I can define myself any number of ways, but always, at the core of it all - I am a swimmer. I began this life as a guppy in my mother’s womb, a star child in a universe of living liquid - and I have a bone deep urge to reclaim my former paradise.
When I have bad dreams, they are most often about anticipating and preparing to swim but then finding myself before an empty pool. Or a half-filled one. Or a polluted one. Or one that an absurd array of circumstances prevents me from diving into. These are very bad dreams.
What is the meaning of this obsession? In short, it is about a form of ecstasy I taste with my entire being, a higher state I can achieve if I find myself with a body of water to traverse. It can be a dark silken lake, a wavy stretch of ocean, or a glittering turquoise pool. Over the years, I’ve swum in indoor and outdoor pools all over Europe - in London, in Lugano, in Milan, Paris, and Vienna. And in lakes from Maine to Wisconsin to California. In the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the Caribbean, both sides of the Pacific and in the Red Sea. And I mean swim - not dip, not paddle, not soak.
Swimming for me is a holistic enterprise, engaging every part of me, from my muscles to my mind. In the water I elongate, I unfurl a body compressed by stress. I unkink my psyche and enter timelessness. I meditate, I luxuriate. I fully comprehend the miracle of the human body, that it can exist both on land and in water. As I pull myself, in my local pool, through the brilliant, apparently aqua substance, and observe my shadow glide across the bottom of the pool, I realize - I am weightless, I am flying. I am a djinn of the subaqueous.
“Humans are amphibians...half spirit and half animal...as spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time, means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation--the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
Somehow C.S. Lewis has captured something about the ineffable experience of swimming, except it is that very undulation, those troughs and peaks of the stroke that yield the liberation of the spirit, a spirit directed back toward the divinity within the sensual, within the immediate...
Since I most often swim in pools, I will rhapsodize from that realm. I think first of the sweet repetition of laps, the juicy sound of splashing, the rhythm of my breath... but all else is in constant flux: the myriad patterns created as my body transects water, a halo of concentric circles flying forth across the surface as my hands part the water before me, the arc of bubbles I sweep to the side with each stroke, the fragments of light skittering like sprites across the pool’s floor, the infinite array of diamonds I may possess simply by turning on my back, flinging a hand overhead, and watching them sprinkle across my face. They are mine, all mine.
There is for me, as a painter, the inexpressible delight at seeing the hot deep blue of a California sky slashed and scattered into the aquamarine blue of the water. I turn somersaults again and again just to see the ripples mix my two favorite colors. My body conducts a wild visual symphony, a phantasmagoria glorious and alive. There is as well that moment when mid-lap, head submerged, I watch my hand pull down through what seems an underbelly of mercury and, as the last bubble pops, realize there is nothing but the vague sense of the pool walls to tell me that there is any substance surrounding me, that I am not airborne.
Of course there is the advantage of winding up with muscles that are, unlike those of tennis players or runners, long. And there is the definite advantage, for an older body, of a much reduced set of opportunities for injury. Yes, one can damage a rotator cuff if one overdoes the crawl, but shin splints, twisted knees or ankles, and hernias? Not in the water.
Speaking of the physical virtues leads me to add that swimming has another distinct appeal - observing other bodies as they appear at the pool’s edge or from underwater as they transform into projectiles. All sorts of bodies of course, and bless each one as it seeks release in the water, but occasionally one glimpses a body that approaches perfection. Gleaming upon leaving the pool, muscles rippling... but back to the transcendental:
Water to me embodies aspects of the sublime; it harbors all the secrets of being, and is one of the deepest miracles of the universe. Essential to all life, it is somehow yet unknowable. How can such a fluid exist? How does the mere combination of atoms yield this slippery, vital balm? To me the arc of clear water springing from a swimmer’s airborne hand is one of the most beautiful sights on earth.
If you are not already a swimmer, consider becoming one of us. Look at water as you would a lover; it beckons for your body, for your soul... and it knows how to slake your thirst for oblivion.