Monday, January 11, 2010

The Swimming Lesson - January 8, 2010

...Somebody, I suppose,

Remembering the medieval maxim,

Had tossed me in,

Had wanted me to learn to swim,

Not knowing that none of us, who ever came back

From that long lonely fall and frenzied rising,

ever learned anything at all

About swimming, but only

How to put off, once by one,

dreams and pity, love and grace,-

How to survive in any place.

Below is a story of how once I threw in a juvenile penguin into icy waters so that she would be forced to learn to swim. At that time it was joyous to hold and release such wildness. Now I recall how with so many animals, friends, and family I have "forced" them to learn something so that they learn to survive, while I unlearn love and close the door to grace. I, the inheritor of ancient maxims, long to live beyond laws into love.


I have loved penguins since I was a small child. They are birds and can swim, and can withstand harsh ocean environments. This combination made them irresistible and heroic to me. I was a swimmer myself who sometimes felt, like the penguins, a little round and off balance on land.

When I was in my early thirties, I lived in Alaska and California. I traveled often up and down the West Coast. One of my favorite stops was the Portland Zoo. A good friend worked there and would let me wander around with her while she fulfilled her obligations. One day she invited me into the Penguin enclosure. There the penguin caretaker introduced me to the fledgling Humboldt penguins and let me feed them their silver, slippery fish. After we fed the young penguins the caretaker picked up one of the young, somewhat fluffy birds and threw her or him into the swirling mass of penguins swimming around the rocks. The shock to me was as great as it must have been to the bird. "Why did you do that?" I asked.

"It’s because the birds need to learn to swim and need to socialize with the flock, and they won’t go into the water unless there is a physiological impulse, which we don’t have here in captivity. So we have to throw them in. Would you like to throw one?" I was appalled and shook my head no. I watched her throw a number of penguins. It didn’t seem to hurt the birds. The urge to throw one began to grow along with the awareness that I might never get another chance. So I stepped up the mound of rock upon which the remaining dubious looking youngsters huddled, choose a likely candidate, did my penguin pitchers wind up, and let her fly. With a satisfying plunk the bird entered the water, came up bobbing, and scrambled onto the rocks next to me. I smiled deeply and broadly, my glee originating in imagining someone picking me up and throwing me in so that I could swim with these mighty ocean goers.

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