I can’t remember not being able to swim, except for the last day of it. I remember being sent down to the neighbor’s pool to learn, and then doing the motorboat, held happily in the arms of Mrs. Johnson’s two teenage daughters. When they instructed me to start some of the actual swimming though, to commit some effort and, in my opinion, risk, I bitched and whined to the point that Mrs. Johnson stomped out onto the back porch and let me have it. I remember that her big hair looked lopsided and that she yelled, among other things, the word “damn.” She scared me. I swam.
Fear plays less of a role in my daughter Sofia’s swim lessons. Her process plays out with some almost disturbingly patient young teachers at the YMCA. They still do the motorboat, but piles of kickboards and arm floaties wait non-threateningly by the shallow end. Laughs and splashes echo through the huge tiled room.
Sofia likes the floaties because, rather than fearing the neighbor lady, she dreads going under. She remembers once slipping on the vinyl edge of our friend’s pool and slipping helplessly into the water. We hauled her out after about two terrifying seconds, but the experience remains with her, the shadowy side of an activity that many of us cherish. Sofia will remember not being able to swim.
I have to admit that at this point of my life, despite watching Sofia’s struggles, I can’t really conceive of not being able to swim. Sinking seems like a choice. Just tug at the water and kick, people. But fear surely plays tricks on the body.
I have certainly freaked myself out about what might be in the water with me. My family did lots of lake swimming when I was a kid—sometimes at the picturesque beaches of nearby Lake Michigan, but more often in little modest lakes and ponds reachable by bike. Generally, I liked the murk and algae just fine, but sometimes when I’d paddle too far over to some reeds or some really funky and deep loam beneath the water, I’d start to get that something’s on me feeling.
Swimming at night in a lake, frankly, still scares the shit out of me. The water’s black surface seems like a lid on a barrel of sucking mouths and stingers.
For all the lake swimming, and regardless of my initial embarrassing lessons, that neighborhood pool set the standard for my childhood swimming experience. It was a real pool with a deep end and a diving board and a grainy concrete floor. My brother and I would spend hours trying to catch a tennis ball in mid-leap, the ball chlorinated into a pale green, the streetlights into blurry haloes on our walk home.
As an adult, I’ve discovered that when it comes to exercise, to lap swimming, I’m awful. All the fun disappears and I realize I don’t have a very smooth stroke, and little rhythm. I chug through the water and try to crawl and get all out of breath and dizzy. I feel like an imposter in the goggles and speedo. When there’s a slow lane, I get in it.
Then there’s the vulnerability of just putting on a suit for public fun. I want to pull up the top of the suit like it’s the 1800s. I think about starting a sit-up routine. On the West Coast I imagine beachgoers to look mostly tanned and toned, but in the Midwest, pools and beaches teem with pink softness. I was delighted—and a little weirded out—by my parents and their friends getting into swim clothes and joining the kids. Everyone seemed tentative, quick to laugh. More human than usual, more aware of fragility.
When not talking about the water, we seem to use the verb “swimming” to mean “being overwhelmed,” or making slow progress. We say that we’re “swimming in paperwork.” We want to move quickly or at least have the illusion of speed, and being slowed sucks.
It is partly that slowness that appeals to me about swimming. That I can put my usual force behind my arms or legs, and they move at the cushioned speed of dreaming. I’m at the mercy of resistance, and when I give in to it, can relax. Swimming drains my muscles of their usual insistence, and suggests that they be quiet. That quiet, along with the cooling of my core temperature, offers a rare peace. Swimming is an agent of grace.
Back in the pool swimming laps, you’d hardly guess I was thrashing toward poise. You might not think that the guy in the slow lane between the combat vet and the elderly nun hopes to emerge freer of his poisons than before. I am relieved that there is no camera showing my companions and me from below, waving and kicking away our demons for all we’re worth.
Art that successfully demonstrates our potential for joy in each other finds and deserves the greatest appreciation. Paige Sammartino’s poem, “We Should Get Married,” does exactly that while taking the reader to the pool’s bottom and back. The poem takes your breath away, as well, with the music of its three-sentence construction and a great verb in the first line.
Our theme finds its anchor this week with Joanna Kurowska’s elegant and moving flash piece, “Swimming.” In spare, lovely prose Kurowska displays a compelling sense of humanity. She also achieves an impressive sense of a life in fewer than six hundred words.
Rebecca Cook’s story, “Always,” explodes off the page. Written in direct address and occasionally sliding into moments of narration that help to underline the main character’s loss of self, this piece tackles the harrowing results of when desire runs headlong into brutal exploitation. Cook’s powerful language startles in its originality, and is even, despite the horror of events, pleasurable—a dualism that resonates with the psychology of this important story.
Photo by AG Gilmore