Sunday, August 24, 2008

First Lesson in Disaster Preparedness

First Lesson

by Philip Booth

Lie back daughter, let your head

be tipped back in the cup of my hand.

Gently, and I will hold you.

Spreadyour arms wide, lie out on the stream

and look high at the gulls.

A dead-man's float is face down.

You will dive

and swim soon enough where this tidewater

ebbs to the sea….

My first swimming lesson was at Girl Scout Camp, Camp Kettle Run, deep in NJ’s Pine Barrens, a sandy, desolate region of fragrant scrubby pines, wild blueberries, and rare orchids. The water, tinted brown from bog iron, was commonly called “cedar water.” The “barrens” are not barren, either… they overlay one of the biggest and purest aquifers anywhere on the East Coast, and they are evidence of continental shifts millions of years ago, a completely unique and precious eco-system. Thank the goddess, they have been preserved.

At camp, the F shaped swimming pier extended from a small island. I remember it vividly. One night each summer, we’d sleep on the island, and one year Connie Blue sleep-walked right into the water and ate seaweed. (Lake-weed?) After swimming, the camp nurse squirted vinegar in our ears to kill the organisms that caused ear infections.

I did love camp, but I hated swimming lessons! The F of the dock was divided into three sections: the shallowest for non-swimmers (pink caps), the upper part of the F for blue caps – Intermediates – and the coveted deep area beyond the far dock was reserved for advanced swimmers, the White Caps! At a ceremony on the last day of camp, You’d get a certificate, and the following year could claim your new cap, following a little test. It took me 3 or 4 years to get out of the shallow part! And, another thing.. swimming lessons were before breakfast, around 6 AM. The water was cold!

To this day, I don’t like swimming. My sons and daughter have been subjected to the same lack of aqua-skills… the direct result of spending most summers at the New Jersey shore and never in swimming pools or lakes! You do NOT learn to swim at the shore. You learn first to run away from waves, later to jump them with some adult holding your hands, and ultimately, to surf them in to shore, usually landing in a rumpled, undignified heap on the beach, your suit full of sand and your belly full of sea water. One thing learned early is this: at all times, the ocean is in control. Not you.

The poem “First Lesson” is about learning to trust. It contains a fundamental truth: Fear is our greatest enemy. As a young student wrote about this poem:

In water, the only people that drown are the people that are frightened and distressed, same with life. If you close your heart because you are afraid that your trust would be betrayed, you are closing the door on life. Don't be afraid, use that trust you learned long ago, look around, and just lie back, gently, onto the sea of life, you will float, and you will get to your destiny.

Water is the matrix and the sustainer of our existence. We can not avoid it any more than we can avoid life itself. Or death. Some of us are the “pink caps” in the great seas of life’s trials and tribulations. We didn’t learn adequate coping skills, and we avoided the lessons that would provide them. We let fear cramp our hearts and stayed victims. Some of us even learn to enjoy the waves that knock us down and keep us from going forward. But just beyond those waves, the sea is calm, and the sea will hold us if we learn to trust. I am reminded of Emerson, whose stern father tried to teach him to swim by forcing him into the water off some wharf: The mortal terror was so strong after forty years Emerson could still recall the fright with which I heard his voice (as Adam that of Lord God in the Garden) summoning us to a new bath and I vainly endeavoring to hide myself.” There are pink caps hiding everywhere.

How do we learn to trust when fear cramps our heart? I think many of us were touched and inspired by Michael Phelps as much for his story as for his achievement: he overcame merciless taunting, teasing, and rejection time after time. Maybe his mother, or other adults, gave him that first lesson. Whatever it was, he did not succumb to fear.

Our reaction to a tragedy like Knoxville is to talk about security. But, there really is no security that can prevent every random tragedy. We might instead talk about a different kind of disaster preparedness, the kind that empowered those brave souls and that can empower any one of us as we face the myriad tsunamis that life will aim at us: trust.

How can we learn to trust?

· Practice breathing
· Find a teacher
· Practice in the shallow end (small challenges)
· Relax, let go (yoga, laughter)
· Be in community
· Use reason and intellect

Daughter, believe

me, when you tire on the long thrash

to your island, lie up, and survive.

As you float now, where I held you

and let go, remember when fear

cramps your heart what I told you:

lie gently and wide to the light-year

stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

Philip Booth