One of the first poems to raise goosebumps and send chills down my back was Mary Oliver's "The Swimming Lesson". I was only seventeen and had no idea who Oliver was, but I instantly knew she'd been some of the same places I had and she'd come away with the same unwelcome knowledge about life. The last stanza of her poem reads, in part as follows:
". . . none of us, who ever came back
From that long lonely fall and frenzied rising,
Ever learned anything at all
About swimming, but only
How to put off, one by one,
Dreams and pity, love and grace, --
How to survive in any place."
Lately I find myself in the position of regathering what I threw away earlier in order to survive --dreams, pity, love and perhaps most especially grace. It's a frightening prospect, and as often as not, I'd rather turn and run away than pick up the shards of these things and hold them in my hands. They were my undoing once.
Or perhaps they weren't.
Could it be that the substitutes I used in their places were my real undoing? Self-injury, a locked heart, a refusal to trust? These things kept pain at bay enough to allow me to function in the outside world, but the cost was high: broken relationships, crippling self-hatred, the isolation of emotional exile to a desert isle of my own making.
I've never been a good swimmer.