Thursday, January 14, 2010


You know how you have these random recurring memories of certain experiences in your life? Like something that happened in childhood, and the thought will just pop up over and over in the course of your life in different situations. And I'm not talking about anything traumatic, just small occurrences.

I have this one where I am in a swimming lesson. I must have been about eight years old. Every summer my mom would sign me up for swimming lessons at New Trier, East or West I couldn't say, don't remember. I would walk down to the bus stop and a bunch of us kids would ride along together, bouncing in the springy seats, singing corny camp songs like "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," "Found a Peanut," and "Old Hogan's Goat." Fortunately I had this experience because I never did end up going to camp.

Anyway, the memory is not about the bus, or even about swimming, really. It is about being in "the zone." The swimming pool was huge and there were groups of kids clustered all the way around it, according to their different skill levels. I had made it up to the last of the beginner-ish groups, the one just before moving up to the diving board. I am thinking I was not too anxious to get to that rank. I had never been on a diving board and was not in a hurry to jump off of one.

The way you moved up, as I recall, was that some sort of adult evaluators would walk around the edge of the pool, observing the swimmers. When they saw someone they felt was ready to advance they would point them out, somewhat like judges at a competition, I guess. (I've never competed at anything either.)

Well, one day in my comfortable and appropriate group, swimming away, I felt the presence of one of the "judges" shadowing overhead. I just had a couple of strokes to the end of the pool and suddenly, I felt myself enter "the zone" of completely graceful and elegant swimming. My arms curved perfectly as my fingers almost imperceptibly parted the water, my legs gently bent at the knees--not too much--just perfectly. I had never swum so beautifully in all my life, and it only lasted a moment, literally. It just happened at that particular time when the grader was watching. Immediately he pointed me out for promotion as of course I knew he probably would.

I was proud, happy that such a thing had occurred while someone was actually watching. And then, the terror struck. Oh no!! I was going to have to go to the diving board! And I don't remember much after that. The memory is about being in "the zone," and feeling like an impostor because it really was only for a couple seconds I could actually pull it off. Or so I thought.

It reminds me of Peter, when he walks out on the water with Jesus, until he starts freaking out and thinks,I'm guessing,"What am I doing? I can't do this!" Then he begins to sink. It's not exactly like that, but maybe it is somewhat; in that the abilities I have are given to me by God, and when I see myself exceeding my wildest expectations of what I think I can do, I panic, and fall out of "the zone." Hmm, I am pondering, what does this have to do with walking with Jesus? I am not prepared to answer that just now.

Anyway, a very similar thing happens to me when playing the piano. I have never put the time into practicing enough to be consistently as good as I can at random moments when I fall into "the zone" of truly artistic piano playing. But when it happens, I inevitably find my mind wandering back to that swimming pool, and how absolutely fulfilling it is to feel your whole being working together seamlessly, gloriously, to express something inexpressible, a beauty that is greater than what you are actually capable of--"the zone." And then terror strikes and I make a mistake, like waking up from a beautiful dream. Or maybe falling out of bed.

Like I said, I have never competed, never stuck to anything long enough or put my heart and soul into anything to find out what it might be like to actually spend more time in this "zone." I guess that is called being an "underachiever." But at the age of 47, I am not so much afraid anymore of trying as I am of not trying.

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