I’ve been MIA for a bit. Sorry about that. Work and life and blah blah blah. But I plan to get back to regular posting for realz in the new year. I’ve said that before, but this time, I means it! Well…I always means it.
So here’s hoping this time I can dos it, too.
For now, here’s a little something I’ve been fiddling with the last several months. It’s another story about swimming. It’s also about realizing that, no matter what age you are, you’re younger than you feel.
There’s power in that, and strength if you can dig it up, brush it off, and put it on before it slips away from you like the line from that poem you liked so much in college, whose author’s name has long fled the recesses of your memory and, without that key line, will never re-enter it no matter how long you Google. (Or like something more relatable to you, reader, if you weren’t a nerdy English major. No judgement.)
It occurred me toward the end of last summer that I hadn’t been to Barton Springs all year — and that I hadn’t actually been once since I’d moved to Austin the year before. It seemed like a damn shame to miss out two summers in a row. After all, if I hadn’t moved to Austin to do things like swim in a pool that was also a natural spring, what the hell had I moved here for?
So I took a Friday off work toward the end of September to take myself for a swim. I planned to go be one of the privileged few who could hit the springs midday on a weekday. It was going to be peaceful, meditative, zen-like…
Turns out there are considerably more than a privileged few that are unoccupied midday on a week day, and fancy a dip.
I arrived at the park and all the nearby parking spots were full. The space I found was several lots away at the top of a hill that looked down on the springs. To get down to the water, I had to gingerly pick my way down poorly maintained limestone steps — or what was left of them.
They were cracked in some places, missing altogether in others. The few steps that were whole I deemed untrustworthy. Those steps were probably just one or two usages away from sharing the fate of their fellows.
Channeling my inner billy goat, I was able to make it down without any missteps (ha!).
It was during my premature moment of triumph at the springs’ entrance that I realized I’d made a stupid mistake. I’d assumed the pool was like a public park, and as such, admittance was free.
It’s practically free, but not entirely free. The entrance fee is a piddly $3 for Austin residents — totally doable, if you happen to have your wallet on you. But because I’d come by myself, I’d left all my valuables in my car. I didn’t want to chance them getting snatched up while I was out in the water, and my phone and wallet couldn’t really come with me for a swim.
I nearly decided to leave. It seemed the day’s deck was stacked against me. This place was so much more crowded than I’d anticipated. I could hear kids gleefully shrieking from behind the gate. Did I really want to walk into that of my own free will? This was my day off, after all. Maybe I should just go for a drive. Get lost. See what happened after that.
But…I was right there. I could see the water, if just barely. I wanted to see all of it. The only thing between me and satisfying that curiosity was the distance to my car and back.
I turned and started toward my car, and my wallet. My ticket to ride.
At the base of the hill, I saw an elderly couple in their 70s or 80s. The man had a cane, and the woman was leaning on him as they carefully climbed down those poor excuses for steps. Looking at them, I thought maybe I should quit my bitching.
After all, I’m pretty young. I won’t always be young, but right now, at 28, I am. The worst that could happen if I fell down this hill would probably be some scrapes and bruising. Maybe a sprain. Maybe.
If either of these people fell down, it would be devastating. Broken bones. Potentially wheel-chair bound for the rest of their lives. And yet, here they were, braving the stairs for a chance to swim in the springs. I could do that, too. And do it with a dash of gratitude.
I got back to the car, grabbed a credit card, paid my $3 at a little kiosk, turned in my ticket, and walked through the metal gate.
Now’s a good time to mention that I was born in Austin and lived here until I was 5. Because I have awesome parents, we went to this pool quite a lot in the summers. This little trip was my first time to come back as an adult.
As a kid, I remember thinking Barton Springs was the weirdest thing. I remember it was set up like a swimming pool, with a diving board and ladders around to go up and down and depth markers…but the water wasn’t blue. It was clear. Like drinking water.
In my memory, the pool was enormous and went on forever. It was probably 100x the length of a typical backyard pool. It was really like a river with cement sides on it and no current. No beginning, no end.
In reality, it’s pretty big, but there’s definitely a beginning and an end. You can stand in the center and see both without straining.
But the rest of my memory is pretty accurate. It is a strange sort of thing, set up like a swimming pool but with clear water instead of chlorinated.
I’ve never been the type to just jump right into water. I’ve always been a person who needs to ease in a toe at a time, inch-by-inch, slowly adjusting. I don’t care what anyone says, whether it has to do with band-aids or water, just ripping it off, or just jumping in, is far less pleasant than doing it slowly, with control.
I walked to the shallowest end of the springs and stepped in. It was freezing. I’d expected this. My childhood memory of the springs had assured me that my first steps into the water would feel something like stepping into ice buckets.
But it was nice and hot outside of the pool, so the contrast was a welcome one.
I slowly walked forward, toward the deeper end of the pool.
The bottom of Barton Springs, unlike a regular swimming pool, isn’t rough cement that lets your feet grip it for stabilization. It’s rock covered in algae. It’s slick.
Which is very helpful for those of us who like to ease into cold water at an agonizingly slow rate — speeds up the process quite a bit. The best of inchers can probably only make it about two minutes (or calf-deep), before losing their balance and falling in an excruciating thigh-deep, a depth not scheduled for acceptance for another ten minutes at least.
The good thing about getting a chunk of your body wet is that you want to keep it wet so that the wind won’t hit it and make the cold worse. Three slips later and I was in up to my shoulders, about midway down the pool. At that point, I dunked my head. I was officially swimming, and it felt glorious.
I picked my feet up off the ground and swam a few more feet into the deep end, about a foot taller than I was. I did water angels. I bobbed. I basked. I floated. It was wonderful and freeing and everything I’d signed up for — even the little kids’ screaming somehow seemed charming and carefree and only served to underline the delightfulness of the whole thing.
And that’s when I noticed the diving board.
I hardly ever get an opportunity to jump off of a diving board these days, and from what I remember of being a kid at friends’ houses, that was pretty much the most fun part of swimming.
You could do a canon ball, or a jack-knife, or maybe a flip (not me, never me, but my brothers did) or an actual dive if it was deep enough. You could jump into the safety of the water. Jump and be caught by its cool embrace. Make a big splash. Big enough to get the grownups wet, if you did it right.
The last time I’d jumped off a diving board must have been in middle school. I probably had no idea at the time that it would be the last.
There are lots of things like that…I used to do gymnastics. I wasn’t great, but I got a whole bar routine down once. Well, almost. Couldn’t ever quite get that back-hip circle. But I could do some cool other stuff.
I wondered what was my last time to show off that nearly completed routine, and if I’d enjoyed my ability to do those seemingly impossible things with my limbs as much as I remembered I did. I hoped so.
It’s better not to know when it’s the last time you’ll do something. Best to always keep the opportunity open. Otherwise, it ruins it.
Whenever I go on a trip, it doesn’t matter how far the destination, I always tell myself, I’ll be back here. One day. Who knows when. But I’ll be back to say hello again to all the fun I’ve had, and to make more of it.
If I couldn’t tell myself that, I’d never be able to enjoy a second of anything. It would become too precious. It’d be like an expensive gift of clothing or perfume or similar. It would just sit there, unused, waiting for some special occasion, and no occasion would ever be special enough, so it would never, ever get fully enjoyed, and ironically become worthless.
I got out of the pool and decided I was going to go off of that diving board, dammit.
But first I wanted to sit on the side and observe how it all worked. There’s an etiquette to things like that, things where you take turns with strangers to enjoy something…like pool tables or tennis courts or lanes at the gym swimming pool. And no two works the same. So I sat, and I watched.
It seemed there was a sort of line. But it wasn’t a very organized one, as far as I could tell. About 7 people were standing perpendicular to the board, with no clear beginning or end. And at some sort of cadence they’d all seemed to agree upon through the power of telepathy, one would go, then another. The position in line didn’t seem to matter.
That made me nervous. How was I supposed to join it, and how was I to know when it was my turn?
And I was reminded of feeling a similar, unrealistic fear when I was younger. A fear of having waiters and waitresses ask me my order. Or of having to tell the person behind the counter at a fast food place whether I wanted cheese on my burger or not. A fear of having to speak to a stranger.
I was surprised to feel that fear again at 28. Afraid to just ask, “hey, who’s last in line?”
These days, I typically have no problem telling a waiter I’d like a steak, medium rare. Or telling the person behind the speaker at Sonic, hell yes, cheese, please.
After examining it, I decided it had to do with being somewhere unfamiliar, doing something unfamiliar. The unfamiliar can make me cautious. Unreasonably afraid of doing the wrong thing the wrong way.
It was good to see that for what it was, though. Because as soon as I had a name for the fear, the fear of fucking asking a person if I was next in line, the fear of doing something incredibly easy, if looked at the right way, I could see it for what it was: ridiculous.
This wasn’t something. But if I didn’t do it, if I let the fear keep me from it, it would become something. Something sour. Something shameful. Something with the power to keep me from doing something else, something like this, whether related or not, further down the line.
I walked up to the line. One person went, then another. I turned to the person on my left and asked, “are you next, or am I?”
“Oh — go ahead,” she said.
And like that I was on the board.
Another fear gripped me at that point — a physical, fight or flight kind of fear: the fear of skinning my back on the board, something I my brothers had told me when I was younger was not only possible but happened all the time.
But at least a dozen people were watching me. And half a dozen were waiting on me, because they were ready for their turns. I had to jump. And I had to do it quickly.
Off I went.
It wasn’t graceful. I bounced before I lept, not out of planning, out of awkwardness. And when I went into the water, it wasn’t a canon ball so much as a surprise fall, legs and arms completely on their own, no plan executed on where to locate those. But I didn’t skin my back. And no one laughed. (Or, at least, not within earshot.)
I survived and I felt pretty pleased with myself, but I also didn’t feel the need to get back up and dive again. Instead I decided to hang out and be one of the dozen or so who watched.
Shortly after me, a dad with his three blonde daughters showed up at the board. They could have been triplets, had they not been three different heights.
The oldest, who looked about 10, braved the board first. It took her a minute to work up the courage, but she jumped, probably thinking the humiliation of not jumping in front of her sisters far outweighed the fear of death. Next, the middle girl went up there.
But the chance for humiliation wasn’t strong enough to compel her to jump. She went back.
The second she at her father’s side, the youngest little girl went flying off the board, completely unafraid, having the time of her life. She went back three times immediately after that.
The older girl went once again.
The middle girl walked on a second time. She looked down at the water. She looked up at the lifeguard. She looked back at her sisters. She looked down at the water again.
She walked back to her dad.
Oh, no. I thought. You have to jump. You have to do this. You have to do it now, today. If you don’t, you’ll go home and regret it for the rest of your life (or at least the rest of this week). This is so important. You don’t know it yet, but it is.
Jump. Do it. Do it to prove to yourself that you’re brave. That you can do difficult, scary things.
The youngest went back at least six times. She was going to live forever, in that way you only are when you’re five or so years old and you haven’t heard or seen enough to know any different.
She was also probably showing off to that middle sister. A sort of na-na-nee-boo-boo, I can do something you can’t do! Little shit.
But it worked. The sixth time she went off the board with that “I’m braver than my big sis” look on her face, the middle one couldn’t stand it any longer.
She got on that board, took a single cautious look at the water that seemed so impossibly far below, closed her eyes, and lept.
When she surfaced, she was grinning. And I was, too. She’d made both of our days.
Try anything new lately? Do anything scary? Leave your story in the comments! I love me a good story. And if you liked this one, share it on the social medias :)
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Later party people. Let’s go off and do small, brave things. Or big ones. Whatever your brand of brandy.