Notes on Swimming 100 Miles

National Poetry Month continues on Rural and Progressive with this poem written by Janice Lynch Schuster. Janice is an advocate for aging populations. She writes and speaks about aging in addition to being a poet.

Her poem “64 Caprices for Long-Distance Swimmer” was both a personal and academic challenge. She said this about the poem:

“I wrote “Sixty-Four Caprices for a Long-Distance Swimmer” in 1982, when I was 20, as an alternative to a research paper for a psychology class. I have always loved to write (still do), but in those years, chafed at the rigors of academic writing. So I negotiated a deal with my professor, who agreed that I could write a narrative poem instead. This long poem was it.

Now that I am 51, I have a hard time remembering that girl, although when I re-read the poem, I can admire her determination to see and explore the world around her–above ground, or underwater. That aspect of my writing life has changed little.

Writing the poem gave me a way to make sense of things I was experiencing at the time. Knowing that I had to complete it by a deadline forced me to focus my thoughts through the monotony of a mile-long swim in a chilly pool.

In the 30 years since I wrote it, the poem has taken its own journey, and has been anthologized in several journals and English textbooks.

Last year, when Diana Nyad finished her epic swim from Cuba to Florida, I googled the poem, thinking that she might like to see it. (How she would do so, I still do not know, but I thought I would try to find a version to email.)

I found an electronic version, courtesy of a Yale professor who was using it in a class on sports and literature. Thrilled, I emailed him.

He was apologetic and contrite–he had meant for the poem to be behind a firewall, and was sorry for having violated my copyright. Such issues had not even occurred to me. I was happy to see that my 20-year old poet’s mind was still communicating with other young people. It gave me a sense of still being immersed in a time and place I had loved, a small college that nurtured me.

It is that potential for language to connect–with others and with myself–that still drives my writing, from tweets to textbooks. But poetry, in all its forms and voices, is the one I still hear most clearly.”

This poem is lengthy, but well worth your time.

Sixty-four Caprices for a Long-distance Swimmer: Notes on Swimming 100 Miles

Janet M. Lynch

Source: Beloit Poetry Journal 37(1):32-37 (Fall, 1986)

1. A friend asks why I swim. Why not a movie? A drink?
Dinner? I answer that I swim for strength, for a rippling
tricep and a dimple in my thigh. I hide the lie with a
stroke: I swim for the silence of water.
2. An older woman stopped swimming and watched me.
What a graceful stroke! What she loved, of course, was
the mirrored beauty of her youth-the forgotten pleasure
of her toughened skin.
3. The water undulates like a womb I do not remember.
My fingers poke through for life. The air is unfamiliar.
4. I tell a friend that life is water. With a pretended fluidity
his heart mimics the ocean-but he cannot swim. He
answers that a cell full of water explodes.
5. Seventy-year old women stand naked in the locker room.
Some use walkers, others have artificial hips, scarred legs
and missing breasts; still, they love this morning swim
with the distant sun rising.
6. In these women, I witness how I too will age. I avert my
eyes, move to far lanes and other shadows.
7. I swim past men to prove my strength–after years of
“throwing like a girl”; I lap them twice.
8. To gauge myself, I watch other women. Old women,
pregnant women, girls without breasts who marvel at
mine. The younger ones point at me, not believing that
this is what their bodies will become.
9. The older women reflect the course my body must follow.
My eyes wrinkle in patterns that mimic theirs. Breasts
pull through water to escape the yank of gravity.
10. I tap slower swimmers’ feet to pass them. Their skin
startles me, as though I’ve come upon schools of spot
running south for winter.
11. Swimming is one of the rare things I do alone. Of necessity,
lap after lap, I build faith in solitude.
12. Here there is no hand to hold, no ball to return, no score
to keep.
13. Swimming gives me patience to write.
14. Cells transport oxygen in a precise biochemical reaction,
evolved through an expanse of time, imagined only by
God, at night, while He dreamed. I test the reliability of
flesh-all but breathing water.
15. I dream of water. I thrash pillows. Mistaking my struggle
for a nightmare, a man grabs me to his side.
16. I dream of fire. I dream of fire and combustion. The things
water does not heal.
17. How do we breathe underwater?A moment without air is
magic. Through goggles, I watch the bubbles insist on
my life.
18. Fifty others swim in the pool. Water molecules vibrate
with our personalities. I swallow each person’s breath,
yet remain alone.
19. My men have gone for water. Their faces reflect the sorrow
of departure. They have gone for deeper water and places
where I drown.
20. I once swam competitively, pushing constantly against
the limits of my body: one second faster, five-tenths for
the blue ribbon, one one-hundredth for the record.
21. This – is – the – point – where I always – want to
stop. Turn – legs – ache – lungs heave – arms weary
– the distance – is forever – force the push – break
22. Every morning, two crows perch near the pool’s glass
doors and peck madly at their reflections. When no one
watches, I jump out of the pool and run, arms raised and
mouth squawking, to chase them away.
23. Then all three of us jump-the crows with fright to the
sky-and me, chilled, to the diving well.
24. Every other breath my face sculpts a water mask.
25. Today the pool is too hot to even sweat. Heat curls from
skin like humidity over asphalt.
26. Blood throbs, echoing the physics of water and sound.
It sets up a rhythm between myselfand other swimmers.
27. The echo of someone swimming butterfly is a song playing
in your head all day.
28. All of it is the dull pound ofa heart, blood returning to its
origin is exciting as water tumbling in spring.
29. At a certain angle, the hand slices sheets of water. This
requires a force the body is unaware of, even as pounds
of water move away like the curtain rising over the first
30. What does it mean to drown in a dream? Is there the hope
of bellying-up like a fish? Are we forced to forget breathing?
31. Some days there is no difference between sleep and
dreams, between swimming and drowning, water and air.
32. What is unnatural is untrue.
33. My father tried to teach me to play chess. A reluctant
student, one night I sleepwalked to the living room,
arranged the chess board, and fell-hands first-on the
34. There are Sixty-four squares on a chess board! Swimming
sixty-four lengths assumes the logic of a mile.
35. There is a theory that women who try desperately to lose
weight also try to diminish their presence on earth.
36. After a winter of depression, inches of sadness float across
the pool.
37. Sometimes, breathing, the heaviness of my own life
amazes me. Sucking on air, I consume the world.
38. My best friend moves haphazardly at my side, misunderstanding
when I don’t pause to answer his smile.
39. He is my friend and I tell him everything-or everything
I know-or everything I learn when swimming.
40. Breaststroke beads the surface like mercury on skin. I’m
a skeet barely touching water, needing it only to serve
my own motion.
41. I try to describe my father, but he eludes me, fast as a rock
skipping the ocean. I try to describe my mother, but she
is too much myself-familiar as oxygen gurgling about
my waist.
42. I learned to walk because my sister was born and I knew
that I would never be carried again.
43. I learned to swim because my father threw me in the
deep end and shouted “Swim!”
44. I sweat in the water and my face is cooled, ice cooled on
45. As children, my sisters and I linked arms with my father
and ran into the Atlantic, afraid only of letting go and
coming up in some other ocean.
46. A man paralyzed from the waist down swims slowly, his
legs quivering with the dream of motion. In a dream that
my strength reaches him through water, I swim faster,
give up another length.
47. At dawn the moon fits the socket of the sky like a great
white bulb.
48. I am the cog of a wheel. I turn and separate men; they
never meet and nothing is ever whole.
49. I love him as though all the time in the world were contained
in the four walls of our room or the four chambers
of my heart.
50. An old woman wears pantyhose under her bathing suit,
keeping warm beneath a layer of material thinner than
51. I walked into fifteen-foot waves, tropics, mid-March. The
crystalline water shattered over my head.
52. The lover who became a lover when the old lover was
not a lover has taken a lover.
53. The word has no meaning.
54. A scar defines a woman’s abdomen-a red mark of all
that has been and all that must follow.
55. I escape gravity in water, the way others fly in dreams to
escape danger.
56. I watch my sisters and brother closely. How is it that my
blood is their blood, my face is their face, but my touch
is not theirs?
57. Today I am red and the bullish world tramples me.
58. In one dream, my first boyfriend drowns in the Chesapeake
Bay and I retrieve his body with a crab trap. The
stench of that first loss-how it permeated so many
59. All of it slips off, like silk in passion.
60. My goggles are amber. The grass is lime green ice cream.
The sky is deep gray. The water is a crystal chandelier.
61. When I swim I am the totality of water. I am hydrogen
and oxygen. I am pure strength and energy.
62. An old girlfriend marries and dreams of babies red as
geraniums. I swim from commitment and dream of
hope, golden as fall.
63. I’ve been here before and am anxious to leave. I am
young enough to have learned that all things are composed
of change.
64. I shed water’s silk cocoon for the certain embrace of air;
my body emerges from the pool, form from cut crystal.

We need to be honest about who cares for our seniors

Last week in Chicago the American Society on Aging held a conference packed with ideas and best practices focused on the growing numbers of seniors across our country.  Speakers included Janice Lynch Schuster, who guest blogged here recently.

In her comments Lynch Schuster shared these eye-opening data from the Family Caregivers Alliance on who cares for the aging and what impact that work has on the caregivers:

  • Right now, 44 million people—2/3 of them women–care for someone who is over 50
  • About a third of those are caught in the tragedy and frustration of providing dementia care. And a remarkable one-third care for multiple older adults.
  • The average caregiver is a 48 year old woman who is married, works outside the home, and earns $35,000 a year.
  • Many of these caregivers are old themselves: and the older they are, the harder they longer they work at providing care. Those over the age of 75 are at it full-time.
  • Caregiving hurts women. We report higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress. A quarter have health problems stemming from their caregiving duties. We develop more hypertension, have lower perceived health status; poorer immune function; slower wound healing; and we die more quickly.
  • We take a career hit: 1/3 decreased work hours; 1/3 passed up an assignment, promotion, or training; 22% took a leave of absence; 20% switched from full-time to part-time work; 16% quit entirely.
  • We take a financial hit to our pension prospects, retirement savings, and Social Security benefits.  This adds up to a total loss of more than $325,000 for women (and about $280,000 for men).With that kind of money, you could buy a really good long-term care insurance policy: But it gets the caregiver little that is tangible in return.

As pointed out in the data here, the women are doing the heavy lifting (literally and figuratively) for our elders.

Lynch Schuster likens the care of our seniors to a trend which will, and should, become another rallying point among women, families, and eventually men.

She says this about the demands and expectations which take a toll on women:

“A word about men: Statistics indicate that more men are becoming family caregivers—but for any number of reasons (cultural, social, gender, whatever), the actual hands-on work overwhelmingly falls to women, and men focus more on things like financial management and hiring aides.

Like childcare, caregiving to adult family members is women’s second shift. Early feminists wanted the movement to open up society—to let men change diapers and take paternity leave and allow women be CEOs and secretaries of state—and caregiving will have to do that too. But first, we need to make it more prominent.”

She’s right. The burden falls on women. She’s also right when she, and others, say that women need to organize and speak up now. We won’t, can’t, and shouldn’t have to bear the weight of caring for our elders alone. And as the data indicate, before too long the majority of caregivers will become those who need care themselves.

Sign on to improve elder care here. And share this information (because none of us are getting any younger).

Innovative idea for an aging country

Georgians over the age of 65 make up 11 percent of our state’s 9.9M citizens. Over 110K Georgians are 85 and older. Rural Georgians have fewer choices to care for the oldest among us. We lack a strong network of programs like Meals on Wheels, day care programs, home health providers, and nursing and retirement homes.

How will we adequately and compassionately care for all our elders in Georgia and across our country?

Janice Lynch Schuster, poet, award winner writer, and advocate for aging populations, has a suggestion for providing affordable and high quality care for our elders. Her post is reprinted here with her permission.

Caregiver Corps: Tapping A Nation of Caring People

By Janice Lynch Schuster

I recently participated in a Twitterchat (#eldercarechat), where someone raised the question of what we want government to do to improve the lives of the nation’s 60 million family caregivers. Someone suggested creating a Peace Corps-like program to recruit new graduates to serve family caregivers. I immediately volunteered to launch a petition to do just this, and wrote one on the White House website, which encourages civic engagement.

My petition is very short. It seemed to me that in the context of trying to raise interest and garner signatures, I needed to be to the point ( It reads:

We petition the Obama Administration to: Create a Caregiver Corps that would include debt forgiveness for college graduates to care for our elders. More than 60 million Americans are family caregivers. They face challenges: Health suffers. Finances suffer. Families suffer. Aging Boomers will overwhelm our caregiving resources. Let’s create a Caregiver Corps, that would marry college debt forgiveness with programs that place recent graduates with families and aging services providers. Let’s bridge the generational divide that promotes ageism. Let’s do it!

One of my Twitter followers admonished me for my lack of detail. Without it, she said, no one would take me seriously.  The idea is in its early stages, and would require thoughtful analysis and number-crunching by experts. But in the meantime, here’s the general idea for it.

Why We Need a Caregiver Corps

Several demographic trends are creating a future that will leave families and our beloved elders overwhelmed, exhausted, and bankrupted by the challenges of living with old age-that is, living past 80–with multiple chronic conditions that will, no matter what they do, kill them. In any given year, some 60 million Americans serve as family caregivers to another adult, someone who is either old, disabled, or both. (And millions more care for children and young adults who live with serious disabilities, and face even more challenges in terms of education, employment, and so on.)

These families will run square into a medical system that is not prepared to care for them in the ways the need most.  These individuals might sometimes need rescue and cure—but they will more often need long-term supports and services, and help with things like transportation, hygiene, and food.  And while they’ll have plenty of access to ICUs and new hips and knees—they will be shocked and disheartened by the costs of all the things they will need to pay for on their own: private-duty nurses, for instance, and home care; transportation and food and skilled nursing care.

Unless these families spend-down to become Medicaid beneficiaries or have adequate long-term care policies, their costs will be out of pocket. And those costs will be beyond reach for most middle-class Americans.

In the meantime, the social services agencies meant to serve aging Americans continue to handsbe devastated by short-sighted budget cuts. Sequestration alone, one estimate suggests, will eliminate 800,000 Meals on Wheels in the State of Maryland.

And there will be few people to provide the hands-on care that these adults will need. The nation faces a profound shortage of people trained in geriatric care, from geriatricians to nurses to direct care workers. These shortages stem, in part, from the relatively low pay geriatricians earn, and the outright unlivable wage direct care workers receive. By one estimate, by 2030, when all of those Boomers are in their dotage, there will be one geriatrician for every 20,000 older adults.

A Caregiver Corps: Hope—and Help–for Us All

What’s a country to do? Launch a Caregiver Corps, a program modeled on similar valuable, successful, and long-lived efforts, such as the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, VISTA, and Teach for America. The program could recruit volunteers: high school graduates not trained for the workforce; college graduates facing a tough economy and huge undergraduate debt; and older adults, those healthy enough to want to remain in the workforce and contribute to others’ well-being.

Volunteers could sign up for a year or two. In exchange for their service, they could earn tuition credits to cover the cost of college; they could receive some degree of loan forgiveness, to lessen their burden of debt; they could be paid a stipend that acknowledges the value of their work. They could be assigned to community-based organizations that serve older adults, such as Area Agencies on Aging, non-profit health care institutions, social services agencies, and others.

While volunteers could offer enthusiasm, compassion, and insight, they could also learn the kinds of skills required to care for an older adult and his or her family. They could learn about the public policies that affect that care. They could acquire medical and nursing skills—the kind of skills family caregivers use routinely in their daily routine. They could be exposed to older people, and bridge the generational gap that splits our country on this demographic. In the end, they might even be inspired to pursue a career that features caring for one another.

That, it seems to me, is something Americans have always done best—and will have to do more, as we all reach our own old age. Developing people who have the skills, resources, and motivation to help us in our self-interest. And it is in theirs, too. Millennials face the highest unemployment of any group in the country, and finding ways to become marketable, employable adults is critical to their own security and future.

So, let’s try it. Let’s create a Caregiver Corps. Let’s get the Administration to think about it, and weigh in. It’s time, really, to move forward. We need 150 signatures to push the petition to the public pages of We the People. Please take a moment to add yours:

Janice Lynch Schuster specializes in writing about aging, caregiving, and end of life issues, and is a co-author of an award-winning book on the topic, Handbook for Mortals: Guidance for People Facing Serious Illness (Oxford University Press, 2012).



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