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Who took the lane lines?

I thought I was just too early for Master swim when all I saw were four bright orange rescue rings floating on the surface of the pool. It turned out the absence of lane markers was on purpose. Today’s workout would be free-form. “Choose a direction and swim outside the rings. Pull a few, kick a few, swim a few, whatever you feel like.”

Today we were doing the pool imitation of an “open water swim.”

Actual open water events are pretty much free-for-alls, with every swimmer fending for him or herself. There’s climbing and clawing and a sprint to the front in order to avoid the same. And if the dark, choppy water doesn’t provide ample challenge, there’s the matter of keeping your bearings… and contending with cramps, hypothermia, injury or exhaustion. Of course, for those swimmers who cannot continue, rescue boats are close at hand.

None of this happened at the neighborhood swimming pool today.

At least not to me. Because, after jumping in, swimming a few strokes, looking up every two or three to be sure I wasn’t gonna clobber another swimmer, then taking extra irregular breaths to gauge my bearings per the buoys, then preferentially stroking with right arm to navigate the turning radius, I completed one lap and climbed out.

“This just isn’t my thing,” I apologized to the guy who set up the course. “I come here more for the Zen.”

But what I really meant was, “This is totally nuts!” There’s no way I voluntarily subject myself to an hour of dizzily circling the pool while hyperventilating in fear of ramming somebody. All that just because nobody set up the lane lines…

One of the guys called to me as I was leaving, “What’s the matter? Don’t like the waves?”

Nope. It wasn’t the waves. Effort I am okay with. It was the tight turns and uncertainty I objected to. It felt… debilitating.

Wow. As soon as I named the feeling, it all made sense. This open-water swim felt like the year and a half we’ve been living. Our orange buoys — pandemic, climate change, injustice and cultural division — have set us a-spin. They’ve changed all our rules. Boundaries we thought were fixed have now moved. Truth may not be true. Our friend may not be our friend. The system we thought was fair, isn’t. Temperatures trending upward may not be temporary.

What we thought was unchangeable isn’t; the world can change in a minute.

Life right now feels like an open water swim, and even if you’re a good swimmer, it’s disconcerting and dizzying. Our opportunities for collective Zen have gone missing.

I need to inject more of my life with stuff like organized Master Swim. I need lane lines, a planned workout, the right equipment, a clean, well-kept space and some hearty companions. Because in that space, even and especially after supplying maximum effort, I find peace — the peace that settles my mind and clears my head, the peace that trains my heart and uplifts my soul.

How I am longing for structure, discipline, order and clear expectations where I can be free to supply my effort, my skills and my talents to contribute to my world as it is and make it better. To find a bit of good news and amplify it. To uncover a good idea and inspire a group to pursue it. To lift up the work of others who are on track toward something great. And to lend a hand where I can.

Because this head-spinning time needs a-righting. And getting out of the pool isn’t an option.

In Our Element: when work is play

As I plunged into the cool blue water for the first swim of this pool season, I caught myself smiling through sealed lips and thinking… Ha, if this doesn’t prove we humans emerged from a primordial soup, I don’t know what does. I was in my element. Gliding along effortlessly, or so it felt, churning the water and propelling myself along stroke by stroke.

These strokes, long-practiced in childhood, are something I will never forget. Because I don’t think about them; I just know them, as if handed down from generations past. They come naturally in the wonderfully watery environment which always makes me feel at home, as if its been waiting its whole life for me to come. It welcomes me as one of its own. My friend. My comfort zone. My Zen. My element.

{This, of course, is not so of folks who did not get an early introduction to the water. They are likely less than enthusiastic about jumping in. Primordial soup, I guarantee you, never crosses their minds. Their element is elsewhere.}

But very soon, okay on my second lap, when my arms grow heavy, my breathing becomes labored and my feet start to cramp up from kicking, I begin to wonder about this element. This venue I used to own. What used to be second nature to me is now an effort to sustain. How out of shape I am. How long it has been. How I have let myself go.

And this gives me pause. Mind you, I’m not beating myself up about this, but it does get the attention of my responsible self which realizes that those in-your-element moments don’t happen by themselves. One prepares for them. While there is perhaps a hint of DNA-delivered know-how, for the most part they are a product of a lot of practice. After all…

  • The chef learns the chemistry of cooking, the blending of tastes and flavors, and the enhancements of spices, before his creation of a culinary masterpiece puts him in his element.
  • The lawyer studies the law in careful detail, does her research, prepares her briefs, and tries many cases before she is in her element standing before the jury for closing argument.
  • The golfer only hits it straight and true after many hours of doing otherwise. On rare days when she is in her element, she hardly feels the club strike the ball when she launches it on target.
  • The teacher must master his field and the management of his classroom before he can supply description and explanation which has his students nodding in understanding when he is in his element.

We learn, we practice and we sharpen the tools of our trade for that elemental moment when it feels like no effort at all. Yet it is full: full of preparation, trial-and-error, draft and re-draft, all hidden yet on display.

Could it be that this is what our earthly lifetime is for? to seek and to experience precious in-our-element moments. That through our work, we achieve play.

Children are so good at this because they don’t yet bear the burdens of age: expectation, peer pressure, performance-anxiety, patterned behaviors and responses, worn-out joints and inflexibilities. They bring childhood exuberance and endless energy, rubbery joints and not far to fall. Lacking the experience of “that won’t work,” they give everything a try. They are as delighted with knocking things down as building things up. They do for the sake of doing. It’s not about product, it’s about process.

What a gift it is that as adults we can re-discover this in our elemental times. When our prepped minds and bodies allow our spirits to take over and we can release ourselves into the work prepared for us to do; work that feels nothing at all like work. And very much like play.

It is not effortless but rather on purpose. We initiate it and then let it loose. We don’t push it. Don’t try to better it. Don’t compete it. Don’t compare it. It’s not a sprint to the finish, rather, more like the flip turn our body somehow knows how to do. We … duck/twist/tumble/slap/push/glide/stroke/stroke/breathe….

And time falls away. This is me, surely, but also something else entirely. A glimpse. Of thee, in me, and me in thee.

How delightful life would be if every day we gifted ourselves just a moment of this.

kicking and kicking but going nowhere?

I’ve never been much of a flutter-kicker. More of an arm-stroker. But when the masters swim workout calls for 100m freestyle kick, well, you kick. And it feels like an eternity to the other end.

Some people seem to have the gift of flutter-kicking, propelling themselves along like a speed boat powered by an outboard motor. Me? I’m more of a putterer. Not for want of effort, mind you. I’ll churn up a wake like nobody’s business and go NOWHERE!

Which is a bit embarrassing, especially if the people who share your lane are either piling up behind you or catching you up and tugging on your feet so they can pass.

Fortunately, today I had my very own lane. So when the workout called for a 100 meter kick, I aimed my kick-board dutifully toward the opposite end of the pool and set off with a mighty push from the wall. Momentum is underrated when you’ve an entire pool ahead of you and a kick like mine.

Now, I’d like to say that today I surprised myself with my torpedo-like speed, but I did not. No, I was much more like the Little Engine That Could. In fact, at times it was only the changing colors on the lane rope that convinced me I was moving at all.

Four navy, three black. Four navy, three black. Four, three. Four. Three.

Isn’t that how days feel sometimes? Like we’re kicking and kicking and going nowhere? Funny how something as simple as a friendly lane rope — which really is going nowhere — can reassure us that we’re actually making forward progress. And that, in the end, is all we really need to know.

….kick on, my friends. Before we know it, we’ll be there.

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