Saturday, March 17, 2007

A Swimming Life

They say when you’re drowning, your life flashes before your eyes. I think “they” got it terribly wrong. For 3 successive evenings this week, I went swimming in a beautiful brand new pool, one of the enticements of a gym I’m considering joining. I was never in any danger of drowning, but I had these same kinds of flashes, these little vignettes of my life, right from the moment I first slipped beneath the surface of the water.

The smell of chlorine hits me as I walk into the women’s changing room. I'm immediately brought back to my freshman year in high school, when swimming was a gym requirement. That pool was dank, dark and depressing, and the water felt oily. Nothing like this state-of-the-art facility, but the smell in the dressing room is exactly the same. At least I’m free of my 9th grade agonizing about how my hair will look afterwards, but I still modestly choose to change in a stall with a curtain just like I did back then. The time slot is reserved for women only, but unlike my PE class there is a noticeable difference in that all of the women here are much older than me. Maybe it’s the early hour I chose, but most look to be in their late 60’s and 70’s, the bathing caps are almost a dead giveaway. It seems to be a club of some sort and they congregate in the shallow end to do their aquatic exercises against the 3 sides of the pool, leaving the deep end all to myself. I’m perfectly happy with this arrangement because one of the reasons I'm swimming is for the solitude.

I stretch out to do what I came for and dive in. It feels great, not too cold, just right. I begin to swim laps back and forth across the width of the pool. The water is crystal clear, it feels so smooth as it glides off my skin, and I slide through the laps almost effortlessly. There is something so primordial and life affirming about being in water this way, although my favorite form of swimming is in the ocean, not a chlorinated pool. As I swim my mind goes back to being in the ocean as a child, the annual family vacations to the beaches of New Jersey. I think about my mother’s flowered bathing suit with the detachable skirt, and how my father had one pair of "swim trunks" that he wore year after year. I remember him showing me how to swim past the breakers to get to those gentle rolling waves, the ones you could backfloat on. Another memory from a childhood perspective: what a scary and powerful force of nature the ocean changed into at nighttime, when viewed from the boardwalk. It still does that to me.

I stop swimming after a while, and float on my back to rest. I feel just like I used to so long ago on those softly lapping waves in the ocean. A more recent memory comes to mind this time; being in the Caribbean with 3 of my children several years ago. It was their first trip ever to a tropical island, and their first exposure to the breathtaking beauty of an undersea dive. This is one of the best memories of my life. We had just gone down into the ocean from the boat, and all three were facing me, floating in a sort of semi-circle around me as we descended. I could clearly see their expressions through their scuba masks, their looks of astonishment and pure joy as we took in the unbelievable colors of the tropical fish swirling all around us, the brilliant coral below, the shimmering turquoise of the water.


Unfortunately, the membership to this particular gym is not priceless, it's much more than I can afford. I continue floating there for a while longer, enjoying how the water blocks out the voices and muffles the sounds of everything else.

I think to myself, I should do this. Just join and damn the expense of it. But summer is coming up fast, there'll be lots of opportunities to swim, lots of days where I will have access to other pools.

And hopefully, other oceans.


Keifus said...

Funny, one reason I like swimming is all the terrible associations I have with jogging out of doors (indoors is fine). It does have a rhythm to it though, and I like to think that the floating of my body in some way draws out the same sensation in my mind.

Nice series of associations.

But the other swimmers are all pretty irritating. In my place, there's a hot tub adjacent, which is a real magnet for those who can't swim well. Here they are yakking, or flailing their arms, or walking along the lap lanes...

I've never swam any kind of distance in the ocean. The thought unnerves me a little. It's dirty, infested with life, and really, really big.


Keifus said...

P.S. did something go buggy with your post? it seems to have screwed up the front page. Check the expando tags maybe.

Keifus said...

P.S. did something go buggy with your post? it seems to have screwed up the front page. Check the expando tags maybe.

topazz said...

I noticed that - in fact I went back and reposted it again just in case I did something inadvertantly and messed up the front page. But it came up the same way, I don't know what's wrong.

Dawn Coyote said...

Your post brought back a series of exquisite memories: floating for hours in an Ontario lake, until the sun is setting and I'm soggy and limp...swimming in the crystal-blue Aegean, the scent of salty water and fig and jasmine trees all around...giggling like someone's tickling me as the waves threaten to knock me over in Maui.

I love water.

august said...

I enjoyed this post. I've been meaning to write a poem:"Ghazals for the Swimmer, Who Alternates Between Darkness and Light," but haven't had time. You've inspired me.