It's almost eleven at night and I just got back from my gym where I went for my ritual Friday night swim. Friday night is my favorite time to swim because it erases everything that happens during the week and affords me plenty of time to just lay there and float since only the elderly, infirm and lonelyhearts utilize the pool on Friday nights. Infer at will.
I always go with the intention of making my swim a workout, though that never happens. Sure, I'll do a few laps, but most of the time I just spend experimenting in the water. Paddling with one arm, then two, kicking only, etc. Most of my experiments involve breathing. I swam constantly as a kid and assumed it would be easy to master all over again as an adult. But age tricks your body into being scared of things it used to never think twice about and nearly every swimming session involves a concentrated effort to breathe normally. I can't overstate how difficult this is when you're thinking about it consantly. My instinct is always to lurch full speed ahead, holding my breath for as long as I can and then gasping for air. I'm sure you'll note this is not how the pro's do it. Swimming again has taught me to relax in my body, quiet distraction and trust both myself and the water.
Anybody who has known me for awhile knows that meticulous is not a word that applies to me. I'm an ideas person and I have a messy desk, I don't care if I do things perfectly and God knows, I can never have nice things. But in swimming, improbably, I am meticulous. I pay close attention to my breath, the jutting of my hands, the angle of my feet to achieve propulsion in the water. It's a mystery even to me. I have no investment in swimming and I don't harbor any illusions I am any good. But the ritual calms me. As a kid in the summer, I ritualized taking my tennis racket and hitting a ball against the side of our house for hours every morning. I can't tell you how many years this went on. I'm not sure whether this speaks to my ability to bliss out into a zen state or places me squarely and certainly on one end of the autism spectrum, but I dug it.
Tonight during my swim, I got to thinking about some of my favorite passages that relate to water. Of course, water lends itself easily to metaphor and can stand in for anything from tumult (waves) to the passage of time (rivers) to baptism (placid lakes) to the free floating we all did in utero. When I was in high school, I heard about the book All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers and for a self-consciously world-weary teenager, boy, did that title sound intriguing. In the book, the protagonist is a young writer (swoon then, eye roll now) who drowns his first novel (about rivers) in the Rio Grande. Ugh. So the symbolism is ham-fisted, but I liked it. In the book's afterword, an author who had been influenced by the book invokes Conrad's Lord Jim and quotes:
"'Yes! Very funny this terrible thing is. A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns.... No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up. So if you ask me- how to be?' "
When I was younger, I took this to mean that the true path was the self-destructive one. That a sensitive person could never climb out and into the world. But I think I get it now. That's not what he meant at all.