Spring and fall in my childhood were marked by the sound of pages turning. While I hid inside, the rest of the neighborhood children gathered for games of tag, kickball, or kick the can. I discovered early in life that I lacked competitive drive and coordination, which straddled the line between comical and tragic. So the shouts of laughter that carried across the green space outside and into our kitchen weren’t enough to stir me from reading.
Illustration by Adam Cruft
Summer was different. From the day the neighborhood pool opened, my voice joined the chorus of kids shouting “Watch me” and laughter that echoed across the chlorinated water. The pool was where I excelled, where suddenly my arms and legs behaved the way I expected. I became a fish. A mermaid. A dolphin.
Between popsicles, bathroom breaks, and breath-holding competitions, I would stand on the edge of the pool deck with my back to the water. Over and over and over, I would lift my arms, arch my back, and push off with my toes, following the arc of the sky as I dove backwards into the water. It was the best move I knew and made me feel as if I had a kid-sized superpower.
The pool was a source of such delight during my childhood that in my freshman year of high school, I joined the swim team. But I quickly realized I wasn’t cut out for competitive swimming. I came to dread the final school bell of the day, signaling that it was time for practice. I swam lap after lap in a dimly lit indoor pool, lagging behind my teammates and wondering what was wrong with me.
Then when a routine physical revealed a potential heart murmur, I skipped practice for further testing. The ultrasound was inconclusive, but I used the results as an exit strategy from competitive swimming. It had become too painful to see my teammates’ faces when I was assigned to a relay, or to perpetually rise sputtering and exhausted from a final lap, only to find myself in last place. The joy I once knew in the water had been snuffed out.
It was this high school swim team experience that haunted me decades later, when my husband and I decided to put a pool in our yard for our three children. I rarely joined my family in the water. But every once in a while, their shouts and splashes would greet me kindly in the kitchen and stir old memories of those mermaid years.
One afternoon, at my husband’s encouragement, I put on my swimsuit and attempted my old back dive in our pool. Michael cheered for me from a pool floatie as I slowly raised my arms and created a long curve with my body, arching from ground to sky to water. With that single dive, I saw that I’m still the girl with a wonderful trick, and she’s still me. Not only did I experience joy in that single splash, but I sensed that my life brings God pleasure.
I don’t know if I’ll attempt more back dives this summer. Maybe it’s enough to know that I can re-engage with the glorious parts of myself that were lost to the harsh realities of life. When I think of mermaid me, I can’t help but smile. This reclamation reminds me that there is more goodness to retrieve from my younger self. I am still that girl, and she delights me.