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The Swimming Lesson by Mary Oliver

Feeling the icy kick, the endless waves
Reaching around my life, I moved my arms
And coughed, and in the end saw land.

Somebody, I suppose,
Remembering the medieval maxim,
Had tossed me in,
Had wanted me to learn to swim,

Not knowing that none of us, who ever came back
From that long lonely fall and frenzied rising,
Ever learned anything at all
About swimming, but only
How to put off, one by one,
Dreams and pity, love and grace, –
How to survive in any place.

My introduction to swimming was also harsh. Or old school, bless the ancestor’s hearts. In the bliss of family summer camp on the Michigan Fortune Lakes, my adult second cousin decided to express her Viking heritage and throw me in way over my head. That wasn’t too hard; I was three years old. Does anyone ever actually start swimming in reaction to this particular prompt? The Shipping News begins with such a swimming lesson, assumedly as a partial explanation for why Coyle is such a chickenshit.

I certainly felt a failure, as did Coyle, but much more than that, betrayal. If adults were going to do that sort of thing to you, scaring you with death, throwing you under a watery bus, they were certainly not trustworthy. The experience probably instigated my lifelong love of earthworms, those creatures that were exchanged for fish when the water-slapping boathouse was emptied of its charge, and the day’s anglers headed out across the string of lakes in stiff bright orange life vests.

I loved my Dad, so I wanted to go; classic approach-avoidance situation. Sitting on the boat bench in the sun, watching the shoreline wheel around me, trailing my little hand in the water, was summer ecstasy. But the sinking of the worms, their seeming slow suffocation in the deeps, wrung my heart.

This might be the Fortune Lakes

What I did about this fear of water is interesting; I learned to swim UNDER the water. This was in part a rebellion against the adults, who wanted people to swim on TOP of the water. I refused any more of their swimming instruction. I would do it my way.

So I learned how to be good at not breathing. I practiced in bed at night, a good occupation for an insomniac who slept with a snoring sister. I stitched my dignity back together, breath by breath. At Walden Pond I waded past the minnows, slipped into the water like an otter, and wriggled away, nothing but a few bubbles to prove I was there.

I was feeling the currents, undercover in my Piscean world. I disappeared into silence. I was swimming with the fishes, while the top swimmers gasped, their mouths like Oh’s. They splashed and churned and fussed shamefully, clumsy drowning elephants. They probably would not feel anything at all about a drowning worm. Most people don’t.

I was the one who glided suavely away beneath the trauma of that cruel summer surprise. I was the fish who mouthed the worm without the hook, and gently let it go upon the shore. As Oliver puts it, I learned how to survive in that place.