Monday, January 16, 2012

learning to swim (psalm 139)

The first time I went swimming
there was no trick to it.
I just floated in that warm place
of salt and blood,
while God knitted me
the lungs I would later need,
when I finally surfaced.

Then there was the baptismal font,
which involved no swimming at all,
just presence.
Held by strong arms. 
I had godparents
and a baptismal dress, I’m sure,
but these are long disappeared.

After that there were sinks, bathtubs
and plastic dish basins half full
of lukewarm water and silly toys.
Mother and sisters watching over me
gently.  I imagine
me laughing as I baptized them,
splash after splash.

When I was seven, I had
my first real swimming lesson
at a cold indoor pool beneath
an elementary school,
where we were thrown in the deep end
in the hope that fear would float us. 
The instructor
was an old man holding a long metal pole
with which to save us when we sputtered
to the surface, choking.

My first communion was about then.
Rite and ritual. Cut and paste.
Color within the lines.
Old nuns trailing dust.
An earnest young priest
as white as the proffered wafer
I choked down
while my parents looked on
in solemn indifference.

The years go by.

I learned to swim -
well enough at least to keep from drowning
in lakes over which, in the heat of summer,
dragonflies hovered and skipped.
But any rough water made for doubt,
and the life jackets that other people proffered, 
never seemed enough.

Walking the beaches of Carlsbad,
I have always
been envious of those able
to ride the waves in nothing
but wet suits.  Sitting on their boards
as the waves raise them up and down
on the vast, unknowable ocean.
Floating patiently over its unthinkable
depths, through which life swims unseen,
calmly waiting for the wave
that takes them back.

The years go by,
and you tire, really, of not swimming, 
of pretending that at the far side of the sea
there is only the edge of the world.

So, in my fifth decade, I am again learning to swim.
I may not race into the waves, but
I find myself wading in with a crowd 
almost every Sunday.
And where I go, I’ve learned no one cares
if you are a good swimmer,
and most of us gathered there, I’d wager, are not.

But the hardest lesson learned
is that it’s not about
being the best swimmer or
a good swimmer or even
being able to swim at all.
It’s about being able, finally,
to dive into the ocean’s waves,
and swim out over its unthinkable depths,
not because you aren’t afraid,
                                               you are,

but because at long last you have learned: 
you are held by strong arms
that will carry you to the shore,
no matter how distant,
or how deep these waters
through which life swims

if you will but let them.