Performers Swimming to Joy; or: How the Water Saved Me
On inherited traumas and joys in an immigrant family, and swimming as an antidote to despair.
Last summer I signed up for an adult beginners’ swim class at the local community college. I did so because I had tried everything else: Zoloft, therapy, wine, coffee, food, no food, weeping; I had tried reading and writing and thinking about death; I had tried staying home in the evenings and obliterating my mind on terrible TV; I had tried mindfulness and walking and spending mindless hours online; I tried cradling and stroking the patient cat; I tried calling my senators, screaming at protests, gorging myself on the spectacular news; I tried shaving my head bald to rid myself of the shameful desire to be beautiful; tried to hate myself out of my own hatefulness, to trick myself into becoming kinder, smarter, sweeter, more lovely and loved and worthy and better. And there I stayed, stubborn, stuck, jobless, frightened, for many months, until some part of me reached toward swimming.
In La Bâtard , Violette Leduc recovers from heartbreak by learning to swim from a lisping instructor who first has her practice the strokes on the grassy riverbank, then in the river itself. She writes, “I swam on my own. I swam badly, with one foot sticking out of the water. I loved it all the same. I was rowing, my arms were the oars and I was the boat, and then suddenly, irresistible delight, the boat was moving of its own accord.” Later, she offers some advice to a grieving friend: “You could learn to swim. I was unhappy and I learned to swim in a river . . . ”
Swimming is an activity of summer leisure, of long, hot afternoons and golden limbs. Yet Leduc senses, as I do, another, more elemental connection—one between the body and a body of water; one of distance, longing, joy, lungs, grief.
What compelled me toward the swimming class? It’s a strange choice on its surface. Some of my earliest memories are of water—that is to say, my fear of it; for I had a strange, almost hysterical reaction when water touched my face, just splashed on my face let alone the overwhelming panic of immersing my face in a pool.
Yet, from a young age, side by side with this fear, I loved to move in water, paddling with my head above the surface like a land-animal. Even then, I think my body understood the offering of water’s fundamental miracle: to be born aloft, suspended, to be temporarily weightless, and so to leave this earth as though through dream or spaceship—though you cannot fully experience this miracle if you are afraid. I learned this later, when I lost my fear. How did it leave? One day I put my head in the water, bracing myself against the fear, and it wasn’t there. I was still a child, but older; then, suddenly, I wasn’t a child anymore. I swam into a tougher, older body that wasn’t afraid, and I lost something else with my fear, though I couldn’t say quite what I lost.
An astrologer once told my parents that I had drowned in a past life—I had drowned, but that wasn’t the trauma; first, the astrologer said, I had watched my two sons drown. I can believe this to be the source of my fear as much as the fact that both my parents have a fundamental distrust of water: My mother, too, refuses to put her face underwater; my father has nearly drowned three times, once in front of my eyes in the shallow end of a swimming pool when I was eight. It’s likely they were able to transmit this suspicion to me without meaning to. Each reason to fear, instead of being negated by the other, is simply a way of seeing, a double vision that afflicts many children of immigrants like myself.
My mother has also been attracted to water, alongside her own dislike: In two moments of violent sadness as an adult she has tried to learn to swim. The first time, she was in her thirties, as I am now. Though she grew up in Bombay, lapped on so many sides by the warm and gentle Arabian sea, and jeweled all over with sapphire pools, my mother never learned how to swim as a child: The beaches were dirty, the pools were for the white—or at least, for the rich. So, it was as an adult in America that she tried to learn.
I have a memory of seeing my mom in swimming class, surely invented. With one hand, she is holding onto the side of the pool and kicking with only one leg, her long beautiful hair braided and tied up in a bun. She’s wearing the blue and white swimsuit she bought for the class—her first and last swimsuit—one that I will later purloin in one of my many raids of her old clothes. When I put this swimsuit on, I find I don’t look like my mother did at all. I’m darker, and heavier than she was, my hair is cut short like a boy’s—but our faces have the same sadness that we are trying to swim our way out of.
Many, many years after this first class, she tried again, after her divorce from my father. Her body had gained weight and pain in the ensuing years, and she swam not in a bathing suit but in her clothes. By the end, she could swim from one side of the pool to the other—the short way—but she still refused to put her head underwater. I asked her if she was afraid and she said no; she just didn’t like it.
I enroll in a swimming course to live in metaphor. The lessons it offers are trite until they’re lived; then they feel like revelations.
The best way to float is to relax into the water and let it hold you up. The minute you get tense, the water feels it and gets offended. The more you distrust the water, the more dangerous it becomes.
When I first try to swim on my back, the water keeps getting in my eyes and nose and I come up sputtering. I do it again, trying to remember that the water is my friend. There is a way of pushing into the water on one’s back that is almost like falling into bed with a sigh. Then the water is my friend, so gentle. It blocks my ears so I can hear only my own breath, coming out in short, effortful bursts. My mother laughs like this. These days she tries to make a joke of her pain, to make it less frightening. But I know her too well, and I am frightened. We swim on our sides, and it’s the same thing. Water gets in your ear— keep your head flat! Flat head, flat head! —and more water gets in and I stiffen up. When I get to the other side, I’m almost angry. How do you not get water in your ear?
You do , says the instructor . It just comes out again.
But sometimes I can relax into the water, into my side, one eye under the water, blinking in its goggle, and the other in air. This doubled gaze is like being able to see something invisible and something visible both at once, like the world of the spirits and the world of the living laying on top of each other. The shy bare legs of my classmates and their public torsos and goggled faces. The bent light of the underwater world and the deep curve that holds the belly of the pool—the deep end, where we are not yet allowed, and the whirl of water around the limbs of the faraway swimmers. You cannot hate yourself while you are swimming. You must be very quiet, very gentle, very tender, very slow, and very still. If not the body, then the mind.
My grandmother, too, loved swimming. She used to bound into the waves like a dog in her sari, boundless, almost crazy with joy, this according to her son, my father. Unlike my mother, she was rich, and she did learn how to swim properly, as the ladies’ college she attended was right next to the sea.
When I think of the story of my family’s sadness, I pinpoint its beginning with her, though in truth its origin is likely far more ancient. My grandmother, my pati, was the enemy of my mother, the sower of fatal discord between my parents that took decades to fully manifest: My mother and my father were always so near and so distant from each other both at once, I remember the strange wrongness of this before language. The tragedy of my family felt to me secret, unspeakable, terrible, and also not that bad. It is a sort of black magic that renders family stories so isolating when family unhappiness, family damage, is so universal. Yet you feel alone, and caught in it, if not responsible, then implicated, made wrong.
If your family looks different from the families that you grow up around, the families that populate the stories of your childhood, the picture books and TV shows and Disney movies, this feeling of wrongness is made definite and certain. There is no room in the mind of your country for the wrongness of your body and the wrongness of your family, both, created so deeply in error as to be invisible.
My pati died when I was in college, and for the years after, feeling the resonance of the damage she inflicted grow deeper instead of fainter with age, I grew to dislike her in memory, as much as I tried not to. She was conservative, snobby, and cruel, at least to my mother; she often suffered through long and terrible periods of depression that she could not be pulled out from, this last a characteristic my mother and I both share. Yet I’m coming to realize that I share so many things with my pati: my love of parties and people, and small children; my love of the English language, of books and the written word; an attention to fine things, the beautiful notes of food and pleasure, and flowers blooming in the garden; the strange wild weathers of my uncontrollable moods; and, of course, my love of swimming. This woman, my ancestor, and a stranger, but this the same blood.
Before swimming class, we watch earlier swimmers stroke the water: They’re not good, but they’re better than us. They can move from one end to the other in the formations we’re still learning, their movements like the movements of a dance. In backstroke, for example, their arms wheel out and above thumb-first, arcing above the head and then returning to the water rotated, slicing through like blades. It feels like some consideration has been given to the aesthetics, for why do the arms have to pinwheel up, if not to let the eye complete the circle as the arm disappears underwater, unseen? Why are we continually asked to make our bodies into these sleek, narrow shapes, if not in part for loveliness? The “perfect” form is the most beautiful one, and we keep trying to match ourselves to that shape.
My class is mostly women, some college students in their twenties, but at least half, like me, are older by a decade or more. During my second week I notice that though I am by several shades the darkest, there is not a single white person in the class aside from the instructor: a situation I have never found myself in on accident. The long, perfect, white American body, whose limbs are sleek, golden and innocent even so unclothed, that shape I have been trying my whole life in vain to match myself to, is nowhere in this class. There are all sorts of other bodies here.
In the pool, I’m always next to Raina, whose skin is a deep gold, and who I am still so used to seeing in her chocolate-colored suit that I’m disorientated when I finally see her on her phone outside the locker room after class, fully dressed in a pink velour tracksuit. We are so different in the pool, all of us beginners, trying with such earnest sweetness to correctly execute the strokes the instructor shows us on land. I keep looking around in confusion that no one seems to be feeling the swift joy I feel almost immediately as I kick off. It is joy, to be racing forward, frictionless, joy to tip the body backwards and find itself held: As we enter the water we enter a space unlike any other we can readily access, the rules of our existence alter—even badly, we can fly ! But my classmates betray none of this marvel. They do not dream, as I do, of water, they tell me: Raina dreams of watching a tsunami from the top floor of a resort hotel, but surviving; Annie doesn’t remember her dreams.
We never, not quite, lose our shyness, even in the intimacy of shared beginnerhood: The intimacy of being wrong, and of trying; the intimacy of the body so bare in front of so many strangers. As most of the students, like myself, are Asian, what I think of as an Asian modesty permeates the locker room. We dress in the shower stall, or with our towels wrapped around us (“Just getting into a bathing suit in public should be ground enough to pass the class,” Annie confesses in the locker room, and, having spent so many years denying myself the pleasure of swimming because of my body’s shame, I agree). But bodies change in water. The limbs become light, lifted, and beautiful. Have you looked at a thigh through water? That thigh, you think, could be the thigh of an angel. Even mine.
We learn how to breathe, that is to breathe while we’re swimming, blowing the air out through the nose, very hard, and then turning but not lifting the head to gulp at the air behind the right shoulder. Even before we add the arms, then set it in motion with the kicking legs, the old panic comes back. Water floods my ears and nose, ringing against my mouth; I feel like I’m inhaling it. The simplest thing: Stand with one hand gripping the edge of the pool, put your face in the water, breathe out, turn your head, breathe in. I can’t and I almost cry. I don’t get it , I tell the teacher, who says, What don’t you get? I can’t explain what I don’t get. I must be doing something wrong, if water gets in everywhere. The burning feeling at the back of the nose when you breathe water in, that burning feeling is the feeling of panic. Did I drown on a ship with my two boys?
Of course, it is not unnatural to be afraid of water, like most humans have a natural fear-reaction to snakes. The swimming body is “invaded and invader,” as Maxine Kumin observes in her poem “Morning Swim,” for as it parts and enters the body of water, so too the body of water enters it. To swim, in one sense, is to allow our boundaries to become porous without losing the sense of ourselves—or rather, it is to acknowledge the already porous nature of our boundaries, which are breached moment to moment, invisibly, by the air around us, carrying in the outside world, along with the smells, sounds, and ideas of others.
Once you were swimming in your mother and you did not drown. It was a time of life we will never remember, but we must carry that water memory with us somewhere, in our muscles and bones. We swam in our mother, boundaryless, her tastes and moods and thoughts and traumas transmitted to us through blood. We had no self then; we were both invaded and invader, for it was her body we inhabited, but it was our heart she possessed. No wonder, then, that sometimes swimming invites a wide-eyed, claustrophobic panic. As we immerse ourselves, we step again into the first water, and now there is a self, to protest the invasion.
Now you could drown in her, her beauty, her grief—your mother.
In the pool today the sun was shining, first through the window and then through the water. From the first moment I put my head underwater I was surrounded by this liquid light, I stroked my arms through it, and my limbs stirred up the same spiraling bubbles that rise from the bottom of a flute of champagne.
I came here to tell you the story of my sadness, the story I have told myself these last few months, these last few years, and through the decades of my life. My sadness has turned me inward, made me grow crooked and strange, like the gnarled, secret tooth a dentist pulled once from my jaw. If water is associated with mood, emotion, grief, and the feminine, perhaps it is a woman’s sadness I have inherited from my mother, and from my pati. Maybe it is a sadness I will transmit to my child, if I ever bear her, if we ever float together in water and in sleep.
Yet to say so makes sorrow sound pretty, which it is not, and I am bored with my ugly women’s sorrow. As I swim today, the sun prints my shadow on the pool’s curved floor amid strands of wavering light. The shadow matches exactly the body that cast it, yet it is fleet, arrow-pointed, amphibian, and—beautiful. Let me tell you this story instead. It is the story of my joy.