Come On In, the Water’s Just Fine

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She was standing ankle deep in water on the stair platform at the shallow end of the pool: a wide-eyed, zaftig, 25ish Somalian woman, staring straight ahead.

I swam down in her direction, swam back, swam down again. When I stood up at her end to adjust my goggles, she looked over at me. “It’s too cold,” she said. “The water. It’s too cold.”

“Oh. Well, you just have to get in all the way. Do it fast,” I counseled. “The longer you stand there, the colder you’re going to get.” Out of the blue, I started flapping my arms about as if I were a cheerleader holding imaginary pom poms. “You just gotta get moving!” I blasted. “Like LIFE!”

She shot me a stoical look that told me she wasn’t about to take my advice. She held firm her ankle-deep position as I swam back towards the deep end.

I swam back and forth another 13 times before she advanced to thigh-high water.  Another 10 placed her up to her waist, arms at sides like a tin soldier, starting straight ahead again.

I would swim another five lengths before she finally bent her legs at the knee and began gently moving her arms in front of her – looking oddly reminiscent of a seahorse, I noticed, as I passed her from the side.

When I go swimming, I start at the deep end and dive right in. Get started. Get going. Get on with it and get out. Over the past few years of regular lap swimming at various locations, I have seen exactly one other person dive into the pool. Oh, and the lifeguard did it once, “in honor of me”.

Then I got to thinking: how many times have I waded into the metaphorical pool of life? Toe first, ankle next, waiting for the temperature to be just right, waiting to feel 100% “ready” and comfortable before putting my head under water to see what awaited me. Sometimes I’d I get out of the pool because there was too much chlorine; my goggles got steamed up; I didn’t like sharing my lane, or I got water in my ear.

One morning during the early months of covid, I was swimming breaststroke at the Y. It’s  my slowest stroke but I like practicing all the strokes cause it’s important to move one’s body in a variety of ways.

As I neared the end of the pool, the aquatics director, Beth, stepped forward to ask me if I minded her giving me a couple pointers on my breaststroke. “No,” I said. “Thank you so much for offering.”

First, Beth started with my arms. Even though it felt completely different, I grabbed her correction easily, with the exception of one thing: “Let yourself glide at the end of the stroke,” she said. “You’re not allowing yourself to move forward.”

Without missing a beat, I smiled and said, “BINGO! That’s been a metaphor for my life.”

As it turned out, not only were my arms off but my legs were as well. I was astonished. How long had I been doing the breaststroke incorrectly? Decades, is the answer, which beckoned the question, “Where else in my life was I out of form and had no idea?”

My frog kick was right on. The problem was in my foot positioning. Due to several years of ballerina training starting at age four, to this day, my foot naturally assumes a pointed-toe position. The breaststroke requires a flexed position. This, then, elicited another inquiry, “Where in my life am I using a pointed toe when a flexed one is required, and vice-versa?”

Now that I had all my corrections in place and was enjoying a whole new experience of the breaststroke, I started looking around the pool for fellow swimmers in need of correction. Nearly no one was doing the breaststroke correctly, unless it was someone from a swim team. There were countless other errors in their front crawl and backstroke as well.

I beckoned Beth over so I could tell her what I observed. “Looks like everyone in this pool could use some of your pointers.”

“Yes,” she said. “But not many people are open to it.”

A few months later, prior to my swim, I was talking to my favorite lifeguard, Bob, a retired engineer. “I love watching you swim,” he smiled. “You don’t waste a bit of energy.” I found that an intriguing comment because outside of the pool, it certainly seemed like I wasted energy everywhere.

When I finished my mile, I got out of the pool and started toweling myself off, adjusting back to being on land. Bob has a habit of playing hypnotic musical selections during his shift.  A particularly soothing and transcendent piece now filled the room and I found myself  transported.

I tied my towel at my waist and gazed out over the pool at each swimmer in every lane, and then collectively, taking note of the choreography they were unknowingly creating. Each person was moving at their own pace across the pool. Breathing to their own rhythm. Practicing the strokes how their minds and bodies had best learned them.

In this blip of a moment, there was no right or wrong anywhere. Each person, each stroke, each movement was perfectly suited to the mover moving it.

My towel slid to the deck and I stood there transfixed, enrapt in a cosmic dream

Overtaken with love for humanity, my heart blasted open and tears filled my eyes

And I remembered that I was part of humanity

And I remembered to love myself.


Earlier today, after sharing a lengthy conversation with a man and his wife at Alon’s,  swapping stories of caregiving, death,

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