Fear of Floating

The water is warm and I relax into it, stroking evenly,
entertaining images of Pablo Morales and Esther Williams and the
guy in the red bathing suit swimming laps at the other end of the
pool. But reality breaks in–I’m hardly moving and already out of
breath. I gasp and inhale water. Panic ignites my arms and legs,
and I thrash to the wall and clutch the lip of the pool near tile
5. It’s only five feet deep here. The nearby relaxed laughter
sounds mocking and my tired regret curdles into despair. I am
excluded from this paradise because of my fear.

Weeks later, paging through a catalog, I find ‘Swimming for
Adults Afraid in Water,’ offered by the Transpersonal Swimming
Institute. ‘You can overcome and heal this fear’ the course
description says. That’ll take a miracle, my conscience says from
its deck chair. Jump in, another voice replies. If not now,
when?

Class one: Yellow tape warns us away from unsafe bleachers.
Black ants meander over cracked and flaking paint. A funky gym is
not a bad place to talk about fear. We face the pool, blue, a
siren.

There are 11 of us, age thirtysomething to fiftysomething. Where
did our fear first get its hold? Toby was held underwater by a
sadistic neighbor. Diana watched a cousin drown. Molly almost
drowned trying to rescue her daughter. Me? Minor stuff–the
occasional dunking, a wave that tugged me seaward.

On the handout I notice that the class title has changed. OK, so
we’re in Berkeley, but I liked the old title, the way it stood with
its feet on the ground. Would I have signed up for ‘Miracle
Swimming’?

‘How many of you have taken swimming classes before?’ asks our
instructor, whose name is Melon Dash. Five of us raise our hands.
‘Those classes started at step 59 or so,’ says Melon. ‘What we do
here are the first 58 steps. If you take these steps you’ll learn
how to be in control, in your body, quiet inside, comfortable all
the time in the water in all parts of the pool.’

The methodology is simple: Stay aware, in your body, at all
times. Do only what is comfortable. Go at your own pace. At last
Melon says, ‘If you are ready, only if you are ready, you can get
into the pool.’

The men’s locker room is dark and frigid, the walls scrawled
with names. The smell of urine is caustic. My five male classmates
and I undress; no one says a word. A subspecies of shame hangs in
the air.

In the pool (warm! nice!) we start with an exercise: a slow walk
across, focusing attention on how our bodies feel in the water. I
mull my pace: Is it fast enough, too fast, a bit slow maybe? Maybe
I’m not getting this exercise . . . ah, here’s the side. By the
third walk across, my mind begins to loosen its grip on its agenda
and lets my body report from the front. How it feels. News worth
registering: It feels great.

Wearing goggles for the first time, I can see underwater, and
it’s a revelation, a different world. For the moment fear is
routed. Fred, one of the spotters, helps Stan and me try a facedown
float in five feet of water. ‘I can’t float,’ I tell Fred.

‘I bet you can,’ he says. ‘Take a lungful of air and when you’re
ready, let go of the side and see what happens.’

I do it. As expected, my legs sink and my body tilts at a
60-degree angle to the surface, like the Titanic on its way to the
bottom.

‘See?’ I say.

‘You were floating,’ Fred replies. ‘What would have happened if
the water were taken away? You would have fallen forward.’

Class Two: Today we reveal our goals and wildest water dreams.
Mine is to dive off a sailboat in the Caribbean. Molly wants to go
snorkeling in Hawaii, but she’s afraid she’ll advance only so far
and get stuck. ‘Anytime you get stuck it means you haven’t brought
all your presence to that place,’ Melon says.

Class Three: I play in the shallow end, retrieving coins tossed
to the bottom of the pool, turning somersaults, doing handstands. I
spend long moments underwater, at peace. Another bit of hardware, a
nose clip, frees me from worrying about water up my nose. Is it a
crutch? ‘We deserve to have as much fun as we can have,’ Melon
says. ‘If a nose clip allows you more freedom, why not?’ Fun?
Buckets of it, a great antidote to the raggedy old rundown
Sunday-night blues.

Still, by the end of class I’m impatient with my progress.
Shouldn’t I be learning strokes, breathing techniques, how to swim?
My mind lunges ahead to grasp the goal, which is ease. ‘Let the
object of desire come halfway to meet you,’ Melon said earlier.
‘Doesn’t it always work better that way?’

Class Four: I spend an hour by myself at the deep end, twisting,
somersaulting, swimming to touch bottom. I feel confident, in
control. Like finding $20 in a coat pocket. I discover something:
If I get in trouble, I can turn on my back and with minimal effort
stay afloat, breathing. What’s the problem then?

Euphoric and wanting company, I breaststroke across the pool to
the corner where Marty and Mary Alice are practicing swimming side
to end on a short diagonal. I’m in the way and swim back.

At the close of class Marty tells us how as he was swimming in
the deep end someone got in his way and it broke his concentration,
that he panicked and felt crushed by the setback.

‘Can you forgive yourself for having these feelings?’ Melon
asks. Marty considers and answers yes. ‘And forgive the ones who
swam in front of you?’

‘Yes,’ Marty says again. ‘It wasn’t their fault. And I forgive
the pool and the water. And I forgive you for having this class.’
Everyone laughs.

In the locker room I apologize to Marty for getting in his way.
He’s relieved, says he feels able to let it go and move onward.

Class Five: The transition from the world outside to the watery
world is comfortable and comforting. At the end of class when Melon
asks how I’m doing, I blurt out my dream of a big wave. ‘What do
you do if you encounter a giant wave?’ she asks.

‘Wake up.’

Class Six: Kicking tonight. The churning and splashing of the
water around me is intense, so I turn on my back and swim away from
it. A monumental first. But when I try the flutter kick, I don’t
move. Sometimes I move; I can’t tell what the difference is.
Frustration succumbs to exhaustion.

Class Seven: Relax, I tell myself to no avail, as I try to
freestyle across the pool. And I want to swim in the Caribbean next
summer?

Melon teaches us to expel air from our lungs right before
surfacing so that we can efficiently replenish it. Another key in
another lock. I bob up and down practicing but then, instead of
getting air I expel it and sink to the bottom of the pool where I
flail, panicked.

I am chastened, dejected. I know how Marty felt.

Class Eight: Melon asks what our goals are for this, the last
class. I say I want to regain the comfort and fun and give up
worrying about getting from side to side. ‘That’s perfect,’ Melon
says. I tell her about last week’s uninvited guest, Joe Panic. She
suggests I return to the bobbing exercise in shallower water and
practice surfacing calmly in control.

Another eight-week course, ‘Next Step,’ starts in three weeks. I
enroll. Pablo Morales I will never be, but I am happy to be the guy
who can jump off the boat into the Caribbean next summer. Though I
don’t always believe it, I will. This much is clear. The opposite
of fear is not hope but trust.

From The Monthly (July 1999).
Subscriptions: $12/yr. (12 issues) from 1201 59th St., Emeryville,
CA 94608.

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