I’ve lived on a small island in the Indian Ocean for over a month. I see the ocean every day. When I stand on my flat cement roof I can glimpse the blue of the water. Each trip from my town to the capital city takes me along a scenic coastal road. I breathe the ocean air everyday. But until yesterday, my feet had not touched the salty water.
Whole fish, from the day’s catch, are sold from wheelbarrows on the side of the road. Natural freshwater springs spout along the shoreline in some places. The small boats of fishermen dot the blue expanse. The ocean is life for islanders. But it can also mean death. Many girls, who do not have the same freedom of movement as boys growing up, never learn to swim. Travel between islands is cheapest by boat, but overcrowded and ancient, these vessels often founder and hundreds of islanders perish each year.
My friend, Aisha, was traveling to a neighboring island when the rudder broke. The boat was tossed to and fro in the waves and it took days rather than hours to reach their destination. She tells me that she was so frightened; sure she was going to die, because if the boat sank in the merciless waves, she did not know how to swim. Lifeboats and life vests were non-existent on her boat. The fear returned to her face as she recounted this story to me.
I told her that I love to swim and she asked if I could teach her. Absolutely, I say. Sunday afternoon, when the rain had stopped, we headed out to the beach with her sister and sister-in-law. Swimsuits are not really a thing here. While I did wear a one-piece underneath my clothes, because who likes soggy underwear, I had no illusions that I would be able to show it off. Instead I wore boys’ basketball shorts that fell below my knees and a Peace Corps t-shirt. Aisha wore jean kapri pants and a white polo shirt. Her companions were outfitted in equally uncomfortable clothing.
While the coastline runs all along my city, the swimming area is about a 15-minute walk away. Along the road the people on the side of the road were curious where I was going, constantly asking, “Where are you going?” and my reply, “I’m going to the sea,” spoken in my infantile local language. The “beach” consists of a bunch of rocks. Not pebbles. Rocks. In between, on top and underneath the rocks are all manner of trash from plastic bags and bottles, to broken shoes to unidentifiable sharp metal objects. It’s really quite treacherous. The trash, of course, makes it way to the ocean and floats alongside or wraps itself around all prospective swimmers. Little boys think it’s great fun to find the grossest trash in the water and throw it at each other. The closer they drew to me, the less amused I became.
Aside from the rocks and trash, the water was pleasantly warm and very salty. This, I hoped, would aid my first swimming lesson- how to float. I began to explain in French, that in order to swim one must overcome one’s fear of the ocean. “The sea is your friend,” I explained. Giggles and head shakes came from all three girls. The waves were very gentle, like that of a lake, lapping against the trash-covered shoreline. So I was quick to demonstrate the ease with which I could float. See? Just put your head back, bring your feet up and relax. The ocean does all the work.
I took each girl into my arms, one by one, and had them float on their backs while I held them from underneath. I could feel how tense they were, afraid of sinking, afraid of the ocean. I continued to reassure them and tell them to relax. I’m here; I won’t let anything bad happen to you. As I went from one to the next, they continued to practice on their own. Their flopping back into the water like whales and expecting to float was rather amusing, but ultimately pointless. Over and over I demonstrated the technique. The first to get it was the youngest, Aisha’s sister. She in turn, started explaining in local language how she was doing it. Then Aisha’s sister-in-law caught on and she began doing it on her own.
Aisha kept trying and I could see she was becoming frustrated. “I can’t do it,” was her phrase of choice. “If this is the easiest thing in learning to swim and I can’t even do that, I will never be able to swim!” I told her floating was not the easiest thing. Perhaps it’s the hardest, but it is foundational. It is one of the most important things to learn so we will continue to practice until she gets it.
And she kept trying. Over and over again, she worked so hard. She flapped her arms about uselessly and sank time and again. Nightfall was nearing and we would have to leave soon, so I grabbed her and laid her on her back. I held her closely so she would feel secure and then I brought her out into the deep. I held her, reassuring her until I felt her body relax in my arms. She finally just let go of her fear. She closed her eyes, let her arms drift out and her legs uncross. And I let go. Though my arms were right underneath to catch her if she panicked, I was no longer holding her. She was no longer working to float. She just was floating.
As I was thinking about this experience this morning, God brought it to my attention that this is a picture of how I am sometimes. I work so hard to keep myself afloat in life. And ultimately it’s futile. I splash and make a lot of noise but I will sink and drown eventually. All the while, God is right there saying, “I’ve got this, my child. Relax.” All the worry and anxiety is meaningless. Jesus said in Matthew 6:27 “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”
To sum it up, I am also reminded of the great philosophers of Modest Mouse who sang:
And we’ll all float on, ok
And we’ll all float on, all right
Don’t worry; we’ll all float on
Even if things get heavy, we’ll all float on.
Right on, Modest Mouse.
 Names have been changed