I came to swimming late in life. Too much stuff to pack and tote, too much dressing and undressing and rigmarole. And then, well, then there’s the water.
“Just jump in,” swimming types say. “It’s only cold for a second.” This is a lie.
There’s also my ineptitude. My swimming lessons as a child consisted mainly of a few casual instructions from my father while on vacation at Geneva State Park. He showed me how to lie on my back and float. “You won’t sink, I promise,” he said.
I spent happy hours in the shallow end, splashing, standing on my head, chasing inflatable balls. As a teen, I was content to dog paddle while others soared off the high board. But once I grew up, I was more inclined to lie next to a pool instead of venturing in.
A stress fracture in my left calf as an adult, which made walking for exercise impossible for several months, led to my plunge back into the water. I discovered a wondrous thing: an Olympic-sized warm water therapy pool at my local health club.
The atmosphere is Zen-like, with sun streaming through the big windows and illuminating the water like vast turquoise. People often sigh with comfort as they lower themselves into it. Nobody makes a splash.
I used to feel that health clubs were unfriendly places, filled with people staring straight ahead, intent on nothing but an intense workout. But I’ve come to appreciate that environment. I like the focus the pool affords, the anonymity.
In the water I suspend all the roles that define me. One arm over the other, legs kicking, making my inelegant way back and forth, I’m just a woman traveling through neutral waters, a human, swimming.
And yet, in spite of my inward focus, the water connects us.
There’s the man with wispy white hair I’ve dubbed Cowboy, because every time I see him he calls out to me in a wry but happy voice: “Sure beats swimming with the cows!” I respond “Sure does!” I am unaccountably fond of Cowboy, though this is the sum total of our conversations.
One day I got out of the pool at the same time as a woman I call Courage. She had walked in what’s called the resistance river for some time, then did gentle, ballet-like exercises the length of the pool. She struggled to pull her body up the steps to get out.
“Out of breath,” she panted and leaned over to rest her palms on her thighs. “But, oh, I love the water.” Always, in the water, there is the promise of lightness — a brief release from the accumulated weight of our years. If only we could carry that effortless fluidity into the clumsy existence of our everyday lives.
There’s a trio of women I particularly like to swim next to, because they have such interesting conversations as they glide slowly back and forth the length of the pool holding bright-colored, foam noodles for balance. They all wear practical black swimsuits. All of them have soft, generous faces and sturdy bodies. I can picture them with grandchildren on their laps or standing over a big pot of sauce on the stove. I call them the Three Graces.
On one occasion as they passed me in the water, I heard one say to the other with firmness, but not without kindness, “You can dislike someone you love, but you can’t hate them. After my father died ... ” I wanted to stop right there and ask, “What? After your father died, what?”
I sensed some imminent, elemental wisdom about to emerge from her. But it seemed too obvious to just stop and reverse direction to listen, so I let them glide away like black swans.
Once I failed to pay attention while I was swimming on my back, and I smacked my head against the pool wall. The three of them sucked in their breath in sympathy, clucking over me in concern.
Finally convinced I was OK, one of the women pointed a finger up in the air. “Look up,” she said solemnly. “Look for the sign.”
Because everything she says sounds sage, and I was still a bit dazed from the impact, I got a little wide-eyed, thinking some oracle was poised above my head.
I glanced up and saw a purple banner hanging from the ceiling in plain sight. “Look for the sign that tells you you’re about to hit the wall,” she said.
The last time I saw Cowboy, he was silent and wouldn’t meet my eye. He wore a large, tightly sealed waterproof bandage on his rib cage. I’m a little worried about him. And I haven’t seen the Three Graces or Courage recently. Maybe they have changed their swim routine or maybe they have given up.
I miss them. So much for comfortable distance, focusing only on my own strokes, I thought today.
Each of us is an island in motion, emanating waves and ripples of love and disaster at every turn. We are up to our necks with each other, and there’s no getting around it. Whenever one of us enters or leaves, the level rises or falls, even if we fail to notice.
You won’t sink, I promise.
I turned on my back to float, resting on the water that carried me. Then I rolled facedown and swam toward the deep end.