Lesson #8 was last week, and we were displaced to the shallower pool because of a polo match. It's taken me the week to reflect on what I learned, mostly because I've been nursing an intense back pain that started a few days before that lesson. For years I only did yoga. It was the perfect exercise for my body, and the philosophy gave me invaluable lessons for my mind. So many of life's puzzles sorted themselves out as I contemplated the sutras and sweated through stillness. But then I pushed too hard and injured my shoulder, and in the period of recovery, I found running. Yoga philosophy is not tied to the mat, and I found a meditation in the rhythm of my foot falls, until I ran too far - 18 miles and then 26.2 - and had to lay off for some time. That's when I found swimming a few years ago, which forced me to face longtime fears of losing breath. While it got too cold, I went to spin, but by then I was also back to yoga and running. Last week, some mysterious combo of yoga and spin and extra time to do both because of Labor Day wrecked my SI joint. Though it has been improving over the past few days, water is really the only thing that makes it feel better: hot showers, jacuzzi, steam room, and the pool. Though I've cycled through exertion practices for years (I don't really like to call them workouts - they are as much for my mind as my body), it finally sunk in with swim lesson #8 that this is not a failure of yoga or running or my teachers or me. They are all perfect practices when done perfectly, but I am not perfect. I am only human. One day a wrong move, a deeper stretch, or longer distance will sideline me in any endeavor I try. I like to push my body because I like to push my mind beyond my imagined limitations. I am no more wrong to do that than I am to write a book or record an album or earn a new degree. I was once also injured by music, which is how I found book writing. Perhaps instead of cursing my injuries, I should thank them: they are what push me on to new delights.
Swimming lesson #7: I've mentioned it before, but it's beautiful down there beneath the surface. Every time I cross the pool I take it in: the shapes of sunlight in the ripples, the heart shadows my arms make in the breast stroke, the bubbles from my exhales during the crawl. Today we did a bunch of drills and then practiced somersault flips, closing out the hour with a 200 meter crawl with flips between laps (no rests). Though I look around each time I cross, I think today was the first time I kept my eyes open for the flips. My god, it's magical. I've got to remember not just to look where I'm going or to reflect on where I've been, but to pay attention so I can see the beauty in that brief moment that comes with the transition between the two.
I came to the pool for Swim Lesson #6 feeling cranky. It'd been a good morning, actually - I'd just taught two energizing yoga classes. But just before I left the yoga studio to go to the pool, a yoga teacher who came in to teach the next class said a few snarky things, and my mood deflated. It was a good reminder about being careful about the energy we bring with us: her snarkiness snared me, and I brought it with me to the pool. I felt tired, suddenly, and stood on the edge uncertain if I wanted to go in, not feeling like I had the strength for an hour of drills. Though yoga's practice of pratipaksha bhavana says “When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of" (Sutra 2.33), I couldn't manage to flipswitch my mood. I dipped my toe in - the class had already begun warm up laps - and I climbed reluctantly down the ladder. I submerged to my hips, still feeling rotten, and hung on for another minute to the ladder bars, debating whether or not to go in. At last I let go and submerged completely into the sun-filled blue. By the time I pushed back up to the surface, my bad mood had entirely washed away. So lesson #6 was, I suppose, of self-awareness and allowance: be aware of how my mood might influence others, and allow the stark difference of complete submersion to wash away the residue of another's spoiled temper.
It's been go go go for a while now, so before swimming today, I took stock of the past week's accomplishments, which led to today's Swim Lesson #5: Though I take these long days, weeks, months to submerge in my work, I am not a fish, and I am not a book, and there is a whole world to experience when I take time to surface.
Lesson #4: when you stop worrying about running out of air, you look around and realize that it's beautiful under there.
Lesson #3: when an orange sky rains ash, when emergency calls go out for help with wildlife, when homes are mandatorily evacuated, when local residents are advised to keep windows closed, when only 10% of an 11,000 acre fire is contained, no matter if it's hot and you have a swim lesson, the pool is closed.
Lesson #2: simultaneous flexion and contraction of the calf will cause cramping. Though you may still sprint faster than your classmates, it will take you longer to recover.
Lesson #1: be present, and don't panic about the fact that your lungs are empty and your mouth is full of water.
I'm thankful for my swim lessons earlier this year. They taught me how to breathe while in over my head and overwhelmed with sensation -- and how not to drown. This summer, the metaphor of breathing, learning how staying afloat, and understanding when to open my mouth or keep it closed helped me immensely during the most challenging moments of my stepparenting life so far. The lessons I learned in the pool were invaluable in my home, and in helping me to soften into the turbulence of teenage-hood in a blended family. The child who once laughed and loved me easily is growing, testing, changing. She is a glorious being and I am endlessly honored to be one of her parents, but being a stepparent is an interesting role. Sometimes we have it easier than anyone, but many times it's the most thankless role there is. Every Saturday when I returned to the pool, the lessons I learned there solidified. How do you go with the flow when the swimmer in the next lane is doing butterfly laps and churning up whitewater? You learn when to open your mouth, and when to keep it closed.
Now, on the cusp of a new adventure -- this week I begin the course work for my MFA in Creative Writing -- I am again thinking of the pool. I am thinking of the fear I had the first time I jumped in, of the self-consciousness I felt floundering in my beginning strokes, the fatigue that each session wrought in my limbs, the strangeness of showering and undressing in the locker room.
The 10-day residency that marks the official beginning of my work begins tomorrow at 6 p.m. I have been reading like a fiend, trying to get through the required reading and pre-residency assignments, but I have also been taking conscious time with Darby and the girls. Even as I type here, there is an unfinished game of Shrek Monopoly precariously open on the coffee table, inviting the pounce of little paw feet. I have a date with the family to finish this game tonight right after work, and hopefully the cat will not disrupt the properties. Over the next ten days I will miss bedtime stories, choir concerts, and acting class demonstrations. I will miss dinners and early morning dream-swaps with Darby.
Oh, but what will I gain? That is a mystery that is only beginning to unfold.
Meanwhile, since this is what I have been doing lately, I thought I would share with you some of the books I have been reading. Perhaps, if you have just finished your latest novel and are without another on the nightstand, you will be interested to try one of these. Never fear, my copies will be back at the library shortly.
This one -- The Awakening by Kate Chopin -- was one I have been intending to read for years. My singer/songwriter friend Rebecca Loebe claimed it was her favorite, and urged me to read it during our Berklee days. Later she later wrote a lovely, moody song titled "The Awakening by Kate Chopin" so you can probably guess this was my soundtrack through the week of reading. (Listen to the song here. Buy it here -- support indie artists!).
I think ideally I would write a blurb about each book I list, and this is something I may do in the future, but for now I have more writing/reading to finish before class tomorrow night. For now I will leave you with images, and the urge to read books.
When I wrote #57, I had no idea what it could possibly be. But, they say, when the student is ready, the teacher appears. They also say something about lemons and lemonade. I say, when running gives you injuries, take to the pool.
Now, swimming is seriously out of my comfort zone. There are so many aspects of swimming that concern me: first, there's the breathing issue.
Many, many years ago (we're talking 7th grade) I had a summer of asthma attacks. They started with an upper respiratory infection of some sort that I got at summer camp and were exacerbated by some environmental allergen (tree pollen?) in the upstate New York and Quebec Provence air that summer. The deep coughing fits that marred the end of my summer camp stay were followed by intensely frightening asthma wheezing attacks during my family's Canadian vacation. I still remember the panic of gasping for air, trying to take it in and my lungs just not responding to my desperate need. And then, just as quickly as the whole asthma trouble began, it left. By the next summer I was fine.
Except when I went swimming.
For years I retained no trace of asthma except when I over-exerted myself in the water. I took to floating, to sunbathing, to bobbing up and down, but I would not swim. If I ever felt out of breath in the water, panic set in. So I kept myself calm. For twenty-five years.
Which leads to the second swimming concern: swimming.
Since I have made concerted efforts through the years to stay calm, to not swim, to not over-exert myself in water, I cannot swim. I mean, I don't drown, but I just don't swim. Technically, I know *how*. After all, from the time I was itty bitty until 7th grade, I had camp swim lessons. But for the past twenty-five years I have. not. swum. I just don't do it.
And of course the third swimming concern: bathing suit.
Since I don't swim, I don't have a swim suit. Oh, sure, I have a few of what might be listed in catalogs as "bathing suits" but these two-piece things are not actually meant for moving. They are meant to even out a tan, to stay respectable in a hotel hot tub, and take the kids to the beach. In my pre-kid life, back when I was a freedom loving hippie living at a dance and music retreat on the south shore of Massachusetts, I didn't care about suits at all. Back then the only thing I and the rest of the crew brought into the water was a beer, or a trombone, or flowers for our hair.
But injury calls for courage. Conquering of fears. Dipping feet in the water.
Los Angeles Valley College, as it turns out, is only a few miles from my house and my office. There are open lap hours conveniently set up in the evening, just when I leave work, and also on the weekends. And it's cheap! $45 for a 10-use pass during open lap hours. One day I decided to don my sports bra and bikini bottoms and splash in.
Goggles, as it turns out, are recommended.
Swimming, my friends, is not easy. Each time I got to the end of the lane (25 meters), I had to rest and catch my breath. I had to work hard to keep my eyes clear (didn't yet have goggles) and get from one end to the other. Each time I did, it took a full 5 minutes to breath easy again. And then I'd head back.
Now I have goggles, though still no official suit. My hair is dry from the chlorine. I need that most fashionable of hats, a swim cap. But, this past Sunday I enrolled in swim lessons. I've gone to the pool three times this week and already feel myself getting stronger. I still have to stop every 25 meters, sometimes sooner, but it's more because now I am focusing intensely on form.
It's a relief to walk away after an hour of exertion and not feel pain in my foot. It's also a relief to have an exercise to replace running and spin for a while. Moving my body has become an essential need for my personal happiness. It feels good to confront this long standing fear of water - I can feel it melting away. I'm actually looking forward to going to the pool. Yesterday it was the highlight of my day. Each stroke takes enormous concentration, but I am also trying to bask in the eerie silence as my head ducks below the surface between each breath.
And there is the beauty. I wasn't expecting it. In the evening, the golden setting sun illuminates the pool and the other swimmers in a magical way, water spraying into the air with each kick, the flags above the lanes swaying softly in the air. I might be falling a little bit in love.