Karen Horneffer-Ginter
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At the Pool

I had gone to swim laps at the local gym on a different day than usual, and was surprised to encounter so many people at the pool. There appeared to be a high school swim team at one end, and next to them, four lap lanes with their dividing rows of plastic saucers. Usually, at least one of these lanes would be empty, but today, each of them was occupied with two swimmers-- except for the far lane, which had only one.

I walked over to this swimmer, trying to catch her attention as she was completing a lap, to ask if I could join her. She half glanced up, with her sleek pink head and plastic eyes. At first, she seemed to ignore me, but then, possibly in realizing the futility of this, she grunted an indication that I could swim on the side of the lane bordering the wall. I took my "yes" and climbed in, trying to create as little disruption as possible in how I took off my glasses, secured my cap and goggles, and pushed off.

As I neared the deep end, I noticed a small, brown object sitting on the bottom of the pool. I squinted to see what it was, but couldn't make it out without my glasses. I couldn't help but think of an email I had received several years before that announced the closing of our neighborhood pool because of a piece of poop that had been discovered in the deep end. The email went on to explain that the health department had been called immediately, and that once the feces was fished out, it had been determined to be--sadly enough--adult-sized.

I mentally shuddered at the memory, reassuring myself that if indeed, this object were poop, it would have gotten noticed by someone, and the pool would have already been evacuated. I reached the end and did my usual clunky turn-around, and was then jolted by the sound of a loud whistle. "Oh God," I thought, "It is poop!" As I lifted my head, I heard the lifeguard hollering, "Everybody out of the pool!"

I leapt out as fast as I could, and saw another younger lifeguard dragging a swimmer, face-up, to the side of the pool. The image was hard to make out, but it was clear enough for me to realize that the whistle blow hadn't been about the suspicious object after all.

As I stood at the pool's edge, I saw that the other woman in my lane was continuing to swim laps. It occurred to me that maybe she was hard of hearing--maybe she hadn't been trying to ignore me when I first approached her. In an attempt to help out, I began waving my arms and calling to her, "Get out of the pool! There's been an emergency! You need to get out of the pool! They just blew the whistle and . . . "

At this point I was interrupted by a collection of voices from various sides of the pool. "It's a life guard training!" "Ma'am, that was just a drill!" "You didn't really have to get out of the pool."

I looked down at my lane partner, who had, by now, removed her goggles and her cap to understand what and why I was screaming at her. She stared blankly at me, blinking her eyes, looking entirely un-amused. Apparently, she had known that a lifeguard training was going on, as, it seems, had every other person in the pool area. Somehow, only I had snuck in without the trainers seeing me to offer a forewarning.

A few thoughts crossed my mind as I attempted an apology. I wondered if I dare climb into the pool again, or if I should try for a quick escape. I also wondered, am I the only person that these sorts of things happen to?

I used to have these same ponderings when I was in public places with my young children. It seemed, more times than not, my son's eyes would behold some unhealthy food item that he would start demanding, loudly and repeatedly--maybe a bag of fluorescent orange chips or a box of sticky, fluorescent candy. My daughter would often feel inspired to chime in, or to slug him on the arm, or to show off the pacifier she refused to leave at home. In such moments, I'd pray--from the depth of my professional identity as a psychologist and holistic health educator--that I wouldn't be seen by anyone I knew.

It was this same prayer that arrived as I sheepishly climbed back into the pool, although I noticed it was a little less desperate and even slightly playful. I guess that, over the years, I've encountered enough of these unimpressive moments to recognize the value in embracing them. I've even moved into viewing this willingness to lighten up and to surrender to such humbling moments as being a spiritual practice of sorts.

I find myself offering similar encouragement to others in noticing how easy it is to forget to leave room for humor and humility. In teaching holistic health classes and attending various spirituality and health workshops, I've noticed how people can approach their wellness efforts with a level of seriousness that squeezes out their experience of joy. This can happen with our best intentions to bring discipline to our exercise routines and healthy eating plans. It also happens with spiritual practices, such as meditation, mindfulness, and yoga--practices that are meant to be uplifting and enlivening, and to increase our awareness--and yet they, too, can become constricting when not balanced with lightness.

I see a different version of this in my counseling office when people criticize themselves for not living up to their wellness expectations. ("I'm not getting to the gym enough," "My mind won't settle down when I meditate," "I feel like I'm not present enough with my children when they come home from school").

While such honest assessments can be useful in reminding us of what matters most, they also need to be held with self-acceptance. They need to be held with a recognition that we're not perfect, nor is life perfect, and that just when we think we've got it all figured out, life often has a way of pulling the rug out from underneath us.

When we feel parched and heavy in our self-care efforts, or our work, or in our marriage or parenting, often, what's called for is a dose of humor and playfulness--both in how we relate to others, but maybe even more importantly, in how we relate to ourselves. If we can laugh within, it makes it much easier to feel self-compassion as we gently escort ourselves from the pool, or from the public scene where others have just witnessed the florescent meltdown of our children. Such lightening up allows us to value these moments for how they soften our egos and open us spiritually.

Humor and humility are worthy areas of focus in our mindfulness practice. We can challenge ourselves to look for the lightness in life, and to delight in its presence . . . even when the joke's on us.

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