Once upon a time, I used to be a swimmer. I was never all that fast, but I pulled in a few blue ribbons for backstroke on my town’s tiny swim team. In my late teens/early twenties, I worked as a lifeguard during college summers, when I taught swim lessons and got more interested in form than speed. Guards had to clock so many laps a week, and by midsummer, I would be in decent shape, logging around 1800-2000 meters every day or so. I’d hop in the lane, snap on my cap and goggles, duck down and push off underwater, taking a long pull and kick before breaking the surface and launching into a steady freestyle. As the summer progressed, my stroke grew stronger and more confident, my breathing deep and controlled. A constant battler of weight and diets, I felt almost athletic, almost graceful out there in the lane, immersed in my own underwater rhythms, counting pulls and breaths. I perfected a wicked flip-turn.
I tell this scintillating tale because I’ve been sitting here for a half-hour, tidying my dusty desk, running a computer backup, and staring out the window, taking in the happenin’ streets of rural Alabama (my neighbor just pulled in her trash bin AND our other neighbor’s bin). To push the swimming analogy, I guess you could say I’m treading water. Or dog-paddling. Just three months ago, I was in top shape, zipping up and down my little writing lane for hours at at time, six days a week. For these past three months of the semester, however, I have waded in up to my waist, splashing half-assedly at this so-called blog every few weeks. This morning, the Saturday of Thanksgiving break, I woke up determined to dive back in. I wanted to take off in full stroke, to churn up the white space with perfect form and grace and precision. Instead, I’m wheezing and panting midway through the first lap, feeling the amino acid burn, my arms spaghetti-sloppy, my kick anemic. I lean on the tile gutter, huffing, feel the doughy lump of yesterday’s Indian leftovers in my cramping stomach.
Three months. That’s all it takes for my muscles to atrophy, the flab to form, to lose not just my breath but my confidence. The truth is, it doesn’t even take that long, and the longer I go, the harder it is to want to dive into that cold, shimmering expanse. It’s what I need to do — I know it — but too often exhaustion trumps all.
So here I am, dog paddling in the shallow end, in a flowered rubber cap and skirted tank suit, while other young, lithe writers zip past in their slim lycra t-backs. I bob in their churning wake, choking on the chlorine fumes, wondering if I shouldn’t take up another competitive sport. Like lawn darts. Or curling. Skee ball?
Here’s the thing, though: Dog-paddling is swimming, too. You can get from one side to the other just the same. It may not be as impressive or elegant or efficient, but maybe it doesn’t always have to be about those things. Maybe this visit to the pool is about the chance to feel water on your skin, to feel the gentle resistance against your limbs, to revel in your own buoyancy. From this pace, you can easily flip into a lazy sidestroke or buoyant backfloat (thanks, body fat!). In fact, from this slow-legged, ungainly pace, you can take in the whole scene: check out the hungover lifeguard with her chin in her fist, the kids monkey-climbing around the gutter in the deep-end, the best girlfriends making front-folded “George Washington” hairdos, the boys wobbling on each other’s shoulders for chicken fights. See the boy walking along the fence perimeter, dragging his fingers on the chainlink, singing to himself. Or the girl alone in the shallow end, walking the slick, black line as if it were a beam and she a dancer, for once a graceful gymnast, weightless, lost in a watery world of invention.
From dog-paddle to freestyle is not that far of a stretch. When you’re ready, just take a deep breath, lean forward, put your face in the water, and strike out. Be patient. It’ll come to you. For now, just keep moving. Just keep your head above water.