Sample text for Swimming lessons : life lessons from the pool, from diving in to treading water / Penelope Niven.


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I. Getting in the Water

Getting in the water is easy: Just walk to the edge and jump in, or slide in, feet first. You can also fall in the water face first, or dive in smoothly, with ever-growing confidence and skill.

WHEN SHE WAS FOURTEEN and I was forty-four, my daughter, Jennifer, taught me to swim. Jennifer had just finished wearing braces on her teeth, and, thanks to a lower jaw problem, I had just begun. Dire medical necessity, not vanity, mandated that I wear those braces just as I was struggling to cope with menopause, my daughter's puberty, and my husband's midlife crisis. Overwhelmed by these circumstances, I needed diversion, distraction-escape.

I had grown up a swimming illiterate, terrified of the water. Now I was also terrified of wearing braces on my teeth at such a preposterous age, and of seeing my life slip by with some long held dreams unrealized. There was nothing I could do about the braces except endure and survive. But, it occurred to me, I could take charge of the dreams.

Many of my dreams had come true, especially my wife and mother dreams, but others haunted me. I had always wanted to write, to travel, to make a lasting, positive difference in the world around me. Some of my more whimsical dreams were pinned to childhood heroes-Isaac Stern, for instance. I love music, and, although I play the piano and the organ, I had dreamed of playing the violin like Isaac Stern. Then there was the Ginger Rogers dream. I have danced the cha-cha, the waltz, the Texas two-step, and the jitterbug, but I had always dreamed of swirling across a stage like Ginger Rogers, ballroom dancing, ballet dancing, tap dancing, even clog dancing my way to the stars. And I used to dream of swimming like Esther Williams, "The world's most famous and glamorous swimming star," as she was described on the cover of her 1957 book, Get in the Swim. I was a senior in high school in 1957, not daring to aspire to fame or glamour. I just wanted to know how to swim so I wouldn't have to sit forlornly on the edge of the pool.

People usually learn to swim, tap dance, or play the violin when they are young. But as I found myself middle-aged and simultaneously being outfitted with braces and bifocals, it came to me that I had nothing to lose. I might as well be twelve again. This could be my chance, perhaps my last chance, to go after some of those childhood dreams-to learn, however belatedly, to fiddle, tap dance, and swim. As much as I revered Isaac Stern and Ginger Rogers, I gravitated toward Esther Williams. I decided to take those long-deferred swimming lessons.

I grew up in Waxhaw, North Carolina, a very small town where there was no swimming pool. Swimming lessons, if there were any, consisted of being thrown by a well-meaning parent into a murky pond or into the deepest pools of Twelve Mile Creek.

"Swim," came the order from the safety of shore. "Now, swim!"

The words echoed in the ears of frightened children as they fought against the mysterious power of the water, simultaneously learning to fear the water and to distrust the adults in their lives. A child can no more swim on command than she can speak or read or play the violin or stop being afraid of the dark. Nevertheless, countless desperate children have survived that abrupt abandonment to water over their heads. Some swallow fear along with muddy pond water, and muster a clumsy dog paddle in the struggle toward the shore. Some flounder and have to be rescued. Some never get into the water again. Others learn to swim by the book. Still others take to swimming in spite of everything, creating unorthodox breast strokes, swimming ever after with their untutored heads held defiantly upright in the air.

Fortunately, my parents did not throw me into the languid depths of Twelve Mile Creek or the swampy clutches of Massey's Pond, but neither was I taught to swim in a proper swimming pool, officiated over by trained instructors.

Our family had lived briefly in Charlotte, a city twenty-six miles away, where there were swimming pools aplenty. But there was also the polio epidemic, and for one endless summer we were confined to our dead-end block of Sedgefield Drive with only ourselves and a handful of other children for company. We could see, tantalizingly close, a throng of other children. Their block was longer and there were more children to play with, but we had woods, and they didn't. And all the city swimming pools were closed that summer against the scourge of polio.

Later, we moved back to Waxhaw where I finished elementary school, junior high school, and high school without learning to swim. During my senior year in college, with two other classmates, I spent humiliating hours in the shallow end of the pool at the Greensboro, North Carolina, YWCA, trying to pass the swimming requirement upon which my graduation was conditional. Never mind that I was about to graduate magna cum laude. All that work would count for nothing if I couldn't swim the required distance in the pool. I managed somehow to survive the academic equivalent of being hurled into Twelve Mile Creek.

Paradoxically, I grew up to be a creature who loved water even though I feared it mightily. From childhood I have had a passion for the ocean. Our family spent every summer vacation at the South Carolina shore. During our first summer at Cherry Grove Beach, I jumped waves, holding fast to my father's hand. The salt water transformed my straight brown hair into tangled curls, and my hair has been curly ever since.

More important, from childhood until now, time at the ocean has been essential to the ongoing nourishment of my soul. For even a short time each year, I need to sleep to the rhythm of the sea and climb back into its salty womb in order to recalibrate my interior life. I crave the sensuous, primal energy of the ocean, its vast glory of light and power. I love its deep, briny music and its artifacts: crusty shells; bleached wood; ribbons of seaweed; the warm, limpid pools the tide leaves in the breast of the shore. But I used to regard the ocean with an innate dread, and I did not wade far into its depths. I still go vertically, not horizontally, into the salt water, my feet burrowing into the warm sand at the edge. I love the water lapping at my ankles or breaking at my knees, but terror still overtakes me if I venture by mistake into currents more than waist deep. I am still trying to learn to swim in the ocean.

It was ironic, then, that my husband should have been a sailor, the grandson of a landlocked mountain blacksmith, inheriting from some distant ancestor a manic love for the sea. He had a passion for salty sails, for elegant wooden sailboats heeling almost horizontally into the wind and water of the Chesapeake Bay. I trusted him. If I needed to be rescued from the water I believed I could count on him to see to it. We sailed for many years without mishap.

When Jennifer was old enough, we provided for her aquatic well-being. At the age of three, she started real swimming lessons in a real swimming pool. Before she could read, she was a good swimmer. It was much later, when she was a teenager, that my daughter reciprocated and taught me to swim. When a swimming instructor at the college nearby announced a class for adults who absolutely could not swim and were terrified of the water, I knew my opportunity had come. There were four of us trembling in the shallow end of the Olympic-sized pool for that first lesson. Our instructor was the epitome of patience. He did his best, but soon there were only two of us.

I brought all my latent and conscious fears with me into the shallow end of that pool. You would have thought that I had, indeed, some far distant summer day in Waxhaw, been flung headlong into Twelve Mile Creek or cast to sharks in Massey's Pond. I dreaded each swimming lesson and had to be made to go. Jennifer took my discipline in hand, secretly, I suspect, vindicating every piano lesson, every reluctant day at school, every household chore and doctor's visit I had exacted of her in the fourteen years of her life.

"Maybe it would help if you practice," Jennifer suggested one day. "I'll go with you."

Gratefully, I accompanied my daughter to the pool, urging her to let me stay in the shallow end, where my feet could, on a moment's whim, connect with the reassurance of the concrete floor. Patiently Jennifer coaxed me to demonstrate what I had been trying to learn in the humiliating ordeal of my swimming class. "Floating on my back," I told her in despair. "That's only the first step, and I can't even do that."

"It's almost impossible to sink, Mom," she reassured me.

"That's what you all say," I grumbled. "Ninety-seven percent of people can float. I happen to be one of the 3 percent who can't."

"Of course you can, if you really try and if you really want to," she said with some relish. This was a line I had used with her as she faced new challenges. "Try."

I tried. Arms turning to lead and legs kicking wildly, I foundered and sank to the bottom. Eyes, ears, and nose full of water, I prepared myself to drown. I remember thinking that my death would be much harder on my husband and my child than on me. I wouldn't be around to know about it but they would have to cope with it, call the rest of the family, plan the funeral, and then manage to live without me. It would serve them right. But Jennifer came to the rescue, of course, and insisted that I try again. "Back on the horse, Mom. I'll help you, and I'll be right here," she said soothingly.

During the next half hour she eased me into the pool and supported me as I lay on my back. She pulled and pushed me gently through the water until I got the feel of it. Now and then I would jerk my arms or break into a clumsy kick and begin to sink to the bottom again.

"No, Mom," she'd reprove. "Relax. Just give yourself up to the power of the water."

My daughter, always mature for her years, had made one of the most profound observations I have ever heard about swimming or about living: "I don't understand it myself," she said, "but there is this mysterious power in the water. If you fight against it, you sink every time. If you give yourself up to it, it supports you. You have to learn to trust the power of the water."

Instinctively, she understood an ancient metaphor for faith, as well as the metaphysics and the symbolism of water. As long ago as 3000 B.C., the Sumerians discovered that water can heal. In India, as early as 2000 B.C., earth, air, fire, and water were deemed the basic elements of the material universe and the concept spread throughout the world. To religious people since the beginning of time, water has been sacred, in some views the very source of life itself. Three quarters of the earth's vast surface is dominated by oceans, seas, rivers, lakes, creeks, and springs. And always, everywhere, the growing embryo is cradled in the watery womb.

In that intimidating swimming pool, my daughter taught me how to swim and, in the process, how better to live my life. You do have to learn to trust the power of the water, the power that beats in the mysterious heart of life; as philosophers as various as Trismegistus, Giordano Bruno, and Blaise Pascal have said-the power whose center is everywhere. That is the fundamental lesson in swimming, in writing, in loving, in living-probably even in dying.

But before you can fully trust the power of the water, or your own powers in the water, you have to jump in or fall in or dive in. You have to get wet. There has to be a first time.

JUST AS I HAD dabbled my feet in swimming pools and oceans, I dabbled in writing the first three decades of my life. Writing was my oldest dream, spun out of a love of words before I could even read them or shape them with a pencil-the words I heard my elders speak and sing, the words they read to me. I remember how words looked before I could decipher their geometry-black shapes laid out in their tidy mystery on the pages of storybooks, the Methodist hymnal, or the long columns of the daily newspaper. I was a child in those years before public school kindergartens or television, much less Sesame Street, that avenue to precocious recognition of the cryptograms of language.

When I was five, I stood between my parents in the Methodist church one Sunday morning, holding my own hymnal and pretending I could read the words of a song I knew by heart. Like the grownups around me, I glanced down at the words and up again. Suddenly, somewhere along about the third verse, I knew with absolute certainty that someday soon, I would be able to read. Then, I told myself, I would become a writer.

After church that day, thrilled with my discovery, I decided I couldn't wait until I started to school. I needed to learn to write now. There was no time to waste. I found paper and a pencil and a favorite storybook, and sat down at the kitchen table to teach myself to write the letters of the alphabet. Once I mastered them, I thought, I would be well on my way to being a writer. When my parents saw what I was up to, they listened patiently to my explanation, and began to give me writing lessons. I was enchanted.

We started with my full name: Penelope Ellen Niven. I am named for my mother's mother, Penelope, and my father's mother, Ellen. It delighted me to learn that my name had eighteen letters, and six of them were E's. E was the letter I could write first, and best, and P came next. (Recently I found the old dictionary the family used during my childhood; boldly inscribed inside its cover is the letter P-awkward and misshapen, but a P, no doubt about it.) My parents taught me block letters, and then I wanted to learn to write cursive script. I was dazzled by my new knowledge. Now I knew these letters-their names and sounds. With my own hands I could write them on paper, unlocking an ancient, mysterious code. Suddenly I could assemble the letters into words on the page, and decipher the words other people had written in the books I loved.

Copyright © 2004 by Penelope Niven

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Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Women Conduct of life, Swimming Miscellanea, Niven, Penelope