During my childhood, summers were a joyful time filled with achievements at the swimming pool.
BY: Ptolemy Tompkins
This past summer has been an unusually indoors-y one for me. I didn’t take any vacations to speak of, and more importantly I didn’t once step into water.
In the old days, this would have been unthinkable. As a kid, summer officially began with my first full entry into water (sometimes fresh, sometimes salty), and ended, just as officially, with the last swim of the season.
Water, and the things I did in it, didn’t just define my summers however; to a certain degree they defined my entire life. Water-related achievements (holding my face under, first with eyes shut and fingers pinched over my nose, then with eyes open and my hands away from my face; diving head first, and of course the ultimate: learning to swim) didn’t so much add to my sense of who I was as change my sense of self completely. Each new water skill I learned made me someone new and different, so that the person I was after the summer afternoon in 1968 when I learned how to float on my back in the water of a New Jersey swimming pool was in some indefinable but all the same very real way, different from the person I had been when I’d woken up that morning.
One of the reasons the summertime skills we learn as children in swimming pools or the shallows of ponds and oceans stick so clearly in our memories is, I suspect, because when they happened to us they really and truly were…miraculous. The change wrought upon us when we went from being a body that sank in the water to one that--somehow or other--suddenly floated was every bit as uncanny, when we first experienced it, as the sight of Jesus walking on the surface of the water must have been to the Apostles. Most of us, on the day we first learned to swim, walked out of the water feeling like we had been reborn.
As adults, it’s hard to climb back into that state of mind--so accessible when we were children--in which every single day brought the possibility of total and complete transformation: of going to bed a different person than one woke up. That’s one reason, I suspect, why so many of the adults I know with young children seem to take such pleasure in their own children’s summer water milestones. Though I’ve been out of the water this summer, my friends and relatives--and more importantly their children--haven’t. The daughter of a good friend of mine learned to put her face underwater in a pool for the first time this summer, while in another pool, my nephew’s daughter, Olivia, learned how to swim.
The joy, gratitude, and pure shock we see in the faces of children who have mastered a new water skill call forth our nostalgia, but they also call forth our hope. For though they don’t happen with the regularity they did when we were children, most of us still believe, deep down, that further transformations--total, top-to-bottom, I’m-a-different-person-now-than-I-was-before transformations--still lie in store for us. That’s why we take such joy in promising our children, as we wade from the shallow water toward the deep, a miracle.
“Trust me, you’ll float.”