On Swimming

15 Feb, 2017

Oracabessa, St Mary, Jamaica

To myself,

On swimming,

             A conversation with a man you met while walking down the street:

“What are you looking for?”

“I’m looking for myself.”

“What about love?”

“I want to love myself.”

“What are you afraid of?”

You didn’t reply.  But you later discovered the answer while swimming in the sea.

You first learned to swim as a cadet at the Air Force Academy.  In the dead of winter, you walked half a mile facing the wind, slipping on icy concrete ramps in your shiny, black military issued shoes, just to get to the indoor pool.  Basic Swimming 101.  A mandatory course.  It was eight weeks of breast and back stroke, swimming under bulk heads, treading water, leaping off platforms, avoiding crotches, folding arms across nipples, swallowing chlorine, giggling, shivering, and wiping snot.  You passed the class with a D.

Now, you swim for fun.   In a pool, you push yourself effortlessly through the lanes, and evoke what you learned in swimming class.  Relax.  Make your body a line.  Keep your toes pointed.  Breathe.

You kick your feet to sail through the water.  You cling to the walls when you are out of breath.

In the ocean, where there are no bounds, and where danger lurks beyond and beneath, you wade in the water or linger on shore but you never swim.  You never go where your feet can’t stand firmly on the earth.

But you still remember the one time you felt invulnerable to the forces of the deep.  It was your honeymoon.  You were on a beach in Florida, floating on your back.  Your new husband from the Bahamas was standing on the shore.  You were floating away, aware of only the sound of the waves and the sunlight on your face.  Away you drifted, thinking of beautiful things, like I do, and happily ever after, and to death do us part.  You didn’t know you had drifted so far until you tried to stand, and all you felt was nothing.  There was nothing to hold you.  Nothing to keep you from falling but yourself.  You looked at the shore.  His face was looking at yours, smiling, but so far away.  Your breath was shallow.  Your heart in a flutter.  You push your arms to swim forward but the waves are pushing you back.  Salt water spills into your nose.  You whisper, “Help.”  And he is there smiling, capable, but content to watch you sink.  Your eyes are wide and frantic.  You yell, “Help me, please.”  Now he is laughing.  All you see are teeth.  You wave your arms and kick your feet.  Never getting any closer.  You cry out for help again.  He sits down on the sand.

You never learned to tread on water.  In water survival, you passed, by floating on your back.  In that moment, you spin yourself back around to face the sky.  You move your hands above your head, and swoop them down like a bird.  You watch the clouds, and pray you are getting closer to the shore.  You swoop, and kick your feet, swoop, and kick your feet, until you find the courage to try and feel for the ground again.  When you finally feel the sand between your toes, you cry, and walk slowly to the shore.  Your newlywed husband asks, “What’s wrong?”  You cannot look at him.  You cannot touch him.  Neither of you knew it was a premonition of what was to come.

Yesterday, you went to the sea alone, and stared into the deep.  Remembering seven years ago, when you never knew it was possible to feel so alone.  When the person you thought you could depend on most could watch you struggle while basking in the sun.  This became your greatest fear.  Of being swept away in the waves, the feeling of weightlessness, of helplessness, of not being able to feel the earth under your toes.

At first, you sit down on the sand, and let the salt water rush past your ankles.  You look far out into the horizon where the turquoise waters glimmer into blue.  It is noon, so the sun is beaming high up in the sky.  Your thighs, wet and glistening in the sunlight.  You stand up, and walk through water so clear you could see mosquito bites on your toes.  Sea urchin, sea weed, silver fish, a floating leaf.  You walk past these things as the water rises to your waist.

As soon as the water reaches your chest, your breath quickens, and you swim back to shore.  You repeat this several times, allowing the water to climb further up your body.  Your waist, your chest, your neck, your chin.  Each time, you feel the waves drawing you deeper, you feel afraid.  You swim away to your safe place on the shore.

From the shore, you look at all the people suspended in the deep.  You wonder how they do it so effortlessly.  Why are they not afraid of being swept away?  How are they so comfortable with floating on the waves?  What are you so afraid of?

You step into the waters again, more certain, you tell yourself:  You can swim, whether or not your feet touch the ground.  You can swim, whether or not there is anyone there to save you.  You can let go and float.  Let the waves carry you.  When you are ready to come back to shore, just swim.

So you do.  You let the water touch your chin, and when you start to feel your breath cave in, and your heart begin to race, you lift your feet from the ground and swim just a bit further.  In these deeper waters, you feel light as a breeze.  The salt lifts you up, making it easier to float.  You exhale, and lift your face to heaven.  Your body drifts over the waves.  You look up to the blue sky, and all you can hear is the sound of your beating heart.



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