Everyday, at 1 pm, I find myself sitting at the edge of a pool taking swimming lessons. I am 40, I don't know how to swim, and have come to face my fear.
Beside me, to my left, sits 7-year old Kaira. She's in a hot pink bikini number with a big square at the back. I sit serious and somber in a ridiculously black number. No squares, no circles, no interesting detail on any part. My swimsuit kinda screams fear, too, as if it presumes the wearer has absolutely no talent in the water. I silently pray, "Please not let it be true! Surely I have some talent!" Sometimes, (because Kaira is often late), it is the 6-year old Dana who sits beside me in an orange little number consisting of a top and bottom. She is the cutest. I try to make conversation but the truth is, we have very little in common.
To my right is 12-year old Gabe (these are false names of course, in case you're wondering). His trunks are blue with red squiggly lines. He has a hard time keeping his head tucked under but he always emerges joyfully. Sometimes in the middle of a lap, we see each other under the water and he always has time to smile. I smile weakly back because I never think my lungs will ever be strong enough for what we are asked to do every day. Along the other ends of the pool are my children and other children, flawless and weightless; in and out of the water like fish. Perhaps their bodies still remember living in water. For now, all I remember is fear.
I'm not sure of the impetus for joining such a class. Maybe it's the unbearable heat. (I do have to say that my most favorite part is when my body slowly submerges into the cool water.) I certainly thought it would be fun to be in a class with the children. But I know myself better. Deep down, I must have truly wanted to learn how to do this. I am told swimming is not always something one has to learn in a class. It is instinctive-but my instinct has been blurred and so I have not swum for many, many years. I mean, I have been in water, but normally I've just been standing and since I can't do that for long, I eventually leave. The kids complain, whine and cry that I am not in the water with them and that I don't play. It must be doubly frustrating as we live near the sea during the summer and it is a major highlight of their lives. So I am in class for many, many reasons.
And so, we begin. We warm-up and line up by height. (First day, I joked Coach, if we could do this by age.) We sit by the edge and do our kicks. We do breathing exercises. We do mini-laps first to practice our kicking, and then our free style. We do exercises sometimes individually and sometime in groups. I am surrounded by children and childhood and it is disconcerting. My naturally competitive streak is upset. In a Beginners class of 6 people, where no one (apart from me) is older than 12 years old, I am probably the weakest. And I venture to say, maybe the most afraid.
These are my two major problems: breathing and trusting. You see, in swimming, one breathes through the mouth and exhales through the nose. Not so in singing, where one breathes through the nose and exhales through the mouth. In the beginning I could cross the pool in one breath, but sadly, it was the wrong breath and it is something I must correct. I glide into my lap and breathe through my mouth and as I do my body roll and lift my head for a much-needed breath, it comes in through my nose and so does water. This is what bogs my time and my rhythm, makes me panic, anticipates the eventual failure of my breath. I do not trust myself to change. I can alter my body roll, my kick, but my elemental breathing?
Five out of ten laps, I am sure to stop in the middle of the pool and scream, "I am panicking!" and Coach will have to allay my fears and ask me to practice again and again. I am glad that he gives the same admonition to my classmates. Practice, practice, practice, advice valid for all ages.
The other day, I got a cramp and was asked to sit and observe and I began to wonder when I started to become afraid. I remember being fearless in water when I was young. The first time I saw the sea I instantly thought we were the best of friends and plunged right in. The first time I saw a jellyfish, my reaction was one of wonderment and awe and not paralyzing fear. Its colors fascinated me and its ability to float with intent I wanted to understand. Thus the constant activity of capturing them, placing them in a tin can and sleeping beside them and crying at their demise in the morning.
My parents would introduce me to all kinds of activities-shooting the rapids, climbing small mountains, horseback riding, and I dove into them with no fear in my heart. I had no concept of danger, the undertow, strong currents that could lead you astray, the possibility of any kind of failure. Apparently, that was just naivete speaking.
My first real memory of fear was after watching Star Wars at six years old. Darth Vader was sinister and his costume didn't help me any. In the old house, the bathroom door had slats that at night looked to me like the head gear of Darth Vader and I'd hold my sister's hand and say Jesus' name until sleep would finally take me.
In the sea that I loved, a coral would hurt my other sister and we stood on the sand and watched as her skin ripped and flesh came out. I still remember my knees buckling from the sight of it and I never quite looked at the sea the same way again. On that same trip, I took a small dive and found a family of dead crabs and screamed under water. I came up sputtering and flailing and vomited out of sheer terror. Apparently, all things did have the ability to hurt. Maybe that is the root of all fear-the knowledge that there are no real safety nets in real life. And perhaps that is why one must learn how to swim in childhood where safety nets still abound.
Yesterday, another boy made friends with me. This one is named Jack and I'm guessing he's 10. He makes friends with me because he's afraid too and must know from some core in his heart that we are allies. I give him my biggest smile and whisper, "Ten minutes na lang!" He says, "Ang hirap noh!" I shake my head and know that I am lying and say what I as a grown-up have been trained to say, "But you're doing so well!" He nods, understands the rules of our relationship. I decide to stick to the truth, "Alam mo, Jack, enjoy na lang tayo." And that's where bravery jumps in and begins to swim with me.