So off we set, my husband and I, with a 5 year old, 3 year old and 1 year old, and not without trepidation. Kids walking in the cold rarely ends happily for us, but they were amazing because the whole damn vibe was amazing. That feeling of the power of unity, of standing together, of not just being a witness, but taking part and being counted. And as we stood in the sunshine in Trafalgar Square and she sounded out, as 5 year olds do, the placard resting on the lion “I. Am. Woman. Hear me ROAR!” To which she and her sister of course both ROARED, I felt those tears pricking again. I felt hope that their future would be good, that their generation would keep pushing on and making this world one of fairness and tolerance and kindness, celebrating our differences and not letting them divide us. I hope that as they sat on our shoulders looking out over the crowds, somewhere in their hearts and minds we planted something of an understanding that we are all citizens in this society and it is our responsibility to change it. But I also very much hope that 30 years from now, they’re not getting their placards out for this shit because I did not think in 2017 a pussy grabbing president could even be a reality and I sure as hell hope in 2047 it isn’t.
Right Now I’m… Reading: The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson
Watching: I’ve just been to see La La Land
Listening to: Kisstory
Pass it On: (Please nominate up to three people that you’d like to see featured on The Muse) Sophy Henn: @sophyhenn – Whose latest character Edie would definitely have been marching on Saturday!
Sarah Topping: @sarahtopping3 – An ex colleague and good friend, Sarah is an exceptional copy writer
Ann Eve is currently working with two of her favourite things: food and people helping each other out. Communicating the good work that food charities do. She also enjoys mags, laughing too loudly, kitchen dancing, greyhounds and her two lovely kids. www.annmeve.com
A mixed ability martial arts class in Kent was not where I expected to experience a mental health epiphany.
I’d started going to martial arts to get fit, get strong and learn how to hit things.
I can barely tell my left from my right. I have no co-ordination. I don’t like touching people.
First lesson: stare an unfamiliar man in the eye whilst running my hand along his sweaty inner arm, from wrist to bicep, then mock hitting him in the temple. I would cringe, flail, apologise, get it wrong, pretend laugh at myself, make a joke. “It’s okay, you’re learning”, I heard again, and again, and again. I loved learning how to hit, kick, defend myself. I loved the beauty of the practice sequences and the crack when you accurately landed a punch in a mitt.
Our teacher, John, isn’t quite sure of my name (I go with a friend. We look and sound similar). When he’s tired, he expostulates. I want to hit things. In this hierarchical system, I have to listen actively and with intention. I sigh about that.
Back in February 2015, I left a comfy job of 11 years. The field was academic psychology. We’d tease each other with mock diagnoses of addiction to hot sauce or booze, of obsessive desk-tidying or propensity to collect small change. Gallows humour to help us deal with some of the sad, sad stories we’d read every day.
I’d read a lot of psychological questionnaires, designed to probe people to (unwittingly) divulge symptoms of depression, psychosis, addiction, anxiety. Definitions of anxiety would come just that little too close for comfort. My inability to stop worrying was only because of our awful, angry, noisy downstairs neighbours; becoming easily irritable – well, two small children. Feeling nervous for more than two weeks? Money. Inability to sit still? Just a fidget, always a fidget! And who’d blame me for being irritable and anxious at home? Our building of twenty-eight flats managed one double murder, one unfortunately successful suicide and an electrical fire by our front door that left us without electricity and water for five days.
One year later, 25 miles and a world away from that fucking building, and then away from academia and my colleagues, my friends. My desk was now the kitchen table and my only colleague a retired greyhound called Robbie. I had the job I’d longed for, events and PR for a company that I’d admired for years. Working in food, being around the kids more, no commuting! No more office politics and sad stories! Now in a house! No drunk and incoherent neighbours! No crime scene tape!
Despite being away from all this, I still couldn’t relax. Every infraction would be given a catastrophic end point; leaving out the milk meant wasting money and environmental disaster; my kids back chatting me meant they’d walk all over us in the future. I’d shriek and shout, boiling into rages, swearing and slamming doors.
John the Martial Arts instructor is flexing his considerable bicep. “This is not strength, this is tension”. Releasing the crunch in his arm, he swings his body back over his left hip, leaning his weight back. His eyes seem to shut, but they are focussed on the boxing mitt ahead. His left arm now sailing through the air, feet, legs, hips, core, chest, neck, head, all spiralling towards the mitt. As his gloved hand meets the crash pad, the black belt holding it is spun 180 degrees to his left. “That is strength. To be strong you need to be calm, be in control, and flexible. Tension is not strength”.
Working in psychology didn’t help me to see what was plainly in front of me. Putting myself in the position of novice & least able was what I needed. Add to the mix a husband who supports me and is my champion.
Familiarity with the science of anxiety and mental health issues was the foundation. We’ve all got out issues. John’s martial arts advice was my epiphany. Now I meditate, I’ve tried to get to what I wasn’t dealing with (work! money! ambition!), I make exercise as important as feeding my family or changing the sheets.
Now when we practice hooks my arm curves through the air, my gaze is on the pad and my body is learning to turn with my arm to increase power. This term I’m learning to coil it back, hold it, then release and let my arm move with its own momentum. If you set it up right, the punch will land.
I’ve learnt how to land a sound right hook. I like to hit things and hear the crack of my fist.
Right Now I’m….
Watching: RuPaul’s Drag Race, Schitt’s Creek, Transparent, Parks & Recreation. Wish I could get ‘Atlanta’
‘Down in the City’ by Elizabeth Harrower. Domestic violence in mid-century Sydney. ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ by Lucia Berlin. A collection of short stories, writing about motherhood, caring, alcoholism. Sparse and provoking.
‘A Book for Her’ by Bridget Christie. Saw Bridget at ‘End of the Road’ – funny, perceptive and smart.
Sheila lives near Chelmsford in Essex, and has been writing avidly since childhood. For most of her life she worked as a medical secretary, retiring early to concentrate on her writing, Sheila is the author of 11 contemporary novels. Part 1 of Sheila’s brand new digital series ‘The Vets at Hope Green’ will be released by Ebury Press on 19 January, followed by the paperback of the complete story on 1 June 2017. http://www.sheilanorton.com/
In at the deep end: How a failed swimmer finally overcame her fears
I’ve occasionally been asked, in interviews or on questionnaires, to talk about my proudest achievement. Without wanting to be mawkishly sentimental, my personal response is always ‘my family’ – because, well, obviously bringing up my three daughters was the best (and sometimes the most challenging!) thing I’ve done, and I’m not afraid to say how proud I am of them all. But the interviewers have usually wanted a writing career-based response, and there have been lots of possible answers, from winning two short story awards, to selling my first novel to a publisher, to writing so many of my earlier novels alongside working at a busy full-time job in the NHS. But there’s another answer, that has no connection with writing or even with my family, and it’s this: I’m ridiculously proud of myself for learning to swim!
I was never what you could call an active child. I spent most of my time with my head in a book, or dreaming up stories in my imagination. True, I did at least have to walk everywhere – I didn’t learn to drive until my mid-thirties – and that, together with the lack of junk food available during my post-war childhood, might have kept me from an early obesity-driven grave. I did take up cycling at one point before I passed my driving test, mainly to get to and from the shops more quickly. But I gave up after the massive humiliation of being overtaken on a hill by an eighty-year-old acquaintance, who waved and called out to me as she passed, while I could only manage a wheeze and a puff in response.
School PE lessons were, for me, the devil’s own torture device. You know the stories about the child who nobody wanted to pick for their teams because she was so totally useless at every game? I was that child. I suffered that mortification on a regular basis. I never learned the rules of netball. I hated hockey with a vengeance, scared stiff of being hit by the ball or clouted by someone’s stick. In tennis lessons, I’d actually sit down on the grass court and pick daisies. And in gym sessions, I’d wait for as long as I dared in the line to vault over the bloody horse, letting other girls go past me when the (strident, bossy, scary) gym teacher wasn’t looking, and then run up to the thing and pretend to fall over or hurt my ankle at the last minute. How did anyone actually get over it? I watched all the mega-popular sporty, athletic girls with a strangely detached feeling of awe and wonder. Detached, because I didn’t even want to be like them. I wasn’t interested. It all seemed such a profound waste of time and effort.
Swimming, of course, fell into the same category. School swimming lessons when I was a child consisted of being coached enthusiastically for galas if you were one of the best swimmers, and being pretty much ignored to hang around in the shallow end holding a float and feebly kicking your legs if you weren’t.
However, when I was eleven, my dad taught me to swim in the sea. The sea and I have had a lifelong love affair. From toddlerhood, I’d always trot into the shallows enthusiastically, despite not having a clue how to survive if a wave knocked me over. I was, of course, too much of a coward to go out of my depth. But on one family holiday, Dad decided to show me how to float, and then how to throw my arms around in a rough approximation of the front crawl. It couldn’t have been pretty – Dad wasn’t a great swimmer himself – but it worked. I was thrilled. I could swim! Well, after a fashion. By the time I was a teenager, I could just about flounder across the width of the shallow end, often putting my feet down halfway. To all intents and purposes, I was still virtually a non-swimmer.
When my three children were born, all within less than four years, I decided to take them all for swimming lessons, and was thrilled when they all learned to swim at a young age. Not only that, but (because they were being taught properly), they were confident in the water, learned their strokes correctly and all became very good swimmers. I was extremely proud, if a tad envious – but it never occurred to me that I could have done the same. I’d long come to terms with my limitations with regard to anything physical!
And that was pretty much how I remained until a holiday in Australia in 1997. One of our trips was to the Great Barrier Reef. On the boat out to the reef, a marine biologist told us about the amazing sights we’d see by snorkeling in the sea above the reef. I guessed I’d have to miss out on that. But then, she added that if anyone was a nervous swimmer, she could tow them along with a lifebelt and point out the marine life.
‘I’m going to do that!’ I decided, carried away by the moment.
I hadn’t quite thought it through. When it came to being fitted up with my snorkel, mask and fins, I panicked.
‘I’ve never swum with my face in the water before!’ I blurted out to the marine biologist.
I suppose, in my naivety, I’d kind of hoped she’d feel sorry for me, give me some advice, or somehow devise a way I could see the life below the surface without actually getting my head wet. Instead, she gave me a slightly supercilious look and said:
‘So what makes you think you’ll be able to do it now?’
And I reacted in what was, for me, a very uncharacteristic fashion. I sat up straight on the edge of that boat, squared my (shaking) shoulders and retorted:
‘Because I want to!’
The first few minutes were very scary. For a start, I didn’t like not being able to touch anything with my feet. I held onto that lifebelt so tight, my knuckles hurt.
‘Now just rest your face on the surface of the water,’ the (young, fit, sporty) marine biologist instructed me and the other wimps she was towing.
Just like that, ha! But – I did. Surprise, surprise, because of the mask, nothing went up my nose or into my eyes. I could see below the surface! Wow!
‘Just relax and float,’ she went on.
And, yes, I did. I experimented with breathing (having up till then been holding my breath in fear), and it worked. I could do it! Breathe in, breathe out, nothing happened – I didn’t choke, I didn’t sink, I didn’t drown. It was amazing! I saw some fabulous sights during the next half hour – brilliantly coloured coral, huge fish who gazed back at us with disdain, shoals of tiny bright fish who darted backwards and forwards in front of us – but none of it compared with the excitement I felt at the very fact that I’d done it. I didn’t let go of that lifebelt for a single second, of course, but that was beside the point. I’d snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef! Me! It was an experience I’d never forget.
But back home, back in my real life as a wimp, the excitement soon wore off – until one day soon afterwards, my friend Geraldine told me she fancied going to adult swimming lessons.
‘But you’re already a good swimmer!’ I said.
‘No, I’m not. I want to improve my strokes.’
Improve them? I’d just be satisfied with getting some. After a few moments of deep breathing to control my nerves, and before I could change my mind, I said:
‘OK! I’ll join up with you.’
We both started in the beginners’ class. On the first lesson, our instructor asked us to show him what we could do. Geraldine set off powerfully across the pool. What the hell was there to teach her, I wondered? I followed, gasping my way untidily along for a few metres with my head held high. Needless to say I wasn’t expecting applause, but unlike school swimming lessons, there were no scornful titters. The instructor asked me whether I could try putting my face in the water. I shook my head. What, without a snorkel? You must be joking!
‘Just try, for me – duck down very quickly,’ he encouraged me.
Right. I was conscious that everyone else was waiting to get on with the lesson. I ducked my face in and out within a split second, coming up with my hair all over my face, spluttering and rubbing my eyes.
‘Two pieces of advice,’ the instructor said. ‘Tie your hair back. And get some goggles.’
It’s no exaggeration to say those words changed my life. Within weeks, kitted out with my hair band and goggles, I was learning to swim – properly. Within months, I was joining Geraldine in the ‘intermediate’ class (she’d been moved up straight away). Within a year, we were two of the select group of four adults who made up the advanced class. At the age of 49, I could finally say I was a swimmer. I’d learned the correct breathing for front crawl. I’d learned breaststroke, which had always been a complete mystery to me. I’d learned back crawl, and had even had a go at butterfly. I could swim lengths – several lengths – more lengths the longer I learned, the stronger I got. I could pick up a brick off the floor of the pool, jump in at the deep end, and swim wearing pyjamas for survival training. I was finally doing all the things I’d admired my children for doing when they were a fraction of my age.
Despite my excitement, I knew I’d never become a really good swimmer. I’d probably left it too late for that. Sometimes I regret never learning properly when I was young – I missed out on so much enjoyment. But then again, the thrill of having overcome my fears and lack of ability later in life has never worn off. At the peak of my (admittedly still limited) fitness, I undertook to swim a mile for charity. I didn’t find it easy. But every time I felt like giving up, I remembered that scary gym teacher at school, and thought: If only you could see me now.
Nearly twenty years further on, I tire more easily and accept that I have to stop frequently during my thirty lengths, to take a few breaths. Ironically, I find now that I can’t swim without my face in the water – it hurts my neck too much. But yes, I still swim regularly and with asthma and arthritis among other things, I know how good it is for me, and it’s still (apart from walking) the only active pursuit I’m even interested in. I’ve realised it suits me because I’m not at all competitive. I swim alone, the only contest being with the constraints of my own body. When people ask me if it’s boring, just swimming up and down the pool, I reply that it’s my thinking time. Many a plot twist has been devised during a few lengths of crawl!
And of course, my love affair with the sea is still going strong. I might not be so keen these days to fling myself into the freezing waters of the English Channel at all times of year, but give me a warm ocean, a snorkel and the chance to jump off a boat moored in a beautiful blue bay, and I feel as close to paradise as any ex non-swimmer could possibly be.
Right Now I’m….
Watching: ‘Game of Thrones’
Reading: ‘The Road to Little Dribbling’ by Bill Bryson
Listening to: ‘A Head Full of Dreams’ by Coldplay
Pass it on:
Who would you most like to see featured on this blog?
Fenella J Miller @fenellawriter Prolific and very successful self-published historical novelist .
Emily Yau @EmilyWhyy My editor at Ebury Books, who also performs in musical theatre.
Jojo Moyes @jojomoyes One of my all time favourite novelists
Part 1 of Sheila’s new digital series ‘The Vets at Hope Green’ will be released by Ebury Press on 19 January, followed by the paperback of the complete story on 1 June 2017.