Neptune’s Realm

swimmerSwimming is an experience of surrender and allowing. You give yourself to the water and it holds you in return. I used to be an instructor. My lessons were for endurance swimmers, the ones who wanted to go long distances, and find the soul and beauty of the sport.

The most common thing I noticed as a teacher was the way students battled the water. They came at it like an enemy to be conquered. They wanted to fight and win, each stroke becoming a determined fist that sent waves ceiling-high in a great calamity of motion.

No, No! Treat the water like a lover, I would tell them. Be gentle, caress it with your hands, merge, let it hold you. Men would blush at this analogy, taking a step back to assess the sanity of their instructor.

This is not lovemaking, this is a sport, they’d protest.

Oh, but it’s not so very different then entering the bed of a lover. You must give up the idea of fighting. Enter softly, stroke, glide and rest; find a rhythm for your breathing. You can swim for miles that way. Between each effort, after each stroke, rest with equal time. You’ll swim without tiring because rest and work will be equal. Move through the water like the spring equinox, where the day is equal to the night.

My lessons were not for the competitive spirit. If they longed to be first, be the biggest or the best, I was not their girl.

 Swimming is a transcendent sport. It invites you to slip quietly below the surface into a world without corners. If you go tenderly and with acceptance, you can heal emotions, energize the body, cleanse the spirit and come back rested.

Water is a living breathing force deserving respect. If you can think of it that way, if you can enter it that way, then she will nurture you, then you can have a longstanding relationship. If you don’t understand these things, you will burn out quickly. She will spit you out.  Just like life, one must find the quiet gentle places where we can rest and glide, if we are to support our efforts and survive. Thrashing about only brings exhaustion.


black-and-whiteI’ve taken up racquetball. I started last week because my body was screaming at me for becoming a sloth.

Being a writer is not conducive to physical activity. I got computer hip last year, which made me feel really old and walk the same way, so I decided to stand.  I put my computer on top of an ice chest for elevation. I put a board on top of that for stability, then stuck my monitor on a stack of phone books, and covered it with a cloth napkin so it didn’t look so tacky, but the table was still wobbly, so I turned my plastic recipe holder on its side, added a paperback copy of Escaping into the open by Elizabeth Berg, and wedged it in front of the ice chest. Now it’s perfect. I can stand when I write and practice the leg and butt exercises I remember from Jane Fonda’s 1987 workout video.

I have been a swimmer for 57 years. It has been my home place and salvation. I love slipping out of this hard-edged reality and into Neptune’s watery expanse. I love being in a world without corners and the way I feel after a long distance swim.

Two years ago, as I was driving to the pool, I pulled the car onto the shoulder of the road. I sat there fingering the steering wheel, then suddenly announced to myself that I was finished. It’s over, I said, I’m done. I can’t do this anymore, 57 years is enough. I turned the car around and headed home. I got up the next morning ready to swim, thinking perhaps I’d had a bad day, but nope. The resolve was still there. I wasn’t going swimming anymore. I’d had enough. I’ve been in a state of decay ever since. I’ve been swimming a few times, but the joy is gone and so is my muscle tone.

The dentist uses the most disgustingly perfect word to describe what happens in your mouth if you don’t brush your teeth at night. He says the food ‘putrefies.’ What a great word. It has the word puke in it, and terrify. It’s a beautifully wonderfully awful word that feels like spitting, and floods the mind with images of repulsive decay.  My husband hates that word, so I use it alot. I tell him my whole body is putrefying because I can’t figure out a new exercise.

Last week I had a break-through. I grabbed racquets from the closet I’d bought decades ago, got my husband and granddaughter and decided to try racquetball. (Playing with a nine year old is a great way to begin, by the way. She is my partner in crime. Someday I’ll tell you about the time we got into trouble for playing soccer in the halls of the ashram, but not today.)

Anyway, I found a new sport. The room reminds me of a padded cell and slamming the ball is a great way to work out frustration. Now I go alone whenever I can get away. I close the door to that little white room and bang the ball around until I’m purple in the face.  But… in case I may be painting a picture of myself as a jock, I will add that my version of racquetball has no rules, and looks an awful lot like an old lady playing badminton with herself.


 I couldn’t do math to save my life, still can’t. I didn’t get those brain cells. But my mother did. She was a business woman and book-keeper, who believed that her daughter should be able to navigate the world of numbers by some miracle of genetic biology. When that failed, she hired math tutors – lots of them. They were dead-on serious people, who sat in over-lit rooms arranging columns of tiny numbers so they fit in miniscule boxes. They used rulers and charts and made up non-sense stories about a person traveling to Cleveland going twenty miles an hour – and how long did it take if they stopped for a coffee and donut on the way, and how much longer did it take, if they had to stop at their Aunt Lizzie’s house as well, who lived thirty minutes from the interstate? It seemed a lot easier to stay home or have Aunt Lizzie visit them.

In seventh grade my mother decided I should forgo the usual horseback riding, baseball games, manure fights, fort building and hiding out in the woods, so I could devote my entire summer to…you guessed it…math!

She got up each morning to drive me into the city, like I was going to the hospital to get urgent care. I tried to comply but couldn’t. Two whole days passed before busting out. I knew she wouldn’t take it well, so we continued our morning routine. I’d give her a long-faced troubled look to avoid suspicion, then wave good-bye before catching the number 10 bus to the swimming pool. That summer I perfected my skill on the high boards doing swan dives, the jack knife, half-gainer, half-gainer with a twist, double flip and the ‘look out, here she comes’ cannon ball. Work on my suntan and social skills completed the day.

This went on for an entire glorious month before coming to an abrupt halt. I no longer remember if it was the lack of report card, a school visit or the fact that my teacher had no memory of any student by that name, that finally alerted her to trouble. But one day, I returned from the pool to find her standing on the front steps of the school, smoke coming out of her ears. She was so angry she couldn’t speak, and what little she must have said, I’ve thankfully repressed. I do remember those eyes in the rear view mirror as they glared at me on the way home. I sat wet and humbled in the back seat. Her eyes full of anger and disappointment, but mostly a kind of hopeless exasperation about what to do with her ‘problem child.’