Around the time I was acquiring language, my mother worked as an aquatics director at a pool in Millis, Massachusetts. After she finished coaching the Glen Ellen swim team through their sets of free and fly, we would step down the small flight of stairs into the water together. The air was thick with summer, the light long and shimmery. In the shallow end she taught me to form my breath into a stream of bubbles and let the surface of the water carry me while I looked up at the sky. These are my earliest memories.
“Relax,” she said, holding the underside of my neck and feet oh so lightly. We would name the shapes in the clouds as they passed. Castle. Bird’s nest. Mountain. After a minute she would remove one hand, then the other. When I closed my eyes, I could feel every inch of my body held up by water.
In her book Crazy Brave, Joy Harjo writes:
“Once I was so small I could barely see over the top of the back seat of the black Cadillac my father bought with his Indian oil money. He polished and tuned his car daily. I wanted to see everything. This was around the time I acquired language, when something happened that changed my relationship to the spin of the world. It changed even the way I looked at the sun.”
I felt the presence of water in my life before I had a word for it. Words like “bubble” and “kick” and “pool” and “shimmer” changed my relationship with the spin of the world, translated pieces of movement I knew into language. Words gave substance and staying power to those poolside afternoons with my mother. When I had a word for an action or a thing, I could hold it for myself.
After our mini-swim lessons, she swam laps of breaststroke while I clung to her shoulders. Every so often she would holler and go down deep, the two of us submerged underwater. I held my breath and her hair and relished the feeling of being able to suck air into my lungs again once we surfaced. Water, for me, became a substance of togetherness, not fear.
In my first week of story collecting with a cardboard sign around my neck in NYC and New Orleans, people have asked me: “Why water? Why are you doing this?” This is part of the answer. Movement is the language I come from. Water is tangled up in my earliest memories of movement. (More musings on the climate change and storytelling-as-activism side of this project to come.)
And on today, my twenty-second birthday, I want to honor my mother for all that she has given me––for bringing me into this world, for teaching me to swim, for supporting me throughout this trip.