At my daughter’s swim lesson a few years ago, an enthusiastic teacher stood hip-deep in the pool with a plastic clipboard, laminated sheet, and wax pencil. The eight-year-olds water-wheeled by, chins awkwardly raised above the surface in desperate attempts to doggy paddle their way through the crawl. As they passed he shouted, “Relax! Relax! Relax!” The poor kids tightened their shoulders and flailed. From my bench on the pool deck, wishing Gwyn would learn to love swimming as much as I do, I despaired at the idiocy of adults. It reminded me of a moment on a Mississippi canoe tour after a picnic lunch, when our flotilla was half launched, waiting for the stragglers on shore. A mom stood outside the port-a-potty, screaming in frustration at her son, “Poop faster!”
When it comes to relaxation, yelling is unequivocally counterproductive. Why then, waiting at our back door to get Gwyn to school, do I repeatedly, impatiently shout for Gwyn to “poop faster”? And last solstice, when I landed on “relaxation” as the word to guide me through 2023, why did some over-eager voice within begin urging, “Relax! Relax! Relax!”?
Oy vey. The chasm between self-awareness and behavior modification is frightful.
It’s interesting, though, that as soon as I set my intention to sail calmly through the new year, my first impulse was to crack the whip. Since then I’m trying gentler, more effective means: Closing my eyes, releasing tension in my cheeks and jaw, letting my tongue sag. Making sure both feet are firmly on the floor. Taking three slow breaths. Allowing a buffer of silence before I speak. The relaxation I seek isn’t vegging out in front of the TV or lounging on a tropical beach; it’s an easing into each moment with full trust that I have all I need to flourish. I want to enter my writing in a spirit of effortless play. I want to face my cascading emails and the horrific daily news and the moody surprises of my teenager with equanimity and grace.
I’ve heard chiropractors say that the more we tense up in a car crash or icy sidewalk fall, the more prone we are to injury. Our instinctive efforts to protect ourselves make matters worse. If that’s true in an emergency, certainly it applies elsewhere, at my writing desk, say, where straining usually contributes to a sort of collision on the page with its resulting casualties. What would it look like to write the same way I swim? Muscles loose, jaw slack, body buoyant. Easeful, graceful even, as I pull myself forward. So sure the water will hold me, technique and self-awareness fall away, leaving only a cellular knowing. At my desk, in my relationships, in front of a classroom, when my well-intentioned but ignorant inner swim teacher begins shouting for me to relax, I just need to remember the ease my body already knows. I am, after all, made of water.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew