When I was 6 months old, my mom tells me that she threw me into the pool – or at least let go of me – to begin teaching me how to swim on my own and not be afraid of the water. Apparently, like many babies, I did just fine. I kept my head above the surface, although I wasn’t precisely happy at the time. Later, when I took swim lessons, I was never afraid of the water unlike my younger brother who refused to stick his face in the water until he was 10 (my mom never gave him the sink or swim lesson).
However, I discovered at an early age that I could not float. One day in swim lessons our instructor had us practice the dead man’s float – an emergency position to conserve energy if you are too far out or get a cramp or are injured. You put your face in the water and rest, only coming up for air every 20 sec – 1 minute. When I came up for air, I had to swim 10 feet to the surface. I panicked. That event put a damper on my enthusiasm for swimming. The rest of my family can float. They tell me that I’m too anxious, that I can’t relax, that I need to put my arms up, that I just need to lay back and trust. I’m dense. I can lie on the bottom of the pool and watch the other swimmers pass by as I hold my breath. Density is an advantage when you SCUBA dive – less weight on your belt – but a pain in the ass on a hot summer day. Swimming is a struggle for me and because of this I rarely go swimming.
This morning I attended an NSF grant writing workshop taught by a well-funded, tenured professor from another university. There were many shiny, assistant professors in attendance, as well as a few postdocs, grad students, and even some associate and full professors. We were all there to learn the secrets of writing a successful proposal. The speaker did an excellent job laying out the structure and key elements. He gave good advice – much of it I’d never heard, or at least heard but it had not registered. The workshop isn’t the point though. How I felt at that workshop is.
I sat through the 2 hours feeling like I could finally breathe. Like I’d surfaced from the depths of a dark murky pool. I was floating finally. All around me were people engaged in scientific research. They have ideas. They are actively pursuing research goals or at least attempting to get the funding to do so. Some of my friends from other departments were there. A couple of friends from my own department were there. Why did I feel so light and happy and inspired? And then I thought about returning to my own department and office and quickly shoved that thought back into the back of my brain.
As I walked slowly back to my office following the workshop I could feel myself sinking back into the depths and thinking about why. This term I attempted to clear my Mondays and Fridays for just research related activity. This worked as planned for a good many days. However, brain overload from all the other required stuff and quick decision-making hampered my creativity and thinking time to plan out research. I’ve also felt isolated.
So why did it feel like I could finally breathe at the workshop? Because for a brief moment I was. I had a space to think and time to plan. I was surrounded by people in the same position. There was a person in the lead giving basic, yet substantial, advice. We were all breathing together and floating. I’m not afraid of the water. I just get tired of holding my breath.