A second chance

By Sharon Stephenson

It can be rejuvenating to pick up an interest you thought you’d left forever in childhood, writes Sharon Stephenson

Penelope Ryder-Lewis preparing for her class at the NZ School of Dance, Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Penelope Ryder-Lewis preparing for her class at the NZ School of Dance, Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

As a child, I believed that Santa was real, the tooth fairy was a miserly bugger and Miss Patterson was the best teacher in the world. It didn't take long for my innocence to be lost in the revolving door between childhood and adulthood. Or for my youthful passions to go the same way.

Such as my obsession with skating. I once spent a whole summer poring over roller-blading magazines and threatening to hold my breath unless I got a pair of skates for Christmas. And my ninth year was almost entirely given over to making tiny furniture for a doll's house I adored more than life itself.

Whatever happened to that doll's house, and its misshapen furniture? How did I grow up, and away, from my childhood interests? Is it too late - or too silly - for me to try again?

Canvas met three people who realised age is no barrier to rediscovering their childhood dreams. And that sometimes, the second bite of the cherry can be the sweetest.

PENELOPE RYDER-LEWIS

Other people count sheep to help them sleep. Penelope Ryder-Lewis prefers counting the hours until she can get to ballet class.

Thirteen years ago, the Wellington lawyer rediscovered the love of ballet she'd abandoned two decades earlier. Since then, her hobby has seen the 47-year-old through the challenges of running her own law firm, a high-profile marriage to Hugh Rennie, QC and, most recently, cancer, a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction.

"Ballet is the glue that holds my life together. It helped during my recovery and it gives me a purpose," says Ryder-Lewis.

Tall, elegant and with the kind of posture beloved by yogis everywhere, Ryder-Lewis started ballet as a 6-year-old. Her teacher was Deirdre Tarrant, now better known as the mother of Flight of the Conchords star, Bret McKenzie.

"I was sent to ballet to improve my co-ordination," she says. "I had a happy time and loved the shows, the costumes and dressing-up."

Sadly, though, she wasn't overly burdened with ability. "I wasn't very good. My brain didn't really 'get' ballet. I loved the idea of it but didn't have the talent."

Her mother, who died from cancer almost 10 years ago, did her best to shield her only daughter from the truth. "When I was 7, I failed an exam but my mother let me believe I'd passed. Thirty years later, I discovered I'd failed it."

Ryder-Lewis says an increasing study load, a love of hockey and a sense of being "over it", led her to give up ballet at 14.

At university she would sometimes see the occasional performance. However, it wasn't until her husband was appointed chairman of the Royal New Zealand Ballet that Ryder-Lewis found herself back in the dance world.

From there, it was a short pirouette to checking advertisements for adult ballet classes. She once again enrolled with Tarrant, who has since become a good friend, then was almost sick when it came time to pull on her old leotard.

"That first lesson was terrifying. It felt odd for my body and I worried about having two left feet."

But, by the end of the lesson, Ryder-Lewis felt like she had "put on a comfortable old pair of slippers".

"I was hooked. I couldn't wait for the next class."

These days, she fits in up to three classes a week around her legal career.Ballet posters and calendars fill the walls of her central city office overlooking Wellington harbour.

"I probably wouldn't have had the same depth of passion if I'd been dancing all my life. I don't think it's overstating it to say I'm obsessed with ballet."

Ryder-Lewis also danced her way back to a happier, healthier place after having both breasts removed five years ago.

"My surgeon told me I might not get the range of motion back into my arms. But I'm a tough, ambitious person. I push myself and was determined to get back to dancing, so I patiently did the physio exercises and eventually got there."

These days, Ryder-Lewis is very much about giving back, supporting Pink Pilates - an organisation which helps cancer patients rehabilitate and regain their confidence and strength - and clocking up nine years on the board of the New Zealand School of Dance.

"Ballet gave me back an important piece of myself. I'll never be a fantastic dancer but life's all about taking your courage in both hands and going for it."

DIRK JUDSON

It's 6am on a Saturday, a time when most of us are still hours from our first coffee.

But in Cornwallis, a coastal spot in the Waitakere Ranges, Dirk Judson is lowering his sailing dinghy into the water.

"It's taken me most of my life to get back to sailing, but I can't tell you how good it is to finally follow my life's passion," he says.

Born in Canterbury and raised in Waikato, Judson's nights on the family farm were filled with tales of maritime adventures, from Tom Sawyer and Robinson Crusoe to his father's stories of crayfishing in the Chatham Islands. It's no surprise his favourite quote is from The Wind In The Willows: "there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats".

As a kid, Judson spent a summer on a cruise boat in the Bay of Islands and later sailed a family friend's Laser at Whangamata.

"Experiencing the wash off the boat, skipping through the waves, and the smell and feel of the salt water, that was what got me. I loved the feeling of freedom, of having the ocean as a playground and experiencing the raw power of nature."

A stint at Outward Bound after university further fuelled the father of three's passion but, for the next few years, life got in the way. "Not only was I too busy to sail, but with child support payments, a mortgage and a modest income, I didn't think it was possible to afford a boat."

But, as the teacher turned outdoor handyman poetically puts it, his childhood passion "sat there, comfortable and hopeful, like a warm woollen blanket".

Six years ago, he married Clare and moved to her house at Cornwallis, overlooking Manukau Harbour. Watching the regular flotilla of sailboats, fishing boats and assorted other craft reignited his passion.

"In the end, my wife got sick of me going on about it and said, 'just buy one'. So I found a sailboat on TradeMe for $800, strapped it to the roof of my Toyota Starlet and drove her home."

These days, Judson tries to get out as often as he can in his Janette, a 3.68m x 1.34m traditional boat, designed by New Zealander John Welsford, that can be sailed, rowed or attached to a small outboard. It's his happy place.

"If I'd kept sailing as a child, I may not have the passion I have for it now. It's my favourite way to spend time, either on my own or with a friend."

Judson, who is also a trainee facilitator with Henderson's Living Without Violence Programme, says he loves taking "cocky boys" out in his boat. "The boat humbles them. It's a great teacher."

Not surprisingly, he's an advocate of reconnecting with childhood hobbies.

"Why lie on your deathbed wishing you'd done it? My advice would be to make it happen. Imagine how much time you would have if you didn't watch TV or go to the pub."

MICHAEL NIGHTINGALE

Michael Nightingale is talking about the first time he crossed Cook Strait.

"I was 8 and my father took me and my two brothers to see an uncle in Picton. It was the first time I'd been on such a large ship."

Fifteen minutes into the trip, Nightingale was feeling ill. Thirty minutes in, the St Heliers project manager lost his breakfast overboard. By the 40-minute mark, he wanted to die.

"I remember thinking I'd rather be in the water swimming than on the ship. I wondered if anyone had actually swum across Cook Strait."

Even the later discovery that someone had indeed made the 26km crossing, and that it took 11 hours and 20 minutes to do so, wasn't enough to deter him.

"I tucked it away at the back of my mind. I always knew one day it would come out to play."

As they grew up in Taupo, his mother ensured her four children knew their way around the lake. A move to Waihi Beach saw Nightingale become involved with the surf club, and his love for the water was sealed.

But, when family - he and wife Margaret have two daughters - and work as a project manager in the telecommunications industry took over, swimming was bumped down the list.

Twenty years would pass before he rediscovered it.

"I started again when I had kids. Following my mother's lead, I wanted my kids to be competent swimmers."

He realised how much he missed the exercise, the thrill of pushing himself and the camaraderie of his fellow swimmers. Interest rekindled, the 54-year-old joined Rick Wells' swim squad at Newmarket and after a shift across town, moved to the Glen Innes Aquatic Centre.

Having done the Ironman a few times, Nightingale was casting around for another challenge when he realised it was time to dust off the one that had been hanging around since his first ferry crossing.

"[Fewer than] 90 people have swum Cook Strait. Not only do you have to be prepared, you also need to be lucky with the weather, tides and water temperature."

Two years ago, Nightingale contacted Philip Rush, a multiple Cook Strait and English Channel swimmer, and booked in (it can take two years to get a spot). All going well, he will attempt the crossing next February.

Not only is he facing relentless training sessions in the pool and in the sea, he's also paying $6000 for the privilege.

Yet he's like a small boy who's found the toy in his cereal box. "Getting back to my childhood hobby and having this challenge to work towards is one of the best things that could have happened to me. It has taken a while to get here but it's the right time to do this - I can't wait."

- NZ Herald

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