It turns out that the most useful thing I learned as a child was the ‘dead-man’s float’. Once a promising swimmer, before my legs outgrew my torso and started to sink under their own weight, I spent plenty of time in the pool.
Of all the lessons and squad hours, I still remember the icy mid-winter morning in primary school, when my teacher, incomprehensibly, taught us to be still and float, instead of generate warmth by swimming laps.
“There might be times you have to rescue yourself,” she intoned, as she instructed us to turn prone and give over our bodies to the buoyancy of the water. I hadn’t tied my hair up that day, and it spread across the surface, waving like fronds of seaweed, as I slowed my breath and relaxed my muscles.
“Even in the waves, you can conserve energy like this,” she called loudly, over the water in our ears, as she used a kickboard to disturb the water around us. “The trick is to not panic; as long as you don’t panic, you can float forever, until you are rescued or until you find the energy to swim to shore.”
I learned that day that if the human body could float unaided by breath, movement and life, then a living person, lungs full of air-lighter-than-water, would ascend without effort; that I could turn my head gently to exchange breath without disturbing the surface of the suddenly still Saturday morning swimming pool; and that this was the closest thing to peace that I would ever feel.
In 2012, I discovered the relevance of the dead-man’s float outside the water. I had spent a year working in a toxic environment, where I hardly recognised and certainly didn’t report the harassment and bullying that was part of daily life. Heavily pregnant, I retreated into maternity leave, burnt out and exhausted, but unable to leave the productivity and outcome-based cadence of my day job behind.
The day a pair of toddler eyes welled in tears as his swollen mother berated him for some minor mess, my husband took my hands in his and gave me permission to let go of everything I had ever known. Despite being pregnant with my second child, I had never had a period of time defined by anything other than work and productivity.
These pandemic days might be familiar to many who have previously had their lives interrupted, whether due to parental leave, illness, unemployment, or a myriad of other causes. Loneliness, isolation, financial stress, domestic burden, and worry about how to uncurl from a temporary pause affect people at all sorts of phases in their life.
Back in 2012, I learned that living in track suit pants was acceptable; that it was ok if chatting briefly to the shop assistants at the green grocer and bakery were my only social interactions for the day; that if I went to bed without doing the dishes, there was more than enough time to do them the next morning.
I learned a new cadence set not by an alarm and a timetable, but by the rising and setting of the sun. I patiently spent two weeks mixing flour and water to culture living organisms from nothing, and then marvelled equally at the bubbles in a jar as at my own squalling newborn, congratulating myself on my ability to bring life into the world.
Despite the spectre of a famously horrendous exam, I closed my textbooks and opened recipe books, learning instead how to coax flour and water and yeast into crackling bread – which was inferior in every way to that which I could buy fifty metres from my front door, but which, in the proofing, proved my own fundamental humanity. I scraped dense sponges into the bin with a laugh and packed my notes away onto a shelf, exchanging them for novels I had bought but never read. I demanded my mother send me recipes from my childhood and wept as the fire and spice I stirred together carried me far away.
The toddler and I cheered as our seedlings broke through the ground, and then watched, intrigued, as the caterpillars feasted on our broccoli, before turning to moths and flying away. Later in the year, I dug out the barren plants, and quietly thanked Australian farmers for their understanding of the land and daily toil. I sewed him a hat he never wore.
And I learned that I could close my eyes and feel free of the need to sink or swim; that, for now, it was ok just to float.
Like many, I caught myself making grandiose plans as the shutdowns started in March. But as my day job became both quieter and also much harder and more stressful, I found that I didn’t have the capacity to be productive in the ways I wanted to demand of myself. I found my way back to the dead-man’s float much more easily this time.
So it has really not surprised me to see friends and strangers equally find salvation in yeast and green shoots and words and wool. When circumstances are disruptive beyond our control, these are the small things we can exert our will upon. When life slows, the clock on the oven helps us to make time discrete again. When we are starved of human connection, every donut left on a doorstep is a conversation.
There are times when swimming is too hard, and the risk of sinking is too great, because the waters are rough and the shore is far away; in these times it is not a failure to float, because floating is survival. These are the times we must link arms as a community, making a raft around those who are not as buoyant.
In floating together, we all float more easily. Today, I feel like I can stretch my arms and give my legs a small kick. There is a long way to swim, and uncertainty as to how the currents will drift. But today, I can pen some words, and make some plans, and tomorrow, if I need, I can float some more.