Posted by: graceunbound | July 11, 2008

Swimming lessons

Every summer when I was in elementary school my mom signed me up for a week of free swimming lessons at the YMCA in a neighboring town. Every summer I half dreaded them, and half hoped that a miracle would occur, my fear would vanish and I would learn to swim. And, every summer I sat on the side of the pool, stubbornly resisting the instructor’s urging to just get in the water, just try it. I was not getting in that water, period. I didn’t trust them, I didn’t trust the water, I didn’t trust my body to do what it was supposed to do. Not even a simple back float? Oh, that was the worst. To lose all sense of equilibrium, to lean back and surrender myself to the control of something I didn’t understand was simply out of the question.

Eventually I got old enough that the annual ritual stopped. I don’t think my mother even realized that I hadn’t learned to swim, she had always sent me off in the care of neighbors and unless someone squealed I don’t think she was aware of my stubborn refusals. So I established an uneasy truce with the water. “I won’t fall into you and you won’t try to drown me.” This worked well enough until after Gates was born. Suddenly there was another being I was responsible for, and I was determined not only to avoid passing on my fear of water, but to be able to enjoy it with him. So, at the age of thirty-five, I took swimming lessons.

The first step was the hardest, learning to lean back and trust both my instructor and the water. But this time I channeled all of the stubbornness that had held me back before into the stubborn determination that I would press on and I WOULD learn to swim. And learn to swim, I did. My instructor said she had never seen an adult pick it up so quickly. By the time we moved away I was swimming laps almost every morning. There was just one teensy little problem…but we’ll get to that later.

Fast forward to this summer and swimming lessons for the boys. Not Gates’ first round of lessons, he’s been plugging along in the most basic preschool level for two years now, slowly conquering his fears. This summer we switched lesson venues to one that could accommodate both boys at the same time. Suddenly Gates was no longer in the preschool class. No more coddling, no more low expectations. This instructor expected him to learn. And to my surprise, he did. After day one he was bobbing under water, and by the end of two weeks he was happily bobbing under repeatedly, even holding his breath. But he wouldn’t float. Front float, maybe, as long as he could hang on to the instructor. But straightening his body requires a coordination that is still sometimes lacking. Back float? No way. Shrieking, clutching the instructor, refusing to do it, he was not about to surrender control.

Today, without Indy around, I took Gates to one of the bigger pools in town. We practiced his front float (in the guise of playing tag) over and over again. He no longer needs to hold on to someone. He still has a hard time letting his body go straight, but that will come. Here’s the thing, though. He will float as long as he knows he can touch the bottom when he stands up. The moment I got him out far enough for his footing to be uncertain, he panicked. It didn’t matter that I was holding him, it didn’t matter that he had successfully floated just seconds before. Suddenly he was clinging to me with everything he had in him.

Back to that teensy problem I mentioned earlier. I am the same way. I will happily swim lap after lap if I am on the very outside lane of the pool and if the pool is shaped so that I can touch just enough of the bottom on that outside lane to get me to the side. It doesn’t matter that I KNOW how to swim, it is one thing to swim where I know I’m safe, another thing entirely to swim when there is no secure edge to grasp, nothing that I can control. So I understand his panic.

And that is my nature. I will surrender control just a little bit. Just enough to say “See God? I’m trusting you!” And then he says, “OK, come out a little deeper.”

“No, really, I’m fine here by the side, God.”

Is trust really trust if you can’t abandon yourself completely to it? Once I got over my fear of floating and swimming I found so much joy in it, I can only imagine what it would be like to surrender the rest of my fears and head out into deeper water. How much more joy is waiting for me when I learn to give up the last shreds of the idea that I need to be in control?



  1. […] Grace Unbound didn’t want to pass on her fear of the water to her son, so she took swimming lessons at the age of 35. She’s getting better, but she’s still most comfortable swimming in the lane closest to the edge of the pool. […]

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