What the water never gave me, and a lesson in breathing

I never learned how to swim. It was, in part, for lack of trying, but it was mostly the fact that I rarely spent time in open waters anyway as a child. I used to swim in the sulong beside my grandmother’s rundown hut back home (the actual place, the home that does not walk and talk and is not human), but none of my cousins were successful in training me, and my mother often told me off. She says learning to swim requires drowning first. I say she has it all mixed up, that it was biking she was thinking of, not swimming. She says it’s all the same.

I didn’t believe her, and I should have.

I remember a lesson from a Ricœur class I attended years ago, about our relationship with water; how the sensation of being carried by it reminds us of days from the womb, fragmented recollections of a time our brains do not quite recall but our bodies know, and know well. The water is familiar, and the feeling of it against our bodies, its pressure and the way it buoys us, are not as unknown to a person as one might think.

This is why babies hardly fret when they are taught how to swim. It is fascinating watching a baby’s swim class for the simple observation that the baby does not cry at all; in fact, the baby is uncommonly quiet, like it likes it. I watched one: the coach took the baby and gently placed it in the water, little by little, until the baby’s ears were submerged and it acclimatised to the temperature and feel of the water. The coach did this a number of times, before eventually dropping his hand a few centimetres below the baby’s back and letting the baby go. The mother cried out in shock, while I watched, riveted, amazed, prepared to witness a potential lawsuit, and getting understandably disappointed when the mother smiled—and the child floated. This small thing — barely capable of feeding itself, months away from taking its first steps, barely crawling across their floors and not even one bit literate — just flapped its tiny baby feet once or twice and then drifted serenely in front of the coach’s happy face, sucking on its thumb and looking up at the sky, gurgling in contentment.

Such is life, that a baby should learn to swim before walking, and I that could not ever float, not even with my twelve years of life then, not even with my twenty-years now.

The first time I dove into waters was through the slide in Casa Ofelia, during a friend’s brother’s twenty-first-birthday party. It wasn’t even diving, technically. More like entering the waters at high speeds. It lacked the suddenness and the steep drop that comes with actually jumping in, but it was the closest I had ever gotten to diving (or what I perceive it to be, I wouldn’t know, I never tried).

I forgot to breathe on the way down, remembered to breathe as I reached the end of the slide, and inhaled a shock of water through my nose. It was the closest I had ever gotten to drowning.

A swimmer friend once mentioned — in passing, between a conversation about Magikarp and the measurements of a standard competition swimming pool — that the important part is breathing. How you breathe affects how you float, and how fast you swim, and how long you keep it up. The water applies pressure on all of your body and makes it hard to breathe the longer and deeper you go, so you must learn the proper way of breathing so you control your entire body better. Breathing, after all, affects the function of your muscles; breathe too fast and you’ll tire faster by virtue of inefficiency, breathe too slow and you’ll tire faster by virtue of inadequacy. In any case, if you do not know how to breathe properly, you will get tired and you will stop swimming.

For a while I thought well that’s easy,  I can do that,  I can at least breathe properly. I sing, after all. I have been breathing through my diaphragm for years. I breathe properly through muscle memory, brought on by those earlier days when I would join contests and belt out seconds-long notes in one go. Really, how hard can breathing be?

Turns out it is very hard.

Amidst remembering to keep your arms and feet paddling and kicking, and fighting the weight of the water, and looking where you’re going when it’s hard to see anything other than splashing liquid everywhere, it’s easy to forget techniques. Muscle memory be damned: when all your leg and arm and core muscles are too busy trying to keep you afloat, everything else kind of takes the back seat. I, for one, tried so very hard from sinking that I ended up touching the floor of the six-feet pool I was in. I promptly forgot to breathe after the stunning realisation that I had not been swimming at all, only sinking and moving a bit further to the right of where I started.

And there, on the opposite side of the pool, was a baby cackling to itself and floating like a ball of air.

I aired this frustration out to my swimmer friend, who said that’s the likely reason for my inability to float: I was afraid, or at least wary, of the waters. He is right, of course. I am afraid, of water in my ears and ingestion of dirty pool waters among all others.

(I am afraid of so many things. Like drowning, or not being able to swim up if I sink, or — heaven forbid — muscular atrophy in the middle of a breast stroke.)

I never learned how to swim. So when waters rise and floodgates open and waves crash into and on and all around me, I will go under and I will drown. That a baby does not fear or could not feel any of this, and is instead lulled to sleep by the rocking of the water. . . I wish I could remember, too, what it felt like to be in the womb.

I hope to learn to swim someday. For now I have to learn to breathe again, and breathe properly, and breathe even as I find it hard to.


One Reply to “What the water never gave me, and a lesson in breathing”

  1. tip: learn to float first. just “lie down” on water, chest up, and let go (of course, do this on the shallow part of the pool first).

    it’s good to just float on the pool and chillax and watch the stars and moon.

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