What do we do?

This summer I went swimming

This summer I might have drowned

But I held my breath and I kicked my feet

And I moved my arms around.

Faramir and I have been talking about swimming a lot lately.  Last week we watched a British documentary called “Wild Swimming,” in which a young and attractive British scientist/presenter swims in rivers and lakes.  He thought it was strange that the mere act of swimming somewhere out in the woods could garner enough attention to be a national movement.  I grew up swimming at pools and public beaches, so I find the idea of wild swimming much more romantic and dangerous.  Our camping trip last summer was the first time I’d ever swum out in the so-called “wild”; we went hiking, found a lake, and swam in it.  It hadn’t even occurred to me that you could do that.

This summer I swam in the ocean

And swam in a swimming pool

Salt in my wounds, chlorine in my eyes

I’m a self-destructive fool. 

Then I heard “Swimming Song” by Loudon Wainwright last week, and it got me thinking about…well, what we talk about when we talk about swimming.  What is it about being in water that makes it such an appropriate metaphor for situations we can just barely manage?  I’m in over my head, we say.  I’m treading water.  I’m immersed in this book.  I’m drowning in paperwork.

If you plunge into cold water, the first response is shock that halts your breath and jolts your heart.  Every muscle in your body clenches, and you have to force them to release by convincing them that this is normal now, this is the environment to which you have to adjust.  As much as you want to go in slowly, a toe at a time, that really doesn’t help.  At one point in the documentary when the presenter was edging herself into a very cold lake, Faramir said, “Just jump in already!”  The only thing to do is jump in and keep breathing through the shock.  You know that when it passes, the exhilaration will be incredible.

After you jump in, of course, you have to start swimming.  As I listened to “Swimming Song,” I couldn’t help but think of Dory’s cheerful little song from “Finding Nemo.”  Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…What do we do?  We swim!  When you’re swimming, you can’t do anything else.  It takes your whole body and mind.  You’re doing it because you have to.  It is possible to swim lazily, or to float, but intentionality must be maintained at all times.  You can’t forget you’re swimming.  You can’t swim and check your email at the same time (although I’m sure that some desperately misguided engineer is working on that as we speak).

This summer I did the backstroke

And you know that that’s not all

I did the breaststroke, and the butterfly

And the old Australian crawl.

To swim is to master an alien and arguably hostile environment, one in which we were not meant to survive.  We know what happens if we fail to swim.  The rewards for success, however, are grace and strength unattainable in our normal life.

This summer I went swimming

This summer I might have drowned

But I held my breath and I kicked my feet

And I moved my arms around.

So we keep swimming.  We throw ourselves into this peaceful, romantic, wild, dangerous sport because it is like nothing else we can do; and because, once we’re in the water, we have no choice.





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