Treading Water

I’ve been spending a lot of time at the pool lately trying to beat the summer heat. Usually I swim laps, enjoying the zen-like rhythm of stroking back and forth, back and forth, until I’ve completed about a mile.

But some days I just don’t feel like swimming laps. I’m tired or hot or lazy. Some days the black dog of depression sits heavily on me, making me feel like I can’t even muster the energy to smile. Yet I know some exercise would do me good, and feeling weightless in the water can be a good antidote to throw off the weight of the heavy dog. On those days, I tread water.

I learned to tread water as a child. My swim teachers, Laura Lungfish and Sammy Seal, taught me how to scull the water with my arms and hands. They showed me how to flutter kick and move my legs like egg beaters to stay afloat. If I ever had to stay in the water a long time, they showed me how to conserve energy by leaning back and floating my legs up like I was in a recliner, gently sculling with my hands.


I get in the water and start moving my arms and legs as hard as I can for five minutes to warm up. I flutter kick, egg beater kick, and move my legs like I’m cross-country skiing. I sweep my hands forward and back, making a full circle around myself. Then I cross my arms and switch to using only my legs. It’s hard. I can feel my lungs aching as they strain against the pressure of the water. If I get too tired, I kick back into recliner position until my energy comes back. Then I use only arms, crossing my legs so I won’t be tempted to use them. I alternate like this for about 30 minutes.

Sometimes the lifeguard will come over and ask if I want to use the floatation belt. “No, I’m good.” A little while later he’ll ask, “Are you sure you don’t want to use the fins?” “Nope, I’m fine.” Some people stare, wondering what I’m doing. Sometimes people will ask, “How are you doing that? Why don’t you sink?” “I don’t know,” I answer. “I just keep moving and breathing.”

“Aha!” I thought. That’s it. For me, treading water is a way to keep going when I don’t know what else to do. I may not be moving from point A to point B, but I am still moving. If I stop moving, I will sink, so I just keep waving my arms and legs, even if it’s slow and languid.

It also helps to keep the breath smooth and even. Too much of an inhale or a holding of the breath and I pop up above the surface. Too much exhale and I start to sink. So I have to keep it even to keep my head above the water. Slow and even, no matter how hard I’m paddling under the surface.

Treading water can only happen in the deep end, where your toes can’t touch the bottom. You have to move out into the open and be willing to take a risk. Like life, you just have to keep moving and remember to breathe.


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