Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the lord my soul to keep
And if I decide to swim in the lake
Don’t let a sea monster eat my legs
My study in irrational fears began at a very early age. Some of my earliest memories involve the need to obsessively check a black spot on the wooden floor and make sure it had not transformed into a spider. The dark patch was located just behind the headboard of my bed. I would stand on the bed, look over the edge of the headboard and try to see if the dark spot was moving. Once I decided this vantage point was not ideal, I would climb out off the mattress and lay on the floor. I stared intently trying to determine if the spot was flat, or had sprung into three dimensions. I repeated this routine every night.
In high school, a friend revealed that she sometimes worried about being a modern day Mary- a virgin found pregnant through Immaculate Conception. I suppose most teenage girls raised in the Christian church have pondered this scenario at some point. But her confession made me want to hug her around the neck. Someone else was troubled with ridiculous fears! I was not alone!
Whenever I cross a bridge, I imagine it collapsing beneath me. I grow concerned that these thoughts will somehow manifest into reality. I understand this thinking is absurd. I have trouble getting my brain on board to build furniture for Ikea, let alone disassemble a bridge Jedi-style. But I remind myself that people used to find the concept of germs to be completely illogical. What if I do have the power to will destruction and the modern world just hasn’t happened upon the scientific explanation yet? I hold my breath and try to focus on happy thoughts until I am in the clear.
So why am I compelled to challenge one of my deepest and most long held fears, open water?
I do not know why I fear open water. While I never had swim lessons as a kid, I grew up swimming. However, I was never totally comfortable in the pool. I stayed in the shallow end. I kept my face out of the water. When I needed to go under, I pinched my nose with my fingers and closed my eyes. Spending my childhood in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, I had many opportunities for lake swimming, but I seldom went beyond wading. I hated the feel of the rocky, often slimy debris beneath my feet. To put my head in the murky water was unfathomable.
A few weeks back, my husband, Ben, sent me a podcast of This American Life. In this episode, the topic was superheroes, and Kelly McEvers interviewed Zora, a self-made superhero. Here is the transcript for the opener of the show:
“From the time she was five, Zora had recurring dreams in which she was a 6’5″ warrior queen who could fly and shoot lightning from her hands. She made a list of all the skills she would need to master if she wanted to actually become the superhero she dreamed of being. Sample items: Martial arts, evasive driving and bomb diffusion. She actually checked off most things on the list…and then had a run-in with the CIA.”
Listen to the entire podcast. It will take 17 minutes or your life. I swear, you will like it.
If you just do not have seventeen minutes to spare, here is the gist.
Around the age of twelve, Zora began assembling a list of skills she would need to become a superhero. She kept the list in the back of a journal. As she completed journals, she always wrote the list in the back of the new one- checking things off, and adding new items. She developed a pretty impressive skill set- speaking multiple languages, hang-gliding, weapons expert, etc. In the end, she became a bounty hunter specializing in tracking down abducted children- which is just about as close to a real life superhero as you can get.
I’ve been thinking about this interview for weeks. I’m a big fan of lists. At almost any given moment, I have a grocery list and a to-do list going, but I’ve never thought of assembling a goal list. Why not?
I began assembling all kinds of lists- lists to assist me in getting my writing published more, lists of skills possessed by good teachers. And of course, the same old list everyone has- the list to help me get in better shape and lose some weight. Ugh.
I went for a hike with my husband. He mentioned that he was going to sign up for the Marquee Triathlon. We have competed in many running events together, and he inquired if I wanted to join him. I mulled the idea over as we walked along.
I have been talking about getting back on the “clean living “ wagon- well, clean by my standards. I haven’t signed up for any fitness events in about eight months, and my waistline is starting to show it. I do not diet. It is just not my thing. If counting calories works for you, by all means do it- this post is not meant to disrespect people who work hard and find success through dieting. For me, just mentioning the word diet adds numbers to my scale. It is the word that can’t be named or whatever that Harry Potter reference is. Besides, it sounds way more badass to say “I completed a triathlon” than to say “I’m on track with my food journal.” Do what I need to in order to complete the tri, and the weight issue will resolve itself. The list wasn’t a bad idea- it just had the wrong items on it. I needed to go bigger, be bold.
The main issue with the triathlon is of course the open water swim. I have finished a super sprint triathlon before. In order to do it, I had to take swim lessons. At my lesson each week, my coach encouraged me to sign up for the Marquee Triathlon. I declined. The tri I signed up for was about half the distance of the Marquee. But the real factor for me was that it was held in a pool. The Marquee is a lake swim.
The pool made me feel safe. Seasoned triathletes hate pools. Pool events force competitors to practically swim on top of each other. I didn’t focus on that aspect. I only knew that if I got in trouble, I could simply stand up in the water. It was four feet deep. I was not going to drown in a pool.
Shortly after the event, I vacationed in Hawaii. I went snorkeling for the first time, and it was one of the most profoundly beautiful experiences of my life. But again, the safety net. The water was clear, clean and beautiful. The lake I’ll be swimming in- well, not so much. And I had a snorkel. I have a tendency to panic when I swim, attempt to take in a breath and gulp down water instead. The snorkel eliminated that.
I continued to think about the tri, and more elaborate means of death began creeping into my thoughts. Getting tangled in some underwater plant and pulled to my doom. Knocking my head on a rock and losing consciousness. Even some unknown lake beast severing my legs with razor sharp teeth, before dragging me back to his lair. It’s all ridiculous and used to distract myself from the real fear- not finishing.
I read an article on guerrilla artist Swoon in my favorite magazine, BUST. To say Swoon is a mixed media artist is an understatement. She dabbles in everything from graffiti to huge floating sculptures composed from trash.
She was talking about being outside her comfort zone.
“I’m giving a talk soon where I get very deep into my family issues, and I’ve never really talked about that much. I’m fucking terrified out of my mind. Then I realized that it’s the same amount of fear I used to feel- and still sometimes feel-when I’m doing something illegal. Being afraid means that you’re exploring something new. It’s kind of charting these waters right outside the edge of yourself. I think that’s actually an important part of my process.”
The tri scares the pants off of me. Just thinking about it causes the hairs on the back of my neck to rise. What if I can’t do it? What if I don’t finish? What if I have to be rescued from the water only to die from embarrassment on the shoreline?
But it also makes me feel compelled to stop writing and to make an appointment with my swim coach, and isn’t that the point? I may not be a superhero, or a bounty hunter, or guerilla artist. But I can still present myself with a challenge and hopefully rise to the occa