to Swim

I was born in South Australian and have lived in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. My novel in stories, ‘Barking Dogs’ (Affirm Press) is set in the town of Mount Barker in the Adelaide Hills, where I live with my family. My short fiction has been published widely, most recently in Best Australian Stories, Australian Book Review and Something Special, Something Rare: Outstanding Short Stories by Australian Women (Black Inc.). I hold a BA in Aboriginal Studies and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Adelaide. I have taught creative writing in schools, libraries and Universities, including at the University of Texas in Austin.
Photos By Dominoe Farris
Photos By Thomas Watson
Learning To Swim

I don’t want to talk about the storm. Not talking about the storm is the point of this story—because you can talk for years and years and years. Sometimes, you want to stop talking. You want something to shift, without the talking and all the tears.

I will tell you that in the middle of the storm, my teenage daughter was out at sea. Wearing a bikini and a T-shirt, she clung to the rail of a broken sailboat, and while the waves roiled and churned and the hailstones pummeled her terrified face, she wore no life jacket. My father took her out there, without my permission, though charcoal clouds rolled across the horizon and fishing boats zoomed to shore in formation. I watched it all, first from the shoreline and then from the boat onto which my daughter was rescued. It wasn’t a disaster; my daughter is okay. It was traumatic. It was also recurring; there have been other storms, metaphoric storms. And as with those, there is more to the literal storm—more critical information, more backstory—than I have told here.

Fraught family relationships are packed with emotional pain. They are common and complex and tedious and raw. Let’s leave the storm here.


I want to talk about swimming.

People don’t believe me when I tell them I can’t swim. My husband squints his eyes at me in that way he does when he suspects I’m exaggerating. This is because I look as though I can swim. In the water, I appear confident: a touch of freestyle here, a casual breaststroke there, a gentle float, and eyes closed to the sun.

I fake swim.

A man I later meet in a heavily chlorinated training pool will tell me that he grew up on a lake and fake swam through his entire childhood. He never had any instruction, just copied what he saw.

Fake swimming is an art form; it assumes a languid, assured poise and, as with other illiteracies, a careful construction of circumstance so that one is never in a situation requiring genuine skills, where their lack might be exposed.

“That is swimming, isn’t it?” a friend says, “if it looks like it? What else is there?”

I can’t answer because I still do not know what real swimming is; if I did, I’d be doing it. I suspect real swimming involves bilateral breathing, which fills me with terror. When I fake swim, I breathe only on my right side. I simply cannot imagine how I would coordinate taking a breath on my left. Later, I meet another man who, while a relatively competent freestyler, cannot conceive of floating on his back, let alone attempt the backstroke. He can’t explain it either, but the fear on his face as he fights against sliding backward into the water is so private and real that I look away. I want to ask whether he has difficulties with trust.


Below the water’s surface, the fake swimmer is making it up. The fake swimmer is perpetually vaguely panicked and has little stamina.

I spent my childhood summers at a sheltered beach on the Yorke Peninsula on the coast of South Australia. There, my father once attempted to teach me to swim by doing exactly what his father had done to him. I was carried out to the deep. My father then half dropped me, half kept hanging on while pulling me backward. It makes no logical sense that you would teach someone to swim this way. This memory is informed only by sensation; I don’t remember it exactly as it happened, but I thought I was drowning that day, even though my father’s hands held my ankles. Did he not know what was happening to me underwater? I choose not to ask him about it when I’m older; I want the next part of the memory to stay intact. When I had recovered from the coughing and crying and sat huddled in a towel, my father apologized. He’d had no idea it was going to turn out this way, and he was sorry that he’d scared me. I said I would never go out to the deep with him again. Thirty-odd years later, it is the only memory I have of my father’s apologizing, and for this reason, the memory is important and lined with something sweet.

For all those years and more, I blame my parents for not providing proper swimming lessons. I can hear that this sounds a bit absurd. Even so, this becomes a symbol of other ways I feel let down by them, and I clutch onto it like a toxic liquid in a hip flask, held close and supped throughout my adulthood.

I insist my own children progress through the entire program of our local swim school: they are “tadpoles” and then various species of middle-sized fish, on to “dolphins” and “sharks” and beyond, and into the squads, where children dive simultaneously into multiple pool lanes, tumble turn and race against a stopwatch — the sight and sound of it causing goose bumps of vicarious pleasure to erupt down my arms. I sit on the sidelines week after week, for years, watching them, analyzing their perfect strokes, sometimes reading, other times straining to hear the instruction, feeling proud and jealous and sometimes both at once.

I think about learning to swim correctly, of empowering myself and taking control of this one simple yearning. Several times I make it a New Year’s resolution, add it on a to-do list. It’s too expensive, I say, hardly a priority, and I don't have time anyway.


It is the storm and its emotional fallout that finally lead me to make the call to enroll in adult swimming lessons. After the storm, I unravel. The unspent rage morphs into depression. I cry most days for no clear reason. Much of my despair lies in the fact that, as with other events in my family, this one becomes subject to a retelling. What I think happened apparently did not. This drives me so close to a feeling of such acute helplessness that my only recourse is counterintuitive — to stop telling. I don’t want to hear any version of the event. My only power is my silence. But clearly this isn’t working. The image of my daughter vulnerable on the deck continually flashes across my mind. A close friend advises counseling. But counseling entails talking, and all I know is that I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to hear my voice. I only want to move forward.

The class is mainly made up of angry women in their 60s and 70s; there’s no better way to describe them. They say that all they’ve ever done is everything for everyone else. They don't want to die not knowing how to swim. Some provide childcare for grandchildren and bring them here for lessons, feelings of frustration and resentment festering with each passing week. There are two men also at retirement age: my fellow fake swimmer and the one who can swim but not float. At 45, I am the youngest learning to swim.

The water depth does not go above our chests, but two of the women won’t allow their feet to leave the tiles. One woman is initially too terrified to enter the pool at all, and most weeks thereafter, she marks her progression by walking a little farther up and down her lane. Another woman notes that I look like I can swim already, but another watches on with narrowed eyes, “Nope. She’s not better than my grandson, and he’s in Marlin,” she says. I remember “Marlin” from my children’s classes.

I tell the instructor that I fake swim and that I want to know how to do so properly, to be able to swim laps. She watches me demonstrate, nods slowly and passes me a kickboard.

The first thing I learn is to breathe out through my mouth underwater. I’d always kept my mouth tightly closed to avoid accidentally swallowing water. Mostly I hold my breath. When she asked how I breathe, I don’t really have an answer. When I tell my children later that evening, they are aghast and fall about laughing. How could I not know to breathe out through my mouth? It feels strange to push the air out so vigorously, to have my mouth open underwater, but it also feels liberating. Logically enough, breathing in is easier if you also breathe out.

Over the next few weeks, I learn how to kick efficiently, to cup my hands and to extend forward with my arms. I am instructed to put my head lower into the water and to angle my face down. I’d been keeping my face higher so I’d see the approaching wall before I hit my head. I didn’t realize that the black line at the end of the lane is there to alert the swimmer to the wall. Embarrassingly obvious, but no one had ever told me, and I’d never thought to ask. I now wonder about other obvious things I don’t know.

I start to feel myself moving through the water in a way I have not ever experienced. I feel uncluttered and clearheaded. My thinking pattern changes; I discover a zone in my brain I have not inhabited before. I feel calm and curious and comfortably silent.

I note the feeling of escaping as I lower myself each week into the pool — a new found freedom. Partly, it is because there can be no cell phones in a swimming pool. Not mine, not anybody’s. The pool is housed in a large temperature-controlled tin shed, and I like the ambient sounds of water splashing and echoing.

I find myself experiencing unexpected glimpses of joy, and I wonder whether it is the satisfaction of learning a new skill. I realize I can’t remember the last time I learned a new skill. I add a second weekly lesson into my lunch breaks. The instructor on Mondays mostly ignores us, offering minimal instruction and encouraging us to simply practice what we have learned. Wednesday’s instructor is more hands on, puts her own face in the water to demonstrate, becomes overtly excited when we make progress and insists on warm ups and cooldowns. I enjoy both styles. Driving after swimming classes, I find myself smiling. In between them, I crave being immersed in water.


I ask Monday’s instructor whether I am ready to learn bilateral breathing.

“Sure,” she says.

I brace myself. “Where do I start?”

She looks at me strangely. “Just do it,” she says.

“What do you mean?”

“Just do it,” she says again.

The first time I try, I am so genuinely confused about how to organize my body that I stop and stand up. When I try again, I flail and take in a mouthful of water. I cannot understand this right-left problem I seem to have. I dance, roller-skate, ice-skate, play tennis. But this does not feel like a physical inability — more like an emotional block, inexplicably fear based.

The third time, I sort of manage it, but it’s awkward, and I bring my head up too high. “Just keep trying it,” the instructor says. She finds my efforts amusing.

By the end of the next class, I am bilaterally breathing. Occasionally, if I hesitate or anticipate it, I cough up water and start over. But when I can find the rhythm again — the zone — breathing on my left starts to feel okay, natural and even comfortable.

Bilateral breathing is a revelation. “It feels good,” I tell the instructor on Wednesday.

“Well, that’s the thing with swimming,” she says. “When it feels good, you know you’re doing it right.”

I think about that for a long time.


I also learn that slowing down makes me swim faster, and I think about that too. “It’s the glide,” my Wednesday instructor says. “Swimming is about going with the glide.”

I still don’t want to talk about the storm.

They want me to.

Normally, I would. I’m good at talking. In the past, after the other “storms,” I would rant and rage. My desire to be understood—to have my side “heard”—is an impulse that runs deep. But the impulse to protect my daughter runs deeper, fiercer. Talking is inadequate. There is no logic here: learning to swim can’t help me protect her either. Nor can it resolve the complex pain in my relationship with my father. But it soothes me, propels me forward. For now, I only want to swim.

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Directed By Travis Mauck
Arjuna O’Neal has lived two lives: one as a young boy born into a peace-practicing African-American family of Hare-Krishnas, and another as a hustler involved in drug slingi...
The Spiritual Warrior
Directed By Travis Mauck
Arjuna O’Neal has lived two lives: one as a young boy born into a peace-practicing African-American family of Hare-Krishnas, and another as a hustler involved in drug slingi...