Wisdom of the Water

I have no hands or arms. No legs to open and close. No neck to crane. No looking back. To the sound of water falling on itself, I become a creature among creatures, traveling through the depths without the burden of language, belongings or love. A thrust here and I propel myself forward, a wiggle there and I flash with the others into a quick turn. Exerting a little, I dive downward, a freefall without fear of gravity. Upward, I climb back, my tail churning, toward the sunlight.

Though I was born under the sunny sign of the lion, I am not complete without a dip, splash or soak. I sleep to the sound of the ocean though I live far inland. I practice my swimming fish meditation whenever I can. Of the dozen things I know well about myself, my love of water is the most basic—its sound, how it flares in sunlight, how it opens itself for me to move through, how I have learned to be faster than it.

I began swimming laps in college, the first time I had access to a pool that wasn’t shaped like a kidney bean. But growing up in apartment complexes, the aqua water was always my home. In its depths I mimed tea parties, played shark, dove for treasures, spinned somersaults and hid. Swimming laps, I wasn’t fast, but I wasn’t slow either. Though I earned a Junior Lifesaving badge at summer camp, I could only cross the pool’s fifty yards a couple of times without huffing. Maybe it was the cigarettes. Maybe it was my lame lop-sided freestyle. I switched to the gentle glide of breast stroke and quit when I was tired.

The first summer I lived in Austin, my boyfriend took me to Barton Springs and Deep Eddy, both spring-fed pools with their own charms. But without a car, I lost track of both of them and suffered the heat with a garden hose.

But they waited for me. A couple years later I was single, back in town, and one day I saw the sign for Deep Eddy and parked my car. The pool’s location, slightly warmer temperature, and more lap-friendly size made it perfect. Over several summers, I watched certain nameless children grow up, men with long hair and bicycles be tamed, and women tan themselves ever darker shades, while I swam.

Swimming changed my life, I like to say. But it didn’t do that until many years later, when, as a working mother of a four-year-old, I grew exasperated with my inability to stick with an exercise regime. Choosing between stealing my son away for a surprise trip to the playscape or swimming laps, even at my beloved pool sheltered by giant cottonwoods, I always lost. Of course, I wanted to spend time with my boy, but the price was flabby thighs, tight shoulders, and an attitude that teetered between cranky and depressed.

So, when I saw a sign for an adult swimming team that met at Deep Eddy, I called. The price was outrageous, the practice time awfully early, and I knew no one. I showed up, survived my first practice, and came back. That was more than two years ago.

Silly as it sounds, swimming has taught me nearly as much as motherhood.

Take the team thing. I was never a "joiner." I believed in Twain’s motto that he wouldn’t join any club that would have him. Call it snobbery or fear or shyness, it was me. Baloney! I swim with a plastic surgeon, Spanish teacher, reading specialist, physical trainer (several of them, including Ann Richards’ very own), a few attorneys and many computer geeks. In two years we have birthed 5 babies, visited our Peace Corps daughter in Africa, toured places as far-flung as Cape Hope and Tegucigalpa, and published a book. My team is like an extended family. And not just that, but they are as water-obsessed as I am. When we get together for potlucks we actually compare the weight of water in different pools, and watch swimming videos! No one in my real family would do that.

Sometimes we swim four or five to a lane which demands interdependence and trust. We must know each other’s strengths and weaknesses in order to avoid a traffic jam. We know when someone’s having an off day and we know when someone’s on fire. We encourage and adjust. We are in this together and somehow, coughing, sputtering, or panting, we’ll muddle through. I could not possibly do this without them.

Now suddenly I’m joining things—like an email group of women writers who inspire and encourage me, a professional organization that has fascinating luncheons at a stodgy restaurant, and the ever-challenged PTA board. A lone lion for so long, I’d join more groups if I only had the time.

Swimming, I discovered that having a coach is like having wings. I wish I could hire one to follow me around all day, encouraging me to: Reply to email! Make those calls! Organize some meetings! (Of course, my husband, friends and therapist fill this role, but imagine what I could accomplish if I had someone with a TEAM ROBIN jacket shouting moves all the time.) I have been afraid of, in love with, bored with and friends of my two coaches, a husband and wife. They tell me to do things I cannot. And I do them. They tell me a little at a time so I am not overwhelmed or discouraged. They praise me and I fly. They teach me and I concentrate on my arms as if their movement controls the paths of the planets.

Swimming with a team has taught me how to accomplish things. Often during practice my mantra is "Stay in the lap," a swimmer’s version of Be Here Now. To go ahead in one’s mind to the next impossible thing is self-defeating, to think back on what’s already transpired is pointless. I cannot imagine a single situation in which this wisdom is not useful. Swimming, I have learned to trust the accumulation of tiny actions to result in long distances. I’m still far too cynical to think "anything’s possible," (world peace, for instance, seems particularly elusive), but swimming has shown me that most of the time what keeps you back is all in your head.

And finally, swimming with the team keeps me young. Sure, it does a nice number on my body (I have one buff back and, oh boy! permanent tan lines). And certainly it tests my brain to add up times and intervals and laps and stuff all while moving my body in a way it doesn’t naturally do. But mostly it’s butt-kicking fun. For one hour I am a child doing what the grown-ups say, a dolphin playing tag, a mermaid tracing figure eights. I have no thoughts, no language, no burdens, no weight. I am a fish, swimming among fish and this morning as the sun rises, mist lifting from the water, leaves falling, we are all fast.

About the author:

Robin Bradford is an award-winning short story writer and essayist. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, Quarterly West and Boston Review, among many other places. Born in Japan and raised in Oklahoma and Texas, she lived in Delaware and Rhode Island before settling in Austin in 1988. She works as communications and development director for a nonprofit that provides affordable housing in Austin. Bradford lives with her husband, their son, three cats and a dog. Being the mother—of a child over the age of three—is the best thing that has ever happened to her. Send feedback for Robin to: motherload@austinmama.com and visit her site at www.robinbradford.net