One Saturday earlier this summer I sat at a booth at the bustling Bayview Farmers Market and asked folks to tell me their swim stories. Being a swimmer myself, I was pretty surprised by how many island dwellers had no such stories, by how many were non-swimmers. Here we are surrounded by the wet stuff and if you’re ever going to get off the rock you need to cross it somehow. What do people all do, cross their fingers and hope for the best every time they board the ferry? Must be tough to stick crossed fingers in one’s ears to avoid hearing the ‘important safety announcement’ that does reference something about water, I believe.
There were a few folks with swim experiences who had not only lived to tell them, but who recalled them with great enthusiasm and even joy. Yes, swimming can be fun! In fact, being proficient in the water can become positively addictive and life changing. Take the story Dan Falkenbury told about his childhood in Hawaii.
Let me take a moment here to register one of the most common responses I got when I asked folks if they were swimmers: “It’s too cold to swim here!” Yes, well, Puget Sound is a bit chillier than the waters that surround the Hawaiian Islands. But, as Dan informed us, the numbers of non-swimmers in his 6th grade class in Honolulu, where no one worries much about hypothermia, significantly outnumbered the swimmers. In fact, in a class of 30 plus students, only 3 kids raised their hands when the teacher asked who knew how to swim. This seemed to explain the number of recent childhood drownings. The school began requiring to all their students to take swimming lessons. One of Dan’s classmates took those swimming lessons to heart and became a lifeguard. And Dan, whose father had swum with Johnny Weissmuller, went on to become a competitive swimmer. “Living on a island, you’d think everyone should know how to swim.” Dan told me.
Don’t let the cold water scare you off. Start in a pool and you just might discover your inner fish.
Like a fish to water…
Most humans are drawn like a fish to water, we say. That magnetic pull might be explained in many ways: the enchanting mirror of the waters, capturing the beauty of the self; the watery womb remembered. Intriguingly, well over 80% of humanity lives within 50 miles of water’s edge. We’re like waterbags—the human body itself composed mostly of water—carrying water back to its source. Or, more pragmatically, we’re smart enough to know that to take up residence, to set up home, we need a good source of water.
But honestly, I—like many humans–grew up more like a dragonfly drawn to water: water was always in my orbit, but it was not my element. I liked being near it. I enjoyed catching creek chubs along my little tributary of the Mississippi River in Minnesota. I liked water gazing on a hot summer day, letting the water carry me in daydreams of futures I would like to live. But beyond splashing through puddles on a spring day, I was not into diving into its elemental deeps. Not only did I convince myself I was gratefully landlocked (In Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes? Not!) and not only was I a “sinker” (despite the floatation devices also known as “lovehandles”), I was afraid—especially after my high school comrades decided to give me a swimming lesson by throwing me over the edge of the canoe and telling me to make shore.
But to live now as an islander, this seems to me to admit that I need a new relationship with the water. We love this moat that separates and communalizes us. But to love it is also to admit that we live with it and on it in a vital and daily way. Admiring its beauty is only one part of wisdom now. Only when we have certain skills, it seems to me, are we well suited to the island life. Those skills involve respect for the risks and dangers of water—that which has long left me afraid. But it also involves learning to adapt myself—like a fish to water. Swimming, in other words, is a discipline of wisdom for one who wants to live as an islander, one who considers the island their element.