Eigenzeit: Swimming on One’s Own Time
Welcome to Spirit: Notes for the Creative Contemplative, where I discuss the role of literature, creativity, and mindfulness in culture through personal essays. I’m the author of What Will Outlast Me? (forthcoming 2023 from Unsolicited Press), and I’m the founder of Writers’ Studio, a literary arts education program in Corpus Christi, Texas.
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Last month, my son, Stanley started swim lessons at AquaTots. He’s five now, and has finally gotten his shot of COVID vaccine, and is deeply troubled by having to go under the water instead of bobbing above it with floaties on. Two and a half years ago, I’d imagined that Stanley would learn to swim in Mommy and Me classes, and that it would be a magical bonding experience for both of us. He would be young enough that he wouldn’t fear the water. He’d learn to love swimming as much I do, and he’d take to the experience, well, like a fish in water. But then, COVID shut down everything.
Here we are years late to the pool. The pandemic continues, but in our post-vaccine world we feel bravely buffered by vaccination immunity. We are taking swimming lessons three times a week in corporate franchised model that promises 7-levels of success. AquaTots is the McDonald’s of water safety instruction, which is to say, based on the hundreds of kids that churn through its chlorinated waters, it’s a model of efficiency and standardization. The lobby is full of bright, primary colors and sturdy pleather furniture. Laminated skills cards with trademarked characters track each child’s progress. Stanley’s a level 3 Leapfrog, and there are neat columns of checklists and stars to be earned.
But human beings aren’t standardized. We contain too many complex multitudes. Stanley was not having any of it. He spent one lesson clinging to the pool gutter and refused to practice any water skill. His befuddled coach didn’t force him through the paces. As I watched from the lobby, behind the window in the spectator’s space, I had mixed feelings. We’re not getting our money’s worth vied in my mind with, at least they’re respecting his bodily autonomy. When Stanley screamed, “No, I don’t want to! And “No, don’t. Stop!” His coach listened.
I don’t know why Stanley is so terrified of the water, or what combination of his personality, genetics, and past experiences have made the sensation of putting his face underwater such a terrifying ordeal. For a week when his terror levels were at their highest, I was painfully aware of the scene he made every time his coach called him to the pool deck, and he wailed, cried, and went limp with a passive resistance any picket line protestor would admire. I noticed how his swim classmates were more advanced that Stanley, floating and kicking with ease.
My own stomach roiled with the shame of the judgmental looks on the other parents’ faces as I dragged Stanley, limp and wailing to the pool, with the worry I was cruelly traumatizing my son, and with the fear that if he didn’t learn to swim, he’d someday fall victim to drowning.
We powered through our non-refundable month. I talked with Stanley before lessons about how Coach Lilli wouldn’t let him get hurt. I talked about how being brave means you do something even if it’s scary. I talked up the coveted DumDum lollipops the front desk manager handed out after lessons as a reward.
After one lesson that I thought had went better than most, just as I was strapping him in his car seat to leave, he burst out, “I just don’t want to be in the water, ever!” His lips and tongues were already stained red from the coveted lollipop.
“I know, but you need to so you won’t drown.”
I’m sure my adult logic made no sense to him, but I’m as keyed up by fear as Stanley is. That old anxiety I had about SIDS has now been transferred to drowning. I’m trying to safeguard him from peril, prepare him for a future of pool parties and beach-going. Our wills are locked in this impasse. He refuses to loosen up enough to practice swim skills and fiercely grits his baby teeth when his coach bobs him underwater.
It will take time. He’ll get it, echoed a chorus of voices: Stanley’s dad, grandma, coach. I had to readjust my expectations that there’s no shortcut or fast track for getting Stanley to feel comfortable in the water. So many things in life are like that. They are eigenzeit. It comes from the German ‘eigen’, meaning one’s own, and ‘zeit’, meaning time. It’s a reminder that “It takes as long as it takes,” especially if the task at hand is complex. Stanley’s learning to swim eigenzeit. He’s on his own time.
What feels like stalled progress often isn’t. After two weeks, Stanley only had one star and dozens of empty boxes listing what we hope for him to accomplish in the water, but he’s making the kind of progress that’s nearly invisible. Sometimes I feel starless, too, like my capacity for growing, learning, and creating is so slow and tiny that it hardly feels like I’m making progress at all.
As creatives, we’re all on eigenzeit too. I’ve been at work on the current book for over a year now, and though I’ve filled my Mosquito notebook, I’m dismayed that I don’t have a complete first draft yet. When I started my third notebook of the project, I emblazoned on the cover, Eigenzeit, to remind myself that sustaining a dedicated practice without stopping is more important than counting gold stars.
One night, Stanley wanted to play swim lesson in the bathtub.
“You be the kid. I’m the coach,” he said, instructing me to do dips with my hand.
“I don’t want to go underwater,” I whined.
“You have to.” He showed me how, and I did it while feigning fear. Stanley needed an imaginative space to act out a scenario of swim lessons in which he had control, and it’s led, every so slowly to more confidence in the pool.
We’ve signed up for a second month of swim lessons. Stanley doesn’t cry any more, and now I watch the newer kids have meltdowns as they’re hoisted by their embarrassed parents into the pool. Stanley’s also started to develop a sense of pride. He comes out of the lesson with his eyes rimmed red from his goggles and slaps my hand with a hard high-five. It’s something of wonder to see him amazed by his own capacity to do front floats, bobs, back bloats, that used to be impossible.
Yesterday, I even caught him practicing front float dips at the edge of the pool while his coach worked with another kid. Suddenly, his skill card is now sprinkled with a dozen stars. Stanley’s sped up, but I still know he’s on his own time, and for now, we’re lucky enough to honor that. I’m honoring my own writing time too, it takes as long as it takes.
I’d love to hear about your creative experiences with eigenzeit.
When have you felt frustrated by slow progress on a project?
How do you deal with feeling like you’re “behind” in creative work?