Monday, December 8, 2008

Stroke by stroke

I've been waiting to share this fun photo until winter, when readers might feel far removed from the way a sweltering summer sun inspires the desire to cool off in a spring-fed lake. That's me in the photo, swimming the length of Trout Lake, in northern New York. My husband Dave is trailing behind in a canoe with a life preserver—you know, just in case. Off to the left is a loon that both of us saw at the same time. Dave was thrilled that it swam close enough to photograph—the wide-angle view here distorts the distance, it was only about 20 feet away. As you might be able to see by the look on my face, I was a bit less thrilled. After diving beneath the surface, loons can use their large webbed feet and streamlined bodies to propel themselves quickly underwater. You never know where they've gotten to until they bob back to the surface. This is how they hunt for their dinner of fish. Or toes? I was not too eager to see what that spear-shaped beak felt like!

This was the second time I'd swum the 1.6-mile length of Trout Lake. The first was five years ago, when I was 47. Distance swimming might sound like an odd thing to take up late in life. Truth is, I would not have been able to do it before then. 

I remember when I was a teenager and my father rowed the half-mile width of the lake while my three sisters and I swam behind the boat. At the time I was physically active in dance, cheerleading, waterskiing and snow skiing, and should have had every reason to believe I could do it. Much to my shame, however, I couldn't keep up. My Dad had to help me climb into the boat to ride the rest of the way. I dripped onto its floor in defeat; my sisters got the glory. Now, decades later, I can swim more than three times as far. Believe me, it's not because I've applied the last 35 years of my life to practice. I am no better of a swimmer now than I was in my youth. It's not more fierce competitiveness, either—as you can see from the photograph, no sisters. It's just me and the loon.

So how is it that I can do in my 50s what I couldn't physically achieve in my athletic prime? The answer has more to do with patience and self-confidence than heart beats per minute. After surviving my first husband's suicide and slogging through the healing process, I just figured I could do it. I finally understood the way the accumulative nature of effort applies to all disciplines: if I kept my arms moving and my legs kicking, and continue to breathe in and out, I will eventually reach my destination. The metaphor works for any long process, whether renovating a house, writing a novel, or doing grief work.

You'll get there, stroke by stroke.

I like "one stroke at a time" better than "one step at a time" because water molecules have more heft than air; not only am I moving forward, I am physically creating a path for myself by applying my muscles and willpower to part a medium that resists me. I seek change by pushing aside self-pity and denial and any other obstacles standing between me and a joyous reunion with my authentic path in life. Swimming is taxing but so is change; productive change is never achieved without a significant application of effort. In swimming as in healing as in writing, I am using the very medium through which I must move to help me move through it. The water through which I swim buoys me as my legs and arms press against it; the very experiences my grief work requires me to face will help demystify all that frightens me and weighs me down; the words and sentences and paragraphs of my writing will contribute enough meaning and structure to hold me up. 

Swimming, my focus alternates above and below the surface, separating that which is easily seen from that which is hidden. I fear that which is hidden; after all, there are those legends of the Trout Lake monster... but then up pops a beautiful loon. Turns out he wishes me no harm, but simply wants to join the blue sky and ever-green pines and my patient, understanding husband in witnessing my journey.

Grief work isn't a sprint. You won't achieve the same effect if you close your eyes, hold your breath, and make a mad splash to "the other side." I laughed when I found out the Olympic athletes were swimming a mile in 14 minutes; I swim twice as slowly. But with one purposeful stroke at a time, at my own pace and with my eyes open to note the changing scenery along the way, I could eventually turn around and see that I'd gained distance from my starting point, and could appreciate it with new perspective. Its details, once so sharp they could bite, had blurred. Renewed to my task I turned toward the future, reaching for the other side, knowing in my heart that I am capable of reaching my destination...but now wondering if maybe I should slow down a bit, because the journey is so incredibly beautiful.

I think about this picture now as the days grow short. I must walk in frigid weather instead of swim, and when I come home, the cursor blinks at me from a still-empty page. The words are fractious and refuse to be tamed. Yet I know I can do this, stroke by stroke, because my achievements sing to me. I have swum the lake! Not once, but twice, and will no doubt do it again. I will do it to once again experience the grace that comes from facing adversity, the grace that whispers in my ear: "Keep swimming, we're almost there."