from “Under the Birch Tree” -summertime (full essay)

I grew up attending Holy Cross Catholic grade school in Deerfield where having a conversation with God, or “maintaining a dialogue” as the nuns told us, was as important to our education as getting good grades. I was told that if you prayed, evoking God in your “dialogue,” you will be okay. Trust God and you won’t fear anything.

I tried swimming lessons one summer vacation. Mom and I arrived early for my lesson at the Exmoor Country Club swimming pool deck anyway. It was a cool morning, with the bright sun overhead casting shadows and warming ourgoose bumps away as we settled on the pool deck. There were only a handful of patrons and a few Club staff in sight. Mom grabbed a chaise lounge and unpacked my bag, systematically shaking our towels and placing mine on the end of the lounge chair, spreading hers to cover the chaise. I stood watching her. “Okay, go ahead, you can take off your robe,” she said to me. I remember shaking and feeling cold in the early morning air.

I stood for a while looking beyond my immediate comfort zone and saw that the pool was empty. I liked an empty pool because that meant I wouldn’t get pushed into the deep end or get splashed in the face. I sat on the rough ground and felt the coarse cement pull at my bottom. Rocking back and forth ,I fell into a rhythm just like the water in front of me.

After the first two lessons, my teacher instructed me to put my face in the water and blow bubbles while standing away from the pool’s side. As my swimming lessons continued, I experienced a fear of water that wasn’t going to get me passed the first few lessons. Why did I fear the water? How did I come to fear something that appeared so inviting and calming?

I remember the morning in full color and motion. The sun was warm and bursting out of the thick blue sky. The sun’s refection off the white cement made me squint hard as I stared into the bright blue water, watching the ripples inch toward me. I became mesmerized by the visual chant distracting my sense of place; I looked deeper into the water,trying to discover a bottomless pool. I believed I could see a depth far greater than what was there. While I sat at the pool’s edge with my feet dangling in the clear blue cool water, I stared down at a reflection that danced. At first when I saw the empty pool I feared it but as I inched closer to the edge, I felt drawn to it. I don’t know why I feared something that greeted me so innocently. I remember watching the motion of the ripples and squinting hard at the sun’s reflection off the aqua blue. I found myself in a trance, fixated on light, motion and warmth. I was intrigued and then drawn into a fearless state. I was under water.

I remember seeing the light and I pushed my face through to meet the bright blue sky. The gurgling sound of water-filled ears was relentless. I felt like a buoy bobbing back and forth and moving in circles. I struggled to find which way was up but couldn’t decipher if it was the top or I was moving towards the bottom. I remembered what I learned in school.

I said repeatedly, “Help, come get me . . . ,” asking God to take hold of me. That’s when I found light. Or did the light find me?                         I chased the light so it could tell me it was the water’s surface. I kept my eyes open while I fanned my arms and kicked my legs. My ears filled with water. And that was no fine example of swimming lessons courtesy from the Club. Soon, a force grabbed me and I landed on cement. I was wrapped in a towel and rushed to the arms of my unsuspecting mother.

“What happened? Why are you crying?” she asked.

“I, I, I fell in. Someone puush-sh-shed me in. I was sitting on the side . . . and then I couldn’t get out,” I yelled.

“But there’s no one around. Who did this?” Mom asked as she surveyed the pool area.

Before, I found myself captured underwater; I feared letting go of the pool’s edge when my swimming teacher took one hand and said to me, “Okay, let go, gimme your other hand and let’s walk to the center.” I feared not knowing where I would be when I let the water take me. I feared not being able to control myself. I feared putting my face in the water. I didn’t know what was going to happen once I let go of the pool’s edge.

I was forced to face my fear. I felt what it was like to let the water take me with it. I squirmed as my limbs moved freely and without coordination. Until I saw light. I confronted my fear and learned that nothing was going to happen to me when I let go of the edge or my teacher’s hand. I would surface after putting my face in the water. I trusted that I was going to be okay. And I was.

I didn’t look upon my fear confrontation as a bad experience. I felt panicked, disoriented and scared for a brief time, but I trusted my senses to reach out and look to the light that told me which way was up and to move my body so that I would gravitate to the surface. I let go and I was okay.

I wonder now how I got from sitting poolside, on the edge, to being in the water. Did someone really push me in? But I remember how early it was that morning before my lesson when others were not there. Was I engrossed in my own world too much, with conversation in my head? Was I hypnotized by the bright light and clean, bottomless pool to the point where I willingly fell in?

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