There are few things more inspiring to me than a Beyoncé performance. And these are just the performances I have seen on YouTube. I can’t begin to imagine what it feels like to see her live. When I watch those videos and see people pulling out their hair and foaming at the mouth and screaming themselves hoarse before the woman even opens her mouth, I laugh…but I also kind of get it. I cannot, with confidence, say that I will not be one of those people if I ever get the chance to attend a Beyoncé concert.
You know how in cartoons or movies, a character can begin giving some heartfelt, patriotic speech and the flag of America appears behind them, blowing in a hypothetical wind? Or how you feel when you’re watching an Avengers movie and that theme song begins to play? Or, more specifically, how you felt when Thor appeared in Wakanda in Avengers Infinity War, or during literally every high emotional pay-off scene in the last battle in Avengers Endgame? (If you say no to that last one, I’m just going to assume you are speaking from a place of ignorance because you haven’t watched the movies and I forgive you.) That’s how I feel when I watch Beyoncé perform. Inspired. Capable. Willing and ready. It doesn’t even matter what I am willing and ready to do; just that I am. For someone who spends half her time trying to convince herself that she can, that’s an incredible feeling. And like I said, there are not many things in this world that can make me feel that way. My entire system seems hard-wired to reject everything that tries to make me get up and do things. I like to just be, you know? Which sounds a lot like laziness but…oh well.
But very recently, something happened that made me feel the way I do when I watch Beyoncé.
After years and years and years of trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and failing … my mother has achieved her most impressive feat so far: she has finally learnt how to swim.
Now, people who do not know my mother may think, ‘Okay, good for her, but that’s not a big deal. Lots of people know how to swim.’ And people who do know my mother may think, ‘Good for her, it’s about time…But your mother has achieved many impressive things in her life; this is hardly the most noteworthy.’ And they would both be wrong. It is a big deal. This is the most impressive thing I have seen her do, all her other accomplishments (including producing such majestic offspring) notwithstanding.
Throughout my life, every time we had access to a swimming pool, the entire family would rally around my mother to try and talk her out of her fear of drowning. My father would reassure her that he wouldn’t let her drown; my younger brother, Kevin, would explain the theory of swimming using science and statistics and demonstrations; my sister and I would try to convince her that it was all in her head and that if she could just let go of her fear, she would basically turn into Michael Phelps; and my elder brother would hang around in mostly quiet solidarity, bravely taking the jibes we threw at him because he couldn’t swim either. It was a group effort. Sometimes, we would succeed and she would begin to try. She would allow my father to pull her by the arms as she paddled furiously with her legs and did her best to keep her head above the surface of the water. And we would laugh but we would also cheer so excitedly that we got weird looks from other people in the pool. We even got weird looks from some people who were lounging outside the pool, even though they were probably there because they also couldn’t swim. Humans will human, I guess.
But then we would run out of time and soon had to go back to our swimming pool-less, ghetto lives and mentally start preparing for the next time we would do it all again, because by the time we had access to a pool again, we were back at square one with the persuading and the cajoling and the light threatening. And so it has been for the last twenty years.
Over time, we lost hope and accepted that some things were simply not meant to happen. We were prepared to do this for the rest of our lives. I could already imagine our own children taking up the mantle and trying to convince their grandmother that you are not supposed to drown while standing in ankle-deep water. So in later years, our persuasive speeches became far less earnest and our cheers quieter. As the least resilient member of my family, I was probably the first one to give up. In my defence, without the motivation provided by tangible results, a person can persist for only so long. That’s not self-care, guys. *Shrugs* What you should take away from this is that if you need someone to keep you motivated, to inspire you to keep trying and stick with your goals…I am not the one. Just listen to Beyoncé instead.
Last year though, my mother resolved that the year would not end before she had learnt how to swim. And this was all Kevin and my father needed to jumpstart their innate teaching tendencies. They both love to impart knowledge, whether you asked for it or not; whether you care about the topic they are talking about or not. You. Will. Learn. And by God, you will be grateful for it. So Project TMHTS (Teach Mum How To Swim. Yeah, I can’t be creative all the time; sue me.) was relaunched with admirable vigour. As the most pessimistic member of my family, I was the last one to get back on board. In my defence, this was not the first time this resolution was being made and I was certain it was not going to be the last.
I will spare you the details of Kevin’s swimming syllabus – because he is the way he is, he is probably looking for a way to monetise his new-found expertise as a swimming instructor – but I can tell you that it worked. By the end of 2019, my mother could last in the water for a few seconds without being supported, as long as there were at least two people on either side of her, ready to spring into action in case she began to go down. And that was enough. Or so I thought.
She proved me wrong when, this past month, I saw her swim from one side of the pool to the other, on her own, unsupervised, no one right next to her to ensure she didn’t drown. And it was the most inspiring thing I have seen in this the year of our Lord 2020.
I can’t quite explain what it feels like to watch her go at it in the water, with that determined look in her eyes. The only way I can describe it is that watching her makes me feel kind of the way I felt watching Beychella two years ago. Watching my mother swim feels like watching Beyoncé perform. As I watch her, I remember all my goals and dreams and ambitions and they all suddenly seem possible again. I start building a vision board in my mind. I think about the books I keep saying I will write but never do. I think about the courses I keep planning to apply for but never do. I think about the songs I want to sing but never do. I think about all the skills I keep saying I will learn but never do. I think about all the places I want to go but never do. I think about how I will get from Never Do to Doing to Done.
Obviously my mother can’t dance and sing for two hours non-stop without ever sounding like she is out of breath, but to me, her learning how to swim when she is now on the second half of a century, after we all gave up on her multiple times, and after she had convinced herself multiple times that maybe she should just give up, is both impressive and inspiring. It makes me want to get up and get things done both because I want to and because I can. Watching her makes me believe that I can. Whatever it is, I can.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, this achievement of hers only means more pressure for me, from her. All these years whenever she was on my case about my many left-by-the-wayside goals, I could always make myself feel better by saying, ‘Hata hajui kuswim, so we are both not living up to our potential.’ Now I got nothing. When she brings up the book I am yet to finish or the master’s degree I am yet to apply for, I now have to confront my ‘can’t do’ attitude, put on some Beyoncé, get up and do something. Despite The Imposter, despite the rocky relationship I have with my words, despite my fears and anxieties, despite myself.
Thankfully, I am sure that neither she nor Beyoncé is done being impressive enough to keep me inspired.
PS: Go wash your hands and disinfect your stuff. Then stretch and move around a bit. You’ve been on the couch all afternoon since you woke up at 1:00 pm, haven’t you? That’s okay. We are all just hanging in there and doing our best, hoping that Corona and all her messes will be done soon. Stay safe!