Dying/broken/forgiven.... now I begin

Born: 17-06-56....gemini.... monkey
re-born: 3-09-80
born again\found: 14-04-08
other notable dates: 10-03-68; 03-09-87; 23-03-96;
1-05-98; 31-01-02; 5-04-04

Interests: movement, stressed/transgressive embodiment, lived experience (body\space\time\relation)
expression ( word, dance, text, image, story, music, poetics)
learning, yielding......

Hopes for the blog:
offer up the wild intersectedness of lived experience and engage others in creative, expressive, perhaps irreverant, hopefully playful, and respectful encounters....
enact kindness
create moments of pause for disclosure, discovery, stillness

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Joe Lake

The waters off the Newfoundland coast are as chilling as they are bountiful. Here, a human can die in a matter of minutes in the hypothermic embrace of of the North Atlantic; here, swimming is neither leisure or irony--it is folly. Hence, I am no stranger than most in my culture when, at age 17, I found myself for the first time up to my neck in water in a mysterious beastie, also known as a swimming pool. With no frame of reference, no stars to guide my way, no astralobe to navigate the unknown waters, I inch precariously forward. I find myself on what I discover ( too late) is the slope: the angled drop off on the thresh-hold between shallow and deep. Unable to access strategies of buoyancy, change of direction, deceleration, or common sense, I pathetically flap at the water and realize that the bottom is slipping away from me and there is absolutely nothing I can do but die a death of shame and ignorance, without even the nobility of hypothermia. To compound this horror, a woman on the pool deck is throwing all manner and shape of objects at me, oblivious to my inability to recognize them as buoyant aids; dodging them as best I can, I submit to a death by water that will be as undignified and brutal as it is pathetic. Finally, she jumps in, grabs me, and pulls me to the side. I have just been rescued by my first year activity course professor, an inauspicious beginning for a physical education major who must pass a swimming course in third year in order to satisfy her degree requirements.

Finding no lower level, I register for pre-beginner swim lessons at the YMCA: Thursdays, 7-8 pm; my instructor's name is Joe Lake. Joe Lake is about 5'6"and 250 lbs.--he is a buoyant man and a fine swimmer. Class number three " we" are to jump in the deep end. The royal " we" still evades me at 8:00pm. Joe Lake asks if I'd like to stay and keep working on it. I learn the meaning of progression. I have moved beyond my earlier aversion to buoyant aids and am wearing three of them--a swim belt, a life jacket, and water wings. I hold the looped end of the "staff of life" reaching assist; Joe Lake holds the other. No one laughs; this is grim business. I jump in, Joe Lake pulls me to the side. We gradually remove buoyant aid and reach assist combinations until I jump in, unaided. Joe Lake bobs in the water nearby in case I need his help, but I paddle to the side and eventually, the shallow end. We sit on the deck with our feet in the water; it is an hour later. Everything has changed. Joe Lake says to me, EMM, you will be a good teacher because you understand fear.

My nose bleeds for three days, but it is nothing in the face of this terrifying wonder I feel: I will not die in a swimming pool, I will be a good teacher, and I understand fear. Over the next 15 years I will teach hundreds of terrified adults and children how to swim because I understand fear; I will save two children from drowning because I understand fear; my brother will drown in three feet of water on his vacation because no one around him understood fear; my assistantship during my graduate program will be in advanced aquatics. Swimming is both leisure and irony; it is no longer folly.

It is many years later and I doubt that Joe Lake agonizes over memories of me or the countless others he has shepherded into the depths. Fear--both spoken and unspoken --has kept me hungry through these years. I have opened the doors of most of the rooms in my head and am not nearly as terrified as I used to be; a life of reflection and commitment to unsparing self-honesty has left me competent, still curious, and puzzled about lots of things.... and profoundly humble. There is much to learn. I am not easily intimidated; I crave neither approval nor praise; I do not wield my intellect as a weapon. Neither my students nor my colleagues fear for their dignity in their dealings with me, yet, dissonance remains a strong feature in my learning, leadership and creative contexts. I think about the role of my unspoken fears in my life as a mother, a partner, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a teacher...and I wonder if I am short-changing my son, partner, parents, sister, brothers, friends, students; after all, survivors like me have responsibilities: we can't let someone drown where we were saved.

What are the depths I need to explore? Will I be willing to explore these depths, to brave the silence and the speaking? Will I know another's fear when I see it? Will I recognize my own? Pre-occupied with my inability to settle for mediocrity and complacency in myself and, if I am honest, in others, I often feel that bottom slipping away, those pathetic flapping attempts at warding off my own irrelevance. One hour of Joe Lake's life changed my life. What is my unspoken fear? Not giving that hour; being too busy with " more important things" ; not recognizing the depths or the fears in others ... in myself. This is my fear, my fuel, my muse, my hope.

Thanks, Joe.


  1. today I need to remember that teaching does make a difference and that no matter how mean and sad and baffling things seem, there are acts of open-heartedness and kindness that can touch the deepest hurt...

  2. I love this story...

    and you should know intrinsically that teaching does make a difference... I have no doubts of that... especially when I think of how much you've taught me in such a short time with your kindness, honesty, and caring...

    I hope that you're alright

  3. This story is so wonderfully written and lovely and heart touching ...I am reminded of the fears I know
    Love this post

  4. Jon-- thanks for this; of course I do know in my heart that it makes a difference and I am glad that it means something to you...that is the most meaningful feeling of all for me. I think I am weary from double standards and deceit... and yesterday there was a whack of it... yes, I am alright...honest!

    Linda-- glad you liked this. Joe is a real person... I owe him a lot.

  5. Of the many relevant questions asked in the last paragraph of this journey there is only one answer from an outsider. Only you know the intent of the questions and therefor only you can find the answers...Teacher.

  6. I am happy that I read your post. Today was an especially difficult one. A feeling of complete powerlessness surrounded my teaching day. You are my Joe Lake, thank you.


  7. WM-- a wonderful reminder of the best places to look.
    MIMI-- teaching: if you care, it's the toughest "job"there is... I accept your compliment; and since I know what an amazing teacher you are, it means so much to me...

  8. I woke this morning wondering how I was going to talk to my daughter about her need to move on, to not become comfortable living here with me. She is becoming dependent, instead of independent, and I was concerned how I would tell her what I needed to say. I don't want her to think that I don't love her, for I do, with all my heart, and my grandson, as well. They need to have a home of their own, where I am an occasional visitor, not their landlord.

    Your tribute to Joe Lake has been a good guide to my this morning, Harlequin. I will try Joe's patient way...for I know, too well, the experience and fears of being homeless.

    Thank you for telling us about Joe.


  9. Crow-- I am glad that Joe can still shepherd people into the depths... he was quite good at it!!

  10. A pleasent read this early morning.

  11. Punch-- welcome and thank you. This narrative has been such a wonderful touchstone for me... and I like seeing how it works for other readers.