Four Fears: Water
In 1990, after I learned I had AIDS, I decided I did not want to die afraid. I made a list of everything I was afraid of—
- Public Speaking
And I overcame each fear. Over the next four days, I will tell you how (and I will pick a piece of music to listen to that has something to do with either the fear itself or with overcoming it).
Why I Was Afraid of Water
Not being able to see without glasses or contacts has complicated my life. I think that one reason I was afraid to enter water as a child was that I could not wear my glasses into a pool: I had to leave them behind. I was so nearsighted that I could not see around me or into the water. My natural instinct was to stay close to the edge.
That said, I once saved my sister from drowning. I cannot explain how it happened. I was nine, and Michelle was five. We were in a pool called Green Canyon, a resort with a natural hot spring on the edge of a canyon in the hills above Rexburg. I was, as usual, in the shallow end by the edge of the pool. It was as if something turned me and I saw to the far end of the pool, to the deep end: and I saw Michelle at the bottom of the pool not moving. I did not know how to swim. I had never swum across a pool. But, without thinking, I swam across that pool, dove down, and pulled Michelle up by the hair. A lifeguard reached us then, and he took Michelle from me and out of the pool, where he delivered mouth to mouth until she began to breathe again, and to cry. Mother talked to me often about seeing me swim across that pool and down to Michelle before anyone knew Michelle was in trouble. When it was all over, I could not swim again, and again I dared not leave the edge or the shallow end.
After Michelle nearly drowned, Mother and Dad gave my brothers and sisters and me swimming lessons, but I could never learn. Still, we went back again and again to pools, trying.
How I Overcame My Fear of Water
I hired a personal trainer to teach me how to swim. I was thirty-three years old. We met four times a week for two months. By then, I wore contact lenses and goggles, so I could see when I was in the water. My trainer started by standing next to me in the pool: he had me put my face in the water and hold my breath, only that. Then he taught me how to float, then how to tread water. Then, he taught me how to swim on my back. That is the easiest for me, as my face is out of the water.
After that, using a floatation device, I started to go back and forth across the pool, kicking with my feet. Always, we were in the lane next to the edge of the pool, so that if I needed to, I could reach out and grab the edge. Finally, I left the floatation device behind, and I swam across the pool. Then I swam across the pool and back again: then I started to do laps.
I learned how to swim.
Naturally, the next step was white-water rafting in Flaming Gorge and on the Colorado. I've been down a stretch of the Colorado by Moab three times, and camped for days there on outings sponsored by the Utah AIDS Foundation. Then it was body surfing off the coast of Maui, and snorkeling out to the reefs there, and to the reefs at Molokini and Lanai. It is life-changing to swim out from the beach in the clear waters off Maui, with only rippled sand below—when suddenly, as if by magic, an unexpected world appears: coral and a kaleidoscopic explosion of fish. Is there anything more beautiful?
I am no great swimmer, but I could save my life, if I had to: and I have been trained to save someone else. I can have fun in the water, and I have seen wonders there: and I have experienced the thrills of rapids and of body surfing in big waves.
I will not die afraid of water.
Claude Debussy, La Mer
I could have chosen Handel's Water Music, but we'll come back to that another day. There are many great compositions about the sea, but none evoke it so masterfully, I think, as Debussy's La Mer (or, The Sea). Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918), was a French composer who helped develop impressionism in music. Impressionistic music is filled with light and color intended to evoke feeling, not an exact thing.
One of the feelings that La Mer evokes, for me, is a sense of the vastness of the sea. Unforgettable is the feeling of swimming out from shore to meet a big wave—and of feeling that wave lift you up: it is as if something limitless and strong has you in its hand for a moment: then it shoves you to shore. That feeling of being held by something vast is in Debussy's music—
And beauty, in rich measure. If you have not heard La Mer, do yourself the favor of hearing it now. I love Debussy's music. We will come back to it many times this year.
Here is a link to Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Claude Debussy's La Mer:
I created "Like One That Hath Been Stunned," the image above, in 2006. It is based on Mandelbrot Fractals. The title is from Coleridge's masterpiece, Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. This lengthy and deeply moving work is about, among other things, cruelty to animals, and the effect that has on the world and on a soul. The story is told in almost biblical terms: in it, a man is hurrying to a wedding feast, but he is stopped by an old mariner who tells him a story he cannot choose but hear—he listens for hours, into deep night, at times afraid of the mariner, but finally filled with compassion for him, and for his sorrow for having killed an albatross that had followed his ship south to the Straights of Magellan. These lines are the last lines of the poem:
Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom's door.
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.