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June 10, 2008

Swimming Lesson Anxiety

I just signed my one-year-old daughter up for summer swim classes at the local Y. (Surprisingly cheap, by the way -- $84 for ten weeks of classes!) We've been planning to do this for a while, and I'm totally committed to it, especially given that my immigrant parents never learned how to swim, and didn't send me to swim lessons until I was 12 -- with the result that I am still somewhat afraid of the water and a pretty bad swimmer.

I can't float, or tread water. A swim instructor once told me that I was "the least buoyant person they had ever met." I can manage in the deep end -- in fact, I had to prove that I could swim ten laps in order to graduate college, because the University of Chicago has a swimming requirement (part of the founder's commitment to a 'healthy mind in a healthy body'). But I did the laps very slowly, on my back. I don't like putting my face in the water, and when I try to swim normal laps, I can never manage the breathing right. I always end up flipping over onto my back and slowly kicking my way along. And I'm terrified of the ocean, which is particularly sad because I love water and waves so much. I only go out as far as I can walk, and whenever a wave knocks me over, I panic a little.

I want better for Kavya. But at the same time, I'm worried about how she'll do in the class -- what if she's terrified? What if she cries? What if I do something wrong, so she gets water in her eyes, or up her little nose? What if Kavi refuses to ever get in a pool again? So far, the biggest body of water she's been in is her little infant tub.

The following is an excerpt from a memoir-in-progress, Arbitrary Passions, centering around a month I spent visiting Sri Lanka in 2005.

"I walk out across that stretch of sand, under a few pairs of curious, distant, eyes. But most of the locals have gone to work, and what tourists there are aren't out yet, waiting for the sun to emerge from behind a bank of clouds. It isn't long before I'm walking out, into the water. Ankle-deep, knee-deep, waist. It is perfectly warm. Near the shore, where the water is waist-deep and the waves are breaking, I must brace to meet them. If I don't, they will knock me over -- sometimes, they knock me over anyway. If I am lucky, I see it coming, pinch my nose shut and don't swallow too much salt water in the tumble. It is like being a small child again, to be tossed about with such force. I don't know why I didn't do this before; I don't know what I was waiting for.

"Eventually, I get tired of being pummelled, and walk further out. The waves calm as you go deeper. They come in big but gentle; if you let them, they lift you up, cradling you, and then bring you softly down again. The water is shallow for a long way out -- I walk out and out, and I am still only neck-deep. To the south, my left, a curve of rocks extends out from the beach, and I use it as a boundary. No deeper than the furthest protuberance of rock, or my best approximation. No further south than the edge of my hotel, extended out; no further north than the far edge of the next hotel over. My own little patch of ocean, the boundaries serving to reassure me. As long as I stay within them, I will be safe.

"I feel completely safe for the first time since I've arrived in this country. Protected by the warmth of the water, the regularity of the gentle waves. I lie on my back and float -- here, in the rich salt water, I am buoyant enough at last. I kick, I twist, I swim a few lengths, back and forth in my protected territory. I swim for a long time, hours. Then I am lying on my back, floating aimlessly, kicking occasionally, and am slammed by a wave, sending me tumbling back and down, to scrape my legs against the sand, to come up gasping for air, heart-thumping. I had allowed myself to drift too close to the surf, to that strange territory where sand meets water in a great confusion, two worlds colliding, mixing with a great beauty and a great fury."

I want my daughter to be able to go further than I ever could.


Original post of Chicago Moms Blog.

Mary Anne Mohanraj is the author of Bodies in Motion, a collection of Sri Lankan-American immigrant stories.  She also blogs at An Ongoing, Erratic Diary about her life as a fiction writer, literature professor, and new mother. She's been blogging since 1995.

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