Swimming Lessons

Learning to swim at some point requires a bold leap of faith into the unknown. There is always that unavoidable, uncomfortable moment when you’ve just let go of any outside support, much like during your very first bicycle ride. You look back and you suddenly realise that no one is holding the saddle anymore. You’re on your own. All you have left is your faith. You have no choice but to believe, as you surrender yourself to the risk.

Given that this would always be an uncomfortable moment no matter what, many parents opt for the quick and effective, tried and tested “sink or swim” method, also called “just swim” or “just do it”. It is actually very similar to what the parents of various species of bird of prey do, who will gently push their chicks off the cliff, confident that they will instantly figure out what those wings were for. They’ve got at least a few hundred meters of free-fall to put two and two together. And most of the time, they do. Well, the vast majority of the time.

But for a five year-old child with absolutely zero higher education on fluid dynamics, complete unfamiliarity with the miracle of buoyancy, and lack of any written reassurance that drowning was in fact a hoax, managing to stay afloat was always going to be a formidable challenge. All I could think of at that first, impromptu swimming lesson was one thing: death. With very few witnesses around the deserted beach and zero legal representation, my own mother was pushing me in the direction of the deep end – much like a paper boat that someone had crafted, become bored with and has decided to put it through the ultimate real-life challenge: does it actually float?

But I was definitely not made out of paper. Within seconds, and after the initial momentum of my mother’s push had faded, I felt heavier than ever. My focus immediately became the surface of the water, that critical horizontal boundary that separates life from death, as I realised that I was losing the battle. I could see my legs clumsily dangling below, uselessly trying to “walk”. My mother’s face had turned into a grotesque caricature, smiling with a confusing mix of sadism and compassion in a Beetlejuice, clown-like way. She was absolutely confident that I would pull through. 

But I was still sinking, now swallowing copious amounts of saltwater. Fear gave way to panic, panic gave way to tears, and tears turned into anger towards my mother as my continued pleas for help (vocalised through the phrase “help!”) were repeatedly ignored. As I finally resigned myself to my death, my only consolation was the thought that child services would one day bring justice to this heinous crime. Fully prepared to die, I stopped fighting with the water’s surface. My legs relaxed, embracing the dark depths of the water. For the first time, I felt a cold swoosh of water current as my thighs went past each other and my feet undulated in response, much like a seaweed “passes on” the wave through its body in response to the sea current. I was floating. Either that, or the clapping that was heard across the beach was my welcoming through the gates of heaven. This was no swimming lesson after all. It was a lesson that sometimes you just have to “believe”.

The swimming lesson taught me what all sailors know: that the sea is a force, an entity that commands respect, and most of all your undivided attention. It needs to be listened to, and never underestimated. Disregarding the sea’s wishes and moods can make the difference between life and death. It is up to us mortals to observe, to listen intently and carefully make our choices accordingly.

So in the years that followed, I listened. I observed the sea in its myriad incarnations, trying to understand it. The first thing that struck me was that the morning time was when the sea is at its most unpredictable. It tends to alternate between two extreme states, both of which however signify the same message: “don’t talk to me”. On one end of the scale, the sea can be as still as a lake, almost as if unable to drag itself out of bed. Seagulls can be heard from as far as the eye can see, taking the role of a marine version of the rooster. On some other, very different mornings, the sea can be visibly furious, obviously having slept badly all through the night. Angry waves keep repeating the same curse over and over, and the beach becomes littered with all kinds of strange objects and creatures thrusted out from the dark depths. Sometimes as you walk amongst the carnage you can begin to put together the sequence of events, the type of dream or nightmare that the sea was having the previous evening. It is all in the evidence. There are stories of big ships that had tried to defy the waves and were punished by the sea, turned into haunted carcasses condemned to roam the globe into eternity without ever setting foot on land. There are epic battles between empires of electric squid and fluorescent jellyfish, their armies fighting over the control of faraway, deep ocean territories sometimes as vast as entire continents. Most times the recurring nightmare is one of suffocation, as a lifetime’s worth of plastic objects are regurgitated on the beach almost every night. They are being rejected by the sea’s digestive system. 

As the morning progresses, the sea becomes more welcoming to humans, even playful, with small white crests barely protruding on each wave, simply popping up to say “hey, what’s up” before they disappear and appear again somewhere else. The sun’s vertical rays turn the shallows into an azure pool, an endless liquid emerald that appears to be irresistible to humans. It was this colour that made me fall in love too. The sea became my best friend, my mother, my father. I often felt the urge, the wish to merge with it forever, in the same way that you begin to see yourself merging with the people that you love. My parents would plead with me to get out of the ocean at the end of the day so that we can leave, get in our car and go to our home. But I felt that the sea was our real home, where we spent so much of our time anyway. Refusing to get out of the sea, I often became stubborn, feeling like a divorced child engaged in a custody battle between my human parents and my sea mother. As my lips started turning blue, so did the sea, taking the same colour as the darkening sky and merging with the horizon. It was slowly turning in for the night, and as tired of my antics as my parents were. The custody meeting was adjourned for another day.

My childhood on the beach would eventually begin to fade away as life got busier and my schooling and career took me away not only from the sea, but from the Mediterranean altogether. Summer holidays would be the only times when I got to visit my sea mother, this time not as a son, but as a tourist. As an outsider, someone walking through a museum, moving mechanically from room to room looking at paintings without realising the significance, the history of each one of the things that they are seeing. We had been estranged.

Re-encounters with the sea after long absences would usually be filled not with joy but with deep grief. Months and months of internalised withdrawal symptoms and pent-up alienation would surface all at once, as I would suddenly realise what I had been missing all along, like a prisoner who has just been released and can’t stop staring at a green leaf on a tree, mesmerised by how green it looks. Grieving the time lost is the most painful grief there is. I grieved for the dark winter days thousands of miles away from the sea, when I was willing to give a week of my life away for just one look into the pulsating colours of the water. One brief, light brush of salty air on my face.

But the sea was always there. It still is, always waiting for me. I may have grown old, but the sea stayed young, it stayed the same age. And I see myself in my niece, who has inherited my passion for the sea. She will swim and play until she is exhausted, until her lips turn blue and her body temperature approaches that of the sea. Until she almost becomes the sea, merging with it.

I think that humans are afraid of the power that nature has over us. We are afraid of the sea merging with us, consuming us, obliterating our ego. Instead we want to conquer the sea with our ships, our fishing nets, our sewage. We struggle to assert our ego, in the hope that we become eternal like the sea, because we harbour a deep jealousy for her immortality.

But I’m not afraid of the sea. I feel safe in it. And the more I get lost in it, the more I find myself. The more hours I spend in silence next to it, the more I realise how useless words and language are. The more I merge with it, the younger I become. Young yet eternal, like the sea. I don’t need meaning. I don’t need purpose. All I need is peace, with my mother. 

To be continued …(or not)

George is a chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , join his mailing list, or read his books

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