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Freestyle Swimmers
Posted by Susan Baller-Shepard on: 2014-10-27 @ 10:40 am


I jump in. There's no "easing back into" this. There's no easy way to catch a glimpse of myself in a Speedo, even though my friend Nancy assures me the fabric "sucks it all up, in all the right places." The water's warmer than I like, languid, no burst of cold to make me want to warm up quickly. Aqua Fit bobs over there on their side of the pool, while I'm over here in the lap lanes. I begin, and that's a start.

After swimming, I call Nancy to tell her, "I went in today."

"I'm so glad!" Nancy says, encouraging me. Nancy was nationally known for her swimming; her daughter went to the 2010 Olympic trials in backstroke. Nancy and I swam on the same high school team.

"I think I'm remembering this," I tell her, "There's all this body memory stuff, how you just get in and go, like there's been no time in between."

I swam lap after lap for years and years. At eighteen I vowed I had done my last flip turn on a wall with a painted box at the end of a lane. Later, my senior year of college, I put up a sign in our apartment that had the word "novels" with a big red line running diagonally through it, "No novels!" I was done swimming laps, like later as an English major, I was done reading novels. I still loved to swim, I loved to read, but enough, I thought, was enough. I was done, I figured, for good. I had no intention of going back.

Not after hernia surgery a couple days after my fortieth birthday, when my surgeon suggested, "Maybe swimming?"

Not after my second hernia surgery, when the same surgeon said, "Maybe swimming?"

But, when my oldest child left for college this fall, the void created with his absence needed filling, and I figured swimming might do the trick.

Since I've had children, there have been moments swimming long stretches in the Atlantic Ocean, swimming between where the waves break and where the water gets too deep and dark and I fear a shark is lurking, in that middle place, where the water is still light blue enough, I have felt bliss there, swimming freestyle, watching sand swirl on the ocean floor with light filtering through, and fish flitting by.

The body is a truth-teller for us. The body can recall memories that our minds will not bring forth. As people of faith, we sometimes forget this: that our souls here on earth reside in flesh and bone. Paul told the church at Corinth, "Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God?”

"No, Paul, no, most days I don't realize that," I want to say in retort.

So here, in this dark salt water pool, I begin, and my body remembers. I work on having a strong, smooth stroke. Breathing freestyle, head down, then to the side, to get half moon glimpses as I quickly catch a breath, only to release it instantly, to stroke, stroke, and breathe again. My brain, which is where I reside so often, my brain is along for the ride, not having to do any work. I remember that life affords us seasons in which we can begin again, begin anew. My body glides through the water. I remember how flushed my face gets in the water when I'm swimming hard, I remember my flutter kick needs work. I remember how far my reach is if I extend myself. I remember what lungs feel like when they are aching for another breath.

As followers of Christ, we go through life a freestyle swimmer, getting half a view of what is to come, glimpses really. A swimmer gets that quick glance, before her head is back down and in, and she aches to surface again. Maybe we feel it at communion? Or when the sky goes orange and pink at sunset? Or holding a newborn baby? We get that sense of heaven, the reign of God breaking through, momentarily? Our heads break the surface, gasping, we want more, we want longer, we want that feeling of the nearness of God, the nearness of heaven to linger, to last. Like air sucked into our lungs, it leaves us, escapes us before we know it and we wait for that next fresh breath of the divine, that next sighting or feeling.

There's a zen story about a student who came to the master, wanting to find God. The master jumps up, grabs the student by the scruff of the neck, drags the student into the river, and plunges the student's head under water, holding the student there for a minute, with the student kicking and struggling to get free. The master finally pulls the student up out of the water. The student coughs and gasps to breathe again. The master asks, "Tell me, what did you want most of all when you were under water?"

"Air!" the student responds.

"Very well," says the master. "Go home and come back to me when you want God as much as you wanted air."

I think of this when I swim a hard 50 yards, and my lungs ache for oxygen. I work to release air as soon as I get it, letting it bubble out from my mouth and nose, trusting there's more air where that air came from. I recall the importance of breath. I think of ruah, in Hebrew, or pneuma, in Greek, breath, spirit. In this season of transition, as I take these eclipsed breaths, I trust that now we see in a mirror dimly, but then, face to face, now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.


This first appeared October 29, 2013 on “Monks in Our Midst,” a site run by Erie Benedictine Sisters, including author Sister Joan Chittister. Their blog is one where Monasteries of the Heart members. published authors, and journalists share their insights into “truly seeking God.” We at Spiritual Book Club are big fans of the Erie Benedictines, fabulous women. You can learn more at: www.monasteriesoftheheart.org  www.eriebenedictines.org www.benetvision.org