Prairie Dolphin has been on sabbatical—still swimming, just not chronicling it on the blog these days for reasons below. I am thrilled the lion’s mane jellyfish and fair-weather swimming crowds eventually cleared off for the season after an unusually long residency, and we winter mermaids and mermen have the deliciously cold water to ourselves since mid October. I have had many glorious swims over the year starting with a blustery, very low tide, swampy Ferry Point swim down in Youghal on New Year’s Day (the sea looked like a shallow bowl of pea green soup) to last week’s refreshing Wednesday dip in Sandycove with the air cooler than the water–the water temperature not yet under 10 degrees. A fellow swimmer said to me, “It’s cheaper than psychoanalysis.” I laughed, and she said, “I said that to another woman one day swimming here and she said, ‘I am a psychoanalyst!’. And so I told her, You should tell your clients to come here for a session!”
Highlights of the year include training my little ones to be seadogs too; seeing them frolicking and braving the bracing Irish Sea in our summer holidays was a delight of a lifetime for me. My daughter shows signs of loving the masochistic cold water, charging the waves in the surf with a throaty war cry and retreating in delighted terror while my boy likes to flirt briefly with the whitecaps and his torso and then surrender promptly to dry land—hopefully next year he’ll feel the call more. After I finished writing Cadillac Couches a book about some big loves, namely music, I started my second novel In the Swim, which is also about some big loves, swimming and reading. I feel the same way about swimming as I do about music, an overwhelmingly goofy desire to express my love for it (not that it needs it) battling with words and never quite scratching the itch and needing to proselytize some more (I gotta do something with all this love otherwise I’m gonna burst.) Prairie Dolphin has been a wonderful incubator for In the Swim. So these days I save up all of my aqua thoughts for the novel in progress. In the meantime here’s a little marine content for the thalassophiles out there: a sample of my favourite swimming non-fiction. Please feel free to read in bits. I may not update for awhile and it’s a biggie. Waterlog by Roger Deakin, published by Vintage Books The bible of wild swimming. Inspired by John Cheever’s story The Swimmer, Deakin set out to swim his way around Britain, in every pond, river, lake, lido, fen, dyke, quarry and cove he could, in the manner of The Swimmer‘s protagonist who swims in all the swimming pools across Westchester County, NY, on his way home. Deakin logs his waterlogged adventures in gorgeous prose.
Deakin, like me, swims not as much for athletic reasons, but for spiritual ones. He evangelizes about aimless swimming; the whole point is to have no point. Alongside his Buddhist approach to swimming, he charts the history of the crawl and our modern swimming styles, and for me most importantly he tackles the notion that swimming in the wild is super risky. Not so long ago in this part of the world, people swam in rivers and ponds and viaducts all the time and even up and down the Thames. But now there are so many danger warnings signs and talk of rat-induced Weil’s disease that it’s ingrained in most of us, that most water sources are off-limits because of various aqua bogeymen. He analyzes the statistics on Weil’s disease and finds that swimming doesn’t pose much of a risk at all in this regard. He shimmies under fences and warning signs to gain access to many forbidden former swimming holes, reclaiming humans’ rights and thundering desires to swim. Waterlog is a call to arms for a “swimmer’s right to roam”.
Another radical notion for me is that Deakin’s love of water includes its creepy crawly companions. While I like to pretend there is nothing but me in the water, his championing of all creatures great and small challenges head on my squeamishness of all things floaty in the water near me. He doesn’t just want turquoise warm waters and sesame seed sandbeds, he relishes swims in shallow, Guinness-brown rivers, hoping to encounter eels. Eels for heaven’s sakes… Rhapsodizing, he describes swimming in the moat outside of his cottage in all seasons and admires the changing landscapes outside and inside the water—from the moorhen ducking under, to the toads’ chorus pondside, to dozens of newts canoodling just below the surface. He relishes slippery silty underfoot. He finds it all sensual. He convinces me not to be a swim prude or nervous nelly in the water and to embrace the wonders of life starting with cattails and water boatmen. And afterwards there is nothing better than a blazing hot steaming bath and cup of tea.
Deakin quadrupled my water vocabulary with exotic words like naiads, tarn, tufa, fen and his friend’s made-up one, endolphins. He is undoubtedly my swimming guru. I would have loved to have met him but sadly he had a brain tumour and passed away far too young. Waterlog has since become a classic of the nature writing canon.
Here’s Waterlog’s opening paragraph that made my socks roll up and down.
“The warm rain tumbled down from the gutter in one of those midsummer downpours as I hastened across the lawn behind my house in Suffolk and took shelter in the moat. Breast-stroking up and down the thirty yards of clear, green water, I nosed along, eyes just at water level. The frog’s eye view of rain on the moat was magnificent. Rain calms water, it freshens it, sinks all the floating pollen, dead bumblebees and other flotsam. Each raindrop exploded in a momentary, bouncing fountain that turned into a bubble and burst. The best moments were when the storm intensified, drowning birdsong, and a haze rose off the water as though the moat itself were rising to meet the lowering sky. Then the rain eased and the reflected heavens were full of tiny dancers: water sprites springing up on tiptoe like bright pins over the surface. It was raining water sprites.” Hallelujah! I love his frog’s eye view. This Pisces bows to the master. Swimming Studies by fellow Canadian Leanne Shapton and published by Blue Rider Press offers a grand intersection of art and exercise, a memoir on the art of doing laps and the aesthetics of a watery life. A former competitive swimmer and Canadian Olympic hopeful, Shapton is an artist, novelist and publisher in New York. Shapton’s memoir of a life in laps includes charming illustrations of swimming pools, paintings of swimmers and a photographic archive of swimsuits worn. Shapton takes us on a swimmer’s wishlist of destinations from Switzerland to St. Barts.
I’m more of a bather than a swimmer. I like to freestyle, to frolic, to somersault randomly and pretend to be a seal. I prefer open water. I like pools too, just not as much. Shapton, on the other hand, as a trained swimmer, is used to four sides and a bottom and is nervous in the sea without that clarity. When I was in high school, I admired friends like Shapton who had the discipline to hit the pool for hours every day at terrible times of the morning, week in week out. There is romance in those Tim Hortons’-coffee fueled, early morning training sessions in the middle of a harsh Canadian winter. “Ever present is the smell of chlorine and the drifting of snow in the dark.” I imagine too, that training discipline learned young, offers what HR people refer to as a seriously transferable skill. I enjoyed reading her account of the training regimes of serious swimmers and the subculture of her watery colleagues, and her goggle advice.
Shapton chronicles her life lived so far in various swimsuits (she gives us 26 photographs of swimsuits on a headless mannequin and tells us when and where she swum in them). These mini stories offer charming poetic details, like how she wore a suit to a pool in Paris and then cycle-dried on the way back to her hotel on her Vélib bicycle because she forgot her towel. How the sea tasted like “thin chicken stock from a stainless steel bow.” We meet swimsuits she has worn in Reykjavik, in New York, one she has stolen from the Banff Hot Springs, one from swimming in Olympic trials in 1992.
Where Shapton studiously analyzes Jaws and its subtexts of the carnality of sex, I studiously avoided watching it. She explains that Jaws the movie is about man versus monster while Jaws the book is about marriage and the shark is a metaphor for infidelity. Shapton tells us that her husband asks her why she is so obsessed and frightened by sharks. She does some nifty psychoanalysis and reckons that sharks represent the unknown, the darkness just below the surface, violence, loneliness—her own vulnerability in other words. I love some good psychoanalysis, I do, but I think the reason for the obsession could also be having scrutinized that movie in the first place—multiple viewings of Jaws is kind of bound to give you the fear I would think. In order for me to unafraid of the oceans I have swum in, I need to not think of sharks and their ilk at all. I have swum in the middle of the ocean off the west coast of Mexico, the Caribbean, the English Channel, the Med, lake Uganda, Crater Lake, and the Irish Sea. See no danger, feel no danger. I love the story my friend Saman told me that Luc Besson made The Big Blue to make up for the damage Spielberg did in creating Jaws, a whole generation of swimmers terrified to get in the water. The Big Blue features an unbelievably beautiful man who free dives in the stunning Mediterranean and keeps pictures of his dolphin friends/family in his wallet. He is an improbable virgin, but nonetheless you go with it for the sheer stunning cinematography of the water and him in it, the drops on his eyelashes and Jean Reno too. While Jaws is all gore and terror of the sea and its creatures, The Big Blue is all rhapsodizing wonder and beauty.
Along with Sheila Heiti and Heidi Julavits, Shapton has a new book out these days called Women in Clothes published by Blue Rider Press.
PS I have read recently that sharks, like rats, are largely misrepresented. The incidence of sharks attacking humans is still quite rare statistically. There’s a young woman Madison Stewart who is trying to change their image. (I’ve been assured there are only basking sharks in Ireland.) Pondlife published by Bloomsbury is a poignant meditation on aging and swimming written by Al Alavarez, the famous poet, literary critic, anthologist and editor who championed Sylvia Plath in London in the late fifties early sixties. (My father as young PhD student from Brighton knocked on his door in the 60s to chat about Norman Mailer—Dad says Alvarez was very affable). Alvarez was a rugged mountain man and poker player, a Hemingway type, macho and literary. Now he is a guy who is seriously on his last, wobbly legs, barely, who prefers being horizontal to vertical.*
Like Deakin’s, his book is a log, a daily journal entry of his swims in the Hampstead Heath ponds from 2002-2011. He gives us the temperature, the context and story of the swim and how it felt. Alvarez has been swimming for over 70 years at the Hampstead Heath ponds. Pondlife is inspiring my older character in the In the Swim. He is unflinching in his description of ageing and of the betrayal of his body parts letting him down. He also gave me a big desire to go swim in the famous London ponds at Hampstead Heath (I’m no longer worried about duck poop thanks to Deakin and Alvarez). Like Smiley in John LeCarré’s Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, Alvarez goes swimming most mornings of the week—you can see Gary Oldman paddle away in the movie version.
The infirmer he becomes the more effort it costs Alvarez to get his much-needed tonic. He hobbles day after day to the water on his arthritic legs and dodgy ankle no matter how grey and miserable the day. But he always comes away anew. The colder the water, the bigger the rush. He also thrives on the camaraderie of the regular swimmers. He is in huge pain mostly from an old ankle injury. He is a guy that used to climb mountains and now has been felled by merciless ageing. He writes that he desperately misses his old self. Swimming represents everything good to him and he feels reborn after each dip. The whole struggle is worth it for these moments of transcendence. As a fellow water worshipper I could relate.
It was illuminating to read a sweary older guy revealing the true story of getting older, no sugar coating. And also inspiring to see the magic of cold water swimming so very obviously healing and nourishing someone well into their decrepitude. Whenever people express amazement that I swim in the winter, I always tell them, it’s full of older people! If they can do it, surely so can we. But the truth is only some of us are drawn to it and love it. For us that do it is fun to experience the shock and try to articulate the nuances of cold: burning armpits, angry crotch… It doesn’t make sense for other people to do cold-water swimming if they don’t feel the call (you need to like it); hopefully they have their own version of the sublime at the ready.
“And I am falling apart. I swallow a painkiller every day but all it seems to do is dumb me down. My ankle aches, becoming more unsteady and treacherous each day; the slightest irregularity makes it give way and lands me in the mud. My back aches and my legs go numb, freeze up and cease to work; my eyesight is poor; my sense of balance is shot… I toil up every incline as though it was steep scree. *Thank God for horizontality and its three Ss, swimming, sex and sleep.”
Ten days later he has two falls. Three days after that he declares in his journal he is back at last! Such is his relief to be horizontal again in the water. He had intended to go the previous day but the first winter snow made him relent. This is all in between writing long articles for the New York Review of Books and editing manuscripts.
In his acknowledgments he thanks the lifeguards who work the Hampstead ponds for keeping him alive and if not still kicking, at least, still swimming. They help get him in the water even after he’s had a stroke and has a dead leg. They get a special dispensation to drive on the Heath to the water’s edge to deliver him to his merciful dip and then they help getting him dressed in the middle of winter. I hope today he’s still getting his fix!
I also enjoyed his opening epigraph from Tallulah Bankhead: They don’t make mirrors like they used to. The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch and published by Hawthorne Books is intense and sometimes shocking, but always a powerful and engaging memoir of a life lived in the pool. Yuknavitch flees a troubled home life with a swimming scholarship and then messes up her Olympian chances with addictions to booze and drugs. The intensity of her honesty and her visceral use of language to tell her story of chlorine and vodka and a lost baby makes for a white-knuckle reading experience. Sometimes I wanted to look away, like when I was reading how she got incredibly high before attempting her first major whitewater kayak expedition… The unflinching, foul-languaged, self-harming extravaganza felt almost too much. But the beauty of her writing pulled me back in. Glad I read it.
Alongside her swimming and growing up journeys is her training as a writer, being mentored by Ken Kesey and her PhD in English literature. There definitely strikes me as something edgy, tough, and true about the Oregonian writers I have read so far. Yuknavitch was in a writing workshop with Chuck Palahniuk and Cheryl Strayed—I can imagine the fireworks. Like with Shapton I could get into Yuknavitch’s Zen groove of doing laps, doing laps, doing laps, and then more laps. The repetition soothing, calming, the quiet underwater, the chlorine… Swimming is the therapeutic backdrop for life.
Both Shapton and Yuknavitch had been competitive swimmers. Contenders. Both flee it and find themselves returning to the laps for the soothing sake of doing laps. Amen.
PS I have had this book for a good few years and never noticed until now that there is big boob on the cover! It was tragically hidden underneath a glued-on flap (modesty cover) that I only thought to pull off after seeing the real cover online… If you click on the cover you can see the modesty flap in action.
Yesterday I went for a run in Sandycove and as usual by the sea I noticed people sitting on benches by themselves just staring out to sea in the middle of a normal weekday. Watergazers Mellville called us. Us humans are so drawn to the beautiful spectacle of water. When I get a little hostile from stress, my husband inquires gently, “When are you going swimming again, darling?”
For great waterlove quotes there is nothing to top Melville’s Moby Dick.
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet…then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball…. Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip… What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries…”
From a winningly titled new album Swimmin’ Time here’s a video from a band my brother recently recommended.
Any swim book recommendations?