I tell a story in my book, How to Play the Harmonica and Other Life Lessons, about a summer when I was seven years old and I walked out to the end of the dock at Camp Sharparoon in upstate New York and informed the lifeguard that I wanted to take the advanced swimming test. I was no more an advanced swimmer that summer than I am a brain surgeon today, but I was sick and tired of being the kid who couldn’t swim.
Most of my fellow campers couldn’t swim either, but it didn’t matter to them—they were from inner-city New York, where swimming skills were not required. Where I came from, my inability to swim was a matter of considerable shame.
If my brothers had been around they might have stopped me, as they knew I couldn’t swim. But I made a point of walking out to take the test when they were somewhere else. The lifeguard looked at me suspiciously, but then gave me the go ahead. I stared down into the murky water of Lake Sharparoon, and jumped.
A moment later I was looking up at a shrinking halo of light as I sank slowly down into the cool, dark water below. I had never before jumped into a pool or lake and not felt the bottom with my feet. The sensation of water enveloping me was strange. After a moment, I realized I had better get going. I kicked and paddled my way to the surface and emerged, sputtering, to see a very concerned lifeguard who was one step away from jumping in and yanking me out.
But there was no need to save me. I was ready to swim, and did, very slowly and poorly, treading water long enough, performing the dead man float, and especially doing the necessary number of laps to obtain the status of advanced swimmer.
I learned I could swim that day. I also learned I had balls. It turned out to be a great summer. But it wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t been willing to grow.
Another big growth spurt came for me in San Francisco General Hospital, where my first child was being born. After many hours of labor it was time to move to the operating table. Pat was really committed to natural childbirth, but it wasn’t happening, and exhausted from hours of trying, she threw in the towel. The knife was inserted, some fluid hit the floor with a splat, and my son arrived by caesarian section, safe and sound, on December 31, 1988. The nurse caught me as my knees buckled. And then I stood up and held Daniel in my arms. (That's Daniel and me by the sea in Santa Cruz, pictured above.)
Afterwards, walking down the halls of the hospital in search of the cafeteria and a meal—I hadn’t eaten in a day and a half—doctors and nurses congratulated me on the tax deduction. I was a starving musician at the time and had no idea what they were talking about. I chose to break my fast with a pastrami sandwich on rye with mustard and pickles. Moments after finishing the meal I threw up.
That night, as I admired my sleeping wife, mother of my beautiful, healthy child, it dawned on me that I was a father. I was dad. My own dad was gone, so it made sense that it was my turn, but it was still a shock. The woman carries the baby—she knows it’s real. A man, especially a first-time father, can remain in denial of this fact for an extraordinary amount of time. In my case the recognition came after the pastrami sandwich. I was a father, and there was work to do. I had to grow again, much as I had grown on that summer day when I jumped in Lake Sharparoon.
There are moments in life when my illusions and defenses are stripped away and I see myself just as I am,
. . . though tossed about,
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fighting and fears within, without . . .
These moments of clarity often come when life is challenging me, when I come face to face with myself and realize it is time for me to grow—again. It doesn’t matter how old I am. Fears must be faced. The patterns and excuses I have employed to tread water, to stay in place, must be rejected. Just as I rejected the fear of swimming. Just as I embraced being a dad. It was time to grow. It’s time to grow again. Then, and today, I have a choice: I choose to be the man I am meant to be.
It isn’t so bad, really, to grow again. It’s good to dump old baggage. It’s good to let old habits and patterns die. It’s good to take care of myself.
Just as I am, thou wilt receive, wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve . . . thy love unknown hath broken every barrier down . . .
Sometimes it is frightening to grow, sometimes it hurts, but what’s the alternative? The choice is between fear and freedom. I choose freedom. After all, I know how to swim.