this is swimming


The Monday morning sky is a patchy quilt of convex clouds sewn together by threads of light. The clouds are gauzy enough so that you can see the sun coming up and out from behind. I am in the water, a pink latex swim cap moving back and forth across the length of the swimming pool. As usual, I am with the geriatric swimmers who like warmer water, which I do too. For swimming, I prefer the still, lukewarm water of pools: comfortable, sterile, and lifeless—the perfect incubator of thought, in which all variables are muted, as to not disturb my awareness.

I started swimming again a few years ago because I was tired of running, tired of battering my bones against pavement, and I needed something gentler, more soothing. Every day, I’d walk to the school gym, which was a strange building, in which you could only move along the perimeter; the pool was a floor-level atrium enclosed by glass walls, and from the pool, you could see all the people furiously churning away on their gym machines like robotic watchmen, with their eyes glazed over staring into nowhere, possessed by the orbital trance that emanated from their headphones. For a long time, I was a gym rat too. Then I started swimming.

Swimming, like any kind of aerobic exercise, is about building up a rhythm in which your level of consciousness floats slightly above the motions of your body. Your body knows what it’s doing, so you don’t really have to pay attention to it, and you have space to think, unhindered by your own body and its surroundings. In not trying to achieve anything, in not needing to outdo yourself, the swimming becomes something else altogether: not a sport, but a means to a particular state of mind, a space for prayer and meditation perhaps, which is more accessible than it sounds--not just a thing for saints and monks. It’s an elevated state of consciousness, where you don’t feel like you exist merely in your body, or you don’t feel heavy in it. Runners and drug addicts get this.

In the pool, the sun projects itself onto the floor, creating kaleidoscopic constellations of light. Every morning, swimming feels like a baptism into the day, an awakening of the spirit by water. There are some days, like yesterday, when the pool water feels laced with magic, beyond the earth, a place for the mind and not the body, when I am swimming through memory, drinking from Mnemosyne’s pool, and moments from my life play out like an old home video, a tape winding forward as I’m moving forward, spinning my arms in a circular motion, propelling through the water with a flutter kick. I glide tirelessly, turning my head sideways on a pulse to gasp for air.

Now I’ve reached the wall, and I’m somersaulting, and pushing off again, twisting in one smooth motion. It feels so good to feel frictionless, or to know that I can move with such ease.

All is still on the pool deck, which is dotted with plastic, white lawn chairs that haven’t met a human body since last summer. Now they’re used only as towel racks. The pool is always on the grimy side. One of the railings that swimmers use to climb out of the pool is completely missing, and the triangular blue flags hang like forgotten laundry, graying and tattered above the water.

There are two types of swimmers: toe-dippers, who slowly melt into the pool, inching in, one bodily cross-section at a time; and plungers, who jump right in, preferring a single shock. I fall in this latter category, the kind of person who prefers a fast and painful death to a more mild but prolonged one. My own death never feels so undaunting as it does in the pool, where it feels like I’ve fallen off a maddening trail and am now tumbling through an antediluvian thicket of cobwebs and ferns. Falling isn’t so bad when you’re more focused on what falling feels like--thrilling, exhilarating--than on the fear of where you’re going to land.

In the pool I feel everything, all of my sadnesses, my despairs, my disappointments, my confused hopes. I say all the words I’ve wanted to say to the people I wish would love me, and I mourn the loves I’m letting go. I allow the beads of anxiety about the future, about my relationships, about my work pass through me like kidney stones. The water makes it easy to bear. Years ago, when I was depressed and reigned by my anxieties, it often felt like the devil was gnawing on my insides, a metal pan scraping back and forth against a stovetop, with fire between the two; the difference between now and then isn’t that I don’t hurt anymore--in fact, now I’m more keenly aware of my grief, sorrow, anger, and stress--but that I’m able to bear them in moments, like knots in my hair that I’ll have to comb out over and over again, with patience and knowledge that this too will pass. I have to believe that those feelings aren’t eternal, that they’re like bee stings that will mend, and that I’ll be able to move faster through them if I jump right into them. Even though it feels like I’m swimming upstream, at some point, the current mellows out. Until then, I can scream, cry, weep, and wail without guilt.

I’m swimming through these feelings now, and it really does feel like I’m swimming through them, so that every feeling percolates through me like water aided by gravity, seeping into coffee grounds over and over again. It occurs to me that there’s no such thing as fair or unfair, as in how the things in our life unravel--these deaths that we deal with, and the hearts that break us--we don’t deserve these things, but we don’t not deserve them either. There’s so much that’s out of our control, and the anxiety and fear we inflict upon ourselves--the feelings and thoughts that hold us hostage--so often stem from thinking that we should be able to control the things that we can’t. We think that if we just make the right choice, we’ll reach some end that we’ve been moving towards, but then you never reach that place you thought you were going, and you feel like Sisyphus, pushing some boulder uphill, only to have it roll down again.

Here’s everything in me, scrambled like eggs, knotted like the nests of black and blonde hairs that we used to find in the corners of our dusty room, so incongruous and absurd but inevitable (what happens when two girls with different-colored long hair live together). Like my house, everything in me tends towards entropy, and for now, that feels alright. I am not making a sound, but I am not quiet either. Silence is hard to come by.

Can I move through this world, not caring about the footprints I’m leaving but fully engaged in the actual movement of walking? Every place is a sojourn--this entire life is a sojourn here on earth--there are so many arrivals and so many goodbyes, but there is no destination that will feel as though, this is the end, I’ve done it and I’m done.

I have to use a clock to limit my time in the pool, because the euphoria that I’m brought into also takes away any sense of exhaustion and pain. Like an acid trip, where you gauge the strength of the drug in your bloodstream based on how elaborate the oriental motifs are on the carpet in front of you, I know that when the stream of images begins to subside, the spirit has bowed, its content exhausted--but I’ll often swim on, feeling like I’m actually swimming now in this rectangular crater of water, rather than in my mind, in dreams.

I hate getting out of the pool. I hate being wet on dry land, my hair dripping all over me, goosebumps rising all over my body, wind and water chilling me to the bone. There’s no graceful way of doing it either, propping up one knee, and then the other, and then an elbow, and then the other, scaling the pool rim like an orangutan. I scramble towards my towels, and wrap two of them as tightly around me a possible.

Sue, a wiry elderly woman with curly brown hair, who diligently swims every morning for at least thirty-five minutes, says hi to me, greeting me with a huge smile.

“Hey Natalie! How was your swim today?”

We’re always excited to see each other--she is the only person at the pool who pulls me out of anonymity.

“Great,” I tell her. “The water was--”

“Perfect.” She finishes my sentence.

“Yes it was.” I say.

Every day we talk about the temperature of the pool water, like two acquaintances talking about the weather, because it’s the only thing we share. Like the weather, the condition of the environment is small talk to some, but of grave importance to mystics, always curious about the state of the world, and introverts who use books and music to talk about themselves. Both of us know all too well that there is a perfect, tepid temperature that makes swimming effortless, easy, and sometimes, transcendent.


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