The Last Swimmer

Posted by on Jul 11, 2012 | 4 comments

I walk down to the dock barefoot under the cedars and hemlocks, carrying my towel. It’s still so cool—65 degrees—that I dread the water, but this is part of it, the dread that holds within it the joy of shock, the anticipation. Mist is still rising from the gradually-more-visible lake, one of those perfect days when I’ll be the only disturbance on an otherwise still glimmer. I hang my towel on a tree branch, step off the dock into the water, and straight in. If I give myself time to think, I’m lost. Or at least I spend more time agonizing over it. This way, when I’m in, I’m in.

I have a silly technique I’ve inherited from my father. As soon as my body is submerged, I breathe loudly, in short gasping breaths a few times as if I were a snorting horse. Somehow this absorbs the shock. It’s a sound that registers both the enormity of the transition and my willingness to endure it.

I head south, toward the yellow raft I use as a marker for where to turn around. I’m doing a leisurely breast stroke/frog kick combination I learned from my aunt Cleone, who learned it from her father, my grandfather, who learned it from a book when they first bought the cottage in 1919. It keeps the head above water, a friendly stroke that lets you talk to a friend while you both swim. It also keeps the hair dry, which is warmer. After the first three or four strokes, there’s about five minutes of pure bliss, when the body feels with every nerve-ending the glassy slide of the water, no longer cold, maybe a bit numb, but perfect somehow.

I have no friend here this morning. I am the only one in the seven-mile long lake, I’m sure. Not just the only one in this early, but the only one really swimming, just to be swimming, all day. There will be the children playing with their plastic toys, the occasional quick dip of a few adults, and the stranded paddling of the ones who’ve fallen on their water skis as they wait for the boat to circle back around. Once I saw a couple of swimmers in wetsuits criss-crossing the lake like machines. One came close enough to the dock for me to ask. They were practicing for a triathlon.

There are “professional” swimmers and there are those who splash around a bit. Most people plow across the surface by means of fierce motors, or edge across it with trolling motors, or zip around in circles on whiny jet skis that send huge rooster-tails flying behind for no more reason than the zipping around. Not that I object to having fun.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to go fast and make noise. I wanted to escape my childhood, who doesn’t?  We crawl, we toddle, we walk, we learn to run. We see that motors will take us even faster. We learn to drive. We want to win something out there that speed might get us closer to.  We discover email. Okay, this is the way of the world.

I must be a dinosaur. I am pretty sure I am, out here in the water at 7 a.m., for no reason other than that I like it. A man in a fishing boat spots me. It takes him a minute to realize there’s a real live person in the water.  He waves and I do the same.  I am probably that woman who swims in the morning.

We come out of the slow waters of the womb, our natural habitat. But our minds speed up, have sped up.  At what point does the mind lift off completely? At what point do we begin to live somewhere else, in a world invented by our minds?

Both my grandparents swam close to a mile most days, physically, tangibly part of their environment. And my aunt Cleone.  Her last few years, she’d come swimming with us and the cold would enter her thin old body so deeply that she’d shake so much all morning she could barely hold a tea cup.

Today I come out of the water only a little chilled, my body still heated by its work in the water. In half an hour, the chill will sink in and I’ll need an extra sweater. For now, I am illuminate, sexy as hell, alive as I’ll ever be.


  1. She jumped off the dock and disappeared into a cloud
    that swirled up into the unimaginable sky, only
    to come back as raindrops on the petals of a trout
    lily deep in the woods. Then the alrm clock rang
    and she came to her senses and decided never to do that again.

    • Ha. Sometimes I think I’m nuts. But then I seem to enjoy being nuts.

  2. Very much like this post on swimming. Happy to have discovered it.

    • Thanks, Marcia, and thanks for reading.

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