Swimming Alone

by Sheryl Monks

Swimming Lessons by Penelope Niven
Swimming Lessons by Penelope Niven

In her eloquent memoir Swimming Lessons: Life Lessons from the Pool, my mentor Penelope Niven speaks to me anew. Though she passed away suddenly last summer, her wisdom and love return from the pages of the work she left behind. I am facing down another opportunity to finish my book, one of the many I’ve been tinkering on for years. Will it be any good is my real fear. Will I be brave as I ought to, have to?

Writing on one’s own terms, like living on one’s own terms, is daunting. We all yearn to be loved, and often we compromise who we are to please the people we admire, love, and respect, hoping that they will admire, love, and respect us in return. We get caught up in being agreeable, bending, withholding our own special natures in an effort not to affront. Because we care for other people, we sometimes don’t tend carefully enough to our own needs as writers or as human beings.

I’ve never met a more graceful or generous person than Penny. She exuded poise and love, a love that went beyond common compassion. Hers was an active engagement. I don’t know why I was the lucky one she invited into her home and life. Out of the blue one day she simply decided to pour her affection on me, to help me with my writing, and tangentially, with all the bewildering complexities of my life. It wasn’t convenient for her. In the course of our fourteen-year-mentorship, she made many sacrifices for me, making room in her own bustling career, giving up moments of solitude, which she esteemed and used prudently.

Admiration is the basis for love. We may have not a single thing in common with another person, but if we admire, we love. I believe that.

Penny took joy in the day-to-day, in the stuff that bogs down the rest of us. That’s the marrow, she understood. She took delight in people, seemed to draw her very life force from the other souls she met. As busy as she was – writing biographies, teaching, editing, consulting, mentoring, speaking about her many subjects, traveling, being a mother to her daughter, being a sister and aunt and daughter herself – I never once saw her rush through an encounter with another person. And it did not matter if that person was a random stranger who asked her the most trivial thing. Penny would stop whatever she was doing, look that person square on, and I mean completely, and she would engage as deeply as a human being is capable of engaging with another, for as long as that person needed her to engage. Nothing ruffled her.

I asked her once how she did this, how she managed so much without looking harried or treating people dismissively, as I’m often guilty of doing.

“You are a swan,” she told me. “Picture yourself gliding gracefully over the surface of the water. No one can see how you’re paddling like hell underneath.”

It was easy to get the impression that perhaps her life was charmed; she made it look effortless. But I know some of the great hardships she faced: Cancer, for one, which she fought valiantly and beat, all the while smiling, laughing, singing, watching “Dancing with the Stars” and attending Il Divo concerts, wearing attractive silk scarves and turbans when her gorgeous silver hair began to fall out.

Her burdens were hers alone, and still she had strength and courage to help others carry theirs. She found purpose in empowering those around her. The love she poured out was the magic elixir that revitalized her in body and spirit. These lessons were not lost on me. I was paying attention, studying, learning, hoping to tap into her wellspring. But it’s one thing to see, to know, to be the student.

For Penny, human beings were simply marvelous creatures. She gazed on in awe at every idiosyncrasy she discovered. She loved the things that make us different, unique. She learned from them. She looked at other people as if they were gift-bearers, and indeed they were. Every person gave her something new, for which she took time to marvel and to express her gratitude. She was a radiant and genteel Southern woman, refined in all her mannerisms, a former high school English teacher who grew up in a little village called Waxhaw, North Carolina, a town peopled in my imagination with the colorful characters she told stories about, her countless cousins, “those fabulous Niven women,” as she referred to them, and neighbors, town folk, the stories always warm and affirming, but also deeply held truths she used to navigate this world.

My first attempt to write this essay was as a rumination on grief, what I’ve lost in her passing, what we’ve all lost. And a confession, too, I suppose, of my fear of never living up to her hopes for me, never mind her example. But that’s just the sort of egoism that flies in the face of all she embodied.

Here’s what Penny would tell me:

“There’s only one of you in all of time. Only you can do what you can do. No one else can do it in the same way that you can do it, so don’t compare yourself to anyone or anything else in this world. You are utterly, incomparably unique, and your gifts cannot be replicated by anyone else. Your only job is to be whoever you are in your deepest soul, whoever you want to be.”

She believed in abundance. To live with a spirit of abundance is to renounce fear. Penny was fearless. Scared people will drown you if you let them, but Penny was unfazed by my fear. She trusted the power of the water to hold her and to hold me, too.

She saw through my fear… of writing, of teaching, of living. She fixed her gaze on the potential she saw in me. Each one of us has something to give. Penny could peer straight through a person and find that gift, no matter how small or deeply buried. She understood that when someone looks into you and convinces you that you are worthy, you begin to believe. You begin to trust the power of the water, which she spoke about, wrote about.

The power of the water is a metaphor, an insight made by Penny’s then fourteen-year-old daughter Jennifer Niven. Like me, Penny came to writing late in her life. She came to other things late as well. When she was 44, just a few years younger than I am now, she found herself divorced and starting over completely. I can only imagine how paralyzing that experience must be, and yet, it happens to people every day. Penny, whose world up to then had centered on serving her family, began to explore her own dreams. What had she wanted to do?

The answers came easily: for starters, she wanted to swim, and then maybe, someday, to write.

She began taking swimming lessons at a nearby college, but it’s Jennifer Penny credits for finally teaching her the secret that would unlock not only swimming but all of life. Swimming lessons became the great metaphor for making sense of the world. Here’s what Jennifer told her frightened, embarrassed, middle-aged beautiful mother:

“It’s virtually impossible to sink… I don’t understand it myself, but there is this mysterious power in the water. If you fight against it, you sink every time. If you give yourself up to it, it supports you. You have to learn to trust the power of the water.”

It occurs to me that I, too, have been taking swimming lessons these many years under Penny’s tutelage, and while I have taken her instructions to heart, I’m still afraid of the water. Now she’s gone and I’m left to swim alone. She dedicates one of the latter chapters of her book to the necessity of learning to swim without the aid of anyone else.

“The time comes when I have to swim alone, one way or another,” she writes. “I have to be able to swim alone, even though, I am told, it is wiser for me not to do so.”

We all need other people in our lives to love and sustain us, to encourage and comfort and challenge us. But we also need the muscle and courage to strike out on our own, to go back to school, to start a new business, to raise a family, to move across country, to isolate ourselves in order to write a book, or simply to reclaim the solitude we need to live an examined and deeply appreciated life.

“Part of swimming alone,” Penny reminds me, “is working at swimming better alone.”

I have a hard time being enough company for myself. The commotion of the internet gives cover to the dead calm waters I need to traverse if I want to reach that other shore. It’s a long way from here to there; I can’t even see the other side. What if I’m not strong enough, can’t make it? What if there’s something dangerous out there, lurking?

But then I ask myself: What if I am strong enough? What if it isn’t that far?

Sheryl Monks
Sheryl Monks

Sheryl Monks holds an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. She is an editor at Change Seven Magazine. Work has appeared in The Butter, Revolution John, Black and Grey Magazine, The Greensboro Review, the Writer’s Chronicle, Midwestern Gothic, Night Train, storySouth, RE:AL–Regarding Arts and Letters, Backwards City Review, Southern Gothic online, Surreal South, Fried Chicken and Coffee, and elsewhere.

Who have been your mentors? How do you face your fears? Get the conversation started by posting your thoughts in the comments section below.

Read Penelope Niven:
Thornton Wilder: A Life by Penelope Niven
Thornton Wilder: A Life by Penelope Niven

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