It’s true. Ever since I can remember I have been a water baby. They had to drag me from swimming pools and beaches and it was all I was really ever interested in doing as a kid. Friends with swimming pools in their backyards became my best friends…I’m sure I was really annoying! But I also have a niggling fear of open water (or wild swimming), but I used to be frightened of the deep end in swimming pools also, for quite a long time. I was scared that the drain would suck me down and in…I hated seeing it’s dark shape below me. Even though I don’t have that fear anymore, I can still creep myself out about it. Dark shapes lurking in the depths…definitely a metaphor in there.
I have always been a swimmer. The story I was told was that from the age of two, I could doggy paddle the length of the swimming pool that was on site where we lived (we lived in a condominium townhouse complex – very Canadian thing). I think this must be an exaggeration, I was probably more like three or four years old. I don’t know how long this pool was, but in my memory, it was HUGE. Which probably means it was about 25 metres. But still, even at three or four, that’s pretty impressive. The picture above is of me (on the left) flinging myself in at the deep end with abandon. Fun. Joy. Splash. I love the water. When I was little, I didn’t care if it was cold, and that pool was COLD. I didn’t feel it…teeth chattering, blue lips ‘Get out, you’re cold!’ my mum would say, ‘N.n.n.n.n.n.o.o.o.o, I’m.m.m.m.m.n.n.n.n.o.o.o.o.t!’ would be my chattering, gleeful, almost delirious reply.
Just before Covid and the ensuing lockdown, I hadn’t been swimming consistently for quite a while, like maybe a year (maybe more) and I was feeling it. I vowed to myself that I was going to get back to the pool, that I needed to work it back into my normal routine. Then we went into lockdown, probably about a week or two after me making this inner promise to myself.
If there’s one thing Covid and lockdown has done for me, is sort the wheat from the chaff of what is really, really important to me, the stuff I can’t live without and all the other stuff (some of which is nice to have, but non-essential and some of which I’d rather just never came back. I will have to do a list another time). Swimming turns out to be essential for me. Every time I drove past our local lido’s chained and padlocked gates, I wanted to cry. I found it deeply upsetting and distressing to think that swimming pools may never open again (maybe a bit dramatic, but I like to think of the worst case scenario, that way I prepare myself and maybe I’ll get lucky and it won’t happen…but it is exhausting).
Why did I find it so upsetting that the local swimming pool shut down? Because swimming, I’ve realised, has a spiritual connection for me. There’s also freedom in it. There’s a rhythm to it and everything is involved in making it work. Muscles, brain, breathing. Sensation. From the tip of my toes, to the top of my head, my whole body is taking part. Pull, Pull, Breathe. Pull, Pull, Breath. Pull, Pull, Breathe. The resistance of the water on my hands, upper arms, biceps and triceps tense and shoulders grip as I pull through the water. The feeling of water streaming past my forehead, face, chest, stomach, hips, legs, feet and toes. The slight arrhythmic style of my kicking. The sound of the bubbles being blown out through my nose and mouth and the low hum I make as I release the air (it’s my whale song).
It becomes a meditation. My eyes are a relaxed gaze, sometimes I shut them against the bright sun as I turn my head to breathe. Sometimes I just stare at the dancing light reflections on the bottom. The water holds me. That’s the freedom. It’s the freedom from gravity. Weightlessness on earth. Like being in the womb again. The pool has opened back up and I am feeling so much more relaxed now, so much so, that I have taken to getting into the river at the end of our road to take a break from this heat.
I mentioned my fear of open water above. I do think this is basically the same fear of the deep end of the pool – held until I was probably about 12 or 13. I blame my parents (naturally). I was one of those kids that never wanted to get out of the bath and so they told me a lie that if I didn’t get out before all the water had gone down the drain, I’d be sucked down too. Parents should be careful about that kind of shit, it really sticks with sensitive and imaginative (and gullible) kids.
However, I don’t want Benjamin thinking I’m a scaredy cat and transfer my fear onto him. He literally has no fear when it comes to water, even dark, murky water. So, yet again, my small child is teaching me life lessons and lessons about who I am. I you think as a parent it’s your job to teach your children who they are, you’re wrong. It’s the other way around. Where he goes, I go. I don’t want to say no. I don’t want to say I’m frightened of the murky water, which looks even darker and weirder under overhanging trees. What if there are tree roots that may brush my leg or worse, a gigantic carp that will try to nibble my big toe?? Or say that I am frightened to go out past where I can’t touch the bottom anymore, as I panic slightly when I come back in as I don’t know where I can touch the bottom and if I try, and can’t reach, it makes my stomach do a little flip – ‘what is down there??’ I put all of this to one side, tell myself to be brave, just go and pretend I’m cool about it all. Fake it until I make it. Which, actually, I think is working.
It helps that there is a little beach, so I can gently ease my way in and I wear my diving booties so I don’t have to touch the bottom with my bare feet (and the giant carp can’t nibble my big toes). As an aside, scuba diving, the best weightless freedom on earth, fully immersed, doesn’t freak me out. I’ve dived in murky lakes and rivers and crystal clear oceans and seas. I’ve dived wrecks and caves, canyons and coral reefs. I’ve dived at night, when the only light you see is what is coming from your own torch and that of anyone else diving with you. I’ve seen sharks and all kinds of enormous fish, moray eels, barracuda, rays of all sorts, octopus and squid, turtles (the best), etc., etc. It’s fine. As soon as I get my head under and I can see what’s happening, I’m a very very relaxed diver. It’s the womb thing again, I swear.
Being in the river is a totally different experience to being in the pool, obviously. It’s closer to nature, like eyeball close, it smells of water reeds and mud, but its not unpleasant. I don’t swim front crawl in the river, I swim like an old lady. Breaststroke with my head out of the water. But sometimes I just lay on my back and float…lovely, but still getting used to this…I don’t want to accidentally float off to a nearby overhanging tree and freak myself out when it’s roots brush my bum. It sounds different, feels different, smells different and it’s great. And in this current heat wave, a blessing. Maybe I’ll take my googles down next time and put my face in. Be brave-er.
I am keeping everything crossed that the pool can stay open. It’s got a community there that I really like being a part of, and I’m not sure I will ever feel totally at ease swimming for exercise in the river. But at least I now know I can tolerate being in the river…more than tolerate, I enjoy myself in the river. It’s free, it’s at the end of my road, I’d be an idiot if I didn’t take full advantage. Benjamin will demand it anyway, so really, I have no choice. If pools need to shut down again, at least I know I can get my floating, anti-gravity, whale song freedom fix in the murky, silty waters of the Thames.