SWIMMING TO SERENITY
(Photo at left of the Roman pool at the Parc Monceau in Paris, courtesy of my father)
In the winter months, after it's become too cold and icy to ride my bicycle to work every day, I change my routine of exercise to include weekly swimming sessions at the downtown pool. I usually go in the midafternoon, when the pool is quiet, and there's only me and the Eastern European ladies in their swim caps and giant floral-patterned swimsuits. One time, in the steam bath after my swim, I ran into one of the ladies drinking a clear liquid from her flask. "That's a great idea, to drink water in here," I said to her. "I'm drinking vodka," she replied, and we both chuckled.
Although swimming is an exercise for the body, I find that, for me, it's primarily an excercise in meditation. Energy slows with each exhalation into the water, moving inward with each stroke. The exterior world begins to fall away, and I listen to my breathing as the water streams past my body and flows out through my nose and mouth with each forced out-breath. I imagine it must have been like this in utero.
I've never been a fast, powerful body in the water. In fact, years ago when in graduate school, I took a thrice-weekly swimming class at the university's Olympic-sized pool. One of the surprise! goals of the class was to increase speed and power, so at the beginning of the first week of class, we buddied up and counted the number of laps we each could swim in a five-minute period. I swam 18 laps. At the end of the semester, we again buddied up and counted laps for the same amount of time. Every one else in class had increased their capabilities by a lap or two. I again swam 18 laps.
I think this means that my potential as a swimmer is what it is, and that there's something in me that doesn't want to swim fast and hard. What I do want is to hit my stride, whatever that may be on any particular day, and to view life from a water creature's perspective--with that funny feeling of solitude and extreme insularity, even with other bodies in the water. One afternoon at the university all those years ago, swimming laps in the slow lane, I rotated onto my side for an inhalation and made contact with a woman swimming over and on top of me. As I held my breath to wait for her to clear my body, I wondered why she hadn't chosen one of the fast lanes. Swimming, of course, does have a competitive side, but drowning your fellow swimmers in the slow lane seems to go beyond the pale. Feeling the power swimmer had violated some common code of water life--whereby all swimmers respect solitude and insularity--I felt frightened that day, unable to regain my meditative rhythm, and got out of the pool at the far end of my lane. I like to tell this story to the lifeguards at the downtown pool. That way, I figure they'll remember me and look out for me in case anyone else tries to overpower me in the slow lane. But no one ever has and my pool-life serenity has only that one blemish.