September 29th, 2014
“It was an extraordinary beauty of the kind she most admired, dark, large-eyed, with that quality which, since she hadn’t got it herself, she always envied – a sort of abandonment. as if she could say anything, do anything…” — Mrs. Dalloway
I’m 15 and on top of the three meter diving board. I’m standing backwards, unable to see the water and only able to hear the coach telling me that I’ll be ok. That I just lean myself backwards in the same way that I’ve nearly mastered on the one meter. I stand, my heels dripping over the edge of the board, willing myself to just go. To let myself fall backwards into the water as I have so many times from lower heights.
There’s a boy next in line. He’s 8 or 9, fearless – jumping and diving and smiling the whole way through each stinging slap on the surface of the water.
Every time I watch him take his turn I think that I should be less afraid. I’m older and wiser. And terrified.
The Augusts of my childhood were spent on the side of the pool. I dangled my feet in, sometimes stood on the steps and splashed around. I could be occasionally coaxed in further with a tube around my waist. But mostly I stood off to the the side and watched everyone else lose themselves to the joy of swimming.
Until I was in 7th grade, I couldn’t swim. It wasn’t until a dear friend gently coaxed me into the deep, until it was too much to watch the tiny kids hold their breath and kick their feet and go, that I finally, somehow, got the guts to do something that I had grown more and more afraid that I would never learn.
Two years later I’m on the high dive telling myself that I have to do it. I have to dive backwards into the deep water. I can’t let an 8 year old know that he’s so much braver than I am.
I crouch down, hold the sides of the board with my hands. It’s more stable that way. I’m not so high up.
I roll back and I hit the water with absolutely no grace.
Fast forward twenty years and I’m standing on the sidewalk of a city park, my six year old in tears in front of me. The training wheels came off her bike a few months back, but then we went on vacation and the heat set in, rendering any prolonged outdoor activity pretty miserable. Today is supposed to be the day she masters her bike with two wheels. It’s supposed to be fun, but instead, just like I was so many years ago, she’s scared.
I want to let her quit, let her just get back in the car and drive home, but I can’t. I talk to her about not knowing how to swim. About watching from the sidelines. About getting older and more afraid. About learning, finally, to trust myself.
We move forward towards the grass still wholly unsure. She comments on all the four-year-olds zipping past on their two wheels. She feels scared and shamed that they are younger and already adept at what she thinks she cannot do.
I’ve been exactly there, I tell her. I know how you feel, I tell her.
I guess I remember it so well because that looking on from the side, that feeling too cautious, that yearning to be in the middle but not having the guts to push myself there, it seems so much a part of who I was for so long – who I still am on many days. I see others just go out and claim what they want, put big words and big dreams out into the open, run after it all with so much self-assurance. Part of me is envious. Part of me knows now that’s just not who I am. On rare days, however, I spy in myself the beauty of abandonment.
And some days I see it in her too.
In the shade on the lawn she lets her dad push her as she pedals forward, as she suddenly, on her own two wheels, rides away without even realizing it. Pedaling faster and faster, over the bumps of the grass, she rides.
I watch her and I’m in awe.