I have been a swimmer my whole life. I have always swum, in times of anguish, stress, happiness, I have returned to the water. But often I have simply swum laps, counting numbers as I go up and down, up and down. Often, swimming has been part of a wider exercise programme and so the idea of doing anything in the water other than swimming up and down, has passed me by.
Lane swimming is beneficial, and certainly meditative. My tendency to count the lap number as I swim has a relaxing effect. One, one, one, one, two, two, two, two, all the way up to forty or sixty or eighty lengths, depending on how much I wanted to swim. But this kind of swimming is also narrow, and very clearly linked in my mind to exercise and thus my health.
What does it mean to swim and not count laps? In my reading of all the swimming memoirs that have appeared recently, the writers seem to splash into some otherness when swimming. Swimming for them is not just for exercise, it is also for joy, for rushing endorphins (‘endolphins’) that come from freezing water, it is companionship, friendship, happiness.
Slowly slowly, over the past 18 months or so, I have started to swim in places other than heated swimming pools. I was aided a lot by my last job, which required a lot of traveling all around the country. As I swum my way back to better-ness, and away from the darkness which had characterised so much of life post-PhD, I started to travel differently, and to ‘be’ differently.
Now, I can jump into the water for the sheer pleasure of simply floating about, wallowing as the pulse of the sea wafts me back and forth across the swells. I can be carried down a river current and swim only to get back to the beach, just to do it all over again. I can go with friends to lidos, and swim breaststroke with my head above the water, better to participate in the conversation. All of this is new to me. I am learning to swim without a bigger agenda (‘I must get fitter’) and simply because I want to swim. Because I enjoy it.
When I go away these days, I google possible swimming places. I look for lidos, rivers, sea swimming clubs (still haven’t managed to join a group of actual swimmers yet but there is time), lakes. I have started to drag fellow travellers with me into the water (obviously not without their consent, and making sure they are capable swimmers!). I’ve swum in very cold water, much colder than I ever would’ve dreamed of 18 months ago. I find myself wondering why I didn’t embrace sea swimming when I was an undergrad in Cape Town and the ocean was literally a few blocks from my house. What was I doing with my time?
I see the world differently from the water. It is quiet – the noise is of ducks quacking, or moorhens objecting to my being to close to their babies, splashing fellow swimmers, or the rhythmic swoosh of waves. I notice the colours – of the water, of the sky, of the surrounding landscape – the blues, greens, browns, golds that characterise swimming in non-urban surroundings.
And out of the water I am different. I am now the person who stands, feet in the breaking surf, watching the water change colour as the sun sinks below the horizon. It turns from deep blue to silver to pink to purple to gold to black. My mind goes blissfully quiet and for a few short moments it is just me, the sea, the sky, and the gulls. There is a piece of my being, right in the centre of me, that burns brightly after a swim, a nugget of reassurance that I am healing. Slowly.
Then a dog bounds over, chasing a ball into the water, and the spell breaks. I return to my self, my mind begins to buzz, and I return to the world. But there is always a part of me in the water now, and I can return and find her whenever I want.