The 94-Year-Old Who Taught Me To Swim | Sojourners

The 94-Year-Old Who Taught Me To Swim

OK, I have a confession: I never learned how to swim. As a kid, my parents put me in swimming lessons, but I was so terrified by the thought of drowning that I refused to let go of the edge of the pool. My dad would try to teach me how to float on my back, but I refused to relax my arms enough to stay still. Instead, I would frantically clutch for him, trying to feel steady.

But despite never learning how to keep afloat, any time I saw a swimming pool or an ocean, an immense urge to swim overcame me.

Recently, I spent some time in Florida, where I met Joanie, a 94-year-old woman who swims every week. She taught me how to swim in one hour. She said she could see my hunger for swimming. She recognized that desire to leap headfirst into the deep.

At the end, Joanie congratulated me and left me with some wisdom: She said that when she was young, there were endless expectations on women: to marry, to have children, etc. “And then it was all over,” she said. She told me that because I could swim, I could go anywhere and be anything. I could swim from island to island because I was free.

In Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty, a poet named Claire argues that “this … is when we become truly human, fully ourselves, beautiful. To swim when your body is made for swimming. To kneel when you feel humble. To drink water when you are thirsty. Or — if one wishes to be grand about it — to write the poem that is exactly the fitting receptacle of the feeling or thought that you hoped to convey.”

Lately I’ve been retracing my steps, returning to the origins and retraining myself in the art of wonder. I’m swimming and biking, scribbling in my poetry book, and creating riffs on the piano. I am floating. Because I’ve spent so much time outside lately, my freckles have reemerged, each one is evidence of where I let the sunshine in.

There are a lot of heart-wrenching events taking place right now. It is important for everyone to return to the depths of what makes them feel whole and let sunlight into those places.

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