Still learning to Swim

I have recently learnt to swim… again.

I guess I must have learnt when I was very small because I have loads of memories of swimming but none whatsoever of  actually being taught to swim, which probably explains why I was never very good. Terror of being underwater isn’t exactly an asset for successful swimming and had, I suspect,  a lot to do with older brother’s gleeful games of ‘let’s sink little sister and she how she squeals’.

Two years ago I taught myself front crawl, overcoming a life time’s fear of having my face in the water.

One month ago I realised my front crawl technique could possibly be improved so I booked a lesson with a swimming coach.

It was a humbling experience.

For starters, she never even asked to see my wonderful front crawl technique – of which I had been ludicrously proud.

Instead she put me through a series of unfamiliar and frankly weird drills, starting with the ‘dying goldfish’. She didn’t call it that, mind you. I don’t recall what she called it but it was an exact imitation of a dying goldfish: swim on your side, arms held firmly against your body, beady eye on the ceiling and move forward by only kicking your feet. As I said,  ‘dying goldfish’.

And I thought ‘I can’t do that… I’ll drown! And if I don’t drown, I’ll look silly, which might be worse!’

In fact drowning was not the problem, steering was. I did the ‘dying goldfish’ zig zagging from one end of the lane to the other.

Then, having mastered that drill, we moved onto ‘Superman Dying Goldfish’. This was the same as before but with your lower arm fully extended out into water as if flying like superman. I felt only slightly less silly and I wondered when we would get to front crawl.

Next came the ‘rolling log’ exercise, then ‘the zip’ and finally ‘swimming with all arms and no legs’ followed by ‘all legs and no arms’ (thankfully no actual limbs were removed for this part of the drill).

But hey, what do you know? One hour later, (just one hour!) I was swimming along, face in the water, three strokes for every breath and breathing on alternate sides…. Woweee! It was an awesome feeling.

What did I learn from this experience? Maybe that it’s never too late to say ‘I need to improve my ability to ….‘ To what? Parent? Relate to other people? Ride a bike? Make cupcakes? Read the Bible?  Just because you’ve done something for years doesn’t mean to say you are necessarily any good at it, there is almost always room for improvement.

If you want to improve at anything, the first thing you need is the humility to recognise you’re not necessarily brilliant already. Secondly a willingness to go back to the basics will help undo habits of a lifetime that have become ingrained and thirdly, get a good teacher and be willing to look silly.

(Lest I  sound smug, I need to reassure you that although I’ve made progress, I’m a long way off ‘olympic swimming ability’. I’m still in the beginners lane and there are 6 other lanes of gradually improving ability between me and the far side of the pool).

Today I swam to Revelation

and it was a blinking long way, I’m not doing that again for while!

I don’t mean I swam until I had a revelation (and jumped out the pool shrieking ‘Eureka’) I mean I swam to Revelation…from Genesis. From the first book of the Bible to the final one – 66 lengths. Any further and I’d have been in the Apocrypha – uncharted waters!

That’s a long way: 1.65 km, just over 1 mile. It took 40 minutes and I had to speed swim through 1,2 and 3 John because I didn’t think I’d make it before the end of the session.

So why not just count?

Well, when you are as numerically challenged as I am it’s actually easier to recite the books of the Bible, 1 per length, than it is to go ‘One, two, three’ in your head.

The ‘One,two three’ plan is just so fantastically dull, I always wander off in my head and lose count. So now what I do is say the book I’m on at the start of each length and then tell myself everything I know about that book all the way to the end of the pool. For some books I have a job fitting in everything I can remember! But then I get to Obadiah and all I can think is ‘Oh, Oh, Obadiah, what’s that all about?’ and I know nothing about Nahum so I just swim along thinking ‘Nahum, Nahum, know nothing about Nahum’! I really must look those two up.

I do get some funny looks from fellow swimmers as I pop up at the end of the pool, mutter ‘Malachi’ and head off again.

But it’s all good fun. Of course it does help to know the books of the Bible off by heart otherwise your contents page would get a bit soggy. This summer I have challenged our congregation to learn all 66 book names by heart. My vicar’s wife told me I wasn’t allowed to challenge people to do something I hadn’t done. So, being a very obedient curate (and knowing that the vicar’s wife opinion is the one that matters!) I have duly committed them to memory. I confess that having learnt them about 10 years ago, I only had to brush up on the minor prophets.

So will anyone else have learnt them? I don’t know. They’ve got till Sept 4th and I’ve got till then to come up with an idea for a worthy prize for those who have taken the challenge. Maybe they’d like a free swim?

Then again, ‘cake’ is always so motivating… I must just go and eat one now.

 

Just Keep Swimming

Dory, the little blue fish in Finding Nemo has to be one of my favourite children’s film characters. She suffers from amnesia and confusion but somehow manages to hold on to her friends, her sanity and her sense of purpose, summed up by her catch phrase ‘Just Keep Swimming’. In other words when you’re not sure about anything else, do the best you can to do the days tasks and just keep at it. 

My frame of mind has felt somewhat fragile for the last couple of months. I have been suffering from a deadly combination of too much in the diary, too many people in the house, and too little time to recharge.  Add in a pinch of ontological despair, a sense of isolation, emotional strain, unsettling changes, actual physical pain and plain old exhaustion and you have pretty toxic recipe.

No, don’t feel sorry for me. This isn’t a pity party.  Everything I’ve described is just the ordinary stuff of life.  Susan Lenzkes once defined stress  as being ‘stoned to death by marbles’ – nothing major, just a pile of everyday hassles – but there comes a ‘tipping point’ when we lose the ability to ‘roll with the punches’ and we find ourselves flat on the floor hoping we can stay there.

This was approximately the state I was in when I arrived at the New Wine summer conference attended by our church.  Feeling  jaded and just a bit cynical I never-the-less took myself along to the first main-stream Bible reading. Due to arriving one day late, the one I turned up for was called ‘Returning from Depression’.  ‘Oh boy’ I thought as I collected the notes on the way in, ‘that’s scarily relevant’.  

David Parker a Pastor from California was talking under the title ‘Pushing Back the Darkness’. Over a series of 5 talks he explored ways of pushing back the darkness from the interior of our personal lives by which he meant things like confusion, discouragement and loss of direction. His subjects were Defeat, Depression, Disease, Doubt and Deceit. Well there’s an uplifting series of words for you!!  Actually it really was an uplifting series of talks, as he gave us solid hand holds for understanding subjects that are everyday realities for all of us. He managed to be realistic yet still give us hope and lots and lots of strategies for ways forward from each of these.

I’ll just tell you about 2 in particular from the session on depression, these from a list of about 7 recommendations: he encouraged ‘pet therapy’, his personal brand of cuddly animal was a lop-eared bunny rabbit. When life got too overwhelming, he would go out to the rabbit run and ‘cuddle a bunny’ for a while. I instantly warmed to this man! My own bouncy, Bobby dog with his joy in the moment does so much for my spirits.

The second strategy I’ll mention was exercise. I already knew this from my research from my book but it is a well documented fact that mild to moderate exercise done consistently can deliver a huge benefit in terms of mental well-being. Not being able to exercise due to the wretched, miserable foot condition described earlier in this blog was one of the boringly normal trigger factors that contributed to this state of mind in the first place. 

So we sat and tried to think laterally: what could I do that wouldn’t put weight on my foot. Swimming!

Just one problem…. sooooo boring.

But okay God, if it’s going help I’ll swim but I not doing it on my own.  David has also stopped exercising for the last couple of months due to a bad back  and swimming is also meant to be good for that too so after a little discussion we made a commitment to one another that we would go swimming together twice a week for a minimum of 3 weeks (let’s not get carried away here!).

Not long after our return from the conference I was telling all this to our daughter on the phone, and concluded my account with,

‘ So, your Dad and I have covenanted to go swimming together for 3 weeks!’

There was a long pause ….

‘You mean ‘metaphorically’? she said

‘Metaphorically!! What the heck is ‘metaphorical swimming’? (Visions of us sitting on the sofa doing the breast-stroke actions and opening our mouths like goldfishes, I’ve done some silly things in my time as a Christian but I’m not doing that, even if it helped!)

‘No, I mean actual swimming,’ I explained, patiently. Not virtual, not metaphorical, but actually getting into the pool and using our limbs to propel us up and down.

Obviously it was the word ‘covenant’ that threw her! I should have known better than to litter my conversation with spiritual concepts. Clearly she was not expecting such a prosaic response to a seminar on spiritual life.

Apparently 1 in 10 people will suffer a major depression in their life time, for women you can double that likelihood. 30% of women may be suffering from depression at any one time. 80% of those suffering are receiving no treatment and a key reason for this is the mistaken belief that depression is a character weakness, a personal flaw, a failure of courage and that to admit to it would stigmatise them. I can certainly identify with that, I began researching it due to coming across so many sufferers pastorally (I am a trainee vicar) but have had to admit my symptoms also fitted the bill. David Parker called depression ‘an epidemic of misery at head spinning level’ by 2020 it will be the 2nd most  common health problem in the world.  Yet 80-90% of cases of depression are highly treatable but you MUST have a plan, a strategy for helping you recover your perspective. This plan might include medication, antidepressants help in 60-70% of cases, talking therapies, exercise, pet therapy, natural supplements or change of environment. I checked out all this info with a psychiatrist friend of mine who was also at the seminar and she said they were sound. For a very painful but honest account of serious depression you could read Shoot the Damn Dog by Sally Brampton (obviously pet therapy didn’t work for her!)  She recommends CBT,meditation, Omega 3 and Vitamin B12 but it’s a book that focusses on the experience rather than the remedy, it’s very insightful though not written from a Christian perspective. If you’ve no personal experience of your own or you look down on sufferers, you need to read this book.  

So meanwhile my plan is to ‘just keep swimming’.  By way of encouragement when I turned up at the pool, I found they were  running a special offer which means we’ve paid hardly anything for unlimited swimming for two whole months. Okay God, I get the message! 

I’ll keep you posted on progress.

p.s if you are interested in the series of talks go to essentialchristian.com and put in David Parker Pushing Back the Darkness