I watched Maria struggle with learning to float on her back in our local public pool. It was her second week of swim lessons. The instructor had his hand underneath her, holding her up, and he was encouraging her to relax, and spread her arms and legs out. He was there, he told her soothingly, and nothing bad could happen. Maria’s arms were flailing and slapping the water, and her rigid legs were sticking out of the water like two arrows shot from the same bow.
This was actually progress. She had spent almost all of the first week clinging to the side of the pool and wailing. And last year’s lessons, when she was two, were a study in a small-scale disaster. We were in the pool together for those classes, and she had absolutely no interest in anything but the bucket of pool toys the instructor brought with her. Every day we tried, and failed, to practice blowing bubbles, dunking, and doing “big arms.” Leg-kicking was the only area where she would make any effort at all, in short spurts, and only because we shamelessly dangled toys like carrots as a reward. Her stubborn tendencies were on full display, as were mine, and many days our lesson ended early. Sometimes very early.
This year we decided to put her into the first level of real swim lessons straight away. No toys, no holding onto Daddy, no getting out early. Thus, the initial clinging and wailing.
It might sound harsh, but we desert dwellers take the ability to swim seriously. We have to. In
Phoenix, every other house has a pool, and
for a long time we led the nation in child drownings and near-drownings every
year. When you live here, swimming isn’t
a luxury; it’s a survival skill. So,
watching her struggle with putting her face in the water, or floating, while
difficult, was a hell of a lot better than the alternative.
It’s funny, we didn’t have this problem with Jessica. Maria’s big sister took to the water like she fondly recalled spending the first nine months of her life in amniotic fluid. Watching her around a pool is like watching a reunion, or a homecoming. And she’s always been enthusiastic about swim lessons; it’s one of a small list of things we don’t have to fight to get her to do.
I watched Maria struggle internally between doing what the teacher was telling her to do, and doing what her instincts were telling her to do. She was afraid of sinking under the water, and no amount of calm, rational instruction was going to penetrate that desperate need to keep herself up, to not let the water swallow her. I’m sure she could feel the teacher supporting her from below, but her own thrashing made it impossible to hold her completely steady, and that sensation of tipping, of going over (and after that, down), only intensified the arm spasms, and the stiffness of her toe-clenched legs.
I was older than Maria when I took swimming lessons, probably six or seven, and I remember that feeling. I remember how difficult it was to trust my teacher enough to relax. I completely disregarded that the person standing in the water next to me was thoroughly qualified to be there, and that the chances of anything tragic happening were next to impossible. It only mattered that the omnipresent familiarity of dry land was gone; the water felt so alien, and I felt so vulnerable in it, so helpless. It seemed to strip me of everything I thought I knew to do. The water was danger, and with it came the immediacy of danger, regardless of the presence of one person in red shorts and a white shirt, or a hundred. I could feel a fresh stab of fear with every little wave that lapped my face, and every jerking, graspless reach of my hand for something, anything to hold, and anchor myself. Every time my frantic movements caused me to almost juggle myself out of the instructor’s hands, I was seized again by the certain sense that I was going to drown…
Of course, I did eventually learn to float tolerably well. I learned to let my legs go slack enough, and stick my belly up into the air enough, and breathe slowly and deeply enough, and use my hands to gently swish the water enough to maintain buoyancy. But I was far from an easy, or quick, student.
I watched Maria struggle to float while my own experience flowed through my mind. The thought came to me that swimming lessons are really only partially about learning how to swim; they are just as much or more about learning to trust. Trusting your body, trusting nature, trusting your teacher, trusting something other than your own mind. And I further realized that trust had always been an issue for me, still is very much an issue. I’ve always relied on my mind for the answers, and if my mind couldn’t give me one, it was because I wasn’t thinking hard enough, or clearly enough, or I wasn’t employing the right strategy, or I was missing some key information. A million different possible flaws in my thinking system that served to obscure what was ultimately undeniable. It felt almost blasphemous to think such a thing, but I had to admit that sometimes the brain is the wrong tool for the job at hand.
Learning to float is a great example of this. Someone can tell you everything you need to know about how to float. You can memorize instructions, observe and take notes while others demonstrate, listen to all the pointers offered by the best teachers in the world. You can know all the information there is to know about floating, and still not be able to do it. With some things, you reach a point where you have to turn away from the mind, and rely on other aspects of your being.
Of course, knowing that you need to rely on other aspects of your being is also not the same as doing it, and that’s where I am now. Learning how to use my being in its fullness, learning how to trust beyond my brain, learning how to float when I’m not in the pool.
I watched Maria struggle and wanted to reach out to her, not with spoken words –they would only bounce right out of her ears again, but in a way that could find her, cut through her panicked mind and her resistance, and deliver peaceful urgings through the very water in which she was immersed, and be absorbed directly into her body. It’s okay. Let go. Nothing bad can happen.
She’ll get it, of course. Soon she’ll get the feel for the strange, there-but-not-there quality of water, and learn to rise with it instead of sinking through it. My words, intended for her, doubled back on me instead, where I sat, outside the pool, struggling to learn how to float in everything except water.
I wondered spontaneously if I looked as ridiculous to my instructor as Maria must look to hers. The thought made me laugh, and in laughing, relaxed just a little…
It's a start.