Swimming and Community
I swim three or four days a week in the neighboring town. I joined the Senior Swim group about a year ago, when I moved from my home town in southern Maine to the small town of Hermon, Maine.For the first four months, nobody spoke to me although occasionally someone nodded in my general direction.
Clearly, I was an outsider. Imagine being with women in various stages of undressing, showering, and getting dressed and nobody speaks to you. I felt invisible.
I comforted myself by remembering that I was absorbed writing and then editing my book, Awaken, and I was not looking for community. However, I missed a smile, a greeting, or a sense of connection, however small.
I convinced myself I was shunned because I was the only woman who swam laps. I joined to exercise and I swam vigorously. I did notice that only men occupied the lap lanes while the women banded together on the shallow end of the pool and talked, their bathing caps never getting wet.
I am an outrageous extrovert by choice. Initiating conversations is a hobby. Clearly, it was my choice to initiate contact or or remain nameless and disconnected. I was determined. However, I watched and waited for someone to welcome me for twelve weeks. Then one day I locked eyes with one of the women in the locker room, held out my hand, and introduced myself.
She looked confused, or perhaps afraid, gasped, took a step backward, and then tentatively reached out and shook my hand. "My name is Karen but all my friends call me Kareen."
I smiled and asked, "What would you like me to call you?"
"Kareen, of course," she replied.
"My friends call me Rosie or Rosalie," I said with a smile and squeezed her hand.
In the coming days and weeks, Kareen introduced me to every one of my swim mates. I repeated each person's name and made a note of what each person looked like. Each day I swam I repeated their names. Within a few weeks, people waved to me and called out my name as I entered and left the pool. I smiled and waved back.
I appreciate how we watch out for one another. For example, Polly does not hear well and has had cataract surgery and does not see well, either. She rules the lanes when she swims . Everyone looks out for her or we risk a water collison. Rich, an 85 year old man, exercises his legs which are stiffened with arthritis. I asked him if he tried acupuncture and he replied , "Too old. Besides I prefer bourbon." Tom, a giant of a man, who wears a yellow bathing cap claims the inner lane. We all give way to him. It is after all, his lane. When he was hospitalized for hip surgery, nobody swam in his lane. Instead we shared lanes and waited patiently for our turns.
Before long everyone knew I was working on a book. A few people asked what I was writing about and how long before they could read Awaken. Others asked
if I wrote in my head while I swam. At lunch today, I was introduced to non-swimming husbands and wives as, This is Rosie, our writer swimmer."
When Awaken was published, the local newspaper did a feature story about me and my new book. Someone posted the article and my picture on the community bulletin board with a big red heart around my picture. Everybody commented and promised to come to my book signing at the local library. I felt like a celebrity.
One year later a few of the women swim with me. We sputter words of encouragement as we pass one another in adjacent lanes. One women boasts that she swam her way through depression after the death of her husband. Another woman is a cancer survivor and says that swimming gave her back her life. One of the men returned to swimming and our group after surviving a heart attack and said our group was his heart's home. Another woman records everyone's birthdays and passes around a card for us to sign.
Today was my one year anniversary and I joined the swimming squad for lunch. Spouses who do not swim dined with us. Putting faces and names to people I heard stories about for months was fun. I chuckled as I wondered how they would respond if they realized I knew intimate details about them? Mattie, a woman about my age, whose husband died a few months after he retired, made delicious chocolate turtles for each of us, a ritual she and her husband did every year that they were married.
I feel welcomed in the group now. I also honor the long history these people have shared with one another. Some of them were classmates in elemenatray school and taught in the same community. Many of them are godparents for each other’s grown children. They have supported each other through births, accidents, celebrations, divorces, retirements, and deaths. Two women shared the same husand alough not a the same time!
Moving into a new community at the age of 67 is difficult. Most people have long established friendships and little time to add a single woman to their list of friends. Being retired is another challenge. No longer do I meet colleagues and chat about our mutual interests and challenges over tea.
I appreciate how important community is as a safe harbor and also a jumping off place.I spoke to a homeless veteran a few weeks ago and he said one of the worst things about being without a home was that seldom did anyone call him by his name.
Today I smile at strangers and shake hands with people I do not yet know.
I introduce myself and ask their names. I tell them I am new in the community and ask them for suggestions about what to see and do. Occasionally, I invite a strange to share a cup of coffee or lunch with me. My treat! That is how I met Carl, the man without a home or family.