Lapping at Edges

Triathlon

In the neighboring lanes, retirees walk the slow churn. Sinew writhes under mottled hips, hearts chug in their loose cages of hollowing bone.  We turn the creaking millstones of our musculature and send low ripples along the surface.

Mid-afternoon is a world apart from evening here.  During the late rush, fierce middle-aged racers tear a wake between ropes.  Teen divers knife skyward before the plunge.

Now, the most animated bodies in the water are a half-dozen preschoolers gripping swim bars and kicking with all their might.  The rest of us sway.  We are seaweed, we are prey.

I stir the lapping shallows.  My feet somewhere down there take the long strides of a sleepwalker.  A faceless predator closes the distance of its asymptotic approach, forever almost crossing over into awakening.  The water is a tar that grips.  Also, it buoys.  These competing forces are reminders of its latent power.  So too are the lifeguards with red floats who pace the edges and peer into our unsteady depths.  Even as we come to it to carry us over our pain, we all know that this pool could lay any of us down for good.

Rinsed and combed, up from the locker room and out through the lobby I limp.  Lopsided steps favor the right leg and give the left a breather.  Even with easy breaststroke, the busted hinge in my left knee pops and yelps.  But I’ve moved, I’ve worked up an almost-sweat.  This is energy, back for a throbbing moment, a reminder of what it felt like before.  What it may feel like again after the surgeon fiddles with the clockworks and seals me up.

But even if the repair is unsuccessful or — as is inevitable — temporary, here is water.  This is reason enough to be grateful.

As I plod out the sliding doors, a man enters. Lurch-clunk-lurch-clunk, towards the welcome desk.  Another ancient one here for the healing waters.  He leans on a cane.  Thin layers of marbled skin drape from thighs and elbows.  Around his left knee, a black brace.  The red flesh trapped inside grates at its confinement.  He moves with such care.  Lurch-clunk-lurch-clunk.  His eyes are fixed on that low place on the floor one meter ahead, a place all too familiar to me now that avoiding a fall is more appealing than the vanity of vigor.

As I hobble past, I point to his knee and say, “I’m getting over one of those too. Thank goodness for the pool.”

He looks up at me.  His face cracks like the lid of a chafing dish.  Something in there simmers and pops,  steam and all.  A slow grin.  “I bet you didn’t get yours hitting a deer while riding on a motorcycle.”  He chuckles.  His wink, an invitation.  He holds his gaze a second, another.  Then he turns and limps on.

A buzz shivers through me, potent and odd and all the more startling from its unlikely source.  Out the sliding doors and into the parking lot.  Sun licks my shoulders.  A breeze cuts through the damp hollow where my hair lays across my neck.

There are no old folks here. Not broken bodies, no lost days.  We long for what we are, even now.  We are all younger than we imagine, as raw as we have ever been.

We are all being born.

We face the open water.  We surrender.  We surge.


Photo credit:  Uncertain origin; possibly from Triathlon Scotland

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Wind like a Whetted Knife

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied

from Sea Fever by John Masefield

In the dream, I lean over the bow. Something doesn’t fit. The water is too distant and the progress slow and I feel landlocked. Maybe the ship is smaller than my wandering feet. Maybe it’s bigger than anything I could possibly steer.

Or it isn’t wrong at all and I am just too impulsive for my own good.

In any event, I jump.

And then I am plunging into an upside-down and roiling sea. Momentum carries me further in than I had anticipated and deeper than is safe. Kicking hard up, up, my lungs try to wring the last bit of air from that last scanty breath. Light wobbles. With a surge, I break the surface just as the white plates of a looming hull flash past. This angle resolves all distortions from my upper deck perch. They don’t call them cruise ships for nothing. Keel slices water. Spume and churn.

Uh oh.

Did I think I could go out for a dip and then just mosey back on board? Did I bother to scan the horizon for some other fitting shore?

Did I figure I’d grow gills?

Is it too late for a do-over?

Hollering is useless. My voice bounces across waves and ricochets off the unblinking steel scales. Now the only thing is to swim harder than ever before on the slim chance of closing the growing distance. If I make it (and that’s a mighty big If), then what? The slick walls offer no peg, no crack.

Defeat has no voice here. With every stroke, I force behind my eyes an image of a handhold and a body still surging with the strength to climb.

I have exactly one shot.

Questions boil in my waterlogged throat:

Is he the ship or is he the ocean?

Which is courage?

Which is home?
 

Trigger

It is impossible to sleep with his feet fixed on their beacon. He presses them behind knees, into hip, against spine. I stiffen my skin and try to fall further in. He belongs right here I suppose, even though each time I sink into the lagoon, his hook cleaves the deep and rips me from my chosen oblivion. One touch sets the chain cranking back over its pulley and drags me towards unwelcome air.

So much like birth.

(So much for sweet erasure.)

My mother’s friend was found dead day four days ago.
She makes her hand into the shape of a gun. Points it at her head.
It strikes me
as she bends her thumb
to blow a tunnel through her skull
that this gesture is the international sign

for get me away
from these morons

when you can’t bear the noise
one second more, caught
in a riptide of voices
belonging to you or to the ones
in whose company you’ve found yourself
snared
hurling
attribution at each wave
every angle of light
anywhere but the lungs
from which they come
and what you want is to
(hand, gun, thumb)
hitch one hell of a ride

Into?
Away from?

I didn’t know before
his name and didn’t have a chance to say
look
lucid dreaming is a dark magic that is not without its costs.
They’ve got you pinned
against the seawall and the tidal crest
rushes, yes
but you learn
to tear yourself from those eye hooks
and swing the whole facade around

to block the salt that surges for your throat. You are left safe (for what it’s worth) and now your only direction of travel is a terrain with no visible geography and no written rules. You have to turn. You have to face the blank expanse. Your hand alone holds the purple crayon.

You may be asleep but you cannot count on dreams anymore
to read your desires, to lay them out
on a carpet of oil and flesh for you.
You claimed your mind. You signed on the dotted line.

You chose this spell.

He and I could have put our heads together
two wholes almost
puzzling over this:
How do you draw the world you would inhabit if no limits existed, not even the laws of physics?

(Does the very idea make you weary?
Do you, like me, ache to creep back to the cliff,
to swallow the sea?)

It doesn’t matter.
Put the gun down.
Open your hand. It will take
the shape
of what hasn’t been sketched
just yet.

Heaven cannot possibly be a release from the burden of imagination.

We would cast a legion of lines
to him to pull him back
to hold him here
to rub him warm from the shock of return
if we could
(as if we could

have).

In the beachfire steeldrum night
I would say
look
if fate or invention or the forces of providence could anticipate your desire
and angels set to work manifesting each component fragment a split second before the notion cracked free of its seed,
wouldn’t you still need your hunger? Your taste for color? Your private lyric? Your thirst, your frisson, the key bending to your tune?

He does not show up to hear my impassioned speech.
The blanket I’ve wrapped around him is stiff and hollow.
A week late, I plead myself hoarse to an empty room

not so empty after all.

My son’s toes rake like harpoons into my fleeing back and rip me up
towards the sting
of waking.

I ask myself if for once I might come to shore glad of being saved.
I ask myself
as my fantasy flits off ahead trailing ghost threads
whispering me down to that disappeared place,
what stops me from hooking my thumb
into a loose strand, hanging tight,
and hauling it up with me to the cracking dawn?
Why not lash it to this canvas
lift its corner with this imperfect air
let it billow
and smash
into any of its thousand
shapes
around the inevitable breaking
open day?
 

Baptism

A man at the gym asked me what my plans were for the weekend.
 
“Camping,” I said. “And swimming in fresh water.” What bliss! “It’s been my one goal for the summer. Lakes. Swim in lakes.”
 
“Not a fan of the beach, huh?”
 
This stopped me. I shrugged. Who doesn’t like the beach?
 
“No, it’s not that.” I put my hand on my heart and leaned in. “It’s just about going towards what I love.”
 
“Oh.” The stranger at the gym began to focus with great intensity on tying his shoes.
 
Does it sound odd? “Move towards what you love.” Maybe it is awkward to say such a thing during a casual exchange, but I don’t know how else to give it voice. A person don’t need to dislike wineries or shopping or baking to find herself doing less of these things. It’s only because she learns that her joy is in rock climbing, playing mandolin, or growing basil on her patio. Letting go of half-pleasures is a necessary cost of orienting towards bliss.
 
For years, I have believed a rich life is a varied life. “Balance,” say The Many, “is the key to wellness.”
 
What if balance is trickier than we think? Maybe we are simply excusing our piecemeal approaches to entertaining our fragmented selves. What if we know our purpose, our rightness, is in this small assortment of things here, and the more we do them fully, and the more we do them with our whole attention, the richer the flavor of our lives?
 
What if less variety, not more, is the secret spice?
 
Certainly, engaged citizenship requires baseline familiarity with a broad array of topics that affect our shared residency on this planet. Scan the headlines, visit a museum, serve someone in need, and learn a craft. Also, though, have the courage to choose. This one gift is my calling. Or maybe,This slim collection of activities are the homes of my true Yes.
 
To follow that call can be so very scary. What if I am wrong? What if I am no good? What if I fail to attend to all these other toys and creatures clamoring for my attention and I miss something big?
 
I can only say this: To know your love is a precious thing. It is the rarest treasure, and you have to dive, over and over, into those suffocating sea-caves without anybody pointing the way. Sometimes you can only see a glint of it and the closer you get, the darker it seems. You have to believe yes, it is gold, when all around people are hinting that you are a fool and all your plunder is rust.
 
Your hands begin to wander back to the mundane entertainments. Your mind whispers that it would rather be at ease with simple tasks than faced with the raw tenderness of its own unfurling.
 
By all means, avoid the call. It’s okay. Your avoidance will not last long.
 
Once you know, once you have spoken that truth aloud backward and down into your own belly, there is no turning back.
 
Then the TV is no longer a foe, the bottle has no allure, the 270 “friends” and their carbonated noise up on the surface of the earth are rendered silent. You no longer need to retreat from the things you believed were holding you back, and you do not need to name what you do not like. Instead, you emerge towards your own self becoming.
 
You lower your thirsty body into the cool waters. You know you have arrived.
 
Move towards what you love. What you leave behind cannot break your heart, because your heart is only just now being born.
 

Into the Deep

“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.
 

Pool Party

It is to impel. It is to motivate. It implies the exertion of an animating force, and it enlivens. It can even mean to draw breath.
 
As overused as it is, I still love the essence of this word:
 
Inspire.
 
The momentum to write is not of my own making. I draw shamelessly from the sweat of the ones who write with more tenacity than I can imagine. I have tapped them all: storytellers, poets, journalists, bloggers, and those alchemists who can wed lyric to song. I thank my lucky stars for folks before and alongside me who have had the grit to get something down on paper and send it off into the world. Their efforts lift me up out of myself and sometimes plunge me deeper in, but no matter which way they tip me, they get me up off my tuchus. They move me. They are inspiration.
 
I was a reader first, voracious and obsessive. Since those first years dog-paddling around storybooks, I have loved soaking in letters. Stories and their characters were always my buddies, and I felt right at home dipping my toes into their adventures. When I finally came around to writing, it was as if I was finally diving into the deep end where the real party was happening. Every time I return to the page (which I must do for the first time every time), I am re-joining a splash and chatter that has not paused in my absence. It is so easy to stand at the edge of things, hesitating, doubting, wondering if I can find a way in. If it were up to my courage alone, I would still be peering from my safe remove in the shallows. Always, every time, it is another writer who tosses me a line and pulls me in.
 
Where would I be if the universe of writers did not keep guiding me back? What a thing it is, to learn that a reader finds some source of inspiration in my words! I am delighted to discover that my own writing, on occasion, has a similarly animating effect on folks who stumble across it. Patti Clark at A Woman’s Guide has generously nominated SmirkPretty for the “Inspired Blogger Award.”
 

 
These awards are chain letters for bloggers, giving us a chance to pay forward our appreciation for the stories that impel us to swim out a little further. This is my first such nomination. It is a lovely reminder that we are all here to help each other keep our hands moving and our heads above the surface to draw breath, no matter how strong the undertow.
 
Thank you, Patti, for your inspired writing and for the generous gift of reading SmirkPretty. This is a great nudge to keep swimming. Check out Patti here: http://patticlark.wordpress.com
 
The Inspired Blogger award’s requirements look like this:
 
1. Display the award logo somewhere on the blog.
2. Link back to the blog of the person who nominated you.
3. State seven things about yourself.
4. Nominate 15 other bloggers for the award and provide links to their blogs.
5. Notify those bloggers that they have been nominated and of the award’s requirements.
 
That’s a whole lot of lists for this little blog, but we can make room.
 
 
Seven things about me
 
1. Every night we are together, my son and I read either one chapter of a big-kid book (Harry Potter, or maybe The Secret Garden) or three children’s books. Then we sing three songs. We have been doing this since the day he was born. His favorite song right now is “The Cat Came Back.” The whole human race gets annihilated by an atom bomb in the end, but it gives us something to talk about during our morning commute.
 
2. I dance 2-3 times a week, walk every day on my lunch break, bike to and from the metro, and give the dog a 1.5 mile walk before bed. I know they say action is the antidote to despair, but exercise is the nurse administering the shot.
 
3. Someday, my ex husband and I are going to be close friends.
 
4. Whenever I smell honeysuckle, I stop and allow my tongue one tiny sugardrop before moving on.
 
5. About 13 years ago, I slammed out the words,
 

I believe in reincarnation
but in this lifetime, and not with Jesus.
I want to be born again, a hybrid kid
somewhere between grass and air and human.
I want to crystallize,
go chrysalis,
break out butterfly
all new.

I still believe. It is happening right now.
 
6. I allow myself 10 minutes of self pity per day. Sometimes I go over quota.
 
7. In my grandmother’s last few years, I visited every time I could (which was nowhere near enough, I realized too late). She had terrible arthritis. “Oh, sugar, could you please rub my hands?” I would sit on the floor by her powder blue recliner and rub the flesh between her brittle bones. Her skin was a treasure map, blue lines bleeding into ancient silk. Her feet, her fingers, I pressed mine between. She would moan and sigh and thank me quietly, over and over. When I imagine talking to my son about death and about what happens to people after they die, this is what I hold: the sensation of my grandmother’s tissue-thin skin on my fingertips, so fleeting, so completely forever.
 
 
Fifteen Inspiring Blogs. Read ’em. They’re good.
 
Agenthood and Submissionville: http://jackiebuxton.blogspot.com/
 
A Mama’s Peakshttp://amamaspeaks.blogspot.com/
 
Conversations with Curtishttp://conversationswithcurtis.blogspot.com
 
Failed at Fortyhttp://failedatforty.com/
 
Life Reconnected:  http://lifereconnected.wordpress.com/
 
Mama C and the Boys:  http://mamacandtheboys.com/
 
MamaTrue: Parenting as Practicehttp://mamatrue.com/
 
My Morning is Your Eveninghttp://10hours10years.blogspot.com/
 
Our Story Beginshttp://our-story-begins.com/
 
S.L. Writes: http://blog.slwrites.com/
 
Suzi’s Boob Juicehttp://www.suzisboobjuice.blogspot.com/
 
This Man’s Journey:  http://thismansjourney.net/
 
Two Sharp Pencils and a Broken Crayon:  http://juliewolk.wordpress.com/
 
Unsettling http://endlessstream.wordpress.com/
 
Virginia Trail Guidehttp://virginiatrailguide.com/