Julia de Rosenwerth
14th March 2017
When you think back on your childhood, what comes to mind?
WORK/ MORE/ HARDER/ UP
When I ask myself this question, an uncomfortable bubbling arises in me. I used to be quite a serious gymnast and I didn’t have a lot of free time. The word that comes to mind when I think about my upbringing is ‘hard work’ – so much so that I think doing became my personality. Don’t get me wrong, I was extremely privileged to have been able to pursue something I was good at and loved – for a time. The sport taught me great skills that have accompanied me through my life: Discipline; Tenacity; Perfectionism.
If I had to personify my sporting career into one moment it would be me sprinting down the vaulting strip and vaulting over only to land on the cold, hard concrete on the other side; passing out and then deciding to carry on with the competition with an almost fractured heel.
(Don’t worry, this is actually happened)
I was a little soldier, marching my way from one thing to the next (in the strangely robotic, tippy-toe walking style that is required and taught to budding gymnasts).
A little while ago I began clearing out my bedroom. I hauled everything out from the stale corners and dusted the skirting boards. In the process I came across all the medals that I had won once upon a time when I was a different person. A literal box of them, as I had been reminded. All the colourful ribbons were slightly crumpled and twisted around one another, weighed down by the gold, silver and bronze-painted metal disks below. Some clunked and others tinkled as I hauled them out. I had resigned myself to throwing away all the other gymnastic paraphernalia, bar my sequinned green and gold leotard and these medals.
I started thinking about my time as a gymnast, my coaches and my friends. Memories started to unfold in my mind and two in particular stood out.
<Brazil, 2005: I had developed a strange fear of going backwards. I would freeze on the beam for hours waiting for the courage to do my somersault but it often never came. This was happening at the warm up for the competition I was entered for. My coach threatened to withdraw me from the competition in front of the officials if I did not perform it immediately>
<Chile, 2006: My coach told me I could be entered into the level above the one I was entered for if I was able to complete a move that I had never done before. I tried very hard but, of course, I couldn’t complete it- disappointing her. The next day I flunked out in my own level>
(WORK/ MORE/ HARDER/ UP)
While rummaging amongst my memory boxes I had a simple yet powerful realisation that I had never, and I mean never, had a chance to get to know myself because I never had the time. And when I did get the time I filled it with more things to do in order to dull the low drone of self-directed hate speech.
Recently something happened: I began a process of breaking and flaking away.
There’s an image that often comes to my mind. It’s not a memory and it isn’t a premonition. I’m not really a human, well, I am, but I have an odd construction. I have a lot of skin, but it is strange skin. It is not fleshy at all, but reedy and brittle and it covers me in large oval sections; layers, one on top of the next. Almost as soon as the image comes to mind, I begin to spin very slowly. It is as if I am on an axis. As I turn, layers of my skin start to flake off and fall to the ground. When they touch the floor, they turn to sand – not soil, but pale beachy sand. I never get to the point where I am able to see what is in the centre, but I know something is there and that it is vibrant and alive, fleshy and soft. I also have the overwhelming sense that the whole construction is me. But, I am breaking and flaking away.
Things do fall apart. Things, memories, ideas of oneself fall apart at some point.
A dear friend once told me that, “…softening often feels like breaking”, and it does. Once the brittle layers begin to peel away from the fleshy centre there is some kind of a death that happens. And all of a sudden you’re left scattered; your most important pieces floating somewhere around yourself, not fully tied down and difficult to grab. They slip out from between your oily fingers.
I went, tentatively, to a scenography workshop in February. This was our instruction regarding what to bring along:
“Try think of things you did, you do, liked to do, as well as dreams and desires of things you [haven’t yet done] … Sports, games, hobbies, the silliest of stuff may be your special something that will nourish you…”
I decided to bring my box of medals…
All around my neck, they created somewhat of a ruff. When I walked, they tinkled together, when I fell they shattered to the ground. When I rolled, they crashed about my neck, collecting on each side. The weighted ribbons slightly suffocated me. I found that I could tie all the medals around my head at the top so that my face was completely covered by the colourful ribbons. This masked my face and created a huge weight on the top of my head. It transformed the way my head felt on my shoulders and off-set my sense of balance.
In this context I was made able to look at these medals as objects in their own right- with texture, weight, colour, property.
<Some things walk (with) you to your grave>
But for a time, there was something soothing about allowing myself to become mesmerised by the medals’ ability to become themselves: objects, not ideas, not symbols. Like a time-traveller walking through the spaces of my mind, I began to plant some new images, some new associations. In that moment I hoped that they would grow and enmesh their green shoots between the barky, deep-rooted trunks.
And then I asked myself: “Why do you do what you do?”
And I answered, “Because I have to. Because it is life or death.”
Image by James Macdonald