I am five years old. The world is swing sets and digging tunnels in the sandbox with my hands. The world is tactile — catching butterflies in my cupped hands, and the prickle of a caterpiller on my fingers, the squish of mud in my hands. The world is bedtime stories that end too soon and the warmth of being tucked in bed after brushing my teeth. The world is orderly and safe.
I am ten years old. The world is children who tease, and teachers who yell. The world is mom is too busy and dad is grumpy. The world is being told to turn off the light and go to sleep before I’m tired. The world is a little sister who always wants to play games that I am too old for, and older neighbors who think I am a child. I don’t fit in.
I am forty four years old.
I walked along the promenade downtown, on the edge of the Hudson. Nine years ago I left home behind and came to New York. I never looked back. Home was where (when I was a child) all the children came in to dinner when the streetlights came on. Our neighborhood was safe. But that’s not what we were told. We were told everything outside was scary, full of strangers, and burglers, and people who will kill you and eat you. Danger lurked after the streetlights came on. We closed our curtains at night so passing cars couldn’t see inside the house. Something terrible might happen. Be afraid.
Here we are. In New York City, baby. All the kids who didn’t want to come in when the streetlights came on. And now we run the show.
I was five years old on a trip to the beach with my best friend, who was six, and her family. Her mother told us we could play in the waves up to our knees.
That is an impossible mandate. Statements like this are part of the reason I believe the adults in my childhood might have been brain damaged. The ocean is not at any point in space over any meaningful time “knee deep.”
A wave took me out, and when it passed and I reached my toes out for the bottom, there was no bottom. Another wave came. And another. Underwater, I imagined I saw sea life — star fish, kelp, submerged tide pools — something. I was told later I imagined it. In any case, with each wave that came, I spent more time underwater, less time finding the air.
And then suddenly I was lifted out. The life guard got me. I was scolded for going in past my knees.
Yesterday, I swam a two mile race around Governors Island, in New York Harbor. There are a lot of things about this that I’m allegedly supposed to be legitimately afraid of (water quality, submerged hazards, heavy metals, what the hell are you thinking), but I’m not. What I’m afraid of is being afraid. What scares me is not showing up. So I show up. Even when I’m scared. At least that’s what I’d like to think of myself.
Visibility was roughly arm’s length, which is what I’m used to from swimming near the surf in the Pacific. I ran into what might have been a sycamore leaf, and some kelp. The harbor is a salt water estuary. It was salty, but not nearly as salty as the ocean. I didn’t encounter anything disgusting. The tides did roughly as I expected — a bit of a push on the southward leg, and a smooth downhill on the northward finish.
This was my first open water swim in a decade and quadruple the longest distance I had ever done before. My time was a personal record by twenty three minutes.
The waves can wash over me, but they don’t have to take me. The only thing that can take me under is fear. Not today.