Befriending the River

Our Ceaseless Swimming Lessons

By Tommy Housworth

There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are torn apart and will suffer greatly. 

Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above water. And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, Least of all ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt. 

The time for the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves! Banish the word ‘struggle’ from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. 

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

– attributed to an unnamed Hopi elder

Hopi Nation Oraibi, Arizona

I have a tenuous relationship with water. Like many of us who grew up in the 70’s, Jaws was my baptism into hydrophobia. Pair that with a documentary I saw shortly thereafter titled Blue Water, White Death, and you’ll understand why, at eight years of age, I went on a bathing boycott for over a week, refusing to get in an enclosed space with water freely flowing on me. Truly, our family shower stall resembled nothing so much as a shark cage to my young, fearful eyes. And a bath? Hell naw.

Once I overcame this irrational trepidation, my mom signed me up for one week of swimming lessons with a private teacher in a neighbor’s pool. There’s only so much one can learn about a life skill in five hours. I fought to stay afloat, dog paddling like a wounded animal. I stroked, I kicked, but mostly, I sank. The shallows remained my friend.  

My discomfort with leaving the shore was further compounded when I was a college freshman. I was a counselor at our church’s day camp, and we took the campers to the pool at the nearby Greek Hellenic Center. Despite the presence of a half-dozen counselors and a lifeguard, one of our campers drowned that day. She was only a few feet away from me while I was in the water with my back to her. No one saw or heard her until her bloated body floated face down in the water. This sweet and gentle girl was developmentally challenged, a term not uttered in 1986. “Slow” was how she was described. She wanted to swim like her friends could, but she was ill-equipped. We didn’t know this until it was too late. The knowledge that any of us – counselors, staff, other campers – could have just turned around a few moments earlier and saved her still haunts me, shaking my conscience and faith to this day.

So, this notion of pushing to the middle of the river has always been tenuous for me, literally and metaphorically. The shore is so familiar, such safe ground, assurance beneath my feet. And yet, the waves keep coming, and we see so many people – people not unlike ourselves, really – out there in the middle of the water. Some float with ease, others flail and gasp for air between gulps of water.

Some recognized the shore no longer served them, and regardless of what was out there in the vastness of the channels, they craved the open waters. They knew they needed to grow. Others were pulled out into the currents by the churn of life – a lost spouse or parent, a wayward & vulnerable child, a homeland sinking under the weight of war and violence. We will all know this someday. We’ll all feel the relentless tug of something that causes the undertow to take us out beyond the breakers.

In my own life, my courageous wife has helped me let go of the shore—quite literally. On our first vacation together in 1996, Wendy convinced me to jump into the frigid waters of Walden Pond, reminding me I’d always regret not experiencing the full offering of Thoreau’s aquatic playground. I later considered that clumsy dip my belated baptism into adulthood.  

A few years and two kids later, she had me snorkeling along reefs in the Caribbean and jumping out of a kayak beneath a Puerto Rican moon to swim in a bioluminescent bay with our kids. My nervous system was on high alert, but I knew our kids were equally hesitant, so it was my job to put on a courageous face and appear confident that we could trust the sea — and whatever was in it — to let us explore safely.  

Then, to bring my Blue Water, White Death motif full circle, there was a snorkeling excursion in Key West that began by jumping off a deck and into the water alongside a vessel that boasted a sign reading “Shark Tours: Sightings Guaranteed.” To be transparent, that was the shortest swim of my prestigious underwater career.

Still, there’s something contagious about that spirit of courage, even if it begins as nothing more than an act, a masquerade for others. Feeling the fear and doing it anyway, as the self-help gurus say. Eventually, the turbulent waters inside ourselves begin to calm and we see that which we dreaded is somehow less daunting, less intent on destroying us than we had allowed ourselves to believe.  Fearful minds feed much more viciously than sharks ever could, and once the frenzy starts, we can exhaust ourselves by continually fighting the tempest. Or we can become the waves. It’s then we learn that surrender isn’t defeat or acquiescence. Surrender is finding flow. It’s banishing the word struggle from our vocabulary.

We are adrift in uncertain waters these days, and we are reminded of this every time we log on or tune in. Ironically, the closer we are to shore, the easier it is to be consumed by all the fear we’re exposed to. It’s only when we muster up something resembling heroism and egolessness that we can discover the sense of calm abiding, of deep trust that exists when we make our way into the river.  

There, we find we can adapt. We find we are not so alone. We find we are moving toward something, not away from it.

The waves never subside. Neither do our swimming lessons.

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Tommy Housworth is a professional script and speechwriter who also writes essays, short stories, and poetry. He’s a certified mindfulness teacher through the Engaged Mindfulness Institute and a Buddhist practitioner in the Tibetan and Zen traditions. His Substack page – “A Sense of Wonder” – can be found at: