The Courtship of Writing

(With apologies to my readers, as this piece was written as a distraction from Mom’s current hospitalization, and really nothing to do with the city, other than I am not in it) Untitled me

First, you are met with a warm sensation as words wash down your arm, through your pen, then leak everywhere onto the page. Forget the runner’s high. There is a writer’s high that mimics the rush of dopamine, adrenaline and norepinephrine from falling for words. Writing from your insides spills out. You scribble furiously. You have finally found what your soul wants to say.

So, you write. At all hours. You eschew affordable housing workshops and Argentinian happy hours and sometimes, even your faithful, yet always pouting, Cavalier. You only want to be with your words. You have unleashed an ardor onto the page that no man or woman has ever before been known to capture. You cannot sleep because these words sprint instead of dance in your head. You rise, and inhale the morning’s first cup of burnt beans, rush to the door and gulp in the morning dew, energized despite so very little sleep. Your thoughts immediately turn to streams of sentences that must be imprisoned that very instant. Everything is RIGHT NOW.

The fever has you in its grips, infects every part of your being. You write about three dimes accumulated in the fountain you will collect in a mason jar, about your mother and how she clutches her rosary as if holding onto to heaven, about dahlias that dance in the northwest wind. There is not one part of your life that has not now been touched by the way you are in love with words.

All too soon comes the reckoning. You share your words, perhaps online or an opinion page. Your friend remarks, “I don’t get it. Why would you say that about an onion, stripping off years of the garden’s stink?” And you fight, ten rounds with your conscience. Doubts and regrets are suddenly keeping vigil with you at night. You wanted validation, not criticism. You wanted inspiration not condemnation. You wanted a soul mate.

You are in pain and thus perform an entire scan on your body of work. You look for bumps and bruises, or some internal bleeding. Anything that would have indicated writing had consumed all of you. You turn away from the Italian Ladies desk, the yellowed, torn page. You switch off the words that have been running like a spigot through your senses. Your synapses cease snapping. You stop receiving the long-distance appeals that originated from your desk. You will no longer be accepting those calls. You disconnect.

But there comes a time, when you are pulled back. The tug comes on a night when your friends are drinking margaritas with salt or listening to a Pulitzer Prize novelist read at an ancient library. You are entombed elsewhere. You cannot breathe. You can no longer say, “No.”

You return to your love, fall in and begin the long slow waltz with words again, more committed than ever. You begin to notice your writing has plunged into the deep end. You can mine a body for aches you didn’t know were there. You write about breaths last encountered and hearing by heart, not by ear. Finally, you are ready to accept that long-held belief.

You have secured something obligatory. This is the engagement you have been waiting to happen. The life you almost walked away from.

You are pronounced woman and writer.

But then, the anticipation grows greater, the commitment more difficult to endure. You are expected now to tend with compassion and craft with care. There are others involved now. You must think of them, and what they will think. You reflect on the days when you didn’t have to care what others thought. You knew, you just knew.

But this, this is the beacon you have followed, the elusive beam emanating from a lighthouse reachable only by rowboat or swim, neither of which you will attempt on a dark and stormy night as you once did when young. And yet, you gunnel and stroke, then paddle and butterfly.

And after ten years, your pace slowed, you find comfort in a bulging waistline rounded by poetry, prose, blogs and musings. You forget how thirsty you once were for words, forget how parched you once felt when you had gone days without words swirling round. Something else has satisfied a thirst once only quenched by words pulsing through veins.

In the long stretches of winter, you roll up in a cocoon of quilts, reach for your beloved, warmed by the routine rivulet of writing that is no longer frantic or frenetic. Words that no longer poke at you in the nighttime, but carry peace to you like a cup of lapsang souchong tea. Words that rock you to sleep.

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I Can Swim, I Can Trust

IMG_6618I was five as I sat at the edge of the Y’s swimming pool, crying. My mother kept encouraging me, “Get in. Go to the teacher.” But I was utterly fearful of the water.

In my second earliest memory of water, my mother washed my hair over the sink in the stationary tubs and I cried, again with dread, “It’s getting in my eyes.”

At some point, I did conquer my anxiety through swim lessons at the indoor pool of the YMCA and the outdoor pool of Maude Neiding Park. As a matter of fact, I proceeded all the way through the lessons to earn my Red Cross Life Saver certification.

Fast forward 45 years, and now, I am trying to find water in the city of Cincinnati.

Not the Ohio River, nor the Genius of Water, nor the spray fountains of Washington Park. But real water I can dip my toes into on a breezy summer day, the last before our son comes home and I become a parent again.

Over the past two years, I have walked seemingly every inch of this neighborhood and a few more. I have spotted various city-operated swimming pools, but the pools were never in use during those early morning hours.

Last year, I walked past the Ziegler Park pool (now under reconstruction), and found it rather empty. I made a mental note that a fifty-year-old winter white woman would probably have some privacy there. I found also the play pool at the Hanna center, just north of Findlay Market, thinking I could certainly walk or ride my bike there.

Last summer must have been busy, for I never did attend any of the swim times there.

But today was different.

A previous jaunt around the West End had yielded a pleasant surprise. Once I strutted some of the back roads, I found myself behind the Lincoln CRC center. And there it was, a pool with fifty-meter lap lanes in all its shimmering chloride glory.

Of course, it was only 6:30 a.m. and still May, yet I registered its location in the back of mind, cataloguing it for the summer day when I would need it.

Today was that day.

One lesson I have learned, as a writer, is about self-care and self-reward. Both are important because I don’t hear “nice job” and very few times do I actually say, “I’m going to take a vacation today from my writing,” because my mind never does. I am busy absorbing and observing and noting and correcting what I note.

So, after submitting the final piece of a freelance work, and after sending off my manuscript to book coach for a read through and after visiting with Mom (her sun comes first), I was ready for some self-care and self-reward.

As if still an eight-year-old, I yanked on my swimsuit, rolled my towel in my backpack and headed for the Lincoln CRC pool on my bike. Only this time, I didn’t have to cross the four-lane highway of Route 58, with Mom watching in the background, and then ride on a narrow kid-made bike path to the city pool.

This time, I rode my city bike, on the city streets, one mile to the rec center.

FullSizeRender-22I was sweating as I completed the last yards of my mile and walked my bike to the window to pay for my time at the pool. When I asked about swimming laps, “Denise” told me this was her first year in the job. She handed me a book.

Wow, I thought. I only had take a swim test in the water in Amherst to swim, but here I was, on vacation from the writing, and I had reading to do.

I slipped the book in my bag, waltzed through the women’s bathroom and found a cozy spot near the corner of the long pool, where I could take in the entire scene.

I lounged in the sun for a while then finally rose up to get myself in the water. Oh wow, how cold. Then I imagined how frigid the water would feel at 6:30 am when the pool opened for laps. I took a deep breath, unsure I if I would follow through.

While water has always been a healer for me, and I had many reasons to seek it out today, what was more healing was the summer swim and camp programs for the young kids in the neighborhood. Most kids there were attending the pool through the generosity of grants and donors and city money.

Pools are hard to manage and maintain. Something always goes wrong with the plumbing. Think household toilet, times one hundred. Personal budgets are even more difficult. What I think of as pocket change is an extravagance for some of my neighbors. (Read more here about the burden of summer camps on low-income parents).

I closed my eyes and listened to the kids yelling and jumping and being yelled at for jumping, and my entire swimming journey came back to me.

How afraid I was. How my mother, lessons, and a few cute lifeguards helped me overcome my fears. How I used to watch my parents unable to swim, wade into the water, and push us deeper. How I had now gone swimming in the Pacific, Atlantic, Mediterranean, and South China Sea. I had kayaked, canoed and rafted. I had waterskied, snorkeled and paddle boarded.

Swimming for me, was about endurance, through setting a reasonable pace. Swimming equaled strength. Water offered buoyancy. But at the heart, swimming was always about trust. Trust in the water. Trust in my capabilities. I return to the water again and again, to learn to trust in the deep end of my soul.

I slipped in, while kids circled around me, some warning their friends, Swim around that woman, or don’t get her wet. But I wanted to be wet. I wanted to be those kids again. I was thankful they had the space to be just kids, yelling and screaming and jumping. And that none of them carried a fear of water, except the little one in the corner who, with his lifejacket on, every now and then, approached the water’s edge, then ran back between his father’s legs.

On occasion, I asked a few kids what part of town they lived in, did they come far (I’m sure they thought I was a weirdo) and few pointed in the direction towards low-income housing which abuts a highway, a site that’s had it share of police calls.

But they all could swim, including the young girl who stroked in my direction, and when asked, told me she had swam the entire length of the pool and, “I’m turning around and swimming the whole way back.”

I rode my bike home in a state of utter joy. I hadn’t changed anyone’s life through that brief time I was there, but I had the book Denise gave me and I was going to read it to find out what time I could swim laps and where I could send funds to help a few kids trust the water and conquer their biggest fear, trust of self.

I hope anyone reading this post, who remembers their fear of water and how they overcame that fear, will take a moment to read more about Cincinnati’s “I Can Swim” program. Or, if you have some pennies left over, to make a donation, so that all our children have the same opportunities our own children had. My check is in the mail.

Learn more about the “I Can Swim” program of CRC. 

Donations can also be directed to: Cincinnati Recreation Foundation, Attn: I CAN SWIM, 805 Central Ave, Suite 800, Cincinnati, OH 45202.