B is for Buoyancy

Buoyancy (n.): the tendency for a body to float or to rise when submerged in a fluid; resilience; optimism

Archimedes would have been rather displeased with me, I think.  I’d imagine he was a pretty good swimmer, seeing as he was born in the port town of Syracuse, Italy.  Children birthed on the coasts of nations worldwide have the distinct evolutionary advantage of being, biologically-speaking, 3% fish—and therefore breast stroke out of the womb. I arrived on this planet landlocked in Indiana, and my only biological advantage was being made of 45% corn.  Whatever the case, had Archimedes been judging this swim test, he would have gone back to the drawing board regarding his law of buoyancy.

I took the test in question when I was eighteen years old, otherwise known as legal adulthood.  It was the first few days of my freshman year in college. I chose to attend a midwestern university with two lakes on campus, and the powers that be had, somewhere along the line, decided all incoming students needed to pass a swim test.  This was a liability measurement, our RAs told us.  If you fell in the lake drunk, or jumped in on a dare, or were dropped in on your rubber mattress via an elaborate prank, university officials would like you to have a fighting chance at not rapping your knuckles on Davy Jones’ locker. As I remember it, the test was judged by a panel.  How one received the right to sit on that esteemed board is beyond my level of security clearance.  I’d like to think that attendance at the freshman swim test was a unique kind of punishment, doled out to professors who didn’t turn their grades in on time, admissions officers who lost transcripts, swim team members who were caught peeing in the pool—that sort of thing.  No prestige was involved in watching a bunch of freaked out teenagers try to swim two pool lengths—and not even longways, friends.  We swam the short side.   Your form is inconsequential, I was told as my turn came around.  You just need to get down and back once on your front, and then the next time on your back.  That didn’t seem too difficult in theory, even though I hadn’t ever swam that far in my life. I am proud to say I did make it through the entire test without needing lifeguard rescue.  I looked up about halfway through the second lap of my frontal swimming exhibition, convinced my fingertips were ready to graze the side of the pool. They weren’t.  I still had a solid two thirds left to thrash and flop to make it to the other side.  Perhaps as a result of a broken heart, my legs decided at that moment they were made of lead.  This threw a kink in my highly stylized doggy paddle, and the bottom half of my body started sinking.  I tried to use my arms to make up the difference, but it was no use. I treaded water there for awhile, just praying I’d be able to make it to the other end.  Maybe no one noticed my struggle, I hoped.  They did. 

I received a red card as I huffed and hoisted myself out the pool, the swim test equivalent of an F.  This was the first and only test I had ever failed in my life, eye exams notwithstanding (I fail those spectacularly.  I cannot even read the largest letter on the chart without assistance).  Myself, and a few other collegiate land lubbers were forced to take two rotations of swimming as our first two PE credits on campus.  

To the classes’ credit, I somehow became a better swimmer. Our instructor, an ancient priest, had managed for what felt like half of our class time to be spent watching VHS tapes, usually of fit young men demonstrating swim moves.  According to him, my success or failure in the pool was predetermined by my ability to, “rock back and forth, like a log.” Logs are pretty buoyant, so I didn’t question his technique.  I wasn’t, however, very loglike. The class was helpful, but every time I had to leave the aquatics center with wet hair, any value gained was quickly replaced by shame. In my eyes, there was a heavy dishonor that accompanied crossing campus like that. During an Indiana November, walking around soggy and chlorinated was the physical manifestation of your red card. It was the scarlet letter that separated you from the rest of your compatriots, who were fencing or golfing or learning the fundamentals of ballroom dancing, which were all much drier activities. It was clear to everyone, including your theology professor, that you failed something.  

I counted down the days until my swimming rotations were over and the public display of my inadequacy could end. I spent those months feeling embarrassed and singled out, plagued by the disease of an unsuccessful attempt at something.  Back then, I didn’t have any fancy quotes about failure plastered in the interior of my headspace; my beliefs were radical and to the contrary of those “success comes in cans” posters on the wall of a high school geometry class.  I had been conditioned to believe that if a man on the street were to offer me an inoculation against future failures and shortcomings, I shouldn’t hesitate. In fact, I should roll up my sleeve and jab the damn needle in myself.  Failure was a lack of fortitude—a sure sign that you weren’t strong enough, smart enough, or dedicated enough to reach your goals. In my mind, failure was irrevocable—I possessed no concept of a bounce back.  

Thank God I failed that test.  I needed some experience, anything—to build a sense of buoyancy.  I thought that once you sank—once you hit that bottom, Titanic-style?  There was no return.  You were over.  I didn’t know that sometimes experience is your finest teacher, guiding you to be flexible and faithful in the face of less-than-preferable odds. If something drags us down, or if the pressure and resistance becomes so heavy that we can touch bottom—it’s not the end. Far from it—it’s your magic moment.  You can leverage that bottom and propel yourself right back up.  Do it often enough, and you’ll stop sinking.  One day, you will—I promise you this—figure out how to float.

Floating is only hard if you make it hard.  I found this key aquatic axiom to be true. In fact, it’s what our bodies naturally want to do when submerged in water.  You just have to learn how to—even when you can’t see the bottom anymore—release the tension.  You have to learn that it’s okay to let go.  If you can breathe deeply, relax your limbs, and have some faith in Archimedes, you’ll be okay.  Remember this, though.  You cannot float in the kiddie pool when you’re thirty years old.  In order to float, to experience that calm, the water has to weigh more than you.  Otherwise, you’d probably be able to stand up in it just fine, and what’s the allure in that? 

The major sticking point here is the letting go part, and that centers on our human need to know.  To answer the questions.  How deep is the water? What lives in this ocean?  How many people have drowned here?  What is here that can hurt me? How can I stay in control?  This is the mindset we’ve been conditioned to have around water, and around any big unknown, any obstacle.  Think about it.  The waters on this earth are the last frontier.  New animals are being discovered every day in their depths, and if we are the kind of people that need reassurances that everything will be okay, that nothing lurks under there than can hurt us—we are never going to dip our toes in at the beach, let alone dive in to make our own discoveries. If we demand answers to all those questions, if we insist that there be no likelihood of injury, failure, or disappointment before we get started on our adventures—we are red-carding ourselves.

Three years ago, I spent some time on an island in Canada.  This was a real island.  A tiny one, Gilligan-sized. Where, in order to get anywhere else, one had to travel by boat. Maybe not a three hour tour, but a good twenty minutes to mainland.  Entertainment there was lake-centric: swimming, paddle boarding, jet skiing, and wake boarding ranked high on the list of things to do.  The most exhilarating form of entertainment?  Jumping off a thirty-foot platform into the water below.  This terrified me.  I am from a family of toe dippers, not divers.  On my last full day at the lake, I ended up standing there, staring down at the murky water.  There was no seeing the bottom here.  A series of panicked questions ticker taped in my brain as my toes hung over the edge of the deck.  My need to know was on overdrive—What if there are rocks? What if I hit the water the wrong way and I break my neck? What if I go under and I just don’t come back up? What if I drown? What if I die?  One break in those screaming thoughts was all it took.  If I failed?  If I didn’t come back up?  Well, at least I tried.  And the effort, on that day, was worth the risk because jumping off that platform meant more to me than a few minutes of fun.  It was how I’d earn my green card back.  Those few seconds between jumping and smacking the surface of the water below stand in my mind as the closest to true freedom I’ve ever felt.  I was suspended between what I knew and what was unknown.  And you know what?  Buoyant as ever, I floated right back up to the surface.