Friday, September 9
Last summer I decided to take on a triathlon – not so much because I loved swimming, but more because I really didn’t like it. I had a summer that was mostly un-booked, and it seemed like a perfect time to deal with my deep rooted fear of the water. From my earliest memories I never really loved being in the water, but it all got exponentially worse when, as a young swimmer, I went snorkeling with my brother. After diving down, I came up with a snorkel full of water, and breathed in hard. As I felt the claustrophobic grip of lungs filling with water, I flailed and grabbed at my brother Micah. Thankfully, he knew enough about how to help a drowning swimmer, and he was able to drag me back to the safety of the lakeshore. That feeling of panic, when you’re over your head and the whole world seems to be closing in on your head and chest – when your whole reality feels like a cavernous yawning, pulling you with unseen fingers down toward the darkness and deep. This is the feeling that left me far from excited about spending time in the water. Last summer’s training went well, nonetheless, and although far from a talented swimmer, I was not particularly afraid when my first race day came around. Until you’ve swam in your first triathlon, there’s really no way to completely know the feeling of being smack in the middle of what many racers refer to as “the washing machine”. Frothy water pulses around you as arms and legs of powerful swimmers slash the water, and, at times, your body and goggles. I went out hard and survived the first leg of the swim. I was proud to have maintained my own in this watery melee. I turned around the first buoy and went into the long straightaway. As I paddled along, a variety of factors began to play games with my mind. My practice had been in the same lake, but in the shallow portion, where you could always at least see bottom. Now, I was swimming through dark, deep and murky water. I began to physically wane, and the nettling tentacles of fear began to enwrap me. For a brief period, just succumbing to the dark forces of the water felt like the easier thing to do. I was gasping and beginning to flail to stay above water. I popped my head up and looked for the nearest rescue boat only to realize that it was just far enough that they might never see me go down. With the realization that I had no other option, my vigor was renewed – I could not stop. I could not let myself drown. Everything in me had to keep fighting for shore. And I did make it to shore. Not particularly well, but I did make it. I had to mentally calm myself and, one stroke at a time, take dominion over the jaws of watery fear that were chomping at me. That moment of terror in the lake went in my personal catalogue of memories as one of the most challenging moments of my life. It was brief, but I was wracked with an incomparable feeling of lostness and confusion.
I relate this overlong story, because its memory came rushing back today. I was sitting in Arabic class for the fourth and final day of our first week. I suddenly realized that as I forced my ears to strain for meaning in the teacher’s rapid fire Arabic, I kept having visions of the arms and legs of aggressive swimmers surrounding me. I had been a bit sick the night before, and although I tried for a long time to study, my brain was like a full sponge and would retain no more vocabulary. When Safaa, my teacher, handed me my test, I stared blankly at most of the pages. The whole test was completely in Arabic text, and I had to provide all the answers in relation to other Arabic words. It was not translating English words to Arabic or visa versa, but rather an exercise in translating Arabic words to Arabic synonyms or antonyms. More than in any previous university class I felt profoundly out classed and defeated by the material. There is no chance for approximating knowledge here. Only the cold, hard realization of how much you do not know. My teacher is a wonderful and caring person, but I was just behind the curve and losing ground fast. The test completed, we went back to the regular regimen of class which involved lots of me straining mightily to hear words that I could call up from my memory bank and then staring blankly in complete and utter confusion when called upon to perform some simple classroom exercise. As I marinaded in the hours of consuming incomprehension, this is when memories of my first triathlon swim began to materialize. I was suddenly jerked to the realization that I was longing to be thrown into the deepest part of the lake, surrounded by 50 or even 100 swimmers. There, at least, the pain of lostness and confused struggle would be over relatively quickly. The longest race I’ve ever swam was over in less than half an hour – then I was able to go on to biking and running, the areas where I can actually excel (or at least hold my own). For me, the most profoundly difficult portion in triathlons is at least finite and mercifully short. Now I was looking at three hours this morning, and every weekday to come for the next 8 months – and that’s not counting the frustration of being unable to express yourself in everyday conversation with your friends or people on the street.
I love expression. Both through words and images, expression of thoughts and ideas is one of my greatest loves. I know the English language – well. In my everyday life I’ve been accustomed to being the one providing assistance and guidance, especially in matters of language. I’ve proofread papers for many friends and even spent some time in the capacity of a teacher. Here in Jordan I’m handily the oldest student in the program. (My home university once helpfully reminded me in an email that I’m an “older non-traditional student”.) In terms of life experience perhaps I’m ahead of some of my classmates, but in terms of language ability I’m not being modest when I say that my level is well lower than any of my new friends. This is hard. This is good for me. After class, I had to go find help.
We are lucky to be surrounded by some of the best and most patient people in the world in the form of our staff and language partners. It’s discouraging to even go ask a question and seek help when you know you need a dictionary and note pad to even begin forming the questions that you have. It’s beyond exhausting for me, but there is help to be had. The weeks ahead will show exactly what that is going to look like. I’ll probably need some more extensive one-on-one tutoring, and it’s going to take a lot of work, but there are people around me who are willing to bend over backwards to help. The feeling of need is a profoundly cleansing thing, and, when you’re surrounded by the right people, has the capacity to produce a joy, borne of gratefulness, that transcends even the agony of the need.
I’m reminded of the ancient biblical promise that “weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning”. The time of day may have been a little bit off, but one of the most challenging of days concluded with the most joyous of feasts. Surrounded by wonderful friends in a fascinating new country, I was treated to a magnificent outdoor banquet. Asian and Arabic food was prepared in front of us and we sat together at long tables, sharing together in a bounty rare to this world. After dinner was cleared we began dancing - first between our tables and then bleeding out into the brick courtyard. We learned a basic version of the traditional Arabic dabke folk dance and as day traded off with night, we held hands and danced until my sandals came apart and we poured with sweat. Two men in traditional Jordanian Bedouin dress sat at a nearby table slowly smoking their arghile and looking on at this strange conglomeration of lively foreigners. We probably engaged in even more culturally forbidden behavior that we knew. As we danced, a toddler from a nearby table came out onto the patio. Happily, he bobbed alongside us to the supremely danceable rhythms of the Arabic drums. Life, when lived best, is filled with these wonderfully incongruous roller-coasters of emotion. I hate it. I love it. I wouldn’t trade my life with anyone.