By: Ellen Nimmo
Poets Are Cheaper Than College. That seems true enough although I’ve never done the research to verify, but it was the title of a Veterans United (VU) workplace summer small group, and hey, that’s pretty darn cool in and of itself. The focus of this group was, you guessed it, poetry! Know what else is probably true: Poets are cheaper than swim lessons. Have I lost you? Hope not. This story is just too endearing to miss out on y’all.
Stick with me because I want you to meet Arzelia Williams. Arzelia is from Michigan; Detroit to be more precise. Arzelia has a rich background in spoken-word performance poetry. It’s pretty rad and I was lucky enough to witness her skill at VU’s first ever Open Mic Night at Café Berlin August 3rd. Arzelia came to Columbia, to VU, this summer as part of our amazing Immersion Program. Did you hear about it? Ask someone already! Anyway, Arzelia interned with the Culture department and got involved as an active participant in the VU way straight away. One way she did this was by joining a small group. “Poets Are Cheaper Than College” was the title of said group, which she actually ended up co-facilitating due to her extensive experience leading poetry workshops. Through the course of a writing exercise during their group’s meeting Arzelia wrote a poem about her fear of drowning (because she didn’t know how to swim) and shared that with the group. Enter on the scene Maggie McCreary. Maggie has been at VU since May of 2015 and is part of our Funding team over in Yankee. Having an interest in poetry herself Maggie was part of this small group. Upon hearing the poem and discussion it lead to Maggie offered to help Arzelia learn to get more comfortable in the water and the kind offer was accepted. WHAAAAAT?!
Did y’all just read that? Isn’t that just the neatest thing you ever heard? It’s right on up there. OMGoodness. Just…I mean…really. Two professional women in a corporate work setting first meeting to discuss poetry and then meeting for swim lessons?! Is this real life?!!! Or am I just that hard-hearted where this is normal and I just don’t see it? I don’t know. Either way I think we can all agree that it is strange and it is beautiful. I was so struck by this, this glittering vulnerability, this sparkling generosity and just had to know more about the whole ordeal.
With their permission I got the deets to share:
They started meeting every Tuesday and Thursday evening from 6:30-7:30 at Wilson’s pool beginning on June 5th. Meeting about twelve times in total Maggie told me how surprising it was that after only a few sessions Arzelia was getting much more comfortable. It was rewarding, for both of them. Together, through this process of student/teacher, mentor/mentee they were adding value to each other’s lives. In the poetry group, in the water. They were pouring into one another by way of experience and genuine care.
I have a couple of quotes from them that stand best on their own. You just gotta read ‘em yourself to see what I mean:
One thing that I didn’t expect to feel comfortable with was submerging myself under water. One of my biggest fears when learning how to swim was the thought of going underwater and panicking. We started with my feet planted firmly on the floor of the pool, I would bend at the knees and dip my mouth in the water before coming back up. Next thing I tried was pinching my nose and going back down into the water. I was so nervous, but when I stumbled the first time I swam without using a floaty. I was able to relax my breathing when my face unexpectedly went under the water and I found the ground again.
At first, there was that fear of water (which, I would argue, is healthy, especially when on a river, lake, or ocean). And anyone who learns how to swim later rather than earlier in life has that fear. It is, after all, something we can’t breathe, and it’s really scary not being able to breathe unexpectedly. After the first session, Arzelia would get to the pool sooner than me and be in the water. She would also tell me that she would go out and swim with her friends over the weekends. I think the biggest reward is knowing that she was using the skills she learned and that it added something.
I love acquiring knowledge and skills, and what I gained from this was perspective. I have an incredible amount of privilege coming from a family that had access to pools when I was a toddler and eventually having a pool in our backyard. I also had people take time and teach me to swim.
Gah. Pretty special. I hope my eyes can stay open to the fact that this sort of thing actually isn’t that rare here. Sure it may take many different forms, but I want to take time to notice the goodness and if I don’t see any…maybe I can be the one to take the first step into waters unknown, remembering that goodness is usually found on the other side of fear.
– Keep on being amazing y’all.
originally posted August of 2018