The Soul-Slaking Joy and Body-Poetry of Swimming

In praise of the exquisite instrument that channels “the huge chaos of sensations — sensations of temperature, water, force, light.”

The Soul-Slaking Joy and Body-Poetry of Swimming

“As you swim,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her soulful meditation on summer and the art of presence, “you are washed of all the excrescences of so-called civilization, which includes the incapacity to be happy under any circumstances.”

The ablution of our civilisation-stifled bodies is a great gift. But beneath it is something more primal than mere pleasure — we are each formed, after all, in the portable ocean of the womb, having begun our collective evolution in the immense womb of Earth’s primordial ocean. Swimming is not about forgetting the civilization but remembering our elements. It is hardly surprising that swimming figures into some of our deepest sensemaking — Kafka drew on it in exploring the nature of reality and Alan Watts wove it into his summation of a basic tenet of Taoism.

This interpenetration is between the elemental and existential. Bill HayesThe lovely pages of Sweat History of Exercise (public Library) provide an overview of the topic.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Prints available.

He begins his magnificent chronicle of working out the body and the soul where we all have always begun: with swimming — something he grew up doing with his father, onetime captain of the West Point swim team, and then rediscovered half a century later with his late partner, the irreplaceable Oliver Sacks, a devoted swimmer himself.

He describes the bizarre thrill of diving into a mountain lake during the height of fall.

There is violence in this: the body breaking the glassy surface, crashing through it, the blasting noise in one’s ears — and the feeling on one’s skin, Of one’s skin and nerves, down to the bones. It’s a feeling similar to pain.

That is what I think it must be. This is what I see as icicles breaking. There’s sharpness. Put on my goggles and feel chaos. Through the glass of the lake’s eye, there are splashes or whites as slashes in paint. I see my arms akimbo before me, and bubbles — air bubbles. I feel like a scuba diver with no gear, and there is a flash of panic; the water is cold, fifty degrees I’m told, and I am almost confused by it, the not-rightness of it. In that instant I move forward and push through the water.

Another of Margaret C. Cook’s 1913 illustrations for Leaves of Grass. Available as a printed version

The body’s native poetry emerges as he describes its physiology.

It is instinctive to kick, knowing that kicking will make me warm. I have nothing to do. Now I see my arms stretched out before me, my hands in a V, and I am bulleting through the water, conscious that I am moving — flying — and that the air in my lungs is running out.

The surface is nearing and I can see that the transparency green lightens. My right hand is extended as far as it can, and I move my left arm back as though pulling on a string. Then I’m ready to go freestyle.

Surfacing is the opposite of plunging, but it feels the same, the huge chaos of sensations — sensations of temperature, water, force, light. Yes, now there is light as I break through and see the shore, the boathouse, trees, and I grab for air (that’s how it feels, gaspThis is a more accurate term, but it does have a physical and muscular feel to it. Take a deep breath, grab one lungful of air, then thrust, pulls, kicks, turns, and swim. I will go for as long as it takes me to take four to five breaths. I do this without thinking about anything, so I just go. My skin and muscles feel taut as I climb onto the dock.

Later, a friend asks me why I would do this — it’s October, for God’s sake; the lake is freezing.

“Because I can,” I say.

Complement with artist Lisa Congdon’s illustrated love letter to swimming, then revisit Bill Hayes on the scientific poetics of sleep, with a salve for insomnia from Maurice Sendak.

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