I would not have guessed that I would be thinking and writing about swimming during a global pandemic. But here we are. I write this on a Friday, at the end of my seventh week in isolation since COVID-19 swept into the United States and forced us to participate in a global timeout.
Unlike millions of Americans who find themselves unemployed because of this pandemic, I am still working. I’m grateful for that up to a point. There is a difference between working from home because you want to and working at home because you are forced to work. A big difference.
I’ve been working more or less from home since I rejoined the working world in February. For those that don’t know, I left my full-time gig as a daily journalist back at the end of May 2019. I left because burnout and grief are a powerful cocktail and I was standing at the corner of hope and despair pretending that it was all fine and it wasn’t. I’ve tried despair. It tastes like what I imagine a bleachtini with a shot of Fabuloso tastes like. (Don’t drink that.)
But back then, I promised myself that I would not simply push through my despair this time. I would heal it. I also promised myself that I would finally learn to swim. And that I wouldn’t just learn to swim for survival. I wanted to get in touch with my inner mermaid. I wanted to swim and love it.
I spent the entire summer going down to Sarasota, Fla. for a week at a time to do just that. When I wasn’t in Sarasota I was in the adult swim classes at LEAP, heading to the pool at Conte School, the Orange town pool, one trip to the pool at Hillhouse High School, and eventually finding a pool home at the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven.
I learned to swim through a program called Miracle Swimming for Adults. And a graduate of the program told me and my classmates in our beginner course that what we were learning would be useful to us in the pool and outside of it. I believed him then. And now that my pool is closed because of the pandemic I believe him even more.
Around self-isolation week three I started to ask myself: why are you so calm?
Now listen, there are a million reasons why I should be calm. All my basics are covered. Food, shelter, water, clothes? Check. Heat, electricity, Internet access, and a safe environment? Check. Physically distant from my loved ones but still able to keep in touch? Check.
But during a global pandemic, even the privileged get nervous. When there is no toilet paper or disinfectant on the shelves for weeks you get nervous. When you read stories about farmers plowing under their crops and businesses sacrificing their underpaid, under-protected employees, you get nervous.
In the face of a silent killer that has struck the physically weakened and the strong, the young and the old, the rich and the poor — by no means in equal fashion — you get nervous. You get nervous because you know as the country dissolves into what seems like anarchy little-by-little, every day, all of these things could be happening more directly to you. Only time will tell.
But I really wanted to get to the root of why someone who started having panic attacks a year ago, who had been battling bouts of insomnia long before that was now experiencing an unprecedented (for her) level of calm.
And the answer floated to the surface: it’s the swimming. You are a mermaid.
I became a mermaid through a system that teaches adults panic prevention in deep water. It is taught through a concept pioneered by Miracle Swimming founder Melon Dash called the 5 Circles Mindfulness Method.
And much like near-drowning experiences, a global pandemic is built for panic. It is the deep end of the pool. It is the bottomless lake. A global pandemic is the vast ocean where you can’t put your feet down or cling to the perimeter.
Through the 5 Circles method, I learned the stages that lead to panic and how to prevent them. The short version is you want to remain in your first circle in most situations. You might be able to manage if you are in your second circle. But you don’t want to stay there because it can easily spin out to circles three through five and then PANIC!
I’ve been in what we in the swim program would call my first circle for much of the seven weeks. The first circle is your most comfortable, relaxed self. You’re in your body and feeling all the things. When we first got in the pool, for many of us, being in our first circle was standing with our feet firmly planted on the ground in the shallow end of a heated swimming pool.
Learning to swim in an outdoor, heated pool in Florida in the middle of summer might sound like madness. But there is a method. Fear can feel cold. Fear will make you shiver, even in a heated pool. Fear will make you feel cold when you consume too much news.
In these weeks of self-isolation, I realized that when I am over stimulated from consuming too much news (sorry, journalism friends) I actually tend to physically shiver. And what I was doing to compensate was putting on all my warm soft things and a heated blanket. When what I needed to do was all of that plus limit my consumption of news.
As my swimming lessons progressed last year, being in my first circle was about my ritual for entering the swimming pool. That ritual includes entering the pool slowly. Having a nose clip and goggles. Wearing a rash guard or neoprene swim vest for warmth. Getting my face wet first. Spending some time submerged. Noticing where in my body I felt tension.
Eventually, it became floating on my back with my hands behind my head, and my legs crossed.
During this pandemic, it looks like noticing my cold hands and feet AND the tightness I felt in my chest. The tightness that would cause me to look up the symptoms of COVID-19 and heart attack if I read the news for an hour. It looks like limiting my news intake to 30 minutes at the top of my day and returning to a land-based meditation and mindfulness practice because I can’t go for a relaxing float.
It has looked like identifying what we learned in our swim classes as speeding. In class, that meant doing a skill so fast that you couldn’t remember how you did it or recall the steps. Or being so freaked out doing something that you scared yourself.
In a drowning situation, most people can’t recall what happened. If they survive, they might tell you it happened so fast. And even if their terrified mind can recall the details they will not be able to recall if they could feel the buoyancy of their body or that their flailing arms were actually holding them underwater. Or even that they were far closer to the surface and the precious air their lungs craved than their scared mind could fathom. They had no awareness of all of that because their mind had completely left their body. That’s classic circle-five behavior. That’s panic.
Interestingly enough, the way that the novel coronavirus can attack and damage the lungs, closing off the ability of a person to breathe, sounds a lot like drowning to me. And when I imagine what it must feel like, and then read about what it actually feels like, I get scared.
On land, speeding is probably most akin to busyness. Do you remember the mad dash of the first couple of weeks as everybody tried to pivot to a home-based operation? I certainly do. The flurry of meetings. All of the emails. And the beginnings of everything moving to Zoom. For this introvert, the first couple of weeks were mentally and emotionally exhausting.
We probably realize now at week seven that we could have done a great many of those things a little slower. Many of us who don’t have frontline jobs — essential jobs that are saving lives — could have been untethered for a week to grapple with the fact that we don’t know when we will see our coworkers again without the mediation of our computers. When our kids will see their teachers. When we will see our loved ones in person again.
We traded our emotions and acknowledging our fear for a semblance of normalcy and productivity. For we collectively believed that if we just keep moving it will all be OK. We were desperately treading water.
Don’t beat yourself up. I did it too. But then I remembered that rushing around with my hair on fire, even from home, wasn’t going to save anyone’s life, not even my own. Collectively, we were all in circles three through five, panic shopping and working too much.
Our week-long swimming program was highly structured. We had dry land class time for at least an hour each day before we stepped foot in the pool. We also had home-fun (sounds nicer than homework) to complete after every class. The program also included deliberate downtime and rest so we could digest what we learned in class. Some days, our swimming courses were twice a day. That meant up to four hours in one day facing for many of us what was up until then our deepest fear — the fear of drowning.
And some days there were setbacks. A skill that you learned in the morning might fall apart during the afternoon class. And you’d be heartbroken because you knew you could do it. Everybody saw you do it.
Our instructors would kindly and compassionately suggest to us not to practice frustration. They’d gently guide us to return to a skill we could do. That might look like practicing something so easy we could do it with our eyes closed or simply taking a moment to play a pool game. We called this changing the subject.
I have found during this practice of self-isolation that I have to change the subject often. Too often, everything we talk about is heavy with pandemic speak. But guess what? The ordinariness of life is still happening for better or worse.
People are celebrating milestones like birthdays and anniversaries. Some people’s marriages are still falling apart. People are still having babies. People are still moving, taking on different jobs. People are still dying of things other than the novel coronavirus as I brutally found out this week when I learned of a former childhood neighbor’s tragic death in a car crash.
I also got the news that yet another former newspaper colleague was losing his job to budget cuts. These painful things hit me on the same day when I was personally having a very good quarantine week. People are still peopling.
But it has been the first circle rituals that I have established in these weeks that have kept me grounded when it feels like the wildfire is far too close to my house. Like the water is rising. I can tell you what those rituals are but my rituals don’t matter. Your rituals matter. What works for you matters.
Having an awareness that every day those rituals can change because the circumstances change matters. I’m doing more reading during the quarantine. Ironically, I was reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and it’s sequel Parable of the Talents when we went into collective self-isolation mode.
And part of the way I am “shaping change” is by remembering again something I learned in swim class: every day at the pool, every day at the ocean, is a different day. Some days, you have the whole pool to yourself. Some days it is filled with rambunctious little kids, some days it’s teenagers trying to become lifeguards. Some days the Atlantic is calm and placid as a lake. Most any other day? Not so much.
Every day of this pandemic will bring something different. How I choose to stay present for it all will determine if I meet it with some sense of calm or panic. Some level of grace.
And I’ll be honest, going to stores takes me out of my first circle. In fact, the first couple of times I did it was right around when we began voluntarily masking. Of course, it is the law now. But when I tell you it was a speedy, feral-eye darting from here to there, dodging those who were still browsing instead of being deliberate …whew.
My heart rate speeds up just thinking about it. I left those stores feeling like a hot and sweaty, frustrated mess. So of course, my trips to the store are fairly limited and even more specific these days. When I stopped focusing on all the ways I felt people were doing it wrong and that I couldn’t control, I began focusing on what I could.
I noticed that the CVS I frequent is almost always nearly people free during the times I am able to go. But I had to slow down to notice that. And I had to learn to breathe with my mask on even though breathing feels like one of the scariest things in the world right now.
What I eventually learned as I progressed to where I am now — someone who can confidently say she can swim — is what my instructors told me then. The water in the shallow end and what you can do in it works the same way in the deep end or even the ocean.
Your body works the same way. Your breath works the same way. All the skills you know for dealing with this moment work the same way. All those real self-care things we all know we need to do more of but don’t, work the same way. And these are the things that I remind myself as I stay safe at home.
This pandemic is the deep end of the pool. Be well and may the first circle be with you.