An imagination is a terrible thing to waste; I practice using mine every day. At times well-intentioned people have advised me to “just relax.” If it were so easy, I would have become calm and serene long ago, unruffled as I anticipate life’s challenges.
For the most part, I’ve been surrounded by caring people who have been patient with my timidity, encouraging me, while staying nearby throughout the process of coping with change. Always alert to instances of “creative hand-holding,” I store these memories away, never knowing when they might be of use. Perhaps because of this, I’ve been drawn to beginners, fascinated by the transition from “I can’t” to “Hey, look at me!”
While still in high school, I took the classes required to teach swimming lessons, and spent several summers teaching swimming at a local pool. One day, walking with her grandparents towards me was a sullen little girl, slightly overweight, and obviously unhappy. She clearly wished to be somewhere else—anywhere else. Her body language all but screaming “Get me out of here!” she stood on the pool deck, eyeing the water with distaste.
Assuring her grandparents that she would be fine, I took the little girl by the hand. Talking with her gently, my heart broke seeing her eyes brimming with tears. We edged closer to the pool, then stepped into the water, her viselike grip squeezing the blood out of my hand. Stepping down together onto the second step, then the third, her grip grew, if possible, even tighter. “Splash me,” I suggested. Looking me in the eye to be sure I really meant it, she bent down and carefully scooped up a small handful of water, pouring it onto my leg. I splashed her back. Bringing a hand full of water to my face, I blew some bubbles. Motioning to her, I held the water in front of her. Eyes fixed on mine, clearly terrified of what might come next, barely touching her lips to the water, she blew, as though cooling off a blistering hot cup of tea.
“We’re going to go into the water now; I’ll hold onto you,” I explained. Assuring her I would not let go seemed a bit superfluous, since she was clinging to me like a leach; I couldn’t have let go if I’d wanted to.
Through tears and hysterics the words stuttered out of her mouth. “You promise?” I promised, then dropped a bomb. I was going to go underwater—with her. She thought this was a pretty bad idea, and began protesting—loudly.
Suddenly a childhood memory came to mind of my best friend’s sister, standing in front of her mother, waiting to get her hair combed. As the mother began combing through the fine, snarled hair, the child’s wails reached a crescendo. I stared, transfixed. My friend wanted to go outside; she’d seen this way too many times. I, however, had never witnessed this amount of energy being expended, by mother or daughter, to get hair combed. This had certainly never happened at my own house.
The hair-combing ritual winding down, my friend’s mother became playful with her younger daughter. Smoothing out one snarl, she stopped combing, her child continuing to wail. Standing a moment, comb poised over her daughter’s head, the mother finally pointed out that she wasn’t doing anything to her; she needed to stop crying. The crying stopped. Her mother then said, “Ah, there’s another snarl, you’d better start crying,” whereupon the child set to howling yet again. Turning the tears off and on like a well-trained actress, the drama promised to continue for a while longer. Tearing myself away, my friend and I headed outside, but the scene stayed with me.
My attention drawn back to the pool I was standing in, I spoke firmly to the child in my arms. “We’re going to go under water. When we come up, you’re allowed to yell as much as you’d like. Why don’t you practice now?” As she bellowed impressively, I congratulated her. ”Good job! Now, when I say we’re going under,” I continued, “you’ll do better if you close your mouth and stop yelling. Otherwise you’ll get water in your mouth and it won’t feel good.” Her eyes grew wide, and she clutched, if possible, even tighter; so much the simpler to get her underwater. “We’re going under,” I warned. “Better close your mouth,” then held her close as we went under the water, her mouth clamped shut. Once back above the surface, I said, “Ok, you can start crying.” The suggestion was hardly necessary.
Encouraging her to cry, then going back under together, we came up to lots of spluttering and crying. After uncounted trips underwater together, we emerged, and I said, “You can cry now.”
Taking a big breath, she looked around in bewilderment and said, “The tears won’t come.” I looked at her and laughed, and we started laughing together.
From there she moved easily to floating on her stomach, blowing bubbles with abandon. She practiced kicking, and finally discovering that she could move in the water with ease. Her grandparents stood quietly by the side of the pool, smiling from ear to ear.
This reluctant child became my most eager and determined of students, arriving to class first, leaving the water last, playing, and reveling in how the water buoyed her up. From fear, with some hand-holding (and body-clutching), she moved to joy.
I have been challenged to put these lessons into practice over and over in my own life as it has taken many unexpected turns. Family and friends along the way have made the difference in getting me to take all sorts of steps that have felt scary. Finding Easy Walks wherever I am has been yet another step along the road. Bringing others along the road with me has increased my joy.
Anxiety about an undertaking does not imply a lack of desire; at times the feared activity is exactly what we most need. Reluctance can be a signpost, a clue there may be something important beyond the fear. Being offered a firm and kind hand for a time is just what some of us need. A dash of imagination doesn’t hurt, either.
Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, More Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, and editor of Easy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed. Just out is her latest book, Finding Easy Walks Wherever You Are. She has been a freelance writer for numerous local, regional, and national publications for the past 20+ years, has helped numerous families to save their stories, and has recorded multiple veterans oral histories, now housed at the Library of Congress. She is a co-author of the recent community history, Bellingham Now and Then.