By Patricia Conover
“All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea…we are going back from whence we came.”
— John Fitzgerald Kennedy
In one of my earliest memories, I am standing at the edge of the ocean. My feet are burning on hot summer sand as I watch my mother swim. Effortless, elegant silky strokes through blue-green water.
So much majesty.
So much fear.
On a visceral level I understand that the ocean is beautiful, strange and powerful. I am drawn to the sea and I am afraid.
My mother calls to me and I wade in. She teaches me how to float. She shows me how to move in the water. She reminds me to breathe.
(Oh, how lucky I am to have a mother who loved the sea.)
Another memory: Swimming in the ocean for hours. My mother has packed a picnic basket with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a thermos of orange juice. She calls to us. My brothers and sister and I climb out, shivering, lips purple and hands and feet wrinkled. We wrap ourselves in beach towels and devour lunch.
We know that we will die if we dive in before a half hour is up. We walk to the bay to look for crabs. We fill our pails with shells and sea glass and pieces of sea creatures. We chase butterflies but can never catch them. Now it is time to swim again. We dive in and we do not emerge again until the sun dips below the horizon.
All through college I swim in an enormous lap pool beneath timber beams. Later, in New York City, I wake up at 5:00 a.m. to swim at the Y around the corner from my apartment before work. When I move to Oregon with my growing family we have a neighborhood pool and the vast Pacific Ocean. Our next move — to France — offers the grey Atlantic Ocean and the azure Mediterranean Sea.
To swim is to be human. Paintings over 10,000 years old in a cave in Egypt depict swimmers who appear to do the breaststroke. Swimming is mentioned in the Iliad and the Odyssey.
To swim is to meditate. The rhythm of the body moving through water is calm and peaceful. Swimming is mindfulness. Anxiety melts away.
To swim is to produce endorphins, improve oxygen flow, and strengthen muscles. Swimming for only one half hour a day improves heart health.
The sea has its own peculiar magic. It calls to us — a seduction like the mermaid’s siren call. It is beautiful, mesmerizing and deadly.
Once I was caught in a riptide in the ocean off the tip of Long Island. A college friend and I had jumped in to help a stranger who was in distress. Once we were in deep water and near the drowning man, our eyes met. Panic. We both realized that we were out of our depth. We yelled until we were hoarse, “Swim parallel to the shore,” which we attempted to do as well. He did not seem to hear us. An inner voice — my mother’s voice — told me not to struggle, to remain calm, to breathe.
After what seemed like hours but was really only about twenty minutes of hard swimming, the three of us rode a wave back to shore. We lay gasping, panting, coughing, hugging, salt tears running down our faces, as beachcombers strolled by and looked at us with curiosity.
Today I dive deep into an ocean on the other side of the globe. The cold clear water takes my breath away. I remember not to buck the tide. Long strokes, even kicks, measured breathing. My mind, floating in my skull, empties itself of the world and all its cares. It is a sacred time: The sun is setting and the sky and the sea and the night are becoming one. Tiny bright stars appear and the pale moon is reflected on the shimmering dark water. Here, in my element, I am serene in the face of eternity.
The sea reminds us that we can never be still for long. Take the plunge. It is best not to struggle. Keep moving, always moving, always forward.
And don’t forget to breathe.
Patricia Conover spent her early professional career in the editorial departments of G.P Putnam’s Sons and Random House in New York City. She began her writing career when she moved with her husband and three daughters to Portland, Oregon. Her work ranges from an overview of women in architecture to expat strategies in pursuit of an international education.
Patricia teaches writing workshops in schools and libraries in both the United States and France. An advocate for literacy, she’s volunteered many hours to teaching reading and writing to primary, middle and high school students. She is currently a project editor and writer for Going Global, a multi-platform site that offers guides for expats.
Editor’s note: I met Patricia back in the days when I was a new editor in a suburban bureau at The Oregonian and she was a young mom, looking to get started as a freelance writer. She got the gig and since then her byline has appeared in The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications. After ten years in Paris, Patricia (and Kirk) have lived and worked in a suburb of New York City for the past two years.
Tomorrow: Sharon Tjaden-Glass, Being creative — while being a parent