My dearest Sweatpants & Coffee tribe,
I’ve been thinking a lot about being in over my head, which seems to be my natural state of existence. Also, about how you never learn what you’re capable of if you stay in the shallows.
When I was around 7, my parents enrolled me in swimming lessons at the YWCA. It was a bit late to be learning, considering we lived on an island surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and people swam all year round. Most kids learned to swim before kindergarten as a matter of safety. But with two busy, older parents who both worked full-time jobs so my sister and I could attend Catholic school, I’d somehow just never learned.
Thus, that summer, I found myself in my homemade crocheted bikini (all the ladies in the secretarial pool at my mom’s office crocheted on their lunch break) with my hair tucked up into a rubber swim cap that left a semi-permanent groove across my forehead, hanging onto the slick, cement edges of the downtown Honolulu YWCA pool, bobbing up and down, obediently blowing bubbles each time my head went under. Built in 1927 and situated across the street from Iolani Palace, the former home of Hawaiian royalty, the YWCA had a Mediterranean-inspired feel, with distinctive arches and columns, and a loggia overlooking the pool so that patrons of the open-air café could sit and watch the swimmers. That was a lot of pressure for a 7-year-old who could barely dog-paddle.
I was especially aware of the scrutiny of the onlookers on the day we learned to dive. Well, some of us learned. The teacher, a ponderous man of partial Hawaiian descent who was solid but egg-shaped, demonstrated how to point your hands over your head like an arrow, bend over at the waist, and push off with your feet so that you sliced into the water, head-first. He was surprisingly graceful. We practiced from the pool deck with varying results: I could only belly-flop. And then, it was time to get up on the diving board. One by one, my classmates padded to end of the board and dove. When it was my turn, I could feel the breath stop somewhere in the middle of my throat. I willed my skinny, shaky legs forward, one foot at a time, until I stood, looking down at the water. I was being made to walk the plank, like in Peter Pan. The pool may as well have been filled with sharks. I froze.
I don’t know how long I stood there, hands pointed, head down, curled over like a candy cane, motionless. But it was long enough for my teacher to realize I was not going to move. Possibly I was caught in some sort of stasis field. I imagined the coffee-sippers whispering and giggling to each other. My fellow swimmers called encouragement but I could barely hear them over the thunderous rush in my rubber-covered ears. Sighing, the teacher climbed onto the diving board. I felt it creak under his considerable weight as he walked toward me. The next thing I knew, he’d picked me up and flung me into the pool. I hit the water with a huge splash – another belly-flop.
I was humiliated. My nose was full of chlorine-water. BUT. I was swimming. I was unstuck. I paddled furiously to the side of the pool and hauled myself out. No one laughed or pointed. I had survived.
To this day, I cannot do a proper dive. I prefer going in toes-first. I do not look cool or graceful or dolphin-like. But I can let the water close over my head while I hold my breath and blow out silvery bubbles. I can touch the bottom and push right back up. I know how to keep myself afloat.
Whatever your deep end is, it’s not as bad as staying stuck on the diving board. It’s scary and hard, but you can do scary and hard. You always have. So, say the thing. Make the choice. Take the action. It doesn’t have to be pretty or dignified. Belly-flop, if that’s what you have to do. Eventually, you’re going to find yourself not just treading water but swimming. There’s power and purpose in movement.