When we’re in the water, we’re not in this world.
I’ll always be grateful for the swimming lessons that allowed me to feel at home in the water from the age of 4 or 5. I can’t imagine my life without the hours and hours (and hours) I’ve spent in the water, be it pools, Long Island Sound, the Atlantic Ocean surf off of Long Beach Island, New Jersey or South Beach on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts ponds (Walden and Great Tisbury), or the impossibly blue waters off the Turks and Caicos.
I’ve been a devoted–read fanatical–lap swimmer for 30 years now, since third year of medical school, when I realized that it behooved a physician-in-training to ‘walk the walk’–or, rather, erm, ‘swim the swim’–and commit to some form of regular exercise. Beyond the physical benefits, friends and colleagues have heard me say many times over the years that I do some of my best thinking while in the pool. My head clears; thoughts flow more freely. Sometimes I feel like Benjamin Braddock in a classic scene from The Graduate, and don’t want to get out; parking oneself at the bottom and postponing the drudgery that awaits would be just fine, thank you.
I love the aesthetics of being in a pool: the shades of blue and green, the play of light on the surface of the water, the all-encompassing silence underneath. I can think of few things more pleasing than swimming in an outdoor pool late in the afternoon, at a time approaching the so-called golden hour I wrote about in an earlier post; one of my most memorable such experiences was at a hotel in Cairo, where the pyramids were in view every time I took a breath swimming in one direction.
For me, I think it would be difficult for a camera–even a high-quality, waterproofed apparatus–to adequately capture the visual experience(s) of being in the water; in many ways, I think paintings are better able to do so.
I agree with Gertrude Ederle’s quote that opened this post. (Among other aquatic accomplishments, she was the first woman to successfully swim the English Channel.) The water is another world. Other metaphors abound. For Benjamin Braddock in that scene from The Graduate, it’s akin to the womb: fresh out of college, Benjamin is unable and/or unwilling to face adult life and the burden of his parents’ expectations.
And then there’s Kafka’s take:
The truth is always an abyss. One must–as in a swimming pool–dare to dive from the quivering springboard of trivial everyday experience and sink into the depths, in order to later rise again–laughing and fighting for breath–to the now doubly illuminated surface of things.
This is something I’ll continue to do…descend into beautiful, blue, sun-dappled water–like the swimmers depicted above–and rise again…for as long as I’m able.
The painting at the top of this post, “Swimmer Underwater” (oil on canvas), is by Andrea Cook.