I’m 37 and I’m learning to swim for the first time.
I never learned it when I was little. Swimming was mandatory in my high school gym class. My public high school was famous, so many freshmen came to the area to attend, even though they didn’t grow up in the upper middle class suburban Chicago. A 16-year-old lifeguard tries to show us how to tread water, showing us black kids shivering in shallow water, while a gym teacher works with experienced swimmers. Needless to say, I couldn’t tread water.
Despite this, I have always loved the waterfront. Scrape valleys, smooth jagged things, flow, push and pull. When anxiety fills me up, I find myself sitting by the shores of Lake Michigan, watching the water lapping against the shoreline, and being content to do one thing. It puts me back in my body.
Now in my late 30s, I want to learn to swim. Because there is a love of water and at the same time a deep fear of drowning. We want to be safe and have fun, not just splash in the shallow water. Well, I’m now halfway through a 7-week swim course at my local gym. I love it. I learned to blow bubbles out of my nose. My classmates are two senior citizens named Mike and Shirley (they are exactly what you would imagine Mike and Shirley to look like). They too are learning how to overcome their fears in old age.
We start each time by breathing underwater and calming down. Because swimming, like so many other things, is a spiritual feat. After taking a deep breath, we “bob” and exhale in the water, pushing the air out of our nose and humming. Take three deep breaths, exhale underwater, stand up and open your mouth to expel excess water. I feel my mind becoming meditative and I try to calm my mind. There is progress, but breathing is a beginning, a middle and an end.
First learn to float. The instructor said that water naturally carries you if you are relaxed. if you relax, is emphasized. Relaxing in the water goes against nature’s instincts. I want to fight to survive. There are studies that show how trauma is genetically passed on from generation to generation. How can I believe that my DNA itself is designed to understand “this is going to kill you”? Instead, I rely on knowing certain mechanics. To float, you need to fill your lungs with air to float to the surface, keep your hips level with the water, and free your mind. To get up, you need to swing your arms down and tuck your knees to push your body up. That knowledge is comforting because it knows that it will not change. Easy enough. I feel like the wind blows when I’m floating on my back.
“Great!” says the instructor. “Let’s switch to the front float. It’s the dead man’s float.”
A murmur in your head overwrites all thoughts and is replaced by a resounding chant. dead man’s float, dead man’s float. I know I can’t float freely to death while holding foam dumbbells, let go Missing my bingo card is my dumbbell down in the water face down. I panicked, swallowed copious amounts of pool water, and thrashed embarrassingly in 3 feet 6 inches of water. I get the urge to run, but I tell myself: “Abigail Mallett, you’re not going to die. Just stand up.” Finally, I dared to completely let go of him for a second. Panicking, I levitated for another beat longer, reminding myself that levitation is just levitation and nothing more. I swing my arms down, bend my knees and stand up.
I felt accomplished and even powerful, but by the next week all anxiety had returned. Last time I overcame my fear. Did you have to conquer all classes? I’m still immersed in survival mode every week. But I don’t have to tell myself I won’t die. Just as water exists, it is enough for me to exist. Wrap me up, let me do my thing, and help me rise to the surface. I am not only learning to trust the water, but I am also strengthening my trust in myself and at the same time unraveling the grief, pain and trauma that are woven into my genes.
I’m not the only one who feels that way, am I? Seeking solidarity, I sought out other Black women who had learned to swim as adults. Yamina MayoA brilliant writer, she echoed my own thoughts when I asked her why she wanted to learn to swim.
The impetus came from Jamaica. There was such a beautiful open water, but unfortunately I couldn’t access it as I wanted. Water is scary, isn’t it? Take swimming lessons. Being in the pool two days a week is so much fun and relaxing. Even taking chlorine makes me happy and once I start moving I forget all the stress of the outside world. Swimming requires you to focus on every inch of your body to maintain proper form. I am very proud to have been able to practice this life skill. It’s amazing how our bodies naturally move in and out of water. I can’t express enough how happy we are to see them underwater. Swimming and underwater abilities are very revolutionary to regain, especially for black people.
To be honest, I sometimes cringe when most of my experiences are related to being Black. Not because “everything has to be about race,” but because it’s utterly exhausting for Black people to exist while they exist. I would rather just learn to swim than carry the torch of my ancestors, but that is not possible. I cannot separate my blackness from any experience. From how blacks came east across the Atlantic to how towns instantly drained pools when black bodies tried to invade, to say our history and water’s history is terrifying is a huge understatement. So I can’t say that learning to swim hasn’t changed my foundation. Choosing to learn to overcome this particular fear is revolutionary in any direction.
Survival is part of my tapestry, through which I can choose what my survival looks like. It feels spiritual. This seemingly small thing is now changing the way my world works.
And it turns out that I started to float.
Abby Mallett I am a freelance writer and editor. Joy the Baker. She lives in Chicago with her girlfriend and her three cats. She currently reads every fantasy romance she can get her hands on. She also writes about her travels and love in Cup of Jo.follow abby InstagramIf you don’t mind.
PS 5 things I wish I could tell my white friends and how to travel as a fat queer black woman.
(An illustration: Abbie Rossing for jaw cup)