Swimming at a local lake, this morning, I almost got trampled by a herd of bicyclists, heading out for a group ride. There are often triathletes training at the lake on weekend mornings, with bikes at the ready in the bike racks along the shore. They arrive in small groups — probably training buddies who stick together — stand on the shore, stretch, and climb into their wetsuits… swim distances that will get them in good shape to race… then emerge from the water already running. They jog gingerly across the pebbly sand and asphalt, peeling off their second skins, donning their bike shoes, and head off down the road, dodging pedestrians heading down to the water and cars with bikes attached to the top and/or the hatchback.
Alone in the midst of these groups, I am often seized with a sense of isolation and loneliness. They sound so happy being together. And they talk amongst themselves with a familiarity that I have rarely known with other people. It’s not that I don’t connect with others — I just rarely have a long enough connection with the people in my life to develop that depth and breadth of closeness.
Life often takes me away. Or it takes others away. I could cry about it (and sometimes I have), but I’d rather just live my life.
Anyway, not so terribly long ago, I overheard a few well-equipped swimmers talking about what was going on in their lives. Family coming to visit. Flying in from Houston. Heading out to the Hamptons. Traveling and doing important, expensive things. The person sharing the most details sounded, well, sad and lonely, as though all this was supposed to mean something to them, but it really didn’t.
And in that moment, when the pathos in their voice sank in, it occurred to me that being practically almost-broke and living from paycheck to paycheck and having to think hard about everything I did that took money, wasn’t too high a price to pay for having a life that I love, having my health, and being able to talk about my life in a way that is direct, involved, appreciative, and very, very basic.
This morning, as I dodged the bicyclists heading out on their ride, I felt that familiar pang of embarrassment at my stuff being really, really basic — plain old swimming gear that I’ve worn for years, now… ragged sandals that fit my feet just right… a car that is clearly “sub-standard” as I’ve heard it described… and the almost-too-expensive sunglasses that I bought with half my monthly salary in 1989, and which still fit me just right.
And I felt a pang of self-consciousness, as I watched the fit, muscular, tan athletes on their racing machines pass me by without a glance. I looked down at my average body and felt the extra weight wobble around my waist… my arms won’t firm up for any amount of coaxing, and my legs refuse to get “ripped” even after all the bicycling I do almost every morning. And I felt like a bit of a failure, for not having that kind of body and not having the nice bike I had only six months ago, but had to sell because I have to pay my mortgage.
I’m not sure why I’m getting hung up on all this material stuff (again). Perhaps it’s because I’m working at a company that’s filled with people who value the finer things in life and own cars like Maseratis and Feraris and custom motorcycles. Perhaps it’s because the car I got fixed last week (the better one of the two late models I have) is having problems again and I hate being without my trusty wheels. Or maybe it’s because the seasons are changing, and I won’t be able to go to the lake for much longer, and I’m already feeling that loss.
Or perhaps it’s because I really am a very solitary person, and sometimes I’d prefer things were different, and I had a broader social circle (if only I had the energy for it).
In any case, I was feeling a little sorry — and sorry for myself. But then I got to the edge of the lake. The faint sliver of moon was still high in the sky, and along the edges of the water, mist was rising, till the heat of the morning sun found it. Across the water, the flashing of wet arms windmilling through the waves sparkled, and somewhere overhead, a red-tailed hawk was crying.
I pulled off my t-shirt and stepped out of my sandals, stretched my arms and legs, and waded into the water up to my waist, pulling on my goggles as I went. The water was warmer than the air, and the wind was up, churning up waves. I took a deep breath and dove shallowly. At that depth, the sunlight streamed into the water with bright beams that lit the way before me.
As I reached and pulled myself through the water. My body was waking up, the blood starting to course through my veins, my lungs filling with air when I came to the surface. The feel of the water streaming across my skin washed away the self-consciousness, the embarrassment, and it occurred to me that the water… the lake… the sky and sun and moon and hawks overhead didn’t give a rat’s ass about my sorry gear and my average body. ll the anxieties about “stuff” faded away, and I was flooded with gratitude that I was able to do this thing called swimming at the lake on a Saturday morning.
See, just two years ago, it would have been impossible for me to do something as simple as this thing called swimming in the lake on Saturday morning. First off, I was always deeply fearful of putting my face in water, and I couldn’t manage to get my breathing together to swim more than a hundred yards or so. As a kid, I loved to be in the water, but I was terrified of putting my face in it – even when I took a bath, I freaked out if my face was in the water, or it got wet. And I failed swimming lessons miserably — the only reason I “passed” the test (the second time through), was that I faked it. I held my breath for the length of the swimming pool during the front crawl test, and I pretended to breathe as I moved my face back and forth in the water. The instructor couldn’t believe any kid could hold their breath that long, so they passed me.
Water on my face is not something I have ever much cared for — even in the shower, I didn’t like having any water on my face, and I would go to great lengths to keep my face away from the streaming liquid.
And then there’s the swimming thing. I am anything but buoyant, and if I’m not moving, I tend to sink. Slowly but surely, my legs go down, down, down, pulling the rest of me after them. If I’m not kicking, I start to sink. And floating? Not much potential there – again, my legs pull my body down. The feel of my body being pulled under the water has panicked me for as long as I can remember, and I hate feeling panicked. Especially in water.
So, this lack of buoyancy and panic stuff has kept me from doing much swimming beyond visits to the beach and some splashing around with friends, now and then. Still and all, I do love water. I love how it feels, I love the freedom from gravity’s tyranny, and I love being able to move freely in any direction I please.
So, this summer, I’ve been working on that. Maybe it was the Gulf of Mexico getting tainted with all that oil that’s made me crave clean, open water. Maybe it’s my lifelong love of the beach that I haven’t been able to accommodate this summer, and I needed to offset that with some sort of water activity. Maybe it’s just that I need to do more in the morning than get on an exercise bike and lift weights. Whatever the reason, I’ve done a lot of swimming, this summer, and it’s been great.
I started meeting up with a friend of a friend who was looking for someone to swim with. After a few times of venturing out across little inlets in the lake, they told me that I was a strong swimmer. I’d never thought I was, but they said so, so… After a few more times, we ventured farther and farther, till we were swimming farther than I’d ever thought I could. When they went away on vacation, I kept swimming. I had never entertained the thought of swimming alone, but I actually wasn’t entirely alone, because there was always someone at the lake.
The friend of a friend come to swim with me a few more times, but they got busy and couldn’t make it a lot of the time. Still, I continued to swim by myself. And it was good. I was going farther and farther out… till one day I swam out and back in about an hour — over a mile of swimming, and I’d done it myself. I’d done this thing I’d never in all my life dreamed I’d be able to do.
So, this morning, as I slid through the water, feeling my arms reach out and pull myself forward, as my legs scissor-kicked, and I breathed in and out, watching the air bubbles fill the water around me, I gave thanks. Because I can do this thing. I can swim like I never thought I could, and I can move like I never thought I would. I can make it out and back in one piece. That’s what I’ve done. It’s what I do. Even in the center of a lake that’s deep-deep-deep at the middle, with lifeguards a quarter of a mile away, with my heart pounding and my lungs struggling for air (just before I roll over on my back and slowly back-stroke along to catch up with myself), I can do this thing. I can swim. I am a strong swimmer, and I can tread water indefinitely. I know how to float now (I just have to keep my legs kicking a little). And I know how to keep calm when I’m on my own in the center of the lake.
Yes, I gave thanks. Because despite all the crap that’s been thrown at me, despite the loneliness and confusion and dead-ends and frustrations, there are still beautiful days and beautiful lakes, and the sun and moon and sky and hawks and win don’t care about my difficulties. They don’t pick me out of the crowd and make fun of me. They don’t try to make me look small, because they feel small. They don’t contradict me and pick fights for the sake of picking fights. They just are. And they let me be who and what I am. They let me slide through their clean waters and breathe in their clean air. They let me watch them with wonder and admiration, and they feed my senses with a constantly changing collection of stimuli.
I could have been dead, many times before. I could have been ruined. Wrecked. Trashed. And I have gotten slammed a number of times. But I’m still here. I’m still alive. I’m still going strong, and it’s good. I’m good.
It’s all good.