Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My biggest fear

. . . after hairy spiders, was deep water. My earliest memory of swim class was having my head pushed under water for “ring around the rosie.” At day camp, a few years later, all my friends were diving “dolphins” while I was still stuck in the shallow end with the “goldfish.”

By age 19, I had not lost my fear of deep water or my longing to swim with the dolphins. I braved swimming lessons at college and registered for a School for Field Studies course on Dolphin Biology and Behavior in the Gulf of Mexico. My job was photographing dorsal fins, developing the film and drawing up ID cards by hand. I spent many happy hours aboard a small Zodiac marveling at those playful and intelligent creatures. The one time I swam with my beloved dolphins, though, I got stung by an enormous jellyfish and passed out. Tiger sharks kept us out of the water other days. I got seasick, sun burnt and bitten by fire ants. One of our teachers worked as a caterer to make ends meet. Maybe marine biology wasn't the career for me.

Splash ahead two decades and several careers, and here I am painting seaside landscapes and writing novels in coastal Maine. Before sitting down to write, I often swim laps. The pool is a sensory deprivation tank. All I can think about is that day’s writing. The physical exertion gets my brain going and makes it easier to sit still for hours afterwards.

One morning in the Bowdoin College pool, I discovered a class for adults. The Bowdoin swim coach was offering free lessons to the campus community. There were two triathlon athletes who wanted to improve their swim times and a woman who had nearly drowned at age 12. The coach’s comment to me: “At least you’re getting a good work out swimming that inefficiently.”

Sagahadoc Bay by Sarah Laurence

Do you get breathless while swimming the crawl/freestyle?

Like me, you’re probably holding onto your air and not exhaling properly. Every time you take a breath, you’re exhaling as well as inhaling. You end up with a backlog of old air, and the carbon dioxide builds up in your lungs. To break this bad habit, my coach has me exhale all my air above water and then sit at the bottom of the pool. While swimming, I focus on exhaling the entire time my head is in the water. When I take a breath, I try to inhale only.

More freestyle tips:

1. Don’t break your line. To inhale, rotate and barely lift your head. One eye remains under water.

2. Don’t swim flat on the water. Rotate your entire body from side to side with every stroke. Lead the pivot with your hips. There will be less drag.

3. Don’t rotate your arms around your shoulders like a windmill.  Shorten your arm stroke. Your hands should come no lower than your waist. Pull forward from your core like in rock climbing. 80% of the power comes from the arms, not from the legs, in freestyle.

4. Kick from your abs and glutes, not your quads. Flutter your legs quickly but with little motion under water.

I may not be a dolphin, but I’m finally able to enjoy swimming. The experience reminded me of what it’s like being a teenager: facing fears, jumping in and struggling to master a new skill. As adults, we too often get stuck treading water.

Disclosure: these tips are what I drew from my lessons and are not the Bowdoin swim coach's exact words. Both watercolors are by me. The top one is of the Giant Stairway rock formation on Bailey Island, painted after a hurricane.

Blog Watch:  Congratulations to Troutbirder for a story published in Minnesota BirdingTravels with Persephone is posting from South America on vacation. YA Highway had some good revision tips, including changing the font.


David Cranmer said...

Sagahadoc Bay is stunning, Sarah. Absolutely stunning.

Bonnie Zieman, M.Ed. said...

Developing competence in an area we fear is always exciting. The tips you give about concentrating on the exhalation while swimming also apply to relieving stress. When we focus on exhaling completely, we release tension and toxins and the inhalation will always take care of itself.

Love the idea of sensory deprivation before embarking on a creative project. It's like making room for the muse to enter.

Your paintings are just lovely Sarah - as always and I enjoyed reading about your field study adventures (and trials!).

A Cuban In London said...

What is that first painting (top to bottom, right handside) called? It's absolutely beautiful! If I had the money and lived near you I would be offering you a price for it right now! :-)

Like you I was a late developer when it came to swimming. I learnt how to swim when I was fourteen after almost drowning when I was thirteen. I'm a bad swimmer and make no excuses about that, but I do love the sea. You're very lucky living where you do. Your painting reminded me of my favourite shade of blue. The image's intensity is both entrancing and enticing. I already have a seascape, painted by one of my brothers-in-law. He is a successful artist and had a major exhibition just over a year ago. The minute I saw this print of one of his frames, I knew my wife and I had to buy it. Yours is just breathtaking.

Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Stacy said...

Thanks for the swimming advice. I tend to get panicky when I get in water that's over my head, and then I forget how to swim. :(

Getting over that fear has always been a goal of mine.

Amanda Summer said...

i've long loved the water, yet feared it as well, so i can sympathize. both watercolors celebrate this element and i particularly enjoyed the contrast in style - they are both so beautiful, sarah. i also enjoyed learning about your fascinating past adventures~

thank you for the swimming tips as well as the kind shout out♡

Alyson | New England Living said...

Sounds like you have made it a life-long trait to face your fears and that is the best way to live! I sometimes get way too overwhelmed by my fears and it is something I am trying to overcome.

Beautiful artwork! Do you paint right in front of your scene or do you take pictures and paint from there? I'm sure you've answered that question on your blog before, but I can't remember the answer.

Lisa Blair said...

I would love to take real swimming lessons, even at my age (30s). I know only enough about swimming to not drown. I know no strokes at all. You may have just inspired me to learn more this summer!

Cat said...

Your paintings are captivating Sarah. What an accomplishment to have mastered your fear and swimming along with it! I'm not a swimmer and have always been fascinated with the tranquility experienced by those who glide along.

Sarah Laurence said...

David, thanks! Your praise has extra weight since you know the area.

Bonnie, it was fascinating having this post analyzed. Bring on the muse!

ACIL, the first painting is called “Giant Stairway, Bailey Island” it is a natural rock formation on an island cliff about 20 minutes away. It literally looks like a stairway built for giants. I painted it the day after a hurricane when the water was still wild but the skies were clear. I then added a stormy sky from memory. It sounds like you have an artsy family like mine. How fun!

Stacy, you are not alone. I’ve learned to fight the panic. It just takes time in the water and good instruction. It’s more about comfort level than technique.

Amanda, thanks! Those 2 paintings seemed to capture the dichotomy of the sea and my feelings for it.

Alyson, my life is an easy one for only fearing the sea and spiders without reason. Human cruelty is far worse and harder to overcome. I admire you the more for trying to face your fears. I only ever paint from life, but I do abstract what I see. It has been a very long time since I blogged about my painting process. I will aim to post more this summer when I switch from keyboard to paintbrushes.

Lisa, I’m in my 40’s – it’s never too late! I’m pleased to hear that I’ve inspired you. After that slow start, the coach is now urging me to swim faster, but I still have to start my lesson sitting at the bottom of the pool.

Cat, I still get a bit freaked out swimming over my head in the ocean far from shore, but that’s more rational than fearing a swimming pool with a lifeguard. That fear has gone down the drain.

Jacoba said...

Beautiful paintings, Sarah. Swimming is indeed wonderful, I just love water. Your story brings back memories on my very first swimming level I had to pass: breathless I was taken out of the ice cold black water, a swimming pool in the woods. It was fear I guess that made me gasp, I was 10 ...
Sorry I have not been around your blog, I was not in Blogland for quite a while. Sometimes you need a break from one or two things, also the long cold winter running us down. Now it is spring!
Enjoy Spring in your wonderful environment, and I wish you a lot of pleasant swimming and inspiration!

PS I found your blog last year because of the picutre of april violets you posted. Today they are blooming in our garden!

Rose said...

I'm one of those strange people who never learned to swim, and now I've developed a fear of water--any water, not just the deep. I've often thought about taking swimming lessons now, but have been putting it off. I'd would like just to be able to float in a pool without worrying I'm going to drown:) I'd much rather lose myself in your lovely paintings of seascapes.

troutbirder said...

For sure thanks for the swimming lesson. I wish I had been told that 60 years ago as my "freestyle" has always be pathetic. Now if my boat sank 2 miles for the Maine coastline, I'd immediately go to my backstoke with confidence. Only problem is I can't see where I'm going and would probably end up in the British Isles. :)

troutbirder said...

and thanks for the mention of my little bird story!

Booksnyc said...

Fortunately, I took to swimming when I first took lessons as a pre-schooler and was on a swim team through high school. I hadn't done much swimming since then until recently - I had a knee injury and swimming was the best form of exercise. thanks for the freestyle tips - I have forgotten most of the finer points since HS.

Relyn Lawson said...

I spotted your comment over on Bee's post about her bookshelf. I had to come and meet you. Me, too. Me, too. I have piles and piles of books. I loved your dream bedroom description. It's much more important to have room for books than clothes, yes?

☆sapphire said...

My biggest fear while swimming is to get stung by jelly fish. They several times produced redness and swelling. Another big fear is to get sunburned as I prefer swimming in the sea.

I like your first painting very much. The different shades of deep blue is really nice!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Boy, you are ringing my bell here. I always compare myself with Martin Short when it comes to swimming. Do you remember the skit he used to do on SNL? The one in which he was a synchronized swimmer? Well, that's pretty much what I looked like at swimming lessons. Swim cap, ear plugs, nose clip.... I hated it with a passion. I was meant for dry land. I'll pet the dolphins from the shore!!

I do so admire the fact that you conquered your fear!!

Sarah Laurence said...

Jacoba, welcome back to blog land – you have been missed! I love hearing connection stories, especially about the violets. I wish they were blooming, but spring doesn’t really kick in until May in Maine. We just have crocuses and a few patches snow. It’s mud season.

Rose, do take swimming lessons now for your safety. The methods are much more friendly these days.

Troutbirder, I’m pretty blind without my glasses too so always swim with contact lenses. Given how cold the water is in Maine, no one would survive 2 miles out from shore unless in a wet suit. Let’s think of something more cheery?

Booksnyc, I went back to swimming too because of knee problems. That’s interesting to hear that you were a competitive swimmer. Steph Su Reads is on her college swim team too.

Relyn, welcome to my blog and thank you! It’s so nice to connect with you via Bee. Book lovers are more than welcome here.

Sapphire, jellyfish are awful. I actually once ate one in a Tokyo restaurant – ultimate revenge. I use lots of sunscreen when I swim in the ocean. I often wear a wet suit t-shirt in Maine for sun and cold protection.

Pamela, I love SNL but haven’t seen that skit – sounds funny!

cynthia newberry martin said...

Oh, this post makes me want to get back in the water. In 2001 and 2002 I trained for and completed 4 sprint triathlons. As part of the process, I took swimming lessons to work on my freestyle. I got to where I could completely zone out.

And fear is such a fascinating subject...from whence it comes and how it runs through us...

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Hello Sarah

I love the water, but swimming is not my thing. My daughter took swimming lessons at Furman University and trust me when I say--the whole campus could hear her!!

Love both of your paintings-very beautiful.

Tracy :)

prince snow farm said...

Oh my goodness...during a school vacation when I was a kid my mom enrolled me in a YMCA swim class. My instructor Sue pushed me under as well! I didn't want to, so she did it for me! I told my mom I wouldn't go back...developed a fear for the water, and never learned to swim. As a 45 yr old mom to a 7 and 12 year old, I have made sure they both can swim. They love the ocean and pools. Mission accomplished. I've always wanted to find Sue and tell her how much harm she did.
As for your lovely is extremely soothing. You are very talented. Hope NYC is fun. Still chilly here in my little corner of the world.

Sarah Laurence said...

Cynthia, very impressive about your triathlons. So true about zoning out while swimming. There is something very elemental about it.

Tracy, it’s good thing to have a strong voice as a girl.

Nantucket Daffodil, welcome to my blog! I’m so sorry you went through that too. There is even more overlap in our 2 swimming stories – my class was at the YMCA too. I wonder if that was policy in the 60s/70s. If so, it has changed. My daughter had a very positive experience taking swimming classes at another YMCA when she was little. It’s good that our children didn’t inherit our neuroses. NYC was fun, but it’s also nice to be back home now. The daffodils are finally out in Maine and the grass is turning green, but we had some snow up north yesterday.