I’ve been swimming three times this week; on Sunday for my class, and Tuesday and today for “open swim”. During open swim, I always spend at least half of my time in the water applying Sunday’s lessons. This past Sunday, our instructor had us put together kicking, freestyle strokes, and one-sided breathing; the result was supposed to be something that looked and felt like real swimming.
I am not afraid of the water; I feel like I belong there. I may lived an earlier ichthyic incarnation; that would account for much of the comfort I feel, despite having lived the last thirty-five-plus years actively avoiding swimming pools, oceans, lakes, and other swimmable bodies of water (see my earlier blogpost, ~Swimming~). I first learned to swim from my father, when I was a little girl, and I learned in open waters. My dad was fearless about water; he grew up on a rocky island in what used to be called Yugoslavia (now Croatia). Property his grandfather once owned is an artists’ colony on a beach. This is a webcam at a marina in his town. Of course, it’s all built up now; tourism is the biggest industry. I can see why– it’s beautiful there. A couple of years before my dad passed away, I showed him the view from this webcam on my niece’s laptop. He had a hard time believing that what he was seeing was once his home. He brought out a book that someone had given him, filled with glossy color and old black-and-white photographs of his hometown; we were able to trace the rocky coastline path from his house to his school, a miles-long walk he would take every day. He didn’t recognize the coastline limned in the webcam view. Too much had changed. When he came to this country as a teenager, he crossed the ocean, accompanied by his godmother. His father was already here, working as a longshoreman (I have my grandfather’s gold ILU Local 791 pensioner pin here on my desk). After my dad graduated high school, he joined his dad, working on the docks. After that, he worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, until it closed. After that, his work took him inland; still, we spent all our summer weekends at Jones Beach, or sometimes Sunken Meadow (he and I were the only ones in our family who liked the rocky north shore beach, so that was a rare treat). I wonder now if that rocky shore reminded him of the beaches on Krk.
When my dad taught me how to swim, it wasn’t a disciplined process. First, I mastered a dead-man’s float: then, dog-paddling; then, something that kind of looked like freestyle but was maybe a little too free. My breathing was catch-as-catch-can, not the measured in-through-the-mouth-and-out-through-the-nose-all-on-one-side that I am learning to do now, with my instructor at the Y.
It is very strange to be in my 50s and relearning how to breathe. Breathing is something we don’t think about, for the most part. We just do it. I’ve done other things– yoga, meditation, t’ai chi– where an awareness of my breath was part of the discipline. But relearning breathing when I am submerged in water for half the breathing cycle, concentrating on it, maintaining the discipline and the rhythm of in-through-the-mouth-and-out-through-the nose and making sure that my shoulder rotation on my stroke is far enough to get my mouth just enough above the surface to breathe air (instead of water) without twisting my neck– it seems unnatural.
Sunday, it was really hard to put the pieces together– the kicks, the catch-up strokes, the breathing (right side only). I ended up swallowing a lot of water. Tuesday, it was a little easier; I swam the length of the large pool, back and forth, back and forth, trying to keep the rhythm and the rotation. I’d relax a bit by floating on my back and doing my best imitation of a backstroke while kicking. Today, my progress was in fits and starts; I’d have it for about a third of a pool length, and then lose the rhythm, turn myself over on to my back, and finish the pool length that way.
But before I left, I wanted to have one good, solid stretch where I had it all going. I could do it in my head; my body wasn’t co-operating.
I started at the shallow end, took my breath, submerged, stretched my arms out in front, hands together, fingers pointing to the deep end, kicked off the wall.
And I did it. All the way there, a minute’s pause, and all the way back, no flopping over.
I am feeling like swimming is a metaphor for my life. I am not scared of the deep end. If I get in trouble, I can float on my back or tread water. I do not need to feel the ground beneath my feet. The water supports me, keeps me afloat, wishes only good things for me; I open myself up to it, trust it, embrace it. That is what I am doing with swimming, and that is what I am trying to do with life.
Change is hard, but it’s all there is. If I embrace it, open myself, trust, and do my best, I believe that all will be well and as it should be.