I freely admit:
I am afraid of deep water. I remember (or I was told by my parents, which is more likely) that I was dragged out by a big wave as a toddler, when we went to the beach a couple of days after a hurricane. Not that this kept me from going into the ocean or the shallow end of a pool after that. I felt safe while I had my feet on the bottom. But I never learned to swim, despite lessons in college and at the YMCA, because I couldn’t relax in deep water. Even while trying to swim in shallow water, the need to immerse my face was so difficult for me, I never practiced. I didn’t enjoy it; it was a struggle.
Add to this fear, a reality that no black girl wanted their pressed hair wet. More recently, hair tends to be processed, but we still don’t want it wet. I never could coordinate the breaststroke, so swimming head‑up with perfectly coiffed hair, as I have seen many women effectively do, is not an option for me. At least, not yet. Yes, I am hopeful, because, against all odds and due in no small part to the badgering I’ve received from a friend, I have learned to snorkel in my dotage. I love it. Give me the mask, snorkel and flippers (and the buoyant salty calm of the Aegean), and I am unstoppable! Well, probably anyway. I did have to work hard on my fear.My new skill, and pastime, didn’t come easily. It took me a while to accustom myself to the feel of the snorkel. I also struggled to pull the flippers on when I couldn’t put my feet on the bottom.
Time passed. It seemed ages before I was able to just relax and swim out of my depth. I had snorkeled once previously, 35 years before this, on a trip to Crete. It had been a bad experience; I don’t remember quite what happened, but I lost the snorkel and had to swim quite a way back to shore, telling myself the whole time not to panic. I told myself I’d be fine, and eventually was, after shivering on the beach uncontrollably for about two hours.
But my second experience has opened up a new world. Now I enjoy going out. At first, simply looking at the sea life under the surface was enough. But soon I wanted to emulate my friend who could dive down and retrieve shells and pretty stones‑mostly beautiful marble fragments‑from the bottom. She tried to show me how to dive. But it’s a skill you learn through doing it, like learning to balance yourself when riding a bicycle. It’s not something someone can show you. There’s quite a knack to it: propelling yourself downward to grab whatever pretty bauble attracted you, then relaxing so you’ll float back up to the surface. I had quite a few failures, but I have now gotten to the place where I can usually be successful, as long as it’s not too deep. My friend can go deeper than I can, probably she has stronger legs, or just more practice.
I still need to challenge myself to swim without the equipment, perhaps finally learning the breaststroke. Then, perhaps I could even go for a scuba‑diving license?
The ocean floor is the limit.
-Paula Holland Smits