learning to crawl


About ten thousand years ago, someone painted these swimming figures on the wall of a cave in southwestern Egypt. I love their buoyancy, their weightlessness. It’s how I feel when I’m swimming my slow kilometer in the local pool 3 mornings a week. I feel like part of the water, a current, a slight turbulence in its stilly blue.

A kilometer is 50 lengths of the 20 meter pool. I do five sets of 5 laps: sidestroke, backstroke, breaststroke, backstroke, finishing each set with a combination of breaststroke and backstroke. In the summer I swim every morning, probably about 3/4 of a kilometer–there’s no way of measuring apart from the time I take and anyway the summer swims feel more qualitative than quantitative. I have fairly broad shoulders and good lungs and I’m strong. I swim, and then I come home to do whatever else I need to do that day. I don’t usually feel tired, in muscle or in spirit.

Last summer I thought I’d try to swim to the island we’ve always called White Pine. I’d see the island from the little beach and I’d remember all the family picnics, in every season, the ones where we’d cook hotdogs over a small fire up in the grove of pines at the highest part of the island, pines now fallen in storms, or the picnics on the flank of smooth dry grass and sharp-scented yarrow.

postcard 1

I thought about swimming to the island but I never managed to do it. I wondered if I’d be better off learning to swim the front crawl first. Somehow I thought it would be easier to accomplish the distance by stroking strongly in front of myself in the way I saw others at the pool swimming. But how? I figured it was too late to learn something new. A new stroke. But when I wondered aloud to the lifeguard a few weeks ago if I was too old to learn the front crawl, she said, Absolutely not. She was just anticipating a small class of adult swimmers and she invited me to join them when they would be learning the crawl. You’ll probably only need a couple of lessons, she told me.

This morning I had my first lesson. I borrowed John’s goggles (that he never wears) and we timed our own regular swim to end just before the half hour lesson. It turned out the two other adult learners were good swimmers already but were working on stroke improvement. The lifeguard set them up with their laps and she made me duck my head to my eyebrows. I was surprised at how I felt. I’ve never liked having my face underwater but with the goggles I liked seeing the blue distances, the lines painted on the bottom of the pool. She wanted me to begin by simply doing windmills with my arms as I swam, face in the water, breathing as I needed to. Two lengths doing that. Some adjustments. Then she suggested a couple of refinements and told me to make sure I expelled the air underwater (I think I was waiting to come up to breathe and trying to both breathe out and then in at the same time), to count to myself so I’d remember to turn my head to the side to come up for air, and sent me off. I did 3 more laps, 120 meters, crawling. It was hard. I felt it in my sternum. I won’t win any awards for style or speed but I found myself figuring out the rhythm, figuring out the form. I have another lesson next Friday morning and then I’ll try to juggle my usual sets around to make sure I include the crawl.

In another month, we’ll be lake swimming. Our children will be coming at various points and I’m hoping one or more of them will join me in swimming to the island. Maybe we’ll try to ferry people over in our little aluminum boat, the one that hasn’t been in the lake for a couple of years, though we had the engine rebuilt and it should be sound.

In Blue Portugal (newly released! My copies arrived yesterday!), there’s an essay called “Love Song”, drawing together all the summers of our lives here into a single day. The island and the picnics have pride of place.

Out in the boat with a picnic to eat on the island in the lake, the island we call White Pine for the little grove on its high point, or else “Going to Greece” for the scent of yarrow and dry grass. I spread out a bamboo mat on the spine of hill and brush ants from my legs while one child dives from the rocks and another swims underwater. The third is learning to start the boat motor, pulling the cord and adjusting the choke. One son brings his wife and baby—but wait, it’s too early for this: the picnic first, and the last years of high school, the long years of university, a wedding still a decade to come. Two weddings. Far out in the lake, a merganser leads her ducklings to the mouths of small trout-haunted creeks where insects are plentiful. The boat makes two trips or three to take all the people who have come with the years, the old picnic basket filled to the brim. A black dog with the hips of a wolf hangs over the prow, eager for land.

This summer, I’ll be the woman in the black bathing suit, face in the lake, arms stroking one after another, swimming to the island.

morning lake 1

2 thoughts on “learning to crawl”

  1. Oh this is so interesting. I’m a self taught swimmer and often tire when doing the front crawl. I know I’m not breathing properly. Congrats on the book!

    1. It’s hard, isn’t it? To try to figure out the breathing, the arms, the feet. I have no trouble with the other strokes (although I will never be tapped for the Olympics!) but the front crawl asks something of us, something difficult to learn in a way, though the lifeguard assured me I was doing well.
      And thank you for your good wishes, re: my new book. It’s on the table in the kitchen and every time I come into the room and see it there, I am quietly delighted all over again.

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