I’m obsessing about being immersed in water. At this time of year, every year for almost 45 years, I would be in this very pool for at least an hour a day. When I wasn’t working, maybe more. Actually this isn’t entirely true. For a wretched three summers, the original pool where I swam was closed down because of dangerous electrical problems and ultimately, its age. When they shut it down, I went into mourning. Ironically, when it was emptied, the park district workers found a pool pass I’d lost years earlier, stuck in one of the drains. Great symbolism, I thought. I pulled myself together eventually and adapted to indoor swimming. But as soon as the replacement pool opened, I was back there from the first weekend of summer to the last. I do a very modest, rhythmic breaststroke, up and back, up and back. And then I float. I’m a very good floater. I remember when I was a kid we used to practice the dead man’s float, lying on our stomachs with heads in the water, holding our breath as long as we could. I was decent at lasting a fair amount of time. But I really excelled at floating on my back. I could sprawl out as if I was making a snow angel and just drift. Or I could bunch myself up, one leg crossed over the other as if sitting in a chair and bob like a cork. In a family of non-swimmers I was a miracle.
I married a swimmer. Michael swam in high school and had the most beautiful strokes. I loved watching him plow through the water doing the freestyle and the butterfly with his broad shoulders creating a draft and leaving a wake behind him. He was one of those guys who could do a couple of laps underwater without drawing a breath. Lovely to watch. But he couldn’t float for beans. Face down or face up, if he wasn’t kicking his feet, he just sank like a rock to the bottom of anything, pool, lake, ocean. We used to talk about how if we somehow were on a boat that failed in the middle of nowhere, I’d survive because after tiring from swimming, I’d just roll over on my back and take a nap until I was ready to go again. Absent too many shark bites or jellyfish stings, it seemed like a plan. Although I was slower than Michael, I always had more endurance. He’d finish his few laps while I just kept going. Somewhat of a metaphor for how our life worked out. In recent weeks, my little kiddie pool has provided a measure of solace for the hole where swimming is in my life. But I can’t float in it. I swam last in March. Whatever endorphins got released in me back then are long gone. I’m having trouble finding an alternative way of getting flooded with those restorative feelings. What will substitute for water?
Of course there is the solace of my garden and the daily spectacle of the creatures who visit the spaces I’ve developed for their pleasure. While I sit with my feet slowly kicking in the pool, I’m scanning the yard for visitors who give me little bits of joy. I scramble for my shoes when the hummingbirds come and occasionally am fortunate enough to snap a few quick photos before they zoom away. But I’m also frustrated by my diminishing speed when they’re gone before I’ve gotten three steps from my watery perch. I hardly feel floaty. I feel leaden. I know that part of this is due to a restlessness that’s popped up lately. August is coming. Maybe school will start in person and maybe it won’t. If it does, my life will narrow even more than it already has as my daughter’s family will be more off-limits than what we’ve enjoyed during this quarantine. In a few months, the outdoor respite will be replaced by indoors. Indoors almost all the time unless something magical happens. As the saying goes, I’m not going to bet the ranch on that. I try to pump myself up by muttering the Muhammed Ali mantra to myself. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” I have to float internally right now. The stinging like a bee part is still operative as long as I have access to words. So I look around outside to see what I can give myself, to remind myself that I can float figuratively, if not literally. Sometimes a little fluke will make me feel buoyant, rising up instead of sinking.
I have a pair of cardinals living in my yard. They’ve been around for a couple of years – I know because I have lots of photos of them taken over that time. And the female has distinctive markings with a cream-colored chest and tinges of reddish rusty brown. She’s exceptionally beautiful and of course the male is the customary brilliant red. I see them every day. When mating season began, they were usually together, hunting for just the right nesting materials, or so I imagined.
I listen to their various sounds and think they’re saying things like, “see anything sturdy over there?” or “do you think this piece will go well with the others?” In fact, I’ve unconsciously gotten quite familiar with their language, more so than I’d ever have thought. The other morning I was getting ready to set out a sprinkler to water my front garden. I was aware there was lots of bird racket going on and that there was a frantic tone that wasn’t part of the usual ambient chatter around me. Astoundingly I knew it was my cardinal pair. I went to investigate. I saw a large cat lounging on the front steps of my neighbor’s front porch. Both the male and female birds were hopping madly between the porch roof and the tall shrubs which ran across the face of the house. I shooed the cat away but it simply ambled under the bushes and laid down. Meanwhile my friends were ratcheting up the cacophony. I walked around trying to see what was happening and then saw a very new fledgling clinging to a bush.
I quickly squeezed myself between the bushes and the house so I could chase the calculating cat away. It was pretty dismissive toward me initially but I got some good hostility going and it scampered away. Meanwhile the little fledgling attempted to fly away and wound up doing a face plant between my neighbor’s place and the next house door. I stood protectively over it, the poor exhausted little thing. I called my son, the bird biologist, to hurry to me to see what we should do. I’d snapped a photo of the baby just in case he couldn’t get to us in time. The little guy caught its breath, turned slowly, looked at me and managed to loft itself back into the taller shrubs. Both parents were clicking encouragement and my son, having arrived and looked at the photo said, “you just did a good thing – that baby is very young.” We backed away from the area and within a few seconds, the noise level went back to normal. Did I feel like I was floating? Yes, indeed. I realized that those birds are like part of my family. Inviting animals into your space isn’t just about personal entertainment. Responsibilities go along with the good times. Recognizing that I really knew them well enough to be tuned in to their daily survival battles and trying to help them buoyed me right up. The connections I’m making with the world around me are meaningful and will go a long way to helping me stay afloat in this bizarre world. Later in the day, each parent showed up at my birdfeeders for some truly necessary replenishment after expending so much energy.
To them, it’s simply life. Nothing existential about it. They just keep on going. Luckily for me, they’ll overwinter here so I’ll get to enjoy them even when I’m locked in. But I’m not locked in now. I decided to take a little drive over to my pool. It may be empty but I’m not. I’m so glad I stopped by. Yes, there’s no water. But the beautiful surroundings are still brimming with life, the serene space that always made me feel that I was getting away from life’s problems for at least a little while. The natural areas are bursting with bee balm and coreopsis, milkweed and black-eyed susans. Even the weedy grasses and Queen Anne’s lace were swaying in the light breeze, while bees were everywhere and birds skittered through the dense plantings. I left there feeling like I was lying on my back, looking up at the sky, floating in time. If you try hard enough, you can bend reality to meet your current needs. At least for awhile, anyway.