Wednesday, January 12, 2011


I have always loved to swim, was never afraid of the water. My cousins lived on a farm; across the dirt road from their place was Lake Francis, where they took swimming lessons starting in May. When we city girls visited, we had to plunge in, even on Memorial Day, since they had already set the standard. There was no retreating from the challenge. Later I would realize the significance of acclimation; by the time we visited, they had been getting used to the cold water for weeks. In the same way, they walked around barefoot, over their gravel driveway, across the gravel road, through grass and everywhere on their toughened soles, while I limped along trying to keep up. My feet were soft; my mother had a strict rule about going barefoot—the temperature had to be in the 70s for a week before she’d agree, while my cousins ran around without shoes from the time the snow melted. I would never catch them, but I would bear pain trying.

So, I would plunge in the cold lake, swim out to the floating dock with them, and play for hours, jumping or diving or cannon balling, then swimming back and climbing on to do it all again. All the activity, and their company, kept me there, swearing I never got cold, in spite of my shriveled fingers, blue lips. Sometimes we hung out by the ladder, treading water, seeing whether the small sunfish, swimming through patches of water shot through with light, would nibble on our legs.

Treading water. One of my favorite things to do in the lake, or the pool where I took swimming lessons. I was an apt swimmer, catching on quickly, demonstrating the frog kick for my fellow classmates or racing them across the narrow width while the teacher watched and corrected our form from the deck. But treading. . . that was something else. It allowed me to spend time in the deep end of the pool, to feel daring and brave and strong. The blue of the water deepened as the tiled bottom slid out of reach of my feet. Sometimes our class got to dive for hockey pucks, but I never enjoyed going under, the pressure building on my ears and eyes as I kicked toward the bottom. I preferred the miraculous buoyancy I had on the surface, kicking my legs slowly and using my hands like paddles—fingers together, palms outward, pushing away from my body, then rotating inward to return. Back and forth, back and forth, palms out, palms in. Finning and sculling, my teacher called it. With minimal movement, I could stay afloat.

Then, in sixth grade, we had a Phy Ed unit on Survival Floating. I didn’t know what that was; I expected more treading, rotating my body in circles to break up the monotony. What I—we—encountered was completely different. Survival Floating meant keeping your face in the water, upper body on the surface, legs dangling below—an L of depleted energy, arms hanging limply, parallel to our legs—then raising our arms and head, a slight breast stroke, sculling out in front of our bodies, coming up for a breath only when necessary. The idea was that if we were in a boating accident, or somehow found ourselves in the middle of a lake without a life jacket, stranded, we would have to conserve our energy until someone came to rescue us. I do not know why floating on our backs was not an option; it is listed on water safety sites on the internet as one option. So is treading water. But for us, those were forbidden. We had to float, and float only.

The unit was 6 weeks long. In all that time, I never feared the scenario that was the purpose for the lesson. I couldn’t imagine myself thrown from a boat or somehow without a flotation device on a lake. I had confidence in myself and my ability to make it. I was—I am—a strong swimmer. Once a year, or whenever we visit my sister and her husband’s cabin, I swim across the small lake and back, trailed by someone in the paddle boat, acting as life guard.

The test, however, was challenging. We had to float for 30 minutes in the deep end of the pool, the whole class bobbing like bugs on the surface of a pond. I didn’t like bumping into people, a feeling of mild claustrophobia that has been duplicated the few times I’ve run a 5K, compressed into a pack of bodies in the first half mile; I found that the effort it took to remind myself to relax made me hyperventilate mildly. I had to keep reminding myself to take regular, not deep or big breaths, to slow down my rapid heartbeat. It was a test; I wanted to do well, and that desire to prove myself added anxiety.

I made it; I passed, satisfying myself and avoiding the shame I always feared for not performing well. But the best part, the part I remember the most, that still comes to mind from time to time, even 30 years later, was the self-made flotation devices. We learned how to tie the legs of our pants together, then splash air and water into them so we could wrap those inflated legs around our necks like denim life jackets, and float upright. We learned to use our shirts in a similar way, but the pants worked better. The teachers said we could use those tactics only intermittently—the object was to FLOAT, but in those intervals of the test, I was relaxed. Upright, able to look around, I felt in control, as I always felt when treading water.

To this day, I prefer to have my head above the surface, able to pivot, swivel, scan the horizon for any help that might soon arrive.