What do we talk about when we talk about behavior on the internet? Nothing good, usually. But late Friday night as I wasted my one wild and precious life taking one last social media lap including a quick pop over to The New York Times before bed, I came across this piece, “It’s Never Too Late to Learn How to Swim.”
It caught my attention immediately because I … do not know how to swim. Or at least not in a way that would be considered “good” “following a discernible pattern” “not weird” and certainly not “able to save another person’s life or even my own.”
See that? That’s using a tiny scoop of humor to deflect how this really makes me feel. I’ve been at this deflection a long time. I’m actually tearing up now as I write this (as it turns out!), because I am always, always surprised that when I’m actually honest with myself (or anyone else) about how embarrassed I am that I’m not a good swimmer, I’m so overcome with shame that I feel like I might cry. I crack a joke about it, someone laughs, then suddenly and unexpectedly I’m welled up with tears and hiss back :((((it’s not funny :(((( Kind of a trap!
When you don’t know how to swim (or do any other skill that matters to you) it takes up so much space in your brain. You get used to the truth of it, of course, you get used to that space. But it never becomes a happy, welcome space. It’s just a space jammed with sad-n-shame emotional packing peanuts. It’s a space you could really use for other, better stuff.
I don’t know when I just became a person who didn’t know how to swim. I’ve played in water since I was very little, we lived a block away from the ocean in Rhode Island so, of course I did. When we moved to Massachusetts I went to a summer day camp for a week when I was about nine. I think the point was to learn how to swim but all I remember is this mean-ass, old fucker of an “instructor” who screamed at us from his chair while we were all in the pool. I don’t remember anyone actually instructing me at all. The only other things I remember from that camp is that I wore a red tank suit and all I looked forward to was the chocolate pudding that was packed in my lunch. But that is neither here nor there.
I’m not afraid of water, which somehow makes my inability to swim even more dangerous and dumb. I love water. I am at my most calm and relaxed near water. That same Friday night I spent 3-1/2 hours staring at the lake while listening to music and drinking a couple of beers, without a single thought in my head. My head can confirm this is rare. My office is full of nautical artwork and papered with wallpaper of waves. I dream about water all the time. When I’m staying anywhere near water I usually go for a dip first thing in the morning, drink a coffee right after, the combination of cold water and hot coffee the absolute perfect jumpstart to a morning of writing or, really, just being alive in the world. But when I say dip I do mean dip, like dipping myself in the water, floating there for a little bit, and back out.
When I was little I know I jumped off a floating dock at least once, but the water wasn’t deep enough and I still have a tiny scar on my right knee from where I cut it on a shell or rock. I body surfed in Maine as a teenager, no lifeguards and sometimes by myself, careful to usually not go in over my head. I was the girl in high school who told the boys to never, ever push me into the pool because I would probably die. In college I discovered one of my new roommates didn’t know how to swim either and it was the first time in my life I had ever met another person who didn’t know how to swim (or at least admitted it.) I then became the twenty-something then thirty-something then forty-something and now fifty-something who loves to be on a boat but won’t jump off of it, which seems like the most fun part!
So. You must see by now why this article grabbed my attention. To give myself a little credit, I didn’t just give up on learning how to swim when I was in high school or college. I’ve taken multiple swings at learning how to swim as an adult. I have … improved? I learned proper strokes but can’t get the breathing part down. The breathing is where it all falls apart for me. I’m sure that’s A GODDAMN METAPHOR FOR LIFE OR WHATEVER. And don’t go in water over your head has been ingrained in me for so long that I forget there’s even another option. My point being, I still haven’t nailed it. I’ve taken lessons in an outdoor pool in the summer when we lived in Portland, Oregon and at the old Y here in Burlington in a group class. I loved returning to both pools on my own time to practice. I loved being in the water even though I knew for a fact I never looked cool doing whatever it was I was doing, especially when I was actually choking on water.
But back to the article. In a culture that elevates and values being young above all else, there can never be enough messaging that underscores how our entire lives should be spent learning. How we are not just a number, especially a high number, and without once having to use Georgia O’Keeffe as an example, for fuck’s sake! Is there no one else! I’ve always been a late bloomer in a culture that tells you, especially if you’re a woman, to promptly and beautifully bloom by 30 then please go die quietly somewhere else. I still hold out hope that I will eventually become a proficient swimmer who will one day jump off of (small) things.
Although the article (really, an interview) and accompanying images are plenty all on their own, it’s the comments section that shines and honestly when has that ever happened? The comments will change how you feel about humanity, for the better, which is nice. They’re full of personal anecdotes, overflowing with support, and go get ‘em attitude. These messages are written by people older than I am, in many cases much older. How they too didn’t know how to swim and why, how and when they finally learned, and how swimming has become one of the best things about being alive. Or how, given this swell of encouragement, they are finally going to learn. These comments are yet another reminder that even in the mundane ways we feel we are failing or are completely alone in our perceived deficits, this is never actually true. Our weaknesses and faults aren’t special. We allow them to loom large in our imaginations and our fears while, unbeknownst to us, someone else somewhere is doing the exact same thing. I’ve felt that weird-yet-comforting internet kinship with the woman who was interviewed and many of the commenters since.
I’ll close here on a perfect exchange I plucked from the interview, something I know I will return to again and again when I feel afraid or stuck or insecure:
THE FIRST REVIEW IS IN FOR BUT YOU SEEMED SO HAPPY 😬
I had very much forgotten the experience of reading official book reviews but it sure came back to me in a rush last week. That feeling of time slowing down and warping, like in a car crash. A phantom piercing sound in both ears as I read quickly and almost incomprehensibly, waiting for the knife. And my face feeling like it had straight-up caught fire. And this was a good review!
I’ll be honest, it’s utterly nauseating to see this book and my actual life boiled down into just a few spare sentences (and inaccuracies, but I’m now used to that with reviews!) but I’m excited to share this review of BYSSH from Publishers Weekly nonetheless. I was especially appreciative of this part: “In her compassionate treatment of a touchy subject, Harrington flips the divorce narrative on its head to underscore the beauty of choosing one’s own path. Those struggling with the decision to stay or leave a marriage would do well to pick this up (and grab a highlighter).”
4 EXCELLENT THINGS TO READ
• “25 Famous Women on Getting Older” in The Cut. Some good pull quotes here for life!
• “Sean Young on Surviving Hollywood’s Many Toxic Men” on Daily Beast. Was there anyone more brash and sexy and cool than Sean Young back in the day? Raise your hand if you also believed that she was crazy 🙋🏻♀️ because that was the narrative we were fed and swallowed whole. Be prepared to admire her all over again, dig the dirt she is dishing, and feel atomic-level pissed over how she was treated.
• “The Re-Re-Rebirth of Jean Smart” in The New York Times. A great piece about an incredible actress who I just fell head-over-heels in love with in Hacks.
• “The Tweet That Launched a Thousand Dye Jobs” in Harper’s Bazaar. Absolutely love the gorgeous portraits (and the confidence) of older women who’ve died their hair outrageous colors, bright blue! Lilac! Hot pink!
OTHER THINGS I’VE LIKED RECENTLY
The utterly utterly utterly excellent Hacks, the third season of Shrill (why does everyone hate it?? but also why does Fred Armisen have to be in EVERY-GODDAMN-EVERYTHING??), the mindbogglingly good Bo Burnham’s pandemmy fever dream Inside, laugh out loud and super sharp movie Plan B, and the fascinating and extraordinarily depressing docuseries Dirty Money.
Preorder BUT YOU SEEMED SO HAPPY here.
Preorder a SIGNED copy of BUT YOU SEEMED SO HAPPY here.
You can find my copywriting work here.
You can find my writing-writing work here.
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You can find me on Instagram.
Please do not find me in real life, I’m staring silently at the lake.