After one day of a perfect calm surface for swimming, choppy waves flared up at my favorite beach in Lake Michigan again this morning. I measured the length and strength of the waves with my eyes when I arrived at the beach and decided to give it a try. After all, I was already there.
It was not the first time I toyed with the waves. Last week, three out of the seven days I encountered choppy water, though didn’t feel threatened (I did go to a more sheltered beach to swim one day.) I knew and fully respect the formidable power of the Lake and swam closer to shore. I was prepared to reach land with one strong kick if I got chocked with a strong tide. While I concentrated on my strokes and speed during calm days, I focused on the ups and downs of the waves in times like this. Occasionally I’d swallowed a mouthful of murky water. However, if I stayed calm—not let the fear of being crushed by a sudden wave overwhelm me, I could maneuver my way quite well.
“You are an hero,” an older man said, raising his thumb at me when he walked by the shower facility on shore where I was rinsing.
I laughed, telling him I’m an idiot flirting with the power of nature. I certainly had no intention to be an hero.
I knew the rest of the day I’d feel the motion of ups and downs as if I were still in the water. But I had no regret.
The season of swimming in the Lake is so short in Chicago, and the water has finally turned warm and comfortable. The joy of being in this body of live water and the energy I feel it gives to me make it worthwhile to keep at it every day.
Of course, there is always a sense of fear lurking in the back of my mind. Today, for some reason, that feeling was gnawing at me all the time.
I chickened out by turning back half way across the beach area. With a buffer from an infrastructure on one end, the waves at the north half of the beach appeared less choppy. I did four half rounds, conscious of the power of water trashing me up and down. I changed to breaststroke from time to time to get a better bearing of my location. As if to make matters worse, I noticed a couple of seagulls looming above, sometimes hanging dangerously low over me as if ready to attach me as their prey. Through my blurred goggles I could see their opened beaks. I turned to freestyle and made huge arm swings in an effort to keep them off.
Eventually the fear of waves and the birds made me retreat to a small, sheltered enclave. The water was much calmer here, but I had to make back and forth turns frequently as if in the confines of a pool.
I managed to do a total of 45 minutes. As I was riding my bike home on the sidewalk by Columbus Ave., I encounter a family of bikers coming my way. I moved to the right side and slowed down. A little girl, probably about 5 or 6, was riding beautifully in a straight line before she saw me. She panicked and zigzagged toward me when she found me moving toward her direction. I had to brake hard and jump off my bike to avoid her. I waved to calm her as she waggled by. I knew it was the same sense of fear that made her lose balance.
I had swum in more choppy waves in the Lake before. I was careful but not so fearful. Today I returned feeling somewhat defeated because I allowed that fear to dictate me.
How many times we don’t accomplish things we are capable of doing because we allow the external threat to compound with our inner fear? Confidence is certainly a major factor in success, whatever the undertaking.
Hope I’ll do better tomorrow, with or without the choppy waves.
Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, which has been developed into an award-winning documentary film by Susan Morgan Cooper and is narrated by Jacqueline Bisset. The film was on national PBS in May 2014.