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a swimming story
As summer vacation comes to a jolting close here in Iowa and I roam the prairie looking to gather up my feral children for the start of school, I’ve asked my friend Eric Clayton to take the wheel on today’s email.
You’re in good hands with Eric: he’s the award-winning author of this book (which you should buy) and this Substack (which you should subscribe to) and I frequently call on him to edit my own stuff. Thanks for welcoming his writing as eagerly as you welcome mine!
We arrived at the Y for swim lessons, my three-year-old and I, as we usually do: Elsa towel over one shoulder, sunflower goggles held tightly, the squeak squeak squeak of those slightly-too-big flip flops serenading us as she marched through every poolside puddle possible.
The place was packed, as it often is on a Monday afternoon. Kids splashing, parents watching and real swimmers somehow managing to do laps through the water and sound and chaos.
My daughter and I wandered over to the far side of the pool, the literal deep end, and sat ourselves down on one of the benches to wait.
“I don’t see my teacher,” she said to me.
I shrugged, struggling with her goggles. “I’m sure someone will show up.”
We sat there, her little legs swinging, my less-than-little-legs sweating, and we watched as not a single soul from her class appeared. And the clock struck 4:10 PM Eastern.
Finally, someone showed up—and she looked legit. She was wearing the official Y swimsuit, walked over to us with confidence, and was definitely not one of the high school students we’d come to expect.
As it turned out, she was the regional director of swim lessons. Or, something like that. And she was my daughter’s swim sub.
One of us, though, was not so pleased.
“I’m scared,” my daughter whispered, her head down on the bench, her goggles dangling between her knees.
“Don’t be scared,” I said.
“Don’t be scared,” said the instructor.
“I’m scared,” said my daughter. And we’d reached an impasse.
The instructor smiled knowingly—she assured me she had some grandkids not so unlike my own daughter—and got in the pool to wait. And I turned to my little one.
“You’re a great swimmer,” I said. “You know what you’re doing.” I rattled off the lakes and pools and streams she’d swam in just in the past two months. I held up her goggles; I let her hug the Elsa towel.
“And I’ll be right here.”
Finally, we got her to the water’s edge, Finally, we got her in. Finally, she remembered that she does in fact love swimming. And thus, her private lesson began.
I sank back into that rather uncomfortable bench and reached for my phone. I had done my duty. Surely there were emails to check, messages to comb through, news to read.
“He’s watching,” I heard the swim instructor say. I glanced up just in time to meet my daughter’s eyes, see her grin.
And then I couldn’t look away. Not because I didn’t want to. Not because I didn’t have other things to do, to read, things that pulled at my curiosity.
I couldn’t look away because my daughter kept glancing back over her shoulder, kept looking for my eyes, kept needing that bit of reassurance. Kept wanting to know I was watching her.
Despite having the full attention of her swim instructor—and one of the best she’d ever had—she needed my eyes. She needed my focus to rest on her, to cut through all the noise and mayhem of that afternoon at the Y. She needed to know I saw her.
I wonder if that’s not what I was looking for, too, when I reached for my phone. Some assurance that I existed to someone else’s mind, even if that only meant I’d gotten an email or a like on some tweet. I was looking for someone’s eyes—at least, metaphorically. I was looking to know that, for a moment, I’d occupied someone’s attention,
The hard thing is, though, that we aren’t always seen. We don’t always meet the knowing eyes of a friend or loved one on the other side of the pool. Sometimes all we see are the tops of heads, eyes downcast, decidedly not looking our way. Sometimes, even surrounded by people, even in the capable hands of the proverbial swim director, we feel lost, searching.
And I wonder if that’s where faith comes in. We wade through the depths of the spiritual life not always knowing where we’re going or why we’re going there. But still we feel—we sense—the eyes of the Holy resting on our souls.
The chill running down the back of our neck. That glimmer of beauty that draws our attention. That sudden rush of consolation amidst the stillness of sadness.
Is that God, just over there, delighting in us? Catching our eyes and smiling?
Perhaps. And perhaps it’s enough for us, too, to catch the eyes of another. To look out at the vastness of life’s many pools and pinpoint that one little person who needs our focus. Who needs our attention. Who needs just a bit of compassion and mercy and love.
Who needs to know that even if life is scary, there’s someone else who will stand in solidarity to bear witness to the good and the bad and the beautiful.
“Did you see, Dad?” my daughter asked. “Did you see my jumps?”
“I did,” I replied, wrapping in her Elsa towel. “You did wonderfully.”
Shannon again here! If you didn’t get to catch “A Midlife Crisis of Faith,” the event I did recently for Lake Drive Books with author Julie Rocchi, you can watch the recording below. Next week I look forward to sharing some good book recs with you in this space. Until then, take care and go gently. - S
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