I’m swimming again. In the water, I feel capable. Why not? I’m doing it. My body feels the stretching it is undergoing and the pulls I have accomplished. Currents and eddies pummel my surface. My knuckles graze the lane line more times than I would wish. When I reach the end of a lap, either my feet slap the wall for a flip turn or my hands feel the tiles as I grab the wall and pull in a cheat-breath instead. My lungs process chlorinated air. My eyes get irritated because there are always little goggle leaks. And after the workout, I carry a tiredness that is profound, total, and genuine–and not achievable so simply on land, where at some phase of movement I sit or stand. In the pool, I am suspended, and every motion I make requires work for some part of me–in fact, often for opposing parts at the same time.
Swimming is a matter of cycles. At the scales of a lifetime, I played in the pool as a young child, and I can picture myself playing in a pool again when I’m very old. At the scale of years, I swam on a college team or on my own or quit, I swam Masters or on my own or quit, twice, and I swam in a faculty/staff class or on my own or quit, two or three times. At the scale of the week, I opened and closed my locker, changed from street garb to swim garb to street garb again, and anticipated that jump into the water and then pulling myself up the ladder and out. At the minutes scale, I swam back and forth in the pool. And at the scale of seconds, I cycled my arms and legs in various configurations and rhythms, with sharp inhales and slow expulsion of my breath. To swim again after twenty years out is to re-enter the cycles. Again.
I have a long history of competitive swimming, lap swimming, and playing in the pool. I also have a long history of trying to overcome orthopedic problems to keep swimming, and finally, acting on medical advice, quitting. The last time I quit was twenty years ago. But now, at sixty-three, my orthopedic problems have become intertwined. Some of my problems dictate what not to do more loudly than some of the others.
And thus I have started swimming again. I’m smug. Engaged. Victorious.
I’m listening again. With every stroke, I hear a joyous gurgle like the laughter of a large woman, with every exhalation, a percussive series of bell-like pops.
I’m watching again. Mostly I see the bottom of the pool. Nets of focused light compound, wave, and diverge–an ongoing dance. The light plays on a snake-belly of small, hexagonal, tiles that are white or aqua, I can’t tell. Simple lane lines stay beneath me, but I pass a blunt marker mid-lap and come to another just before the wall. Bubble cyclones twirl from my reaching hands and bubble trails run across my face with each breath out.
I am in motion. Obliquely, I see other swimmers’ progress relative to mine. I may I take heed and then calculate, a cycle later, whether I am gaining or loosing on them. If I have it in me, I may speed up.
Cusps of waves. I don’t focus on them, but they are there. Today, I misjudged one and then inhaled a jot of pool–through my nose. The sting threw me back to first swim lessons as a little girl. Oh, it stings, stings, sting! The sting is awful. Back then, swimming was a sting up the nose and a lung-full of water followed by coughs while needing to breath hard, and those red eyes afterward that dripped and saw rainbow halos around sources of light.
I’m rhythmic again. My body falls into rhythms when I swim. The overwhelming one is inhalation, exhalation, driven by the cadence of the stroke. Another is my rocking–forward-back, side-side–as I divide the waters to slip through.
The teacher tells me what to do. My mind is occupied with simple things. I may need to count strokes or laps or yards. I may try a calculation or a tally, over and over, to make it right. The counting prevents wide-ranging thought. I’m as blank as the doubly-patterned bottom of the pool.
I feel beams of light again. I pass a narrow light beam that made it through a window that is way up high. A mind-shiver shakes me to pools forty years ago when I’d come home to California for winter break from Pennsylvania or just after, from Alaska. Coolness would turn my skin to rind as I walked outdoors across strange concrete. A chlorinated ground fog rose above the pool. And then–anticipation, the jumping in, and slightly varied tiles, lane lines, anastomosing stripes of light. To top it all, a sun that rode on my back and hit my face when I turned to take a breath. And proof of everything? Discernable tan lines after the first day.
Today’s beam brings a fortunate conjunction. The then-me–nebulous as the light on the pool’s bottom, and the now-me–as solid as the tiles, have that brief kiss and make me whole.
I have camraderie again. I show up, buoyed by the fact that others showed up, too. We work out together–alone beneath the water, and parallel. We’re stripped to almost nothing: no pretense here, the beautiful hard-bodies, the soft ones, all together. All shapes. All textures, colors, and speeds.
And then the banter in the women’s locker room as we shower and change: it starts with talk of swim caps, conditioners, and shampoos, then moves to what we’re hungry for.
But by towel-dabs and comb-pulls, the swim begins to fade away. What deadlines loom? people tell. What are we late for? we whine. The workday and our lives take back control–but less control, for our having had the hour away. The banter thins, we drift away, separately, but with the expectation that we’ll meet for parallel swims again.
I’m swimming again.
Until I can’t.