Michiana Chronicles: On swimming
I do a different kind of thinking while swimming. It’s the quality of reflection you might have on an airplane, suspended between one place and another. Swimming feels like time outside of time, floating above the ground for a while, bird-like.
Swimming is mind-opening if not mind-altering. There are the pure aesthetics of it: light filtering through water, cavorting air bubbles, the odd look of my hands pushing out in front of me, as if they belong to someone else.
Is this heightened state due to extra oxygen flowing through my bloodstream, from the exaggerated fullness of each breath?
The garland of banners strung across the end of the pool cheers me on as I backstroke toward the finish line, like a child at a birthday party.
I wasn’t on the swim team growing up. I don’t have memories of crowded, convivial locker rooms and poolside parents. I’m not competitive about it—I don’t count my laps or keep track of how many meters or miles I swim on the index cards provided.
For me, swimming is less sport than something akin to the discipline of dance. There is fluidity and grace and concentration on form. When I am done, my body feels fully integrated, every muscle warmed and moving as one.
The sensory specificity of it—the feel and smell and sounds of water surrounding me—is my favorite Proustian madeleine, conjuring powerful memories and connecting me to different times of my life: to Austin and Big Stacy pool, which was spring-fed and un-chlorinated. The water, a constant 80 degrees, felt cool on a 100-degree day, and I was a happy animal—strong and joyful and young—under a big blue Texas sky.
Swimming transports me to Paris, crossing the pool with the kickboard and slamming the water with my legs as hard as I could, working out all the everyday frustration and misunderstanding of living in a foreign place among foreign people.
I swam in many of the 38 municipal pools in Paris while living there. The French are not joggers by nature, but a lot of them swim laps and the pools were always packed. Part of the sport was dodging the frequently too-wide frog kicks (no pun intended). The pool structures themselves varied from airless caverns under train stations to an Art Deco marvel with a glass ceiling and mosaic walls.
When I moved to South Bend, it was a pleasure to discover the YMCA pool (RIP) and the building’s mid-century charm, despite it being a bit down at the heels. If you went at the right time, you could have the pool almost to yourself, this glorious expanse of air above and water stretching out peacefully on all sides. If you went at the wrong time, there would be so many screaming children (darling as they are) that I had to wonder if they were all following proper potty hygiene.
During the final decline of the South Bend YMCA, I jumped ship and started swimming at the Beacon Health Club downtown. The pool does not offer the same aesthetic satisfaction, small and low-ceilinged as it is. Swimming on my back, I consider the incongruous foam tiles close above, which would be more appropriate hanging over a warren of cubicles. But there is plenty of natural light and an uncanny vantage point from the third floor in the middle of city buildings, reminding me of my club pool back in Brooklyn. As I stand at the window, I wonder about the office workers across the street and if it entertains them to see us, dripping wet in our swim caps, when they look up from their computer screens.
I also love the whirlpool and its steamy luxury.
Pools are spaces with special rules, posted prominently by law within every pool enclosure. There are also unwritten rules about interacting with others. I couldn’t list them, but a conversation with a stranger half-naked in a whirlpool is different than one in the produce section of the grocery store. It feels somewhat like how you might treat the person sitting next to you in an airplane. Certain indiscriminate proximity leads to reticence. I have made no friends at the pool.
When I’m done with my laps, I always end by floating on my back for a few minutes, eyes closed, listening to sounds echoing underwater and feeling my body pushed gently by the wake of other swimmers and the rhythm of my own breath. It’s a meditation, floating three stories in the air and five feet from the ground.
Music: "Swimming" by Breathe Owl Breathe