On Doubts

Recently I’ve been finding myself doubting some things that I’ve always done.

I put it down to COVID of course. With the once in a century shut down of planet earth its easy to start to scrabble at the edges of everything you’ve held sacrosanct and pick holes in things you believed were too strong to fail. I’ve seen it with lots of friend too. A wave of teetolarianism and vegetarianism is sweeping through my friendship group, accompanied by the dual waves of exercising and going to therapy. Everyone I know is going to therapy. It’s great. Inspiring. Beautiful. We’ve learnt to think and talk about our feelings. Is this related to the ongoing stress of this global pandemic? Or is it just merely a reflection that we’re getting older (and maybe now able to pony up the therapy fees that we couldn’t have done in our 20s).

So what am I doubting?

I had this funny realisation about breathing the other day: two of the things I’m struggling with both involve knuckling down on this thing that I’ve literally done every ten seconds since day dot. I want to sing long notes with vibrato. Breathing issues. I want to swim freestyle in the pool. Breathing issues. And somewhere here in between is me, knowing how to breathe but battling against the sinking feeling that its hard to do, or I’ve forgotten what the best method is. Strange. I need to step back to the unconscious mind, where the body finds the most effective way to fuel itself with oxygen. But to get there I kind of need to intellectualise the process, work through it in slow motion, find the points where it falls apart and work through them.

The basic gist is simple. I stand bent over in the pool with my head half in the water. I blow all my air out, turn to one side and snatch a breath, turn back and blow it out again. While this all occurs I mumble ‘bubble bubble bubble’ to myself. I just need to do this long enough that I find the correct pace where I can do it forever. Ergo I now live in the shallow end of the pool, snatching breaths in little snippets from the sides of my mouth. Brilliant.

In the lane next to me a handful of five year olds spurt past, kicking water in big splashes up in to the air. None of them struggle with breathing. None of them even think about breathing. They just splash around until they run out of breath and then suck air in to their lungs and then keep splashing. It’s natural. Easy. Effortless. Almost as effortless as just taking in breaths. I breathe in and out as I write. I breathe in and out as I sleep. I’ve never thought about my breath until I started doing these things that interrupt my natural flow and now its harder than ever to take breath because I have to think about when it happens and how it happens and how it feels when it happens correctly and why I’ve forgotten how to do it and all these thoughts are flooding past while water is flooding up my nose and in to my lungs and I’m sinking like a stone in the shallow end of the pool next to these five year old kids.

The next week I sign up for swimming lessons, with a bemused looking instructor. She’s a middle aged Italian woman, charged with teaching beginner adult swimming on Monday nights. Her two pupils are me, who can swim, but can’t internalise the breathing part and flounders his two legs like the most awkward of octopi, and a teenage girl who has never swum a stroke and refuses to put her head under the water. My lessons involve paddling up and down the pool on my back, kicking with a kickboard hugged to my chest. Her lessons involve standing in the shallow end and dipping her nose into the water, blowing bubbles. She doesn’t struggle to breathe. But of course her feet are planted solidly on the ground and she’s not thinking about kicking or shoulder rotation or keeping the back arched. She has the easy job. I wonder if I should step back twenty years and do her exercises. She can try mine. Maybe we’ll meet in the middle.

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