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