I am learning to swim.
Except I think my body already knows. It’s the oddest feeling, one of the oddest I’ve ever had.
Let me explain.
For reasons too tedious to go into, I don’t like putting my face in the water but I love to swim. How do I do it? My ex husband taught me, 23 years ago now, to do a basic lifesaving stroke. It’s a bit like being an enormous frog—but between that and back stroke and simply keeping my head out of the water whatever I’m doing I’ve swum an awful lot over the past twenty years. I like it—it makes me feel as no other exercise does.
Let me explain, too, that for most of my life people have assumed I’m a swimmer. They take one look at my broad shoulders and exclaim it—as if swimming grew shoulders and not the other way around. And I guess I am a swimmer, of sorts. I’ve swum at all times of day or night—in empty pools, hot pools, fast pools, crowded pools, pools where they forget to turn on the lights. I’ve swum in pools outside in winter in Colorado, with steam rising off the water and snow falling on me and the water warm as a bath. I’ve swum where the Dallas Cowboys train (and learned what “fast pool” means). I’ve not swum in the ocean, much, or in lakes—and I swim not just for exercise but to hatch myself out of myself, to enter an entirely new place.
People complain about swimming. It’s too much trouble—changing, getting wet, showering, changing again—but all that’s the part that captivates me. It’s an initiation. A transformation. An entering. Sometimes swimming for me is difficult, if I’ve not done it in a long time and I’m out of shape, if I’m swimming next to a triathlete who’s been freestyling through the water for an hour already, if I’m feeling particularly embarrassed about my enormous frog stroke. When I’m out of shape I give myself a certain amount of time in the water—and the promise simply to move in it for that long, without stopping. Swimming for me comes back quickly—in a week I can double my time, in a month I can swim for an hour.
And each time, no matter what, the transformation. I change. I relax. The water, the movement, the exertion, the struggle all feel natural. Despite my awkwardness, I feel at home.
But still I am embarrassed. I don’t feel that my swimming is real swimming, and that is what I wish I could do: the forward crawl, freestyle, that on-your-belly graceful sleek cut-through-the-water stroke that everyone—except me and the old ladies—seems born knowing.
I am learning to swim.
I’ve had two lessons with Beth, my instructor. Beth is positive and happy and a mom, and unlike some previous instructors who treat me like glass seems instead to intuit an inner toughness and pushes me accordingly. Did I mention I’ve had two lessons? Within the first thirty minutes of the first lesson, I was swimming freestyle.
Not breathing well and panicking a lot but, still. Swimming.
The funny thing is, I’ve never done it and yet I knew how. Beth tells me to get in the water and swim freestyle without breathing for as far as I can and when I come up, three quarters of the pool later, I feel glorious. I feel transported. I feel fast and streamlined and sexy and long and strong as if I’m possessed by something that knows how to fly. Beth is amazed. She tells me I’m perfect—my stroke, my kick, my form. She tells me I’m fast, clearly without even trying to be fast. She tells me I have great lung capacity. She tells me that I already know the hard strokes people struggle with—my enormous frog turns out to be an almost-perfect breast stroke, my back stroke is wonderful. I have good upper body strength and a strong pull. She tells me that once I get comfortable breathing there’ll be no stopping me.
No stopping me? What do I do with this? I am far too used to my limitations. Far too comfortable with not knowing how. When I get good at things I run from them—this blog, people, places, jobs. But I’m coming to realize that maybe there are some things that I can’t escape. That are, instead, built into my bones and etched into my soul, that come from some other place. Inborn, inescapable things: the gift of writing, the gift of getting along, the gift of sensitivity, the gift of understanding dogs, the gift of my smile—and now, the gift of swimming.
I’ve been cataloging gifts the universe has given me. This week, I can see a little bit the gifts I send out into the world. That are inevitable parts of me. That are the pieces of who I am. My knowledge of them feels clumsy, the controls and filters are unfamiliar, they tumble out into the open and expose me.
My world is transformed.
I am swimming.