Out of the Parking Lot and Into the Deep End
My Parents never learned how to swim and so neither did I, but I didn’t feel like I was missing out. My Black Middle-Class Saturday afternoons were filled with Girl Scout meetings, dance classes, errands, homework and chores. I was busy. (And do I even need to mention the hair thing or can we just assume that’s a given?) On the rare occasions I did find myself at the beach or the pool it was largely unpleasant. This unpleasantness fell into two categories.
Category One is the Uncle/Cousin/Friend of the Family/Youth Counselor who is mouth-agape incredulous that you don’t know how to swim. And so with his good/questionable/dubious intentions, backed up by no aquatic teaching skills whatsoever, he heave-hos you into the water expecting your natural instincts to just take over. You’ll magically start swimming like the fish you were born to be or the frightened cement block you actually are. Thankfully, my natural instincts were to catch the lifeguard’s attention before loitering too long at the bottom of the pool.
A variation of this is the Uncle/Cousin/Friend of the Family/Youth Counselor who tenderly takes you out into the water on his shoulders, promising with academy award-level sincerity that he won’t let you go. But he does, with shockingly similar results. You survive, but the seeds have been planted for lifelong trust issues. (And you thought it was the guy that dumped you in summer camp/high school/college. Pshaw!)
Unpleasant Category Two is the obligatory Junior High School trip to the community swimming pool. This is where you learn once and for all that Boys will be Boys (with no consequences) and girls wear tie-string bikinis at their own risk. The beach be damned, Ladies! There are sharks in the shallow end.
Somehow the teacher is never looking (Oh my god, why aren’t you looking? You were 12-years old once too, right?), and mortification doesn’t fall within the lifeguard’s purview. And while you still haven’t been taught how to swim, you do learn that you’re on your own and your best protection is maybe wearing a one-piece and sitting as far away from the water as possible; like back in the parking lot.
But that was a long time ago, right? Yeah, sure. I was a Grown Ass Woman before I could bring myself to buy a bikini. And another three years before I found the courage to actually wear it. So yes, I still remember adolescent boys harassing a bikini-clad girl; circling, teasing, taunting and finally pulling a string loose. For the men who fondly remember this as one of the good old days, I hope you’re impotent.
Wait. That’s mean. And just because that’s the spirit of the country right now that doesn’t mean I should lower myself to it. So let me try that again. For the men who fondly remember this as one of the good old days: congratulations on your presidency.
Who, I ask you, “who” can swim with all of that baggage?
Thankfully, I’m at the point in my life where I’m trying to let go of all the things that don’t serve me. Emotional baggage reduces psychological buoyancy. And fear is exhausting. So I let it go and signed up for an adult swimming class at my local college.
And I loved it! What I loved most was not drowning.
Initially, the hardest part was getting into the water. (Clearly, the swim instructor and I had different ideas about what the term “heated pool” meant.) I marveled at my classmates who could just jump right in. I couldn’t. The water felt so cold. I'd dip a toe in and then pull it back; and try again with just a toenail.
The first time I put my head under the water it was exhilarating. I didn’t expect that since all of my previous under water outings had been fraught with anxiety, panic and terror. But to do so of my own volition was joy! Pure joy!
With my goggles firmly in place, I took a deep breath, bent my knees, went under the water with my eyes wide open and watched the air bubbles fly out of my nose. Now that’s entertainment! When my air was gone I just stood right back up. No fear. Just fun. Amazing! Before finishing the first session I signed up for the second.
Despite my happy eagerness I was not the best student in class. I can safely say I was the best of the worst. I was thinking too much:
Breathe in through my mouth and out through my nose. Are my feet pointed? Are my legs together? Are my hips up? Arms, don’t forget the arms…
And in the time it took me to think of all that, I’d revert to yoga breathing: in through my nose and out through my mouth, which was now wide open and taking in water like as sinking battle ship. But I just stopped, stood up and started over.
I was having so much fun I began to wonder if I was ever really afraid of the water at all. What would’ve happened if I had learned how to swim sooner and if the experience had been more positive? But I don’t spend too much time with these thoughts because that’s dwelling, not living.
On the last day of swimming/not drowning class we ventured into the deep end of the pool wearing life jackets. I requested the whole suit: jacket, pants, shirt, tie, hat, coat… but the instructor and her assistant assured me the jacket alone would suffice.
I protested because muscle makes you heavier and I have very muscular toes. Yes. That’s it: muscular toes. Yeah. They didn’t buy it either and so I put on my life jacket, held my breath and jumped into the deep end! And then, in a surprising turn of events, I part tread, floated and swam back to the shallow end of the pool.
What! Who am I? I don’t even know. But I like her. I like her a lot.
If you’re wondering why I now have the urge to learn how to swim; I mentioned a few paragraphs back that I’m making an effort to dump my baggage and fear. But I’m also acutely aware of the new era I’m living in. The bullyboys I thought I’d left behind in my adolescence are grown and drunk with power. Everything I am is under assault: my gender, my culture, my health, my safety, my sanity and so I think it’s only prudent to build up my survival skill set. Black belt? It’s a little rusty but check. Swimming? Check.
Next up? I’m getting a permit and learning how to shoot; or take salsa-dancing lessons, whichever comes first. Because I’m nothing if not well rounded. And because, quiet as it’s kept, it’s not even safe anymore in the parking lot. It’s all the deep end now.