A Chat With The Vicar
I was catching up with the Vicar, who was getting ready for a date.
Me: What do we know about this one?
The Vicar: Not much. She doesn’t know how to swim.
Me: Huh. Okay, so not Jewish, presumably. It’s one of the few parental instructions in the talmud, you gotta teach your kids to swim.
The Vicar: Noted.
Me: God I hope there’s a good story. I am craving a good story.
The Vicar: Me too! I’ll report back.
There’s always a story
There was no story though. Just a person who had never learned to swim. A neutral piece of non-information. Or at least there wasn’t a story that wanted to be shared. Which is fine, no one owes anyone their stories, and also, there has to be a story, whether it gets told or not.
Me: Okay, I mean, there’s always a story.
The Vicar: For you, there is always a story. If you’re a storyteller, you’ll find a story.
Me: I’m sure I could come up with ten different stories related to swimming, and I don’t even remember the last time I went swimming. Do I even like swimming? Maybe I will use this as a morning writing prompt…
The Vicar: I await a story!
Me: There’s always a story…
Alive, and proving it
Every day I try for some writing time, usually in the morning.
It’s something I do to remind myself that my brain does in fact still work, that I am still, somehow, creative, playful, spark-filled, alive, even if covid and concussions have compounded my adhd to a point that I am mostly entirely unfocused, lost somewhere deep in the brain fog, blanking out on absolutely everything.
Prior to two concussions and long covid, my adhd was more like, wow I do not ever know where my keys are, with a side of piscean day-dreaminess. Sure, I was a mess, but, you know, Manic Pixie Dream Mess!
Now it’s more like, hmmm what happened to the last three hours, I couldn’t tell you.
Was I staring into space, was I pacing aimlessly, was I trying over and over again to start literally any task and then forgetting? Who can say, it’s gone.
Anyway, if I write for half an hour or so, then at the end of the day, I can say that I definitely did that.
Sometimes I have a topic on my mind, a direction for what I want to write about, more often I skip stones, or grasp around for clues until I find one that can start me off.
True confession that is probably extremely unsurprising to you: I can be pretty reactive when it comes to writing prompts. It’s the great conundrum of rebellious by nature.
For about ten seconds, I imagine I want someone to tell me what to write about, but the second I see a writing prompt, I’m like, “Oh yeah?! Screw you, who asked you, you don’t get to tell me what to do, you’re not the boss of me!”
Which is of course entirely unfair to the generous writing-prompt offerers of the world, who are just trying to be kind and helpful.
However, the positive side of Rebellious Mode is the way I can find myself suddenly excited to explore rabbit holes as a middle finger to a writing prompt, or if I think whatever is on my mind is off-topic and not to the point. We love off-topic and not to the point! Hell yes, we’ve lost the thread!
Anyway, the Vicar didn’t have a story for me and I wanted one, so I had to come up with one myself. A story about swimming. A swimming story. What is my swimming story? What is my swimming story?
I got as far as What as my swimming story, when it dawned on me that I have already written a swimming story. Almost sure of it.
Was it about the summer I made myself swim across the lake each week to prove a point, even though I hated the clammy sensation of the seaweed, the way it tried to take me captive? And if we’re being honest, I didn’t enjoy any part of that weekly crossing other than the grim satisfaction of having completed it. Was that the story?
No, something else. Something from before, possibly even something that had contributed to becoming the version of me who needed to do miserable things to prove a point.
Then of course I was worried I wouldn’t find it, because who knows where anything is. But I found it almost immediately.
All I had to do was input the word “swimming” into my notes to discover, to my amazement, that I’d written an entire essay about swimming, all the way back in August of 2020, never to revisit it, just wrote and erased it from memory, until now.
Six months into the first year of pandemic. I had just downsized to 150sq ft, semi-off-grid, in rural New Mexico, and I couldn’t sleep because the metal trailer bed made popping sounds, like the exhaust backfiring on a car. This is how 3am became my writing hour for a while.
A whole piece about swimming, a couple thousand words, that I wrote, and promptly forgot, which is how it was never shared it with you. Who knew? Definitely not me! But also I did know, I must have known.
Anyway, thanks to the Vicar’s mysterious date with the not-a-story non-story, here it is…
And here’s to the mysterious and reassuring superpowers of All Timing Right Timing, as well as It All Works Out, and especially There’s A Story When You Need One.
Lighting a candle and raising my glass of water to all of that.
A 3am appointment
A fun part of pandemic life, maybe the most fun, is how I am just awake most days from 3-5am for no apparent reason.
The witching hour demands I let it run its course, and, having learned that I cannot coax sleep into returning to me during this nightly gap, I go to therapy then.
My therapist doesn’t mind these unconventional hours, and while there are many advantages to holding therapy appointments in my head, the flexible timing is really the strong selling point for me.
Meirav was my therapist twenty-five years ago in Tel Aviv. She was, and remains, extraordinarily wise, deeply compassionate, dangerously insightful and so very quick.
No one else has been able to keep up (with her or with me) since, and so all other attempts at therapy have been profoundly unhelpful, for me.
Fortunately, since I know exactly what Meirav would say in any given situation, I can just show up at appointments with her, in my head, and I do.
Sometimes we even do what I call shower therapy, who needs a fifty minute hour, I’m hopping into the shower anyway, so we talk things out, short and sweet. Love shower therapy. 10/10.
In other words, you could say that I haven’t been in therapy in nearly a quarter of a century but you could also say I’ve been in therapy regularly for all these years, and those are both true statements.
We’re both pretty quiet at 3am so she just gives me that look, and says, Nu, sapri li, ma kore, ma over lach b’rosh b’shaah kazot? Tell me, what’s going on, what is passing through your mind at this time of night?
And so I tell her.
When I was eight or possibly nine years old, my parents sent me to a month of sleepaway summer camp somewhere in the midwest. A wooden cabin with a bunch of other kids, woods of winding pathways, a lake, a large dining hall with picnic style tables and giant jugs of milk that they would dye in bright colors with food coloring for reasons unknown, but it was the 80s, orange milk, why not.
I don’t remember much else about it.
They had a required swim test the first day or one of the first days, to determine how well we could swim, on the basis of which you‘d be allowed in different roped off areas of the lake during swim time.
Into the water
Young me had taken swimming lessons, and liked water and the beach, I think it is safe to say this young self did not like tests.
Obviously in retrospect Small Havi was a highly sensitive and spectrum-ey child who should have been getting extra support in all things because the world was confusing and overwhelming for her, and she existed in a state of constant sensory overload, but no one knew about those things then.
Anyway, I can’t give you a reading on what this very small child’s mental-emotional state might have been about this test, I actually don’t remember anything at all before we got to the middle of the lake.
On the boat
They rowed us out into the middle of the lake in small boats, three kids and a counselor or two in each boat. I definitely did not understand what was happening.
And then we stopped, and they said we had to jump from the boat into the water, one at a time.
Jump in or be thrown in.
Those were the choices. We weren’t wearing life jackets. The water was dark and cold. No one had explained to me what was happening.
Just: taken to the middle of the lake and forced to jump.
If you could swim, you passed the test. If you panicked, and believe me, tiny-me PANICKED, they waited a little too long to see if you were going to figure it out and then I don’t remember, maybe they threw a life jacket, maybe someone came in after you. I don’t know.
Did someone dive in and pull me out? Did I catch a life jacket, maybe. It’s a blurry memory, a blurry moment.
I can’t even tell you if I jumped or they threw me in.
Sink or swim. I guess in theory, the fear is supposed to motivate you to swim? Hahahaha, fear as motivation, imagine that. It didn’t work on me, and never has once.
All I learned was that I was very much on my own.
It was made clear in that moment that, not for the first time, grownups were not safe or dependable, and I had to just get through the month somehow.
And when I revisit this story, what I see is that we live in a culture that loves the notion of fear as motivation, and in my mind it remains a manipulative form of torture that is also wildly ineffective.
Did I know how to swim?
I think I did, my parents had taken the talmudic instruction to heart, and I’d been taking lessons for quite a while. Probably by that point I was a reasonably okay swimmer, but swimming in a pool is different than being forced to walk the plank.
Okay, there was no plank, this is not a pirate movie. But I think we can agree that “jump or we throw you” is a trauma, even if you are not a very small eight year old.
The verdict was that I did not know how to swim, but it wasn’t a particularly effective method of testing.
I remember the cold shock of the betrayal and the water, my absolute terror, the darkness beneath the water, I remember swallowing water and forgetting everything I had ever known about swimming.
I remember that I didn’t like swimming after that, and didn’t care that they put me in the remedial group that was only allowed in the shallow entry to the lake. I didn’t want to go to the lake at all, an hour of lake time (every day?), and it passed, summer passed.
Over the next summers I was sent to three new different camps, all of which — and I say this now with great incredulity but it is true, were infinitely more traumatizing than that first one, and so that awful summer was forgotten.
Submerged, says Meirav, about small me and about the memory. Uh huh, I agree.
You want to rescue her, Meirav says, and it’s true, I do.
Meirav always wants to go below, into what is underneath, to explore and cast light.
But working with Meirav is also how I came to understand the approach of Safety First. We can use story, play, language and metaphor to approach whatever we are approaching, to create a sanctuary at the edge.
Meirav never demands of me that I jump in to the waters of memory. It’s why we work so well together.
We layer on kindness, and then layer on more kindness.
Layering on kindness towards myself is one way to rewrite and repattern, and so we rescue tiny me again and again.
Rescue can take many different forms.
Sometimes I show up in a situation from then as the wise loving adult from now, the adult I can be now, the one I needed someone else to be for me then.
Sometimes this adult is very calm, stable, centered, showing up and immediately asserting order and authority, lovingly but without room for argument.
Absolutely not, this adult says sternly. Under no circumstances are you asking small children to jump out of a boat as a swim test, this is actual child abuse and completely unacceptable. You will turn this boat around and deliver these children to safety, and you will apologize to them for scaring them with a mean joke. It was a joke, right? That’s how we’re playing this. You will tell them that they were never going to have to jump, are we clear?
Sometimes this adult is an avenging angel.
WHAT THE FUCK, I scream, in my angel-fury, my 3am pain, THIS IS A SMALL CHILD, what are you doing to this poor child, how dare you ask a child to make this choice, what cruel nonsense is this?!?!?!?
The counselors dive into the water to escape me, so afraid of my anger and the lightning from my fingertips, they are helpless and petrified in the face of my rage, and it occurs to me that they too are essentially children. They don’t know what they’re doing either.
Who put eighteen year olds in charge and had them devise the world’s most sadistic swim test?
Rescue for everyone. Safety for everyone. But mainly for me.
As you know, I love a good sanctuary, a safe room, or a safe house, one of my favorite forms of Very Interior Design.
The safe house that eight year old me wants has a large pool in it, with kind and loving adult selves on duty as lifeguards, nothing bad will ever happen to her. Small me is protected.
There are skylights and fluffy towels, a hot shower with a blue and white tiled floor, zero frogs in the shower and no mosquitos, nothing like summer camp at all.
There is a tire swing and no time limit.
Small me naps in a giant four poster bed with sheer cream colored curtains, and is watched over by the bobcat, the Fierce Protector.
I instruct these guardian selves to make sure Small Me can have all the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches upon awakening, made the way that Nancy, my childhood bestie’s mother, used to make them, on thick hand-sliced bread with a generous layer of butter.
And a tall glass of milk to drink, because this is still Michigan in the 80s, but the milk will be white, no confusing food coloring, and there should be tall jugs of fresh water.
Flowers everywhere. This kid likes flowers. No one to criticize her. This child’s love language is unconditional acceptance, and I want her to have so much of it that she can begin to trust it.
New day new mission
I make chai for myself in a black ceramic mug and watch over my young self until she falls asleep, and I cry because I love her so much and I just want her to be safe forever, and I am so angry that no one was there to help her.
And I pretend that my mug says world’s best self-parenting parent, because this makes me laugh.
I don’t know that I’d make a particularly good parent in real life, I’m sure I would do the job to the best of my ability if I had to, probably also reluctantly and with some resentment. It’s just not a job I want.
Be that as it may, I am proud of my hard-earned, trauma-honed self-parenting skills: I self-parent the fuck out of myself and my small selves, and this, much like the kind of parenting that is more visible in our world, is a thankless unpaid full-time job that is also very much a labor of love.
Good rescuing, babe. We can rescue and re-rescue, as many times as needed.
Rescue and a warm drink. New day, new rescue mission. We’ve got this.
Meirav asks what I want, and what I want is for her to do the thing she always does and confirm that this experience was in fact very traumatic and awful.
Meirav: You know what I think. This is an extremely horrifying experience. You didn’t deserve any of this. You were ambushed and you disassociated, a very reasonable reaction to trauma. What do you think?
Me: Yeah no, the whole thing in retrospect is shocking and abhorrent, and made so much worse by everyone acting like this was normal and not child abuse? The bewilderment of suspecting something was wrong but everyone acting like it was fine, so it didn’t occur to me I could opt out.
I don’t even think I told my parents about it? I don’t think we were allowed to make contact other than via letters.
It didn’t occur to me to find a way to say hey this is abusive and dangerous, come and get me. Also, to be clear, they absolutely would not have come to get me.
So that’s another thing, they were strongly anti-rescue as a matter of principle, and regularly left me stranded in far worse situations, but also: I didn’t know how to ask.
Meirav: Let’s talking about OPTING OUT, that feels relevant, that’s a theme. You’re good at that now, aren’t you?
Me: Okay, holy shit, yeah, okay the thing where I know now as an adult there is always an Opt Out option available for me, but I didn’t know about it then, and it didn’t occur to me because it couldn’t have!
Like, how could a child say, “This is an unacceptable choice and I refuse to make it. You can just mark me down as a non-swimmer, that’s fine with me, I will opt out of lake time, thanks, we’re done here.”
I didn’t have the vocabulary, but, more importantly, I didn’t even have the concept of opting out.
And because I didn’t know there was such a thing as a way out, as far as my this young self could determine, there were two choices and they were both bad, the end.
Self-hurling as a way of life
Meirav: So this is about your former mentor, right? This is about believing you were safe and protected, cherished and held in love, and then all that disappeared and you were forced very suddenly and without warning to hurl yourself into the cold waters.
You were given a choice that wasn’t a choice, and all choices ended up with you in the water because you didn’t know how to fight back or you weren’t willing to, because of how much you loved him. That’s why you’re thinking of this now. Because you are trying to summon the courage to write about [the dance that was and isn’t], and it feels too overwhelming to start.
Fuck. Why is Meirav always right?
She’s always right. That’s exactly what this pre-dawn memory is about.
(It’s also about my divorce, another self-hurling, and the most painful breakup.)
Where do we go from here, the eternal question
What do I know about swimming? Self-powered movement.
The activity of propelling oneself through water using the limbs.
What am I propelling myself through now? Recovery, pandemic life, trailer life, the various mysteries and challenges, the process of integrating new incoming selves.
What else about swimming? Swimmingly is what you say when things are going well. Splendid! It’s all going swimmingly!
That’s less about self-propelling, which sounds laborious, and more about ease, grace, floating, the practice holds you.
The practice holds you
This is why I write, dance, do abbreviated sun salutations, roll around on the floor, hold therapy sessions in my head, these are all forms of you show up to the practice, and the practice holds you.
Even if I forget, or lose the thread, or get lost, it’s always there for me when I return.
Resurfacing and re-emergence, recovery, new and better
A swimming story is also like swimming your way through a story, let’s allow the story to resurface.
Let’s let this story come up for air.
Look how this brave story crosses an entire lake all by itself, story as passage, and as a small triumph.
We recovered the story, we are in recovery, we wrap up in a warm blanket and get cozy under the covers, in the interplay of uncovering, recovering, covering, all in service of creating sanctuary.
There’s a story here too
I put A Swimming Story into the anagram generator, and it anagrams to Orating My Swims, which is kind of amazing.
Also, here are some of my favorite word-clues hiding inside that phrase:
Roaming. Aiming. Organism. Wins. Margins. Smart. Warm. Gyration. Sayings. Swayings. Gymnast. Iris. Misty. Twangy. Toys. Wings.
I bet someone could write a great story from any of those words, never mind the combinations, so you are welcome to use any of them as a (pun not intended but cracking me up all the same) jumping off point for any writing or exploring of your own.
Come play with me, I love company
You are welcome to play with any of this in any way you like.
You are also as always invited to share anything sparked for you while reading, or add any wishes into the pot, into the healing zone, as a friend recently said, who knows, the power of the collective is no small thing, and companionship is healing.
And if you wish to make safe rooms for past versions of you, have at it. Or if you have a swimming story or a not-a-swimming story, or are excited about any of these new words that emerged, it’s all welcome.
Thank you for keeping me company, and for this space where submerged stories can resurface safely, sanctuary is no small thing, and we all could use more of it.
If you received clues or perspective or just want to send appreciation, I could definitely use some miracles right now with my emergency situation that has now been compounded with new situations.
I will happily accept support in the form of Appreciation Money to Barrington’s Discretionary Fund. Asking is not where my strength resides but Brave & Stalwart is the theme these days, and pattern-rewriting is the work, and it all helps with fixing what needs fixing.
And if you can’t support in that way, you can light a candle for support or light one in your mind, share one of my posts with people, tell people about this work, it all helps, and I appreciate it so much. ❤️