Jennifer Berney explores how queer families challenge traditional notions of heredity and paternity.
EARTH MY BODY
WATER MY BLOOD
AIR MY BREATH
FIRE MY SPIRIT
I have tried many times to learn swimming in my life. As my instructor told me, loosening up in water, didn’t come quite natural to me. I get stiff, whole body, I mean, like a log. I start fighting with water as the ‘pool waves’ engulf me like a tsunami. And when my head comes out and I could feel the pool bottom, the world seem to be insultingly calm & normal
I didn’t want drowning to be a mode of death for my life, so I tried.
Childhood was the best time to learn swimming. You are kind of fearless, unknown of consequences, pool is playful, then. We used to have access to natural pools, with no mechanical filtration systems and they used to be green, reflecting the nature around. They used to have laterite steps, often slippery with the growth of moss and the like. I used to think that might be the way I would fall in water, slipping. This was a friends place and he used to have a ‘big’ dog which often escapes the leash and comes to the pool running, hearing us have fun. He just wanted to play with us, friends said, but for me he was a monster attacking me. I still remember how I used to run carrying my beating heart in my hand. So, I was always distracted and couldn’t complete my lessons. Swimming more or less ended up like dipping legs in the pool and waiting for the monster.
College days too, somehow my insecurity and too much love for my life prevented me from visiting the pool nearby with the scary fellow pranksters. As we all know, five years of college lasted only a few seconds, making memories (which I can hardly recollect), playing, loving & studying!
As the play days were over and work caught up, life staring at me, swimming was never a priority. I will have to go again back to my glasses here, as I wanted to see the depths of the pool. I loved the blue, I loved being in water, of course with my feet feeling the floor. But I could only wear my goggles and the pool was dreamy and hazy, which I didn’t mind. Struggled to see my fellow swimmers, especially that of the opposite sex, not that I made any accidents in the pool- I was too well behaved for that. I left my glasses at the pool edge and wore them in between to experience ‘world’ clearer.
I still couldn’t swim, I mean well enough! Breathing was erratic, legs fussy! I was inching my 30s, I suppose then.
Life slowed down. I changed. Goals shifted. Now, my priority was to feel water, ten years down the line. Did I start seeing the silver lining in the horizon where enlightenment was opening its door? The things I see when I look at things went deeper. I was observing the unsaid words more than the said ones. Existential questions haunted me, I got suspicious of this circus. People around me changed, new ones appeared, friends changed, lost touch. Pool changed.
I think, I am not a quitter. I couldn’t believe that I am incapable of learning this trick which was mastered by thousands of generations. I wanna move like a dolphin, a whale, a tortoise, the least! Am I genes this weak? Am I going to die a scared cat, a pussy?
Again, I enrolled for lessons. This is where I think the story changed a bit. This was a regimental affair. Six of us taking six lanes of a school’s 25 m pool. My instructor was a friendly Filipino, who struggled to make me relax. Explaining the theory behind it, we are water, don’t fight with it, flow with it. We are like a balloon when your lungs are filled with air which floats- but I had holes in my balloon! Feel like a fish, kick with your thighs involved, keep your body posture which give least resistance for the forward thrust! I wished I had learned ballet to have the calmness and fluid movements!
I made progress. We mastered kicking, strokes, breathing. Half pool became a piece of cake. We ventured to the new depths of the pool. My hazy vision of the deep end wall, made it unpredictable. It was a moment of truth staring at you. Have you got it, to take the plunge. Once you leap towards the deep end from half of the pool, I knew my feet wouldn’t be able to feel the ground. It was a mind game. If you convince yourself it’s just the other half of the pool which you just covered, you will reach the shores, like a boss. BUT!
Fear comes in waves. Either you rule the fear or you succumb. Whenever you succumb, it’s ugly. You end up feeling like a piece of shit. You gather your shit, breathe and try again. Life becomes really slow here and your one hour session never ends. Fear sends a shiver through your spine like a lightning, from your stretched toes to your brain. It’s like life awakening, saying hello. It’s like a reminder, hello, I need air. I had to go deeper to understand my psyche. I am sure it’s different for each one of us. What is that you are worried? Are you going to die today? Is this your limit? Is this what you made of? Is that it?
I still fell short, many times.
It was always easier doing this from the deeper end to the shallow end, knowing you are going to the safer end, to home, to mama! Such a baby! And I remember the first time I hit the 25 meters from the deep end to shallow end in a single stretch, the kids and mommy’s waiting for the next session literally cheered me, clapped for me. I did wave at the crowd, as I won the gold, just like Phelps. I pulled myself out of the pool with a smile that day, at 40!
I still struggled with the other direction. I rigged deeper, I told him my problem. His answer was, I am here, don’t worry, you are not going to die today! That wasn’t helpful. He needed to understand me, this stale answer won’t help me. Dig deeper with me, come to the cosmic levels. We are talking about my life here. LIFE, MY LIFE! I knew, it wasn’t about my swimming. It was the mind, playing tricks with me. I was left to find my answer on my own and I did find the answer, after many sessions! AIR! You need to stay calm to understand when you need the air, to stay alive! And when you need, you seek. Twist your body and rest your head on the stretched hand, look up at the sky, the birds, the stars, and just breath with intent, like you mean it, as you complete your stroke with the other hand. Get as much as you can. Air will not only fill your lungs but your heart and brain. Cosmic doors open. Stars dance, boxes ticked, everything works in unison, you swim like a dolphin- not exactly, but a half dolphin.
I noticed that my mental peace affected the way I swim too. If you are stressed, you don’t hustle. You duck and just complete your session just because you have paid in advance. Your soul don’t feel the water then, your body just gets wet. I didn’t like such days.
It was one such day where we were trying the deeper end swimming lessons. I was done with the day which was tiring. We did almost 30 minutes of swimming. I wanted to get out of the pool and excuse the group. But I was too modest to do that. I continued. Life wasn’t happy, job wasn’t satisfying. But now I had to take the plunge. I haven’t reached where I should be. Water was dull. It reflected the color of my soul then, I guess. Haven’t done well for my family, for myself. The pool lights were at the edge and the lanes had a dark patch on the floor. I missed the big picture, ran behind the in between things. The group took the plunge, I heard them hitting the water. Time ticked, and I just existed as life was given. Time for my plunge passed. I looked at the instructor, who was waving at me to take the plunge. Did I take enough risks to the best of my abilities? Have you ducked in life just like you are now at the pool edge?
I, heavy with my thoughts, took the leap.
It was a messy leap, I was sure my legs were not feeling the ground. Do I have enough air to last this swim, this life? Are my hands in coordination with my breathing. Too much technique came into my head. The rhythm was lost. I covered some distance with the first push, you are in the deep end with no wall to hold on, no hand to hold on. You got to deal with your own mess. I forgot the lesson! Forgot the answer, AIR! Lightning struck, shiver passed, from the toes to the tip. I saw fear’s face. It was blue, deep blue. I looked up, wasn’t sure how to reach up. My hand was heavy, unable to lift. Legs exhausted, failing to kick. I hung in there. Is this the truth? Is this how it’s going to end? Should I try, one more time? Where is my survival instincts?
I gave up. I quit! I remember my exact thoughts, I am tired, if he saves me, I will live. I was stiff, not a dolphin anymore. I couldn’t think of any reason at that time to give it a shot, kick at least. Try something, lazy asshole! I wished I had the whistle which Rose blew to the rescue team! I didn’t breathe. Tried not to take any water till ‘help’ came. Was I always waiting for someone to come and rescue me? We did this swim many times before and no one was expecting an emergency. It felt like hours in there but in fact it was few seconds. The tsunami around me just continued. I went to the first session of our training, all those lessons forgotten- swimming and life alike!
Help did come, at the end. My instructors hands slowly pulling me up. Sense prevailed and I took as much air as I wanted. I thanked him and excused myself, modesty was excused, then. I couldn’t even pull myself out of the pool at the edge. I walked along the edge till I can feel my leg again, to walk like the man I was.
Swimming was easier and better after that even if the deep ends challenge me at times. I had to have this suicidal thought and event to really understand what it takes to be alive. Now I love to swim without my cap, feeling the water on my face, cleansing my soul and mind. Hope I never get struck by the lightning again.
He called me many times, I wanted to go. Just couldn’t make it, till yesterday. I always felt good about people who make an effort, sincere & unapologetic. He was waiting for me and there was no one around at that time of the day. I looked around, a double height exhibition space where he arranged his ‘exhibits’.
At first glance they looked like aquariums. A fish tank sort of thing. With a filter, and light above. I can see the strain on the budget for his exhibition looking at the way they were put up together, but he managed to get this out there. People visit, just like me. They spend their day’s half an hour at least there to see what he has done. You could feel the exhaustion of many days on the exhibits, which happens towards the end of such events.
We shook hands, chatted. I knew what he was into, and had a kind of idea of what to expect. I have seen his works with suspicious eyes, thinking, judging- glorified aquariums! Someone trying too hard, but this time he managed put it out there. For cynics like me to see, on our face.
The first aquascape installation didn’t charm me at all as I was struggling to understand the narrative. With my little knowledge of the under water life, I couldn’t be excited enough, national geographic channel wasn’t there as I grew up. I tried to study the composition of things to find some sort of art in it. First glance, it was like rock and plants packed inside a glass tub filled with water. He explained how he grew the plants, how they are threatened, handpicked rocks from some god-forbidden Amazon wild.
He was delusional, I thought. Who cares? Does anyone care for these things anymore or is it just me? He takes an average three to four months to make one installation. How does the math work? But art is not supposed to be assessed that way, isn’t it? Artists are supposed to die of hunger, fed by their own thoughts, isn’t it? Nevertheless, he didn’t look starving, so I wasn’t worried.
We moved on, to the next ones. I gathered it’s more about life under water than about fish or the aquariums. Yes, there were fishes, just to complete the under water setting. He showed me the plants breathing under water- I believed. I was keen to see how much he believed in what he was saying. As he explained, I saw him sitting on his workbench with his tools trying to figure out the composition. Day in and day out. I started to think about the process, about the first point, the targeted image, the thought. He didn’t try to convince me or impress me with his words, he didn’t have to, he got it out there, it was effortless.
The next one had a fish stuck to the glass wall. There were many fishes there. He tapped on the glass, trying to make it move, he didn’t move. That, I felt was interesting. He sensed it, I suppose. ‘Sit please’ he said. I noticed the chair. Then I looked around, realised all installation had a chair in front of it. I sat. Now, my eye level almost parallel to the fish on the wall. I surveyed the setting, the rock, the plants, the pebbles, the blue light. I zoomed in. I started to see the thriving life within that box. I zoomed in as he continued to talk and show me the very little life forms inside. I zoomed in to the fellow on the wall.
As I started to look for things, he switched off the light inside the tank and stopped talking. Now, it was me and the tank. Silence. I zoomed in further. The rocks turned dark, silhouette. I saw the mountains, the valleys and the sky. I felt a civilisation existed there beneath the cold mountains. Water disappeared and a blue sky appeared. He wasn’t on the wall but was hanging in air. I saw a group of fishes moving in the background, were they flying? A flock of fishes. As the water in the tank disappeared, I felt water around me. I was zooming in, maybe I am inside the tank now. But he is still hanging.
Lights on. I came out of water, zooming back. Noise took over. I stood up thinking what just happened. I realised what he was doing, then. Each of these pieces were to be experienced in solitude and one needs to immerse, plunge. Be one with it. Swim with the creatures, sway with the plants, get small, grow fins, tails, breathe. It wasn’t just about the composition or the narrative but the experience.
I sat in all the chairs afterwards. The eye level was important. To get the right perspective, to get your zoom level right. Until the next call I received, as I walked back to the car, my friend on the wall was on my head. He came and stuck there almost at the center of the tank! What was he thinking, with a mind of his own, what are his aspirations, what is his next move?
I zoomed back to reality.
A maze of thoughts & patterns
Often I try to run free
How do I know where I am headed?
A dead one or an open one?
I wanna feel the horizon again
Leaving the maze far behind!
I always believed you can write about anything, long. This is an extension of that belief. A practice session.
As you write, you communicate to the reader about the setting, state of mind or whatever you want to say. The catch is to put words together, so that the interest is maintained.
Here it is- attempt is to convey the sense of my surrounding, where you are etc.
She just slid in under the blankets along with me. I generally sleep with least amount of cloths. She put her arms around my waist, head against my chest. I could feel her warm breath at regular intervals. I could judge that she was well rested the previous night. Her tiny hands and fingers moving once in a while. I liked her being like this, expressing her affection unconditionally.
I sat against the bed head. My pillow supporting my back. I don’t like the cold metal touching my bare back and always made sure the pillows covered all the possible metal parts. My feet under the blanket along with her
From my bed, I could look out through the window. The covered balcony outside didn’t allow me to see the sky as much as I wanted to. Always been a cloud chaser, wondering what it will be like to be one, changing shapes and form, sometimes dark and sometimes as white as snow, at times pouring at times drifting. Against the blue sky and another million colours at different times of the day.
I looked around and saw the things in the room. Wondered if it was me who bought all these stuff! This clutter! The books in the shelf, my work desk, her cot, the wardrobe! All of these looked dark and aged in the deep blue light that seeped into the room. They all seemed to be upset where they are. They were silent observers of our life, secret guardians. Obviously I have shared many private moments with them, when the door was closed. They have seen us arguing, fighting, at times about where they should be placed! Interestingly, my chair was turned towards me, as if it was staring at me. With a bit of tilt towards the back, it had an authoritative pose. Judging me, my life!
She slept again, with her mouth open. She was up early, roaming around in the house. Talking to herself and to her ‘friends imaginary’. When she saw me on my iPad, she wanted to work with me, got inside the blankets and slept off
Let me revisit/ edit this time and time again.