Thursday, February 2, 2012

on fear

Last night I had my first swimming lesson since I was a child. I was a timid kid and I absolutely hated swimming lessons. My sense of survival stopped me from putting my head under water. Why the fuck would I do that?! There's no air down there!

It took a long time for the smell of chlorine to inspire in me anything but dread. But my dad taught me how to tread water and float, and I learned how to doggy-paddle, and now I snorkel at the beach. But I still can't swim properly, with my face in the water, moving faster than six feet a minute.

Late last year I moved to a house down the road from a public pool, and I saw the movie Jack Goes Boating. It's directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and one of the plot threads (and central metaphors) sees his character Jack learning to swim so that he can go boating next summer. Jack is taking active steps to take away barriers that make his life more narrow. I found this film so inspiring, and the scenes where Jack's friend Clyde is teaching him to swim so beautiful, that I decided to learn.

I signed up for adult beginner classes at the pool. The classes didn't start till February, so I felt brave and confident. February was ages away! But it got closer, and I started feeling nervous.

All the little things that could make this uncomfortable or embarrassing or scary started scratching at my mind. What if I was the worst in the class? What if I breathed in water and freaked myself out? What if the teacher was mean or moved too fast? What if I looked fat and dorky in my bathers and goggles? (inevitable)

And when I got there, some things happened that would have made me really anxious if I had known that they would happen. The guy at the front desk was kind of a dick. I couldn't find the class. I got there really early and sat watching ten-tear-olds swimming like champs and wondering if I was in the right place. The guy next to me told the swimming instructor that he was there "to improve his butterfly stroke" and I was terrified I had somehow booked myself into the wrong class.

In the end, of course, everything was fine. I wasn't the most frightened or least experienced person there. I am ridiculously buoyant and will never sink. I really like being in the water and the instructor is great. But the thing I realised last night isn't "everything will be fine, don't worry about it," because this is a lesson I have been taught over and over again and I will never learn.

The lesson I learnt was that everything will not always be fine, things will go wrong and be uncomfortable or anxiety-inducing or painful. But I will be fine. I'll deal with it and it will not upset me or make me run away. I looked like a total dork in my goggles... and I didn't care. I breathed in a little bit of water at the end of the class... and I was fine.

I know this isn't a major revelation to most people, but it really resonated with me. As I left the pool the cyclone clouds hanging over the city had finally broken and I walked through the big, fat drops of summer rain. I felt good.

Now I just have to try not to forget it.


Cassandra Louise said...

Well done indeed! You should feel happy and proud. :-)

dempss01 said...

So true. Sometimes it's hard to feel vulnerable, but all learning is vulnerability. I know how you feel ;P

Good on you!!

Suzanne said...

congrats! I love swimming when I stop being lazy about going and doing it. Ultra refreshing and good for you in so many ways. And chlorine clears up your skin. for serious. I learnt this in my teenage years

tristan said...

This was beautiful to read, Jess. I really liked Hoffman's film and I love the way that it inspired your life to a certain degree. In the same, your post has inspired. I don't know to what degree in my life but reading about withdrawing the blocks that narrow one's progression in life and the need to constantly remember, not forget, what we already know, this was very useful to read.