Well, yesterday I went for my first swim in months. It didn’t feel like it used to. Where I was strong, I am weak. All the muscles that used to work together are out of tune and awkward sounding. All the movements that used to blend together jar and jangle. And today I ached all over and slept too much. But I am still happier than I was the day before yesterday, because yesterday, I went for my first swim in months.
Even before injury and illness and the seasons of body and earth kept me from the pool, I was not a good swimmer. When I am at my best, strongest and most consistent, I am neither fast nor powerful, my form is bad, I don’t know how to whip kick, I can’t front crawl anymore because I can’t seem to coordinate my breathing– it makes me gag, like going to the dentist does. So I slowly make my way from one end of the pool to another– breast stroke, side stroke, back stroke without the arms. I just kick, not even using a flutter board. I swim for 40 minutes, if you can call it swimming.
People who don’t know what a good swimmer really can do, think I am a good swimmer. But compared to almost anyone who swims regularly, I am almost ridiculous. I swallow water, end up stopping and coughing and gagging almost every occasion I am in the water, at least once.
One day I was in the lane next to the very slowest lane. A tall young guy got in the slow lane and started swimming. it wasn’t swimming really… it was like he was a living submarine. He kicked once or twice, and travelled the length of the pool without coming up for air. I was in awe, because I had never seen anyone swim that way. I imagined he might be an Olympic athlete visiting from some other country because I never saw him there again.
If I compared myself to people who are good swimmers, never mind giants of towering greatness like that guy was, I couldn’t set foot in the pool. But I don’t, anymore. No matter how uninspired and unaccomplished a swimmer I am, I love the water. I feel at home there, as much as I feel at home anywhere. Swimming gives order to my body and my mind and my life. Weirdly, it gives me hope. I think that’s because it strengthens me, and when I feel strong and capable, I feel like other things don’t matter, because I know I can survive on my own strength if i have to.
I am not sure where desire to feel I can survive came from, because I have been incredibly lucky not to have suffered lack of money or family support or to have been hurt by anyone in a way that would make me preoccupied with survival. The only person I have had to fight for survival against is my self.
I grew up like so many perfectionistic kids, anxious about a lot of things and tortured, like so many women, by hatred of my own body. But at the same time as I wanted to be a twig and a waif, I wanted to be able to outrun or if necessary outkick, punch and bite anyone who wanted to do me harm. It may be because I did a lot of walking by myself, but more likely it was because I had hermetically sealed myself off from almost everyone, psychologically.
I still find it hard to be a human being. When I am ill, I am very, very ill and it always comes down to whether or not I am too afraid to die or not. No question about wanting to live, just fear of the pain of dying and what comes after. I argue with myself. I try to think my way out of hopelessness. Nothing works. I make a plan. I clean up my place, wear the clothes I want to be found in, and go somewhere, but I don’t go through with it. Last time I made it to the hotel desk to rent a room, so no one would find me for a while. But in the end, I think I have too much fear in me, at bottom, even at my darkest, to go through with it.
I guess this fear has saved me, and drives me to do a lot of things, including swimming. But so does love. I love swimming. I am afraid of people but I love them too. I am afraid of writing, but I love it. I am afraid of having nothing but myself to depend on, but I am still aiming for that.
I love the idea of owning nothing but what I can carry on my back, like a turtle and being strong and healthy and capable enough to survive anywhere. But I know somehow I am just trying to get free of myself and the way to do that is not by swimming or writing or any of the other things I do. I know what I have to do. It’s not a secret. And it doesn’t involve running away or kicking and biting.
It doesn’t exclude swimming and writing though. It encompasses them. It smiles when I do things I love in the service of my own health and happiness. It likes joy, it is abundant and forgiving and helpful. It is what I’m swimming in and for and toward.