Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Learning to Float

Today I begin to learn to swim. I’m looking forward to being in the water and achieving a feeling of weightlessness. I imagine this as the closest I’ll ever get to learning how to fly. I think it will be a form of exercise that I’ll look forward to doing and that someday I’ll snorkel in Thailand, watching brightly colored fish dart past me like moving flowers.

Thirty minutes for three months—six hours of lessons—once I learn to float, I’ll have crossed a huge barrier. If it takes me the entire three months, I will learn to trust that the water will hold me. It’s a cradle, not a trap.

But this morning, I can’t think about that. All I want to keep in mind is that I’m going to a pool where I’ll put on my swim suit and let my body be bathed in water for half an hour. I want that on this dark and damp morning.

I love the water. Watching it, being on it in a boat, walking beside it—now I’ll learn to stretch that affinity so I can love being in it, moving through it. I don’t care if I ever learn to dive. All I want is to get in the water, poise myself to float, and then push my way into it. And I want to enjoy doing that. I don’t want it to be a survival skill only. I want to be a swimmer; I just don’t care if I’m a good one.

I’m fatter than I was when I tried this at sixteen, so I should be more buoyant. And I’ve learned to trust situations that I never dreamed of when I was a teenager. If I measure getting on a plane alone to work in a country I’d never been before, for a man I’d never met, floating is no more difficult than that. I did that. I can do this.

When I was six, I was given a bicycle for my birthday. A boy I knew had just learned to ride by using training wheels and I was positive that I would have them too. My father was adamant that I would learn without them; I wobbled and fell a few times and then I became adamant that I would never learn to ride a bicycle. Neighborhood children came to ride my bike while I was more than content to let it rust in the backyard. I suppose eventually it did.

Then I was hit with the dream of going to England, bicycling down country lanes, but of course there was an obvious flaw in that plan. My little brother was ten and he took matters firmly in hand.

Our house was at the top of a high hill and the first slope was all meadow, soft and forgiving. He perched me on his bicycle and sent me down the hill, hollering, “Pedal! Pedal!”  The law of inertia took hold; in motion, I stayed that way and my body took over. Without my thinking about it, I found that I could balance on two wheels. I was elated; my little brother shrugged. “Anybody can ride a bike,” he said, “Even you—see?”

I wish he were here to help me learn to swim.

The lesson he taught me is still clear, perhaps even more than it was when I first learned it. My body isn’t special. It abides by the same rules and has the same abilities as any other, just so long as my mind doesn’t get in the way. This is something to hold in every cell of my skin when I get in the water. Today I want to be out of my mind for half an hour.

So as I sit and drink my coffee, I think of water touching me and soothing sore muscles. I think of water in my ears as being a superior form of the earplugs I turn to every night before I go to sleep. I think of the youtube clip of one of my dearest friends teaching his small daughter to swim.

I think of him swimming in the Andaman Sea and finding dolphins, who stayed by his side. I think of coral trees that he saw growing beneath the water. I want that too.

So many things that we all do unthinkingly are acts of faith—falling in love, marrying, having a baby, riding in a car, getting on a plane—perilous acts, every last one of them. There is nothing perilous about learning to float. It was after all the natural state of every human being for nine months. We were all small anemones, suspended in water, depending on a tube that allowed us to grow. Probably the most difficult thing that any of us has ever done is learning to breathe oxygen after being forced out of the water.

Today I'm going to go back.

No comments: