Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
The Next Lane
I think it’s been established that I love swimming in my slow turtle-ish way, up and back, up and back, five days a week. I used to be faster and better but I’m still pretty steady. I’ve actually convinced myself that I could pull a Gertrude Ederle and cross the English Channel, albeit at an impossibly slow pace. Being in the water allows for flights of fancy that I expect can be attributed to a lightness of being that doesn’t happen frequently on dry land. I have no scientific evidence for that idea – I just notice that my mind goes to drifty, fantastical places when I’m buoyant for awhile. Of course, you can always think about realistic things and emotional things or any combinations of those as well while immersed. I certainly have spent plenty of time when swimming along, thinking about who I am, what I’ve done, what’s important and what’s not, whether I’ll leave a legacy of some kind after I’m gone and on and on.
It’s interesting to experience these private thoughts while sharing space with the other water creatures in my space, mostly fellow human swimmers with an occasional frog or insect taking the waters. After you start swimming at the same times every day, if you’re a social entity, you tend to look around to see who’s happening to do the same thing as you over in the next lane. And over time, especially if your pace is comparable to the person beside you, conversations are sparked, first out of politeness and later, out of discovery and mutual experience. These become your people, the ones in the next lane. Sometimes the conversation is like gliding along the surface of the pool, light, casual and not something you’d pursue outside the context of that hour spent hauling yourself along, length after length, side by side. But often you find that you have things in common with these water lovers and relationships develop. Maybe you don’t ever see the person beyond the pool but sometimes surprises happen and you share time dressed out there in the world. Quite different from those people who you barely recognize without a bathing suit, making things like seeing a fellow swimmer in the grocery store a weird sensation, like, hey I know you from somewhere but where?
I’ve had several lovely bonds develop with some people one lane over. Bonds that bring unexpected gifts and surprises. I’ve found people who will listen to me talk about Michael and how much I feel him when I’m in the water where we spent so much time together. I’ve found people who have sick family members or who are sick themselves so we swap stories and theories and suggestions about that. There are the readers who discuss books and the travelers who trade tips and spark new ideas about where to go next. I love gardening and I love art. I’ve found several people who feel the same about those two areas as me and even better, I’ve found artists whose work I love and who’ve inspired me to stretch myself in trying to create my own art and to appreciate theirs.
Which leads me to my friend, Melissa. I’d seen her for years and years in the pool but it wasn’t until Michael died that our relationship began to evolve. In the first days after his death, I needed to get back into the water but I was afraid to go at my usual hour because I knew people would talk to me about him and that I’d just cry all the time. I wanted to swim and get back some fitness after the long months of caregiving. So I went to the pool at different times, times when I could be relatively certain I wouldn’t know anyone and would be able to stay within myself and my needs. One of those days, I heard a voice behind me ask if she could share my lane and when I turned to say yes with the caveat that I didn’t want to talk, there was Melissa, a familiar face but not someone I knew well at all. Within a short time I was pouring out my feelings to her about a traumatic experience I’d had with an artist who’d done a project for Michael, a gift from him to be turned over to me after his death. A gift of comfort and warmth. That situation turned out to be an emotional debacle and I was angry and frustrated about it. Michael would have been appalled at how it worked out. I knew Melissa was an artist and her vibe was simpatico with mine. That one conversation led to many others and we learned that we knew a lot of people in common, that we were both people who wrote, loved music and gardens and nature and also shared similar political views. Over the course of these past few years, we now have our special connection, one in which we can share lots of personal things while not being wrapped around each other’s necks all the time. She is a safe place for me and I hope I’m that for her. But her art and talent drew me into a situation I never dreamed I’d be in – the subject of a photo shoot. I don’t have a negative opinion about my appearance, although I know full well that being the subject of a photographer was not likely to be one of my lifetime experiences. However unlikely that may have been, because of Melissa and her art, I am now going to be included in one of her exhibitions which is focusing on women and their garden experience.
After all of our talks as we swam next to each other, I got bumped into the group of women who have a special relationship with their dirt, flowers, insects, birds and all things connected to their piece of nature. Melissa is going to showcase them and their spaces. I couldn’t be more honored. As the city girl who found myself parked on a big double lot, and as a citizen of the world profoundly interested and worried about climate change and habitats, I’ve spent years working to create a space that provides sanctuary for pollinators, and birds, a piece of ground that abounds with life. I love my garden and have been nurturing it for over 40 years now. Every flower, shrub and tree on my lot was planted by me. That is my accomplishment that brings hours of pleasure, beauty and a haven for so many creatures.
To be included in an art event that celebrates women who are engaged in this effort is truly gratifying. As I’ve looked at the photos, some of which will be included with other women I’ve never met but with whom I share a common vision, is an experience I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t talked to the person in the next lane. So I want to thank Melissa, photographer and repurposing artist extraordinaire, for making me realize that I will leave a legacy that I care deeply about, and that now, it’s captured in her work.
Look around, people and check out who’s swimming beside you. You never know what may happen.