I had a friend once who told me that her mother taught her to swim by putting her in a tub full of water and shoving her under. It was supposed to be an early attempt at waterproofing. It reminds me a little of the medieval snakepit approach to insanity. The logic was that you threw people into a pit full of snakes, it would cure them. See, they reasoned (?) that a thing which would drive a sane person crazy would drive a crazy person sane.
Do we do the same thing to our children? Of course we do. We teach them to be tough, to ignore pain, to "suck it up." But what we are really teaching them is to avoid whatever it is we want them to ignore, live through, tough out, or overcome. After all, kids aren't dummies. They know, in the words of Linus in Peanuts, "Pain hurts." I was so moved by my friend's description of her swimming lessons that I wrote a poem about it.
Learning to Swim
An odd place for a grave,
On the kitchen floor.
An odd shape for a coffin,
Long, enameled white porcelain,
Blue trim around the lip.
Odd material for a winding sheet,
Water, the birthing material.
Mrs. McKay from down the street
Kneels by my coffin, tests the water
With her elbow.
I stand nearby, shivering, it is not cold.
I have my pale green swimsuit on,
The one with pink daisies and
A bow in the back. My hair
Is tied up behind me in a ponytail.
Mrs. McKay stands, nods, and steps back.
I climb into the coffin, water as warm as my blood.
I lie back.
Mrs. McKay puts her large hand on my chest
And shoves me under.
I struggle against her hand, I thrash, I grab,
Trying to move the solid hand,
Or shift the stolid weight on my body,
Though the struggle uses air I know I will need.
Is this what dead is? To struggle for air for eternity?
To try to move the weight on your heart?
Through the water I can see my loving mother,
As wavery as a ghost, standing above my grave
With her arms folded.
Crying, spitting, choking, enraged,
I am pulled forth at the last moment.
Now I know how to swim.
But never have.