On a pleasant weekday afternoon last week, I was in our community garden serving my slot with the irrigation team. The job involves hooking up our apparatus to the hydrant on our corner (we have a permit from the city), rolling out the hoses in the southern end of the garden – there’s a similar setup on the north side – and making them available to any gardeners who come by during the posted watering hours. Some days, the job includes filling the giant water tanks that constitute our back-up system which gardeners can use to water by hand when the hoses are not available. This is not work. Watching the spray of the water settling on the vegetables is pure pleasure.
The scientific evidence supports what our subjective experience tells us – that water has a calming, almost sedative effect. Any beachgoer will attest to it. That’s why I’m so grateful to be living close to the lake (Lake Michigan for you non-Chicagoans) and to be able to see its vast expanse from our east-facing windows. When Rosellen and I had paused our almost daily walk along the lake to sit on one of the many memorial benches that line the path, I commented that watching the gentle undulations of the water and gauging its effect on my psyche was for me proof positive that our origins were definitely in the water.
For someone who loves the water as I do, it may surprise you to know that I am neither a swimmer, a fisherman or a boater. Proximity and the visual pleasure of being allowed to stare at its beauty uninterrupted is sufficient. I’m sure that being active in the water would add another dimension, but I’m scarred by my own childhood experiences around water. That sounds like there was a trauma in my past. That’s not the case at all. It’s just that the only access I had to water was at Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. Its famously jam-packed beaches were not made for swimming. Even on calm days, the waves washing up constantly on the shore presented a challenge very different from the still, glassy waters of a pool. Instead, I bounced up and down in time to the waves and never ventured into depths over my head.
The beach was divided into “bays” which were separated by rocky outcroppings. Each bay had a rope which stretched from the beach to some invisible point far out in the water. Many bathers – a word more precise in its connotations than swimmers — clustered around the ropes, which offered an illusion of safety. One of my favorite ways of passing the time in the water was to stand a yard or two from a rope and lunge for it, creating the illusion of swimming. One day I missed the rope and while thrashing about discovered that the water was, magically, supporting me. That was progress, but it wasn’t exactly swimming. I never learned to swim with my head in the water.
During my one summer in Boy Scout camp, I was required to take a swimming test in the camp pool. Pushing off from the side, I had a panic attack and had to be fished out by the camp lifeguard who thrust out toward me a long stick, the kind pole vaulters use, and had to deal with the embarrassment of my failure for the rest of the camp session. My swimming problems prevented me from being elevated to the highest rank of Eagle Scout. I was stuck forever one step below in the Life Scout category.
In high school, I did manage to up my game just enough to meet the requirement of swimming the length of the pool, once on my stomach and once on my back. My thrashing must have made observers wince, but it got me over what felt like a huge hurdle and ever since I have been content to splash around in whatever passes for the shallow end of whatever body of water I’m visiting or, even better, enjoying the water’s tonic effects from the safety of dry land.
I’ll add as a footnote that as a sign of our profound compatibility my wife does me one better by NEVER venturing into water over her head, this despite expert coaching from a friend who was the swimming coach at Harvard and MIT. We feared that we were passing on our fears and aversions to our daughters, but at least one of them took swimming lessons and is now a comfortable and capable swimmer. In addition, our granddaughter avoided all of our early afflictions and swims with ease and pleasure. It’s reassuring to know that it’s not inevitable for the sins of the fathers (and mothers) to be visited on the children.