“Mommy, I’m swimming!”
“Yes, baby, I see.” I am distracted by my phone as I stand on the pool deck and bicker with Tee about things that only might happen. I have my suit on but I have not yet ventured out. Bug is already drenched, goggles magnifying his eyes to frightening dimensions.
“Are you talking to daddy?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Tell him, okay? Tell him I am swimming!”
I tell Tee that Bug says he is swimming. Satisfied, Bug turns and bounds back into the shallows, but not before shouting, “Come on Mommy! The water feels really good!”
Since he could first form the words, Bug has been convinced he is a swimmer. “I can swim, Mommy. I can!” His confidence can be a little frightening when he is dancing around on the concrete by the deep end. It is something of a comfort to watch him shift into low gear and take things one inch at a time when he makes his way in. He checks the depth. He plays on the steps. He asks for help.
I can’t count the number of YMCA pools in which my boy has splashed, nor can I remember the names of half the lakes. He has lived in water since birth. Since before, actually. He and I swam through my third trimester in a camp pool under the cloudless San Gabriel sky. I first took baby Bug into the water in the Colorado Springs Y when he was four months old. A blink later, he was in lessons. From making bubbles to holding the edge to draping himself over a noodle, he has crept his way ever closer to total immersion. At a few months shy of his sixth birthday, he is still hanging back.
I stash the phone in a cubby and follow my son out to the 4-foot part of the pool. There, he can just barely touch the bottom if he bounces on his toes. His head goes under, up, under. He no longer sputters, scowling into the air when his head slips beneath the surface. He simply dips in and leaps back out, cheeks bright, already on his way across the expanse of blue. Over near the wall is an underwater bench where he can stand firm. He makes his way there, bobbing along.
“Here I come!” He stands, crouches, and then flings himself across the surface towards me. With his legs out behind him, he kicks and simultaneously paddles his arms in a great churning frenzy. His head is under. In 5, 6, 10 strokes, he roars toward me until he stops and lets his feet fall to the bottom. His head pops up and he looks up at me through those googly lenses, water streaming down his face. His grin is as big as the ocean.
I am stunned into a rare moment of silence. Then I catch my breath and begin clapping like a seal on crack.
“You’re swimming, buddy! You’re really swimming!” I reach for him and he hops over to me.
“I told you!” His voice is wide-awake happy, and he climbs up into my arms for all of a tenth of a second before squirming out.
“Again!” He says. He hops over to the edge and grabs on. He shoos me back. “Further,” he calls. I take a step backward. “No, further.” A few steps more and he stops me. “That’s far enough.” His fingers clutch the lip of the pool. He is almost vibrating out of his skin with contained momentum. “Okay!”
He lets go, turns, and pushes off the edge. My boy swims across the water to me.
How does he know it is time? What changed this week, this night? For all of his life, this child needed solid ground. He needed a place to be planted. Then, in one moment, he trusted. He sensed, or maybe somehow knew, that his body would hold him up and that he could carry himself through water that might have been 200 feet deep.
The idea of being “ready” has been rolling around in the noggin for the past few months. When is a person prepared for whatever comes next, and how does the moment make itself known? When does it become clear that it is time to let go or to embrace? To work harder or to step back? To trust? To push off from the edge?
Beginnings leave permanent impressions on the internal chronology. Just try forgetting the moment you heard the words “divorce” or “malignant” or “we’re sorry, but we have to let you go.” Despite the branded scar of the start, transitions rarely have clear endings. The head-down, eyes-front posture into which a person enters in order to move through the sharp-toothed rapids of the in-between can become the normal stance even when the danger passes. After a period of emotional turmoil, the mind braces for the next blow. The simple act of looking up is almost too much to bear. I suppose a person can live this way for years. For the rest of time.
My own personal holding pattern is, for good or ill, unsustainable. The long-term prospect of raising a child on an inadequate income while living with my folks is enough to force me to change course. Because of this, I have started to hazard glances up and out. Oh, how big and improbable all the options seem! Even just fiddling around with the idea about a writing project, a career move, a relationship, or a class can make me feel out of my depth. I grip the wall. I want everything to stay the same, even though I don’t really and it can’t anyway.
I think of Bug there, just all of a sudden letting go. It seems “all of a sudden,” but of course, it is not. Bug is not landing in open water for the first time at 5 ½. His intuitive knowledge comes from immersion (pardon the pun) in a setting that has become almost as familiar as the earth itself. All those visits to backyard pools and lakes and YMCAs provided the vocabulary. Constant exposure allowed him to make sense of the grammar. Then, one day, a phrase rolls off the tongue. Without thinking, he bypassed the water-wings of translation. One day, he is simply speaking a language.
Practice, then, is key. This I try to do for myself by writing daily, avoiding avoidance at work, and faking glee as I take on bike commuting or designing a workshop. Reaching even in the presence of fear seems to be a good way to develop new habits. New postures, even.
Practice alone, however, only carries things so far. A person can rehearse for a hundred years and never make it to the recital. It is also necessary to understand something about one’s capacity to cross the divide.
Bug may be an astute dabbler, but he has a handier trick up his sleeve and he doesn’t even know it. It is this: my boy never believed himself to be a non-swimmer. The language of limitation was unknown to him. He did not need to unlearn anything in order to make room for a new self-concept. He simply needed to embody a truth that he had already accepted, and let his skills catch up with his confidence: “I can swim, Mommy. I can!”
So, once again, the familiar and achingly simple lesson washes up onto shore. First, picture the dream. Then dip the toes into its rippled surface. Immersion, one inch at a time, and keep the senses alert to the currents. Eyes up. All is possible, and more.
Where do I want to be? What do I look like when I inhabit the skin of my most potent self? Do I let myself believe in the truth of my limitlessness?
Hold the edge, sure, and practice the strokes. As you grapple with gravity, do not let your inner gaze linger on anything but that image of you, surging into the open sea. You never know where or when it will occur. Then, suddenly it does. The shift. The moment of knowing you are ready to take the plunge. Let go, turn, and push off the edge.
“Mommy, I’m swimming!”