It used to be that the land was enough for me. I liked the solidity of the ground beneath my feet. I could walk for hours, run as far as my feet would carry me. It is not enough for me anymore. I would like to take off into the air as I do in dreams, but since I don’t seem to be growing wings, I have found another way to fly: I swim.
Here in this landlocked corner of England, far away from the coast, I have not yet found my way to the sea, but I have heeded the call of the water in lakes, rivers, and pools. I went to the local lido first: a deep long stretch of blue or bluish-grey, depending on the weather. I lowered myself in on the old steps, inhaling to counter the shock of the cold water on my skin, pushing myself away from the wall as quickly as I could, staying firm to my intentions. In spring and early summer, I went there often for long, exhilarating swims, delighting in the dancing patterns that bright sunlight made on the floor and the thick perfume of lime flowers as they bloomed on the trees surrounding the pool. One afternoon, a single gust of wind sent a flurry of them spiralling down to the water – tiny helicopters light enough to float on the surface until they were eventually scooped away in a net by one of the lifeguards. I did not mind the detritus in the water, was happy to swim around or under it, amused at how it crept into my costume so that I had to pick pieces off my torso as I dried and dressed afterwards. I liked that the water had left its trace on me.
Swimming there in the confines of a rectangle, I counted up the long lengths. Focusing on the numbers, which slowly added up, I sometimes reached a joyful blankness of thought that was as streamlined as my movements. I could feel the very limit of my lungs as I held my breath and stretched out underwater in that walled enclosure. Often when swimming there, I dove down deep and recalled a seal whose eyes I had gazed into last September in the aquarium in Boston. Its tank was at eye level with the street, giving me a strange perspective of the huge mammal that loomed large in front of me, its nose pressed up to the glass that separated our worlds, its wide eyes staring out at me and the six lanes of traffic beyond. Elsewhere in the tank, its companions were sleeping underwater, floating in suspended animation, on display. Though it was just metres away from the sea, the seal was trapped within the confines of the glass and concrete. It troubles me still to think of it there, bound in by edges it did not choose for itself. But I have found a way beyond the lido walls. I swim in the river now, free.
The river has edges, of course, but they are fluid and shifting, an ongoing negotiation with the land: a muddle of reeds and roots and overhanging branches. There is a source and a mouth at either end, but they are many miles away, and so I swim in the illusion of a boundless flow of moving water. I can neither see nor touch the bottom, and even the surface is not really an edge but an invitation to another open space. As I slip in and under the water, I also somehow find myself amongst the clouds. Another world exists in the river, not quite a perfect double of this one – the ripples on the surface complicate things a little – but it is a mirror, nonetheless, that I can sink into and meander through for as long as my limbs can bear the temperature.
There is life in and on and around the river: fish, flowers, butterflies, plants, and so many kinds of birds. Moorhens walk on reeds just below the surface, their splayed, wading feet elevating them from ordinary birds to Jesus-like figurines. The ducks go about their naps and mating rituals regardless of whatever human might be swimming past. The swans loom noiselessly around me, all neck and elegance, terrifying me with their size and silence. If I tread water and remain calm, they swim right on by, my anxiety trailing after them. On the riverbank, I have spied a heron standing nonchalantly in the shadow of a tree, close enough that I could make out the houndstooth patterns of its chest feathers and the way its eyes followed me without moving. Often there are kingfishers, too, streaks of blue and orange flying fast and low, following the curves of the river. Each time I spot one, I reel around just in time to see it disappear. Only once have I seen where the bird landed, just metres away, so that I was able to float underneath unnoticed, watching, until it caught a fish. When it zipped off again over my head, fish in beak, I could have reached out and touched it if my arms had not been so busy keeping me afloat. These encounters, momentary glimpses that last no longer than a few breaths, linger in my mind’s eye, accumulating and sticking to me like the leaves did back in the lido.
On a rainy day, I plot a slow course through the dark, disturbed water. Splashes of rain dance like ink on the surface. I am inside a Jackson Pollock painting, watching it all happen, drop by dancing drop. When the sun comes out from behind the clouds, it changes the colour of everything: the trees and their reflections on the water shift between black and grey and green and into yellow in the space of seconds. In the river, nothing is fixed.
I think about the circles that my arms and legs make. I put my energy into those small circles and they, in turn, somehow move me forwards. It seems counterintuitive, but it is none of my business quite how it works: that is the work of the circles. This seems to be an important metaphor, especially on days when I go round and round in small circles in my head. Slowly, surely, am I inching through the murky surfaces I inhabit in there? I cannot know from here. I will have to keep on swimming.
Lately, I am caught unaware on certain mornings by a new kind of panicked feeling. It feels as if the air is getting pushed up out of my lungs. It feels like I am drowning. When it happens, the tears come hot and silent and I cannot sit still lest I get trapped in the feeling, frozen stiff, leaking out salt and uncertainty. I do not have this feeling when I am in the water: in the river, I have to breathe, so I do. I could not have imagined crying there until, on a particularly difficult day, I found it impossible to escape the thing that was suffocating me and silent tears rose up in the green under-tree spaces at the limit of where I swam. But then my legs got tangled with the long strands of a weed and the rush of breaking myself free from its itchy, insistent pull was more powerful than whatever the panicked crying had been about, and once I was free of it, I just started swimming again, the menace left behind in the depths for the time being. The river has space enough for all of this: the tears, the panic, the weeds and worries. And on and on it flows. And on and on I swim.
There have been other rivers and lakes as well. For a week in June, in the alpine town of Annecy in France, I spent as much of my days in the lake as I did out of it, submerged in aquamarine, marvelling at the mountains that rose out of the extremes of its sprawling, shimmering surface. There were many bright, warm, lazy afternoons of bathing there, but my favourite swim of all was at six a.m. on the last morning, when I stirred from a half-dream to take myself to the water one last time. Early in the morning, the lake was not yet a lake, but a vast pool of ink. I walked out into it, wading into the cool, dark shadow of the mountain until it was deep enough to start swimming. There was only me – head and tips of my shoulders above the surface – and two old fishermen in separate boats shouting friendly nothings to each other across the divide. The water lapped at my ears, such music as most mornings never sing. I was not the first swimmer out there that morning. As I slunk in, an older lady was already towelling off her wet, white hair and tugging a bright pink tunic over her head at the edge of the water, which kissed her toes goodbye a hundred times. Later, when my swimming was done and the sun began to peek out over the mountain’s shoulder, I traced her steps into the streets of a colourful town that had woken up while I was away. I had been tired on the way out to the water. I was alive with the lake on the way home.
In the Peak District in September, I sat in the cold water of a brook that has carved an entire valley out of mountain rocks and felt the power of a waterfall pound my back. I let it crash on my tired bones, laughing – laughing as the bubbles frothed up like a Jacuzzi beneath me. During a brief dip in a deeper river, I stretched out and swam whilst my husband took photos of me. One photo revealed a magic trick of the light – refraction or some such scientific phenomenon – which had caused my two legs to appear split, multiplied and distorted, as though I had become an octopus or some other mythical, water-dwelling creature. It was at once a lie and also the most accurate photo I had seen of myself in months. There I was swimming away, one with the water, becoming my river self: a being who was not quite human, not quite of the land anymore.
And that is why I swim. Because it takes me elsewhere, lets me shed the skin that has held me back. Lets me circle and glide and stroke the water, breathing and being, becoming one with my inky, watery ways. I go to the river because it makes so much more sense than the other things I am supposed to be doing now that autumn is here. Things seem more possible when I am in the water. I like the vantage point I have there: the trees are taller and there is so much more sky. In the river, I wonder why I ever think I should be at my desk working. Why do I believe that inspiration will strike me there and not in the water? And why shouldn’t I be here, soaking in it, soaking it up? I won’t find the words for what needs to be said inside a trapped feeling; I will find them out of doors in a space where I am free to fly. Beyond the shoulds, beyond the limits of the land and the riverbanks.
I wonder what I will do when it finally gets too cold to lower my body in. Will looking at the river be enough? Will remembering see me through the winter? Can words lined up on a page, circling round, reflecting back, gently flowing in one direction or another – can they be a river for me? Sometimes it is almost the same. I slip myself in and off I go. And there’s the rush of it at first when I can’t feel my fingers or toes, but I just keep on moving, barely even looking around, and then I sort of come to and there I am – here I am – swimming along.