Here’s to the Swimmers and the Spectators.

I had just finished a set when she walked by, carrying the same hot pink swim bag I have, except she was three decades younger. I could tell by her stride, she was precocious, tenacious, an independent thinker and a fish in the water, just like I am.

She waved at me with her kickboard. I waved back with my paddle.

The girl and I were the only ones in the pool. The sun hadn’t risen above the building yet. It was too early, too cold and too quiet for criticism.

I heard him before I saw him, every three strokes as I turned my head into the pocket: “Streamline! Streamline! Nine strokes from the middle! One! Twoooo! Threeee!” He was creating anxious waves in the placid Sunday morning air. I didn’t care for his disruptive ways, but I wasn’t going to let him ruin my ritual.

I finished another set and put my paddles down. It was impossible not to notice him: sitting in a chair directly in front of her lane, paper coffee cup in one hand, iPhone in the other, his baseball hat tilted to one side (not on purpose), his glasses slightly slanted to the other side. Everything about him appeared askew, including his left ankle crossed over his right thigh, knee bouncing: a product of too much caffeine and repressed shame and anger channeled through vicarious parenting.

“I want to put on my fins for the next set, Dad.” She took a chug from her ladybug sippy cup.
“Fins are way too easy.”
“No they’re not!” She exclaimed with confidence.
“Fine. Put on your fins then.” He continued to bark at her until I finished my last set.

I got out and dried myself off. The girl took a rest after removing her fins, panting and clinging to the wall like a barnacle trying to break free. We made eye contact.

“You’re doing awesome!” I waved again.
“Thanks. This is my dad. He’s my coach. I hate it!” She deflected the truth with humor.
“I don’t blame you.” I did the same, except we both knew we weren’t joking, he didn’t though, he laughed: “You should see me during tennis lessons!”
“I can only imagine,” I said snidely.
“You sure swim the distance. You do master swim?”
“No. I swim for sanity. Do you do master swim?”
“Ha. No, I don’t swim. I’m not in shape, I can hardly make a lap.”
I wanted to walk over and push his chair in the pool, with him in it.
“Maybe it would be helpful since you’re coaching her.”
He shrugged his fleece adorned shoulders: “I guess, but I’d have to get in shape first.”
“Or, you could just start swimming, that’ll get you in shape.”
“Eh, you’re probably right…”

When I first started writing publicly, I was deeply affected by the criticism of others about my work. Trolls, strangers, acquaintances, friends and some peripheral family members had many things to say, some good and some downright unsupportive and nasty. To counter the naysayers, my therapist offered me the words of Brené Brown, which I’ve never forgotten:

“A lot of cheap seats in the arena are filled with people who never venture onto the floor. They just hurl mean-spirited criticisms and put-downs from a safe distance. The problem is, when we stop caring what people think and stop feeling hut by cruelty, we lose our ability to connect. But when we’re defined by what people think, we lose the courage to be vulnerable. Therefore, we need to be selective about the feedback we let into our lives. For me, if you’re not in the arena getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.” ~Brené Brown, Rising Strong

People who criticize others for doing what they love are terrified of vulnerability, because, they themselves are paralyzed by the thoughts of others. They can’t conceive of what it’s like to love something so much that you’ll get up on a cold Sunday morning to jump into the water, or wake at 5AM to pour your heart out, no matter what anyone has to say about it.

It’s easy to sit far enough away from the water where you can’t get splashed. The spectator perspective dons the illusion, that you can see it all: what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s good and what’s bad, how to do it better and faster. But, the truth is, you don’t know what it’s like or what it takes until you’ve typed all of the keys and done all of the laps. You just don’t know.

I am selective these days, about what I let in and what I don’t. I hear it all, I even feel it, but I only choose to trust the people who are in it, too. They tend to have the least amount of criticism, because, they’re too busy doing what they love; all they can usually muster is a wave and a thumbs up.

I wholeheartedly agree with Brené Brown. I’m in it with her, putting myself out there, in there. I’m in that arena, too, getting my ass kicked. There are many of us in here.

So, I write this for the little girl in lane 8 and all of my teammates, and to you, the spectators. We welcome you to join us in here, but if you’re not interested in getting your ass kicked, too, then we’re not interested in your feedback.

I packed up my swim gear and swung my hot pink bag over my shoulder. I walked in front of his chair and leaned into the lane:“You’re a great swimmer.” She believed me, I could tell. It takes one to know one. ~Rebecca

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