Learning How - Elizabeth Weld Nolan

In ``The Sword And The Stone’’ by T. H. White, Merlin the wizard is the teacher of the young King Arthur whom everyone calls Wart.

``Wart,’’ he says one day after the child has suffered a great disappointment, ``when you are sad, learn something.’’

I remember this always. My sadness antidote: Learning new moves. When someone I loved was very sick long ago, I went to the swimming pool and thrashed up and down inexpertly until I was breathless and better. The illness continued. Since I was a member of a small dance group, I felt my soul rise and my sanity return when I learned new choreography: Twist and drop, arabesque, skip, cross behind your partner, leap, fall, stride, tumble into a heap.

The choreographer: ``No, go back, like this: lyric, smooth and slow, NOW: run, jump, turn.’’ We ran, leapt, turned in patterns.

Sweat as blessing, sweat as communal wine, faces flushed, spirits high, we dried, changed into fresh clothes and went for tacos: the spice of being a team.

In San Francisco, I study tai chi where we are corrected weekly, refining, polishing. I have learned how to swim in the cold water of the Bay. Recently, I began quailing before the challenge of the cold, turning more to the pool, feeling sad not to swim in the open water, but at least I could swim through sunlight falling in ripples under the water as I do the crawl and the backstroke.

One day, as I was undulating in the water for fun, diving for children’s toys, I realized I was doing the dolphin kick, the basis of the butterfly. When I got out, I saw a group practicing the butterfly, their arms skimming across the top of the water to lift them forward – it IS like flying, a beautiful motion, free and strong.

``That’s it! I want to do that.’’ Exultation rose in me and I booked lessons. I was so happy I’m not done yet learning how! I’m working to obtain it: undulate, add arms, swing them back, undulate, kick-the-arms-in-kick-the-arms-out, my arms not quite strong enough yet, panting after half a lap but eager for the next one. I’m not sad anymore. And I went back into the Bay last week.