More like an older sister than an aunt, Susie taught me to swim. I was nine the summer she came to visit, and though I splashed around easily enough in the shallow end, nothing I did resembled a stroke. Over the course of a week, Susie worked with me at our little community pool, teaching me to do the freestyle and be brave in water. On day four I made the discovery that submerging my head wouldn’t mean sudden death. After that I was golden.
Since that summer I’ve been a swimmer. Not a competitive one, but a dabbler in the unstructured water play of paddling across lakes and rivers, jumping off rocks, bodysurfing, rafting.
In addition to last year’s big life changes I’ve probably written about too much here, in the fall I added swimming laps, a new skill that still feels humbling. I was looking for another activity that might deliver the kind of focused non-focus of running, one I’ll be able to do for many years, long after my running knees give out.
That I was very bad at surviving laps in the beginning is an understatement. But it was thrilling to engage in something at which I was terrible. I had to learn to sustain swimming and breathing at the same time without panicking and stopping in the middle of the pool to gasp for air. To put on a swim cap. To wear goggles so they were tight enough to work but not so tight they nearly sucked my eyes out of my sockets. To swim in a straight line and share a lane with another swimmer. To “deal” with the wall every twenty-five yards.
At first, swimming four laps in a row left me completely without breath. For the first month I could only swim ten slow, tortuous laps before peeling off, exhausted, to simmer in the Jacuzzi. In the second month I tasked myself with braving the wall via flip turn, and the day I figured out how to plan for and execute a series of turns I was high on life the rest of the day. The day swimming laps gave me a glimmer of the kind of meditation I feel while trail running was even more affirming.
Given the choice, I’d rather swim in a lake or bay over a pool, but I imagine no matter the space, I’ll be a swimmer as long as I can still walk. I’m grateful about that.
It’s 2014, time to renew my vow to learn something new.
On a whim a few weeks ago, Riley and I tagged along with some friends to their choir practice. Though we met at a church because that’s a space large enough for the group, the choir is secular and intergenerational. I’ve never really sung before, unless I count the shower or those musical performances from grade school. In high school I was both too shy and too busy playing sports to spend any time in the arts and theatre wing, a fact which I regret a now. Despite a year or so of piano in middle school, I can’t read music, and I don’t have a great voice. I’m on friendly terms with the voice I do have. Singing in public terrifies me.
In a packed sanctuary hall the night of our first practice, we met and were wrangled by three local, professional musicians, our leaders, who believe so strongly in the power of the collective voice they’ve volunteered their time in this way. A white-haired woman with a walker sporting orange tennis balls staked out a place at the back of the sanctuary. With our friends, we squeezed four bodies onto two chairs next to her. Kids of all ages wiggled and danced beneath the stage as we sang ten or so tunes, many we knew and some we didn’t. Reading lyrics projected on a huge screen at the back of the stage, we practiced singing in harmony. We sang in round. Folk, pop, blues, tunes from around the world.
I spent much of the evening sweating, working to manage anxiety about whether and how my voice belonged. But there are three hundred of us, and we sound good together. I can see that each week my fears will be allayed by my own efforts and being buoyed by the group. Our sessions together will be about the community building of raising our voices in song, and also about preparing for a culminating performance in the spring.
Pete Seeger had just passed away a few days before our first choir meeting. Even though he’d had a good run, dying quietly at 94, I’d been melancholy about his presence gone from the world. At home I’d been playing over and over Springsteen’s The Seeger Sessions and thinking back to 2002, when John, Owen and I went to the Great Hudson River Revival, an annual folk festival Pete and his wife Toshi began in 1966 to raise awareness about keeping the Hudson River and surrounding wetlands healthy.
That June weekend in New York was a rainy, hot muddy mess of a festival. Food vendors and magicians, hacky-sackers and jugglers, artists and storytellers filled the grounds. The afternoon Pete took the stage toward the end of the weekend, it was still raining steadily. John and I sat in our chairs, a blanket over Owen who slept across our laps, finally worn out, and for an hour we sang along with Pete and other musicians who joined him. Songs we’d known since we could walk and sing. This Land is Your Land. If I Had a Hammer. Turn, Turn, Turn. We Shall Overcome.
Then, I was aware as I scanned the soggy crowd that we were in the presence of a kind of greatness. Everyone sang, most eyes on Pete and his banjo, his enthusiasm and gathering spirit infectious. There was nothing pretentious about him, none of that rock star stuff he might have deserved after decades of fame. As I recall he wore faded jeans, a t-shirt, his signature cap. Through a gap in the trees, the sloop Clearwater sailed by along the Hudson, loaded with passengers availing themselves of learning how to save the river. I’m so grateful now we made that trip.
At choir practice, toward the end of the night, a photo of Pete filled the screen, and these words -“Participation! It’s what all my work has been about.” Singing next to Riley whose voice is bold and clear and lovely, I was a little sad she’ll never get to sing along with Pete. We stood up and grooved to a song Pete sang with Woody Guthrie, a fun kids’ tune about all working together with a “wiggle and a giggle.” Kids twirled and fell on the ground and helped each other up. This full-bodied interaction with music was exactly what Pete had in mind, for it’s not too far a jump to go from singing together to working together in all ways that matter most.
That night the spirit of Pete was all around us, it seemed, filling up our lungs and hearts. We began “How Can I Keep from Singing?”, a song many seem to take credit for though I think it’s a hymn from the 19th century. This song always makes me a little weepy, and I was struck that night by the gorgeous impermanence of the music we were making and the universal truth in some of those words. Our individual and collective voices were vanishing into thin air, and yet long after the notes could no longer be heard, the people who’d gathered would remember the singularity of the effort.
I couldn’t really hear my own voice, though I knew it was a piece of the whole. Still a little sweaty, emboldened by my plucky daughter who wasn’t nervous in the slightest, I tried to sing with bravery and intention, thinking of Pete, and of the way participating with hundreds of other voices could -was already- rendering a similar kind of grace I sought in breathing life into stories, in trail running at dawn, in gliding through water.