Nonfiction

Photograph by Rita Mendes-Flohr

Swim for the Dark Spots

Time crawls by when I start my routine two-kilometer swim in the pool. The first few hundred meters in this Olympic-size pool seem to stretch out forever. I tell myself, perhaps this time I will only swim one kilometer and then see if I feel like going on.

 

Then, miraculously, after eight or nine hundred meters, it happens. I guess that is when the endorphins kick in, giving me that high so well known to sportspeople, a spurt of energy and excitement. I am in a trance. I just want to keep going. Time speeds up, and the second kilometer passes much more quickly than the first. Paradoxically, time also slows down, as I enter a vast meditative space, counting my hundred-meter sets more like reciting a mantra, swimming on and on, without wondering when I will finish. 

Swimming has become an integral part of my life, of who I am. I know my face shows it when I return from the pool. Though I grew up on the Dutch Caribbean Island of Curaçao with its tranquil turquoise waters, I was not, then, a natural swimmer; it has taken me almost a lifetime to take up swimming as a sport. 

As a child, I had a very ambivalent relationship with the sea. I loved nothing more than going to the beach, but would enter the water only where it was clear as glass and the white sand on the bottom was clearly visible. I was terrified to swim over the “dark spots,” where there were rocks covered with sea grasses—and especially with the dreaded sea urchins, whose long black needles could pierce your foot.

Swimming over those dark spots, it was not possible to tell what scary predators were lurking among the rocks. Of course, there was absolutely no basis for fearing predators there, as shark or barracuda attacks on swimmers were almost unheard of in the surrounding sea, and I left the island long before Jaws was released.  

The calm, turquoise beaches along the south coast are hidden in sheltered coves with rocky cliffs on either side. I did not dare to swim out beyond the coves into the laman dj’afó, or “outside” sea. In those deep, dark waters, you certainly could not see what was hiding beneath the surface. 

Learning to swim at age five was a traumatic experience. As I have always been athletic and well-coordinated, I quickly picked up the ability to keep myself afloat and do the breaststroke in shallow water. Then one day we were told to jump into the deep end of a manmade pool filled with water from the sea. 

Standing on the edge, looking down, I was overcome by terror and started to cry desperately. I was not yet ready to jump; that deep, dirty-green saltwater would certainly pull me into its depths. And what if there were ravenous creatures down below in the cloudy water, waiting to devour me alive?

It was my swimming teacher, a Dutch marine, who was the shark. “Jump in,” he ordered. “Do you think I have all the time in the world?” His yelling grew louder and louder, but I just stood there, crying. Then he marched up to me, picked me up, tucking me under his arm like a package, and, in front of everyone else, carried me to his office, where he sat me on a chair and locked the door behind us. He pulled out a pair of scissors, and I was sure he would rip me to pieces with the sharp teeth of a barracuda. Instead, he cut a large piece of bandage tape and plastered it over my mouth. 

“That will teach you to stop crying” he said, and went back to his class, leaving me behind near the changing rooms.

Trembling, feeling deeply ashamed, I hid from the others what happened in his office, as if I had done something terribly wrong. Of course I never returned to that class, while the other children went on to get their swimming diplomas.

I might have given up on swimming after that painful incident, but they say you must always get back on the horse when you fall. My mother, who had been a trained swimmer in her younger years, allowed me to practice with her at the beach, and with her I learned quickly. When she was not by my side, however, I had to wear an embarrassing large, bright red swimming vest until I got my swimming diploma a few years later. (I achieved the diploma with a different teacher than the Dutch marine, of course; but the scars in my psyche took an immeasurable time to heal.)

There is certainly something sexual in my fear of the sea. Rather than a fear of drowning in the waves or strong currents, it is a fear of the violation of my body, of being raped or killed. Immersed in water, you are at your most vulnerable–-your body almost naked, open to attack from all sides, and with no ability to run away, as in the iconic shower scenes in movies.

I ask myself if this irrational fear of being ambushed by some menacing creature can be attributed to the patriarchal society in which I was raised—if those fears were not deliberately instilled in little girls to keep us inside the protected home. Perhaps there was more to these strictures than a sensible warning to protect little girls from being violated by men, particularly by strangers. (We were never told to watch out for men who were closer to us, who were part of the family.) Perhaps the grownups meant to frighten us about the chaos outside the safety and order of the home, a chaos that would certainly awaken our closely guarded sexual desires. Perhaps those fears of the deep blue sea were inculcated in little girls as a barrier against erotic temptations, keeping us far from the luscious beauty and freedoms of the world.

*

Despite all these inner obstacles, I have become a passionate open-water swimmer in my older age. It has been a long, step-by-step process that started when I was over sixty. I have learned that I cannot jump into deep waters when I don’t feel ready, that I must slowly conquer my childhood fears. Age certainly has much to do with that process of maturation.  

My mother, in her late teens, had been on the island’s swim team; few women in her social group could even swim at that time, but she had learned in Cuba, where she was born. I was proud of her, especially because she could do the crawl when all of us only knew the breaststroke—without putting our heads in the water. Her team had been invited to a competition in neighboring Coro, Venezuela, but no chaperone could be found to accompany her—a sine qua non in my family’s circles—and my grandfather refused to let her go. That was the end of her swimming aspirations.  

After several years of doing the breaststroke at my neighborhood pool in Jerusalem, I learned the crawl, which I saw as more “serious”— faster, but most of all more elegant. I loved the way trained swimmers glide effortlessly through the water. Most of all, I wanted to make up for what my mother had lost. 

The thought of long-distance swimming appealed to the hiker in me. So, little by little, I started to participate in open-water swims, first in the Sea of Galilee, and then by joining more and more challenging and competitive swims along the Mediterranean Coast, where there were no shark attacks I had ever heard of. 

I followed Diana Nyad, vicariously swimming with her from my mother’s native Cuba to Key West, in the United States. Crossing a sea, a channel, a distance between two countries—particularly countries with no diplomatic relations—symbolizes, to me, not only bridging a gap, but also meeting a challenge that is not arbitrary, but physical, geographic, and, in the Cuba-to-U.S. case, also diplomatic. Such an achievement heightens the sense of completion, of wholeness, on a deeper, psychological level.

Deep inside, I knew that someday I would have to confront the specters of my childhood and venture out in the open sea in Curaçao. The perfect opportunity to do so would be “Swim for the Roses,” a 2.8-kilometer swim organized every year to raise money for cancer care. In my ambivalence, I let many years go by. Finally, in January 2020, I bought a ticket to Curaçao. 

*

There is a thin line between hesitation founded on caution about real dangers, and fears based on preconceptions and emotions. You cannot always wait until you feel ready to take the plunge; you just have to let go.  

The night before the Curaçao swim my heart was pounding, and I could not sleep. My anxiety was exacerbated by a profound sadness, knowing I would be leaving the island the next day, and realizing that Curaçao was still part of me. How would I be able to swim, feeling like this?  But I knew I could not give up. Should I quit, my childhood fears of the open sea would overpower me once more, and who knows when I would muster the courage to try again. 

Diana Nyad was forced to abort her swims from Cuba to Florida four times, until she finally succeeded, at age 64. George Mallory, obsessed with climbing Mt. Everest, went back to the Himalayas three times and perished in his last attempt, so nobody knows if he was able to feel the triumph and liberation of making it to the top. 

What drives such swimmers and mountaineers to try and try again? Not everything I attempt is equally important to me and merits such persistence. I know the relief, even the joy of quitting. But swimming in open water is another matter for me—as is trekking in deserts, the arctic, the Himalayas. These efforts touch upon much deeper desires and passions, a yearning for the freedom of a bird, an unfurling of the spirit. 

It is this that drives me to try again and again, to overcome the fears of getting lost, of being abandoned, and especially, the fear of being ambushed, robbed, raped—all fears that I believe are instilled in little girls to keep us from pursuing what we desire. It is this drive, this life-force, the eros in me, that enables me to break out of the protected walls of the home, the narrow confines of the island, and to venture into the wilderness at the ends of the earth. 

In the morning, my anxiety of the night before was replaced by a growing excitement. Together with my brother, I drove early to the starting point at the Jan Thiel beach so as not to feel pressured, and quickly finished with the registration and required medical examinations. That allowed us time to jump into the clear waters of the bay, ahead of the start, and warm up by swimming a few laps. 

It was, indeed, reassuring to see how calm the sea was there. Outside the bay there certainly would not be any meter-and-a-half waves, about which a friend tried to warn me. Starting the swim when we were already in the water relieved the tension I often felt in Israel, where competitions typically start on the shore, and everyone runs into the sea at the shout of “go.” That heightens the competitive spirit, so that you are tempted to start out much too fast and soon run out of breath.

In Curaçao, I started slowly, at first swimming beside my brother and another friend as we left the sheltered bay. Soon, however, we lost sight of each other and were on our own in the wide-open sea. I felt confident and found my own tempo, one that allowed me to swim long distances without exhausting myself. 

Surprisingly, I didn’t think of sharks and barracudas or any other predators, perhaps because I convinced myself that such a large group of swimmers would scare away all the sharks and barracudas. Or because, with my goggles, I could see that no such threats were hiding under the surface. Wearing a white cap inscribed with the legend “Swim for the Roses,” I felt reassured that I could easily be spotted from the accompanying boats and paddleboards, should I signal for help.  

In places the route took us close to the shore, and I delighted in reefs with impressive elkhorn corals. Even the fire corals that can burn your skin did not frighten me. I did not think of jellyfish or the deceptively beautiful yet venomous lionfish that had invaded these reefs. I just swam and swam, my mind in a calm, meditative state, totally “inside” the music of the swim. It is this total surrender to the act of swimming, to being in the water, that allowed me then, and allows me now, to completely push my childhood fears out of my consciousness. Nothing else exists but the pure joy of swimming.

In a way, swimming itself, in the sea as in the pool, is an act of recurrent letting go, as you immerse yourself in water, entering a realm where you cannot breathe without gills. It means facing the depths, the possibility of death—and then coming up for air again. To swim is to swing back and forth between vulnerability and power. 

  At my age, I am thrilled with my ability to swim, to have the strength and skill to do the crawl well and elegantly for long distances in the open sea. I feel blessed that I still can do this. All the same, I remind myself, it is not the strength and skill that matter most, but rather the readiness to let go, to surrender. The act of overcoming my fears not only enables me to do something I did not dare do before; it is a step forward on my quest for inner strengthening and liberation.  

In Curaçao, in 2020, I was proud when I reached the finish line; “I did it.” The announcer, cheering us on as we emerged from the water, asked me my age. He was not particularly impressed by my 72 years; he was looking out for the swimmer he was told is in her eighties. He did not understand that it wasn’t the effort of swimming the distance, but my journey to surmount my ingrained fears of the laman dj’afó, the “outside sea,” that was, and is, the real triumph.

 

A Place Like This
Finding Myself in a Cape Cod Cottage
by Sally W. Buffington
 
A book for anyone who's ever loved a house.
When newly engaged Sally Buffington is introduced to Craigville, she meets an expansive Cape Cod cottage that is virtually a family member itself. She quickly finds herself competing for airtime among the talkative, assured band of brothers—and her new mother-in-law, the cottage’s lively and confounding matriarch. Sally, a Cape Cod local, soon wonders how she’ll ever maintain her independence, let alone her sense of self when the day’s agenda and every detail is already set in stone. But she navigates her new life with quiet persistence and a boundless curiosity that guides her to explore life through the creative lens of her camera and her pen. Sally writes with a whimsical candor that is both honest and humorous. Through poetic prose and heartfelt reflection, A Place Like This reveals the beauty of Cape Cod and shows us that sometimes the simplest of moments brings us the most lasting joy. Sally Buffington is a writer and photographer, also a classically trained musician. From her home in southern California, she migrates back to native ground in Massachusetts, especially her spiritual homeland of Cape Cod. Writing lyrically and imaginatively, ever aware of sensory experience and memory, Buffington takes the reader into her thoughts wherever she finds herself. Buffington can “see things other people don’t see” in everyday scenes and find them beautiful. But her prose is where that ability most shines through. This memoir paints a vivid and lasting memory of a home with as much personality as the family who lived there.
- Book Life
"Punctuated by sensory delights, the author’s prose can prove particularly mouthwatering" …. "An elegantly observant account that transports readers to a beloved place."
- Kirkus
To learn more, and order the book, go to Amazon, Bookshop.org, www.sallybuffington.com, or your local bookstore.

Bio

Rita Mendes-Flohr is a visual artist, ardent trekker, open water swimmer, and the co-founder of a feminist art gallery. Born on the Dutch Caribbean Island of Curaçao, she studied in Boston and lives in Jerusalem, feeling at home only in the in-between. Coming to writing at an older age, she has published a memoir of her multicultural Caribbean childhood (in Hebrew translation) and writes introspective essays about her journeys and treks throughout the world. www.ritamendesflohr.com

2 Comments

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your well written journey / adventure. Facing our fears and going back again to triumph. Thank you.

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