flap, float and flail


 When I was little, I took like a duck to water. Mom said that once. I can only assume that means I paddled around after her, joining the line of little ducks brave enough to leap from the diving board into the water where she would catch me and tow me to the edge of the pool. I didn’t realize that it would take three of me standing feet on head to keep my head above the water. I didn’t know fear.

Today, at almost 33, I went swimming for the first time in years. I don’t think I was duck like. There are other animals I could suggest but I won’t in the interest of preserving the fragile minimum amount of self-esteem it takes for me to walk in public wearing a bathing suit. I might want to try swimming again so let’s just say I am no longer a duck.

And in the interest of honesty, swimming isn’t the right word for what I do. I don’t know how to swim. At the end of my little duck phase, I took swimming lessons from a teenage lifeguard who intimidated the swimming enthusiasm right out of me. I quit mid-paddle. She was scary and mean and probably seventeen, but I learned fear and shame when I couldn’t figure out the hold your face in water while swimming across the deep end.

Watching me in a pool (please don’t watch me in a pool) reveals the fact that I have had no formal training. My swimming technique could best be described as “flap, float and flail.” There are no new ideas, so feel free to steal my method. You just bashfully glance around, lay on your back and flap your arms trying to figure out which direction you’ll go. When your arms get tired, you float. Don’t worry if you start to sink– that’s what the flailing is for.

There is no grace in swimming like I did tonight. It turns out watching Michael Phelps in Olympic trials and marveling at his physique does nothing to improve one’s own swimming skills. To be honest, I just want to stretch like he does. I want go-go-gadget arms that flap like mighty wings. I don’t know why he needed pot. He’s more magical than I’ll ever be when he jumps in a pool sober.


I wanted that magic tonight; I needed to go for a swim. The weight of a stressful week weighs me down. I feel the extra physical weight I carry in the form of backaches, tired feet and tighter jeans. The mental weight of stress and plans holds me down in other ways. I know I’m the polar opposite of Michael Phelps or any other Olympian for that matter. We share eyebrows and elbows, but that’s where the resemblance ends. I’m nowhere near their caliber, but that doesn’t matter much to me.

When I make that quick dash from locker room to ladder and gingerly climb down into the security of the pool, gravity is gone and so am I. I can’t answer the phone or reply to a text when I’m under water. I’m not good at listening to conversations in the pool. I don’t have to be. Everyone sounds like they are speaking in whale. I don’t speak whale. I don’t speak at all. I flap, float and flail my way around, mostly turning in circles because I can’t figure out swim-steering. I stretch in various ways under water, feeling like a Riverdance artist, trying to conceal what my legs are doing by holding my torso still. Whatever I do should count as some kind of work. My muscles end up sore. I consider that progress.

When I’m done, I try to exit the pool quickly, not because I want to leave the serenity I conjured up in my mind, but again I don’t want to be seen in my swimming suit. It’s not modesty but it’s that fear and shame of being judged for keeping my soul in a neglected and spoiled body. I’d rather we pretended me scurrying off to the shower was modesty. I like to pretend I wouldn’t flaunt the female equivalent of a Michael Phelps physique if it were mine, but the whole matter is irrelevant.

Here’s what I decided tonight. I want to go back to being a duck. I want to leap into deep waters without knowing the fear of failing. I want the escape of enjoying an evening swim without being sunk by fear or shame. The smell of chlorine and the happy muscle aches from all that flailing remind me that tonight I reclaimed a little bit of the duck in me.

About SaraBSutter

I serve as the pastor of United Presbyterian Church in Goldfield, Iowa. My husband Steve and I are excited to be in a friendly small town and look forward to the years ahead. In addition to nerdy church stuff, I love reading books, writing, good coffee, cats, and football.

2 responses »

  1. Very well written and inspiring! (It would be even more inspiring if I had ever been a duck or been able to do more than a doggie-paddle in the water. I promise I took lessons; they just never stuck. I sink every time.)

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