17 Swimming Lessons

17 Swimming Lessons
Photo by Thomas Park / Unsplash

I. Last Year

Your physio says surgery won't be necessary. He gives you an exercise to do, adding, 'Swimming is good.' Seeing your doubtful expression, ' Biking is also good. Even walking is ok,' he says.

For most of a year, you do the exercise morning and night, walk often and you buy a bike. It helps a bit.

In the summer you breast stroke cautiously around a pool in the river until algal bloom dissuades swimmers. You try the sea with a friend as insurance, but bobbing and chatting in the waves doesn't really cut it and the weather is no longer warm enough anyway.

You phone a swimming instructor who invites you to join his lunchtime group.

II. On your back

It takes nerve to go along to the pool at lunchtime and demonstrate your self-taught freestyle, turning back before the deep end triggers fear. He kindly directs you towards another lane and describes how to kick on your back, stopping at the steps to avoid aqua-joggers and panic. You kick back and forth for 20 minutes or so and agree to join his beginner's class.

III. Synchronised swimming

The coach has gathered a group of three middle-aged women. You introduce yourself to the other two during the warm-up breast-stroke, noting that a late run at learning to swim might be all that you have in common. You kick on your back up and down the lane, wondering where the others are and whether you are in their way. Then you are shown to raise a graceful arm above your head and kick some more. You are too self-conscious to giggle.

IV. Taking the punishment -and the kudos

The other two know the next exercise but you are taken by surprise that after kicking on your front you are expected to turn over and kick on your back to breathe. Arms flail, backwash floods nose and mouth, panic suffocates you.

This goes on for several swims.

At a conference in another town, you go to the local baths each morning. The small quiet pool where no one knows you makes swimming feel possible.

A woman sharing your lane asks, 'Are you doing kicking drills?' It sounds competent. 'Yes, kicking drills,' you say.

At breakfast there is a look of respect when you say you are going for a swim before the keynote speaker.

V. A profound understanding of the evils of water-boarding

Ok, you can turn over in the synchronised swimming position, now do it with arms by your sides. Face down it feels like the eponymous fish sculling along, how easy this would be if you could breathe water. But the turn! Panic and flailing recur, you come up with three inches of water over your face and sink and splash.

Your life really does pass before you, and not just when you are in the water. You think about swimming and childhood and life every waking moment, some of which are in the middle of the night.

You mention to the coach that you might give up.

VI. Therapeutic questions

The coach asks a. are you enjoying it? (Enjoy? This reverberates in your mind as a faint possibility.)

b. Why are you doing it? (He suggests to overcome something or to give yourself a challenge. He doesn't know that the fear of surgery is greater than the fear of water. But his reasons resonate too.)

c. How will you feel if you give up? (Unfair! That question gets under your guard. You know you will feel like the kid who didn't get picked for the team.)

You are hyperventilating at the end of the pool. He reminds you to breathe out and leaves you to compose yourself. You kick back down the lane to him.

His questions peck away during the week, waking you at first bird song.

VII. Embrace the process

A friend offers to swim with you. When you arrive she is breast-stroking sedately up and down, keeping her hair dry. You join her, kicking on your back. A man swims right over you, ricochets onto your friend and apologises while you all tread water. You politely point out that it is the slow lane. He goes to the next lane.

There are children playing with balls on the far side. Their squealing is like the sound of dying dolphins in the movie you saw last night but you try to think how happy they are and how when they are old they will love the water. You finish the length and come up to find scuba divers in a huddle as if about to bomb the Rainbow Warrior. You have never seen scuba divers at the pool before, they are surely plotting against you. You do another length as green flippers go whistling by. Your friend swims on, oblivious. In the shower, you cry.

VIII. Use your powers

A colleague at your counselling practice demonstrates the stroke. She looks so cute and earnest standing in the office wiggling like a fish, it brings a smile during your next practice just to think of her. As a result you relax and pick up speed.

She reminds you that you have other skills. You set out to use what you know to grasp this slippery concept that you don't know.

IX. Surrender

You turn up to the next lesson and re-commit. The coach gives a surprised smile. You talk about the 'struggle and surrender' you have felt. You want to fudge it by saying 'accept' but you owe the process the bigger word. The coach meets the word halfway.

During the lesson you relax as far as possible and allow him to scrutinise you as you move slowly and ineptly down the lane. He stands at the edge with his head on one side and offers comments when you surface. It helps a bit.

He lends you a book which he says explains the process. He has plenty of patience, he says.

X. Chop wood, carry water

The book talks about fear, shame and persistence on the road to mastery. Monsters under the bed are your bread and butter, you can handle these things.

The martial arts apprentice begins by doing menial tasks for the master, never knowing when his training will commence. Have the preceding weeks been the time of chopping wood and carrying water? Time is not the issue.

At first bird, when sleep won't return, the book is comforting.

XI. Throwing everything at it

You consult the homeopath for a remedy for post-swimming hayfever. You say you seem to be allergic to the chlorine in the pool. She asks some questions and types into her computer. She gives you a remedy which goes with 'fear of drowning' and 'hurt pride'.

XII. One leg kicking

The coach gives new instructions and a kick board. The board feels like demotion but you'll try anything.

To demonstrate the kick he mimes flicking a towel. You recall how you spent a weekend learning to crack a whip. You were sixteen, trying to impress someone you were in love with. You hadn't taken into account that no one would come near a teenager whirling 10 feet of leather around her head. But the crack was very satisfying when it happened.

Days later, you see in your mind's eye one leg kicking. Some synapse deep in your brain has connected, like Michaelangelo's God animating Adam. You can't wait to try it.

It works.

XIII. Whose karma is it anyway?

A man dies and knocks on the Pearly Gates. He says to St Peter, 'Thank God, I thought I might be going to Hell.' St Peter says, 'It's all the same place. What makes it Heaven or Hell is who we put you with for eternity.'

Just then, Henry VIII goes by arm in arm with Marilyn Monroe. The man says, ' Well, how does that work? Henry VIII led a terrible life, and he gets Marilyn Monroe!'

St Peter says, 'How we choose to punish Miss Monroe is none of your business.'

XIV. I-thou

You lend the coach a favourite book. He is building a chair to relax in.

You are reclaiming your animus, your courage. You book a trip to Vietnam.

XV. Dr Suzuki says...

Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen it's all mixed up. After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. The difference? Your feet are a little further off the ground.

You want to tell the coach how remarkable it has been so far, how exciting the next steps look. You guess he knows, he does this all the time, but relating is important.

XVI. That water's not going to swim itself!

You can't stay agog about the process forever, your family is getting a little worried and you're boring your friends.

Time to settle down now and swim those laps.

XVII. From Process comes Progress

I'm trying to learn to swim....I'm learning to swim....I'm swimming...