Seeing the light (at the bottom of the pool)

These last two weeks, I’ve been back in the pool. The squad I love so dearly was put on hold through the lockdown, as was our access to all the public pools around the city. This makes sense, of course, but for those of us so far from the coast and thus unable to get there due to travel restrictions, it meant that swimming was no longer a possibility. This was hard to bear through such a stressful time. Of course, walking and other things could take the place, but swimming is something in and of itself. It requires a different orientation to the world – immersed, floating, all limbs stretching and reaching and in action to propel us forward, our breathing shaped by our relationship to water. I love walking too, but swimming, most certainly, cannot be replaced by walking – they are different activities that offer different benefits and orientations.

Down the coast, I was able to get in the ocean everyday. I was able to swim along the shoreline and encounter birds, fish, seaweed, dolphins, turtles, ricks, sand, and waves. I swam at my own pace, with people or not, and had to navigate the conditions I was faced with – calm, clear, cloudy, flat, big waves, cold, warm, strong currents, low and high tides, a fatal shark attack along the coast. The conditions were so variable, and one day did not predict the next. The daily decision to swim responded to the conditions, ‘Am I up to this?’ Each day I was. It wasn’t always easy, but it was always restorative.

Back here, in Brisbane, I’m out of the waves and back in the pool and my squad. I’ve been so looking forward to it, but it’s been a change from my daily saltwater dips in the Pacific Ocean. In the pool, the conditions vary little between days – the water temperature is sanitised and moderated, the levels maintained and the critters kept out.

After months of swimming in the sea, being back in the pool felt small, limited and prescribed. The water is chlorinated, the lanes marked out, the coach directing my pace, and no animals or plants to encounter! Heightening this is that our usual 50-metre pool is closed due to a leak, so we’re in the 25-metre pool; a pool I’ve never enjoyed. Even before, this smaller pool felt so constrained and lacking in the change to really find your pace. As soon as you get going, it feels as though you hit the wall at the other end.

So as much as I’ve delighted in seeing my friends and being pushed by a proscribed set, I’ve felt that so much is missing. So much is manufactured and, perhaps, anti-ecological.

But the last few days have felt different. I’ve been finding my way back to the delights of pool swimming, something I was previously enjoying so much. I’ve been finding the treasures that used to delight and revive me, and distract me during my kilometres along each side of an immovable black line.

The friendships, yes, but I didn’t need help to relocate those. Those are front and centre at the joys of my tri-weekly squad. The people I swim with are so supportive and caring of each other. Swimming together is something so important in all our lives, and our tri-weekly swims, that used to include a post-session coffee, meant we came to know a lot about each other. I’m a newcomer to this swimming group, having only joined this year, but the warmth which I and others have been welcomed is inspiring. Some of these people have been swimming together for 20 years, and the significance of these relationships was maintained during lockdown via group messaging of check-ins, memes and photos.

The relationships amongst swimmers were easy to locate and find joy in.

It’s been the elemental, the other-than-human, the ecological that I’d lost in the Pacific Ocean. In the pool the fish are gone, replaced by clear water, devoid of life. The odd sunken ban-aid, perhaps, but nothing alive beyond the other swimmers. But then over a few days, I remembered that the pool is outdoors, under trees, next to the river, and diverse pleasures have been awaiting me in the chlorinated water. From the cool bright blues of the pool itself, the nets of sparkling light at the bottom on the tiles, the bubbles that form in great clouds from the flippers and exhalations of my friends, to the trees that surround us and the clouds that float above us, there is much in which to delight. The way the colours stand against each other – orange, yellow, pink, green, and black swimmers, caps and fins flash against the world of blue in which we are immersed. These flashes bring me such joy as they measure the proximity and personality of the people I swim alongside.

The light, the bubbles, the safety, the care for each other, the water itself, all of these have left me session with a sense of gratitude and escape that I had failed to recognise in it’s complexity.

Last year (or this year?) I heard someone tell a seminar group that they always felt they were cheating when they swam in a pool, rather than the ocean. There was a sense of people nodding in agreement. At the time, I felt so angry at these folk in their beachside city, who seemed so smug in the superiority of their ocean access. Certainly, being able to access beaches and oceans is very beneficial for our health and wellbeing. The sense of freedom, and the joy and humility that comes from encounters with conditions and animals is really something. So it might be that I’m just jealous of their access to all this, as I’m not able to make the hour plus drive to the coast to swim in the sea every day, nor every week. The time and petrol would cost me too much. In this city, the public swimming pools that dot the suburbs are the key places I have for my immersion, floating and swimming. I used to feel so pleased for that, so it’s nice to have that feeling back.

A pool is a treasured resource in many communities, acting as a place to learn, to play, to feel safe from the rigours of the sea. In the beachside pool of the town of my childhood, I spend countless hours diving, swimming and holding my breath, and then warming myself on the concrete as my skin dried and unpuckered.

Swimming in the sea is a spectacular joy, and one that I treasure and learn from. But far from a sad compromise, pools are alive in multiple ways and with multiple pleasures. They’re a rectangular escape from my terrestrial life.

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