Taking on water

“It’s Shakespearian,” she explained.

Before my grandmother intervened, my mother had wanted to name me Ophelia. “It’s from the bard,” she said, and that was it, however I pleaded.

“Who’s Ophelia,” I asked my adored English teacher years after, when I was in ninth grade. “I know she’s from Shakespeare…”

“She’s a boat,” he said, smile steady, perspective tilted.

I was on a less even keel, a teenage depressive by the time we read Hamlet in eleventh grade. (“To be or not to be” really was the question.)

To the melancholic sixteen-year-old I was, Ophelia floats herself down a river, taking on water, until she sinks forever.

“It’s environmental,” said the therapist to whom I was sent to be cured of only able to pile the plates, but not wash them, of only being able to spray the bathtub, but not being able to scrub.

Preferably in three or fewer sessions.

“Aren’t you able to get out of bed yet,” my father said after the second.

“I want to be able to get out of bed,” I told the friend who came to stay with me after a fight with her parents, when she got up, showered, dressed, and walked the block to our high school.

“I understand,” said the guidance counsellor who called when I was absent.

“But, Sarah, maybe you can just come to homeroom, then go home again. Maybe, if you can make it to homeroom, you can make it through first class, maybe even second, then go home at lunch… Eventually, maybe, you’ll get through the whole day.”

If you can do just one thing, my high-school counsellor suggested. Maybe that will get you through.

Just breathe through it, suggest my friends.

I think of she told to get to a nunnery while I’m practicing my front-crawl breath, in adult lessons I signed up for on a whim. I am forty. I am unemployed. I am in an on-again-off-again relationship. Is he going to send me away like Hamlet did, I muse in my journals.

But, I’m not Ophelia.

I’m learning swim.

“I learned how not to die, and that’s it,” I tell my instructor, Charlie, on my first day of Adult Swim 2.

“So they could be reasonably sure it was on purpose if they saw me floating facedown in their backyard pool, my parents made me take lessons as a kid, just to learn the basics.”

Practicing the basics—my stroke, my kick—I take on water, breathing over my own shoulder. Why do they call it navel-gazing, I wonder, when it’s so much more like breathing down your own neck? I have to get to the end—the end of the length, the end of the lap, the end of this interminable year. I have to keep going. One more stroke. One more kick. One more recruiter calling with a job she thinks is perfect.

Even when I trust the glide of the water, of my limbs, my swim instructor’s suggestion, I find myself suddenly gasping. It’s exhausting.

It’s like learning to trust life, trusting the water—what’s elemental, still a beautiful struggle.

It’s just breathing through it—and an insistence on leaving my apartment to find just one thing that’s beautiful, a rose bush, a sunset, someone playing the piano in a twilight garden—that urges me out my door daily, one-hundred-and-one days in a row, my towel rolled, my goggles in my bag.

From June through October of the year I feel un-hireable, despite recently completing a post-graduate program, I swim in city pools, revelling in the sun and exertion. My swims are less a discipline than a joyous practice, an activity that connects me to myself—and to others.

“Try taking a slower, longer breath on your side,” shouts the lifeguard at my neighbourhood pool from his vantage over lanes that shimmer so blue. I do.

(I dream that blue later, in dark November.)

“Try this…” he hollers on my next visit, demonstrating a drill.

I try daily, and my front crawl improves. (My back stroke, my breast stroke, these feel easy, comparatively.)

Suddenly, the lifeguard who’s coached me is going back to university. “I have to be really picky,” he says, “to find anything to tell you to work on now. Maybe, you could try leading from your elbow. But, you’re good. It’s good.”

It is good, like life is good when you immerse yourself in it, learn to trust, to move yourself through with ease and skill. I’ve learned to swim—and how to live—at forty, after decades of knowing only “how not to die.”