The Swimming Lesson

Our town has a big indoor pool, circa 1943, that offers the world’s cheapest swimming lessons, for all ages.

This is most excellent for us since we have 152 kids living at our house (Note: for those “interested parties,” who print out my blog for so-called legal reasons, please read the definition of hyperbole, as rhetorical device).

Anyway, as I was saying. We have this pool where the small ones are having swimming lessons. And now, so am I.

A few months ago, Colin thought it would be cool to start training for a mini-triathlon. For him, it was the training he saw as good motivation to get in shape and such. The triathlon was more of a means to an end.

So he says to me: Hey honey, why don’t you train with me?

Haha. He is SO funny. But then I noticed he was smiling but not joking. (He’s always so cute when he does that.)

Thinking About Moving Me

It takes a LOT of brain re-training to see yourself in a new way. When I was a kid, two of my three sisters were the “jocks”… my sister K. and I were the “smart” ones and my other two sisters, M. and A. were sporty girls, always getting picked to play the good positions in softball and such.

Why does all this stuff always come down to how you thought about yourself when you were a kid? I mean, when I look back, I was pretty sporty too. I played catcher up until 7th grade in softball. I always LOVED to play tag football with the neighbors and to this day I can throw a spiral like nobody’s business. In volleyball, I can bump and set no problem. Everyone always says my golf swing is a natural.

But when I try to imagine myself getting physical in many of the sports I played with my family as a kid, I immediately feel that “I’m not that good” feeling. M. is the sporty one. I’m the one who should be reading a book about some girl in flouncy hat on her horse who is singing an aria while baking bread on a sunset-y Tuesday.

It’s no surprise that as a grown-up, I stayed pretty physical, but the things I got interested in — yoga, biking, hiking, dancing, ice skating — were things we didn’t really do competitively in our family. I golf too, but I think my determination to golf was because my Dad made it look like the sort of thing he couldn’t live without. And I married a man who loves it too. Even so, when someone suggests I do something active, I have to work hard to imagine myself in that role.

Getting Wet

I am in no way blaming anyone else — least of all my family — for my lack of confidence about what I choose to do, physically. If I’m a couch potato, that’s my problem. But it is interesting to see how our patterns develop. I have always been a bit terrified of the water, even though I LOVE to swim, float and just be in a pool.

This is sort of normal I think. I grew up in Iowa, where the swimming season lasts about two weeks. That’s because it is either:

  • too cold outside,
  • hot enough outside but the water is still too cold,
  • JUST RIGHT ALL AROUND (one week), or
  • too blisteringly hot to go outside at all except at 6 a.m.
  • and then back on down the scale.

The only time I was ever regularly in the water was when I was about 6 or 7. This was during the first two weeks in June, at 8 a.m. (YES 8 a.m. during summer break) for swimming lessons at Garfield Pool. It was an outdoor pool. This was during that time when it was Still Too Cold In Both the Air and the Water.

And it was scary being in the water when you didn’t spend much time there. I passed through the lower level, even jumped off the diving board into the deep end (that’s what you had to do to pass level 1… so terrifying!!) and eventually got to take more lessons at nice warm indoor pool. But I never got over the fear of death by water.

So, you know, in a triathlon (even a MINI one) you have to swim, right?

Last night I wriggled myself into a totally humiliating Speedo tube, and went out in the 10 degree weather at 8:30 p.m. to re-learn all the things I was too scared to really learn when I was 10 or so.

And, of course, it was totally wonderful. It was the first time in 30 years that I took time to practice BREATHING while swimming (I’ve been holding my face out of the water ever since my last lesson in 1980). It was a very meditative experience, once I stopped panicking (yoga is useful for many things in life!)

Moving Again

My friend Chris has got it right about pitching a prevent defense. In his blog he wrote about being bored with life and sort of relaxing into patterns of easiness. I knew exactly what he meant when he wrote “My motivation has shifted slowly—almost imperceptibly—away from winning the game and toward not losing the game.” (Note: this is another great rhetorical device called “metaphor” – where a good writer speaks figuratively and analogously.)

I suppose signing up for the lessons (and then actually showing up– I almost didn’t!) was like plunging into a reminder of who I CAN be. It reminds me the game isn’t over yet, I haven’t won yet, that there are many more rush yards, tackles, and Hail Marys to try.

As for my old way of thinking, this is just another chance to banish that old self-vista. See that I’m not just the fearful girl shivering on the side of the pool yearning to hide in another book.

Because I never much cared for that feeling. I preferred the feeling I had when I floated free and alone in the pool in the Dominican Republic, watching the afternoon moon watch me, and thinking nothing but “this is the life. This is the life I have. This is the life I have to live.”

This morning, I looked at my face in the mirror– no makeup, framed by bedhead — I thought:

What am I going to do today? (well, BESIDES buy a slightly bigger new swimsuit)?

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Elizabeth Howard

Elizabeth writes literary non-fiction, haiku, cultural rants, and Demand Poetry in order to forward the cause of beautiful writing. She teaches and speaks about the rhetorical impact of beautiful writing. A recent transplant to Connecticut, she calls London, Kansas City, and Iowa home. 

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  10 comments for “The Swimming Lesson

  1. January 25, 2011 at 9:18 am

    Realizing where some thought patterns is one thing, putting them into action or confronting them is another. Good luck!

  2. Colin
    January 25, 2011 at 9:20 am

    I’m so proud that you followed through – booking the swimming lessons and showing up. As the Aussies say “Good on you”. So .. are we on for a fall triathlon?

    • January 25, 2011 at 9:36 am

      I am still processing that Colin. Ask me again in a month, after I started the running portion of the training. Obviously you know that I am not concerned about the bike part.

  3. Lisa Hill
    January 25, 2011 at 9:25 am

    You go, E! We moved overseas so Dave could prove he wasn’t in a rut and could do new things in a new way. (Some might find that excessive, but I see his and your point on this.) I want updates on the triathlon training!

    • January 25, 2011 at 9:40 am

      I love Dave for this! Dave and Colin have so much in common, including incredibly beautiful wives!

  4. January 25, 2011 at 9:40 am

    I just re-read a bit of this and I realized that, for my two “sporty” sisters, it might have been a tough road thinking of themselves as NOT the “smart” ones. Sigh… There’s no way around the accidental labeling that occurs in families, but you can see what damage it does and the work we all have to do to identify ourselves in life just the way we want to see ourselves.

  5. January 26, 2011 at 7:34 am

    I enjoyed this so much. Such a refreshing dip to start my day. It takes courage to try new things and to challenge our old ways of thinking.

    The slide from winning to not-losing thinking really hit home for me.

    I remember years ago, there was an older German fellow in his 70s in my hometown. He was a fantastic runner, but he wanted to do a tri. Thing is, he swam like an anvil. That’s what you get when you’re muscle and bone. Great character though. He took lessons and swam with a Master’s group and did that tri. Afterwards, one of his friends said, “Kurt, where were you? I waited and waited for you at the transition, but you never showed.”

    “Vell,” Kurt said. “I got zere eventually. I can only valk so fast along ze bottom of ze lake.”

  6. Mary Bebow
    January 26, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    I think Beth, that this was one of my favorite of your posts. I laughed all the way through it. And yes, I did always, feel like the stupid sister, but eventually, I got over it. I miss you so much! You know, as a kid, I never thought we could ever be such good friends. Maybe, punching you for changing the channel, knocked a little sense into both of us!

    • Ann Bates
      January 27, 2011 at 8:34 am

      We all have our issues that started in childhood. I think it says alot about us and the way we were raised that I essentially have NO bad memories about my childhood. I charish every wonderful memory with you guys. I may still think of my self as the LESS THEN smartest child but my real fear NOW …. is writing something on your blog. Please don’t correct my spelling and grammer!!! Oh, OK you can!!

      • January 27, 2011 at 9:26 am

        Ann, FYI, when I teach my students about writing, I NEVER teach grammar. Grown writers don’t need grammar lessons. They need to feel free to write what is in their mind and heart. So I won’t correct your grammar or my own, usually!

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