Tuesday, March 27, 2012

more lidia yuknavitch

"But more often there are regular people in the pool.  Beautiful women seniors doing water aerobics - mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers - their massive breasts and guts reminding you how it is that women carry worlds.  When I swim by them I watch their legs and bodies underwater, and feel a strange kinship with a maternal lineage.  You know you can smile underwater.  You can laugh."

                                                        - Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water

Monday, March 26, 2012

Swimming Lessons

I didn't learn to swim until more than 10 years after the day I almost drowned.

I'd loved being in the water as a kid, but had been a terrible swimmer. Where I grew up, the swimming levels were ordered by colour, so as we learned to dog paddle and breaststroke and tread water, we passed through Yellow, Orange, Red, Maroon, Blue, Green and so on. Except in my case, it was Yellow, Orange, Red, Maroon, Maroon, Maroon, Blue, Blue, Blue, Blue and that's it. There is nothing to be said for being 13 years old, surrounded by six-year-olds who can front crawl you under the table.

At the age of 23, while backpacking in Australia, I spent a day at Manly Beach in Sydney. Manly is the kind of place that looks like the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition exploded, with golden gods and goddesses splayed out on the sand, their rock-hard abs and north-pointing breasts gleaming in the sunlight. In my orange tankini, with my see-through skin and ironing board chest, I was the very definition of "one of these things does not belong." I ran into the water quickly, hoping no one would notice me.

"Be careful," my friend called out. "The tide's really strong here. They call it 'Backpackers RIP.'"

"It's OK," I waved him off. "I'll just bob around for a bit."

And bob I did, for a few pleasant minutes, enjoying the cool water and the fact that no one could see below my neck. Until I noticed my feet were no longer touching the ground.
I tried to swim back towards shore, but couldn't. It was like I was in a water treadmill, swimming harder and harder but staying in exactly the same place, until I realized that wasn't even true: the distance between the shore and me was actually growing by the second. I began to lose my breath, which isn't hard when you haven't swum a lap in over a decade. Finally, I realized I was drowning. Forget the orange tankini -- this was really humiliating. 

Just then, a blond, muscled, perfectly tanned man appeared before me on a surfboard.

"Hop on," he commanded.

I needed no further convincing.

"Now lie down on your stomach," he said.

"Oh no!" I said, my voice shaking from exertion. "I'm fine just sitting up."

"Lie on your stomach," he repeated, more firmly, and it was then that I saw what was written in huge red letters on his surfboard. No, he wasn't some random handsome Australian with a weakness for translucent, flat-chested women. He was a lifeguard. And later, he would be sitting around with his lifeguard buddies, rolling his eyes about yet another water-logged backpacker he had to rescue from Manly Beach.

If I weren't so grateful to be alive, I would definitely have died of embarrassment. 

You'd think I would have signed up for swimming lessons as soon as I made it to dry land, but I always had an excuse. I was too busy. The nearby pool was too crowded. The only one-piece bathing suit I owned was a striped green number, circa 1995, which would surely be the laughing stock of the Speedo-wearing masses. Plus, how likely was it that I would end up in another life-threatening situation? But the truth of it was that I was too ashamed. I was 33 years old and didn't know how to swim properly. So best just to keep it that way. Until my doctor strongly advised me to stop running and take up swimming. 

My first time in my local pool, I barely lasted 20 minutes. I did a mix of sort-of-half-breaststroke and some kind of back-floating-arms-waving thing, and had to take long breaks between laps. But wobbling home that day, I felt incredible. I had forgotten how swimming makes every cell in your body feels like it's taken a huge breath of mountain air.

I returned later that week, and that's when I met the lifeguard. This one wasn't blond or tanned -- in fact, he was short and bowlegged, with a big, goofy smile. As I inched my way along my lane, I saw him watching me and immediately began to panic. Was he going to try and give me advice? Could he tell how bad my technique was? Was he going to suggest I come in on Saturdays and stick my head under water with the five-year-olds?

"Can you try kicking your legs harder when you're on your back?" he asked, when I finally arrived, panting, at the edge of the pool. "Like you're kicking a soccer ball."

He did a little demonstration and was so smiley and encouraging I felt I owed it to him to give it a go. To my surprise, I found myself moving through the water at twice my normal speed. He waited for me at the other end of the pool, and when I arrived he applauded.

"You did it!" he beamed.

"I'm just learning to swim properly," I apologized.

"I'm proud of you," he said, and I could have hugged him. 

Then he added, "You're funny when you swim."

I went cold. Now he was going to tell me how I looked like a drunk golden retriever and that it was a wonder I stayed afloat at all, and by the way, what was I thinking with the green striped bathing suit?

"What do you mean?" I asked.

The lifeguard did an impression of me swimming: legs kicking, arms backstroking away, face plastered with a giant, kid-like grin.

Since then, I've been at the pool two to four times a week. Swimming, which once put fear into my heart, has become my saving grace. I find myself craving the silent peacefulness of underwater and the power of moving through it, like something that's more than human, but also not human at all. 

I still can't front crawl properly, by the way. But that's not what I needed to learn to swim. I just needed the right person to stand on the side of the pool cheering me on, until I had it in me to cheer for myself.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Read This Book Now

"People - I mean couples - don't like to talk much about fighting. It's not attractive. No one likes to admit it or describe it or lay claim to it. We want our coupledoms to look... sanitized and pretty and worthy of admiration. And anger blasts are ugly. But, I think that is a crock. There is a kind of fighting that isn't ugly. There is a way for anger to come our as an energy you let loose and away. The trick is to give it a form, and not a human target. The trick is to transform rage."

- Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water: A Memoir

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

5 Broken Cameras

It hadn't occurred to me until I got to Thessaloniki that one of the pros of being at a documentary film festival was that I would get to see lots of documentary films.  

To me, 5 Broken Cameras, a film about the conflict in Israel/Palestine, is the epitome of what documentary film is supposed to be: a story told from the inside, from the point of view a journalist wouldn't be capable of.  It is one of the most powerful films I've ever seen.  I can't recommend it highly enough.

One of the most powerful quotes from this heartbreaking film:

"Forgotten wounds can't be healed."

Here is the trailer.  Please, please see it if you can.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Thessaloniki Film Festival, starring Mama Greek

I arrive in Thessaloniki at 10:30 at night, a few hours after Tony and Mama Greek got here.  I find Tony in the hotel room, still wide awake even though he's been up for the past 36 hours, and also, still wearing his long johns.

"I already had a fight with my mother," he says, "so that's out of the way."

"What about?" I ask, innocently.

"She had a meltdown at the front desk because they didn't put her on the same floor as us.  They moved her room, but she still freaked out because it wasn't adjacent to ours."

"I'm sorry I missed that," I say. 

The following morning, Tony heads to the film festival office to do an TV interview.  I am instructed to follow half an hour later, with Mama Greek in tow, to get our photos taken for the program.  We take a taxi, since a 10 minute walk for her is like a triathalon for most people, and naturally the taxi driver rips us off, so I'm already fuming by the time we arrive.

We make our way to the office, but no one knows where Tony is.  MG starts yelling, "TONY ASIMAKOPOULOS" to random people as they walk by, as if everyone should know exactly who her son is and what he's doing.

Finally, someone directs us to another floor, where Tony is supposedly to be.  

"Why isn't Tony here?" she asks me, in the elevator.  "Where is he?  Why did he tell us to come here if he's not here?"

Then, the elevator doors won't open.  

Only one of us finds this hilarious.  I'll leave it to you to guess who.

MG panics every time either of us goes out without her.  She's adamant that one should not walk alone in the streets of Greece because "These people are crazy."  She's also taken to speaking to me in Greek almost constantly.  Every time Tony and I have a conversation about where to go or when to eat, she cuts in with,  "What's she saying?  What are you talking about?  What's going on?  What happened now?"

Friday night, after escorting her to her hotel room, we pretend we're going to bed, then sneak out to get a midnight snack.  Sadly, this makes me feel younger and more alive than I have in months.

The premiere of the film is Saturday night.  I "let" Tony sit between MG and I, but he ducks out partway through the film, as it's difficult - understandably - for him to watch.  I tell myself I should move over and sit next to MG, but I don't.  

Then, a scene from her village comes on the screen, where she's talking about how her mother died alone.  I look over and notice she's started to cry, and I reach over and rub her arm.  She takes my hand, and holds it for the rest of the movie, across the empty seat.  

I tell myself I could let go if I want to.  But I don't.

Mama Greek with Thessaloniki resident

Thursday, March 8, 2012

How to Travel Light

Yesterday, I found myself in a 2000-year-old theatre on the side of the road.

I'm in a small seaside town in Turkey, where I've come to spend a week writing. I know, idyllic, right? For example, before I got to the theatre, I was taking a walk along the shore. 

"Look how beautiful it is," I was thinking. "Isn't it beautiful? WHY CAN'T YOU JUST STOP WORRYING AND BE PRESENT WITH HOW BEAUTIFUL IT IS?" 

For someone so addicted to travel, I am really bad at it. On my honeymoon, I got sick the second day in, and was furious at myself. Instead of recalling that I'd just gotten married, which is right up there with death and taxes (or something) as one of the most stressful events in one's life, or remembering that we'd also bought a house and moved into it six weeks before the wedding, I obsessed about how I was on THE MOST ROMANTIC VACATION I WOULD EVER HAVE™, and was stuck in bed, and not in a good way. 

Yesterday, bearing this in mind, I decided to stop yelling at myself and see what might be contributing to my worries. I spotted the theatre, which I'd been wanting to visit since I got here. (I love being in extraordinarily old places, sitting in the same spot where someone sat so long ago, I can't wrap my brain around it.) And when I got inside, there wasn't a soul to be seen. Except... oh yeah. My friend, anxiety.

"Why are you out looking at rocks instead of writing?" anxiety boomed. "You came here to write, didn't you? And no, you don't need a break. Breaks are for wimps. If you're not writing, you should be working on your website, or catching up on your emails, or tweeting, BECAUSE YOU'RE ALMOST 35 AND WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SHOW FOR YOURSELF?"

Then I saw my buddy, panic. There were a lot of men on the path I'd been walking on by the sea, and I'm fair-haired and fair-skinned, which meant I got a few looks. I'm also a survivor of sexual assault, which means getting looks, no matter the intention behind them, is difficult for me. Especially since, from here, I'll be travelling on to Greece, which is where my assault took place. So panic had been ready, stepping on my heels with comebacks and rude looks and gestures, and I was already angry at myself because I knew that whatever I did, it wouldn't be enough. It never is.

Talk about idyllic.

But once I acknowledged my old friends, they quieted down. All three of us sat there in the theatre, taking in the ghosts and the crumbling pillars and the silence. And then I remembered the thing I always remember halfway through a trip: no matter how well you pack, you can't travel without your baggage.

But if you put it down and rest for a while, there's a good chance you'll feel a little bit lighter.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

one for the bookworms

"There's zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”  

- Susan Cain


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Greece is the Word

We're headed to the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival this week with Tony's documentary.  If you're anywhere nearby, I hope to see you there.  Mama Greek will be joining us, and if that's not a reason to hop on a plane I don't know what is.

And here's a nice promo shot of me looking bitter: