Why We Swim

“Ahh, I remember this book” I think to myself as I pull it from a box of mom’s belongings I had quickly packed when we moved her into Memory Care in March 2021. I had given it to her as a Mother’s Day gift exactly two years ago while she was in a several-month lockdown at her independent living residence.

The title of the book is Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui. It had just been published the previous month and was being heavily promoted on a bookselling site (not Amazon) as a must-read. It was an unconventional choice for mom, but it was one of those moments, when reading the summary, that I decided to take the plunge and purchase it.

Ever since we had moved her into her new senior independent living apartment in 2019, she would tell me how she would walk down to the pool area, interested in getting into the water, yet never did. She only watched. It may have been a lack of confidence. Let’s face it, we all begin to distrust our skills as we age. She was almost 90.

She used to love to swim, both in the pool at her first apartment when she first moved to Florida and at the health center of a local hospital. If I remember correctly, it was a class. Her enthusiasm impressed me. She was probably 80 at that time.

I start to thumb through the book. It’s divided into five sections: Survival, Well-Being, Community, Competition and Flow. It’s clearly a love letter to swimming. Tsui includes various stories of men and women who have unique relationships with water. They include “stories of Olympic champions, a Baghdad swim club that meets in Saddam Hussein’s palace pool, modern-day Japanese samurai swimmers, and even an Icelandic fisherman who improbably survives a wintry six-hour swim after a shipwreck.”

These stories are interwoven with Tsui’s own history of and passion for swimming. She wrote the book to answer the question on why humans are drawn to water. She understands that we are land creatures, but we do have an “aquatic past.” If evolution has shaped us to excel on land, why are we still seduced by the water, despite its dangers? Because it can be about healing and health, play and freedom and calming the mind. For her, I get the sense that it is a form of returning to the beginning; something almost primordial.

Born under the astrological water sign of the Crab, I can certainly relate. As a child, I would be deliriously happy jumping into a lake, a river, a pond or a pool. It really made no difference to me.

Being a crab on the shores of Lake Erie

Every time I entered the water, I kicked my legs and pushed my arms in silly, circular motions feeling freedom, freedom, freedom. I dove downward, as deep as I could go, and shot up to the surface, breathing in air through a young girl’s grin.

In her words, Tsui says “I felt that draw of liquid early on: that slide into lovely immersion, that spiraling weightlessness, that privileged access to a muted underworld.”

One story is about the poet Lord Bryon who was obsessed with swimming.  He suffered from a leg deformity and never felt so free as when he was in the water. After a particularly challenging 4-mile swim in rough waters and currents in northern Turkey, it unclogged his “creative faucet” sparking new work, particularly “Don Juan” his poetic masterpiece.

And there is logic in that. Tsui shares a quote from naturalist Roger Deakin’s best-selling book Waterlog “when you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens. Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking glass surface and enter a new world…you see and experience things when you’re swimming in a way that is completely different from any other. Your sense of the present is overwhelming.”

For athletes that sense of present is often referred to as “in the zone.” For swimming enthusiasts, we experience the magic of “flow.” We are “suspended, yet moving; floating, yet ever in danger of sinking. And if we swim with the current, instead of fighting against it, we find a momentary state, one of motion and yet paradoxical stillness that is flow.” It takes our minds and bodies away from intruding land thoughts and worries and frees us and our minds to be filled with now.  That can be powerful.

“Yes, as everyone knows,” Ishmael declares, “meditation and water are wedded forever.” –Moby Dick

When I opened the book, I was touched to see that mom had written her name on that first blank page. In her eyes, this book was a keeper. That signature made me happy. I had hoped that since she was mostly stuck in her apartment with the pandemic, that the book could help her feel freedom in other ways. I think Tsui gave that to her.

Summer is arriving. Hopefully, we will all be able to wade or jump into water and submerge ourselves in the joy, and the flow; if even for a little while.

Photo by Matt Hardy on Pexels.com


10 thoughts on “Why We Swim

  1. “The Zone” or “runner’s high” is something I’ve always been fascinated by as I’ve often heard athletes talk about it. I know I’ve never experienced it running (I get a FEW minutes of satisfaction when I’m DONE, and that’s it.) On the other hand, the pool is much more relaxing and refreshing. Your mom showed you that she valued this book by putting her name in it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Pete! I’ve never been a runner, but I think it’s about blocking everything else out; you’re hyper-focused on your feet moving and the rhythm and your breathing. I’m not sure I could empty my mind like that – too many thoughts! Yes, water is completely different. All you have to do is let it “take you”, you can be passive in the experience. (But splashing around in it is fun! :)) Yes, that was a sweet find to see how much she liked reading it.

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  2. i like the progression in your thoughts here, as I know you put effort and creativity into all of your blog posts. The photo of you on the beach at Lake Erie is precious, but you don’t need to be old that!

    Lots of love here: I had not heard the story of Lord Byron. And I’m sure you cherish your mother’s autographed book. May you enjoy being in the zone when you sit in your writing chair, and may you relax into the “flow” too. Enjoy your weekend, Melanie!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Marian! Ironically, I found that photo as well in mom’s possessions. Gosh, from your lips to God’s ear, may I be in the writing zone a lot this summer! 🙂 I’ll just move from chair to pool to chair to pool haha. And I’ll keep that book nearby for inspiration. Hugs. xo

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  3. I loved this post Melanie! So much of it rang true to me about the love of water. I have to say that it spoke more to me about my Mom than me. Being from NY she loved the ocean as much as she loved her community and condo pools. Your quote about meditation and water reminded me of the trance like look that came on her face when doing laps. She always said that concentrating on her breathing kept out all the racing thoughts that clogged her mind! The other thought that struck me from your post was our “primordial” connection to water. I’ve heard this said about fire as well. I’m glad your astrological sign of the cancer crab has landed you close to the ocean. I’m sure your walks along the beach and jumping into the waves keeps your creative juices flowing! A definite plus for those of us that follow your blog.

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    1. I like your mom story. It’s clear she understood and utilized the “now”, zeroing in on breathing and blocking everything else. I think it’s cool you could see it on her face as it happened. Yes, haha, it’s no accident I landed near the ocean – once a crab, always a crab. 🙂 Sometimes, I feel like I could use more “flow” in my life, but I work with the ideas that do pop up, and somehow it’s been 3 years??? CRAZY. Thanks Pam! ♥

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  4. Reading your mother’s obituary today prompted me to try to “catch up” a little on your blog. I like to be able to read it without being interrupted. Like I was just interrupted in the middle of this comment.
    Just the other day I was thinking about how I don’t really swim much anymore. I can’t remember how long it’s been since I bought a new swimsuit. We all know how fun that is. Growing up I was on swim team for many years but was not very fast. I still kept at it though. Swimming is such a great escape at times. In lots of different ways like you said.
    There can be that fear component too, especially in natural bodies of water. My nephew’s wife has been posting on Instagram about overcoming her fear of the water; she is taking swimming lessons for the first time in her life. It’s really pretty interesting.
    So sad about the loss of your Mom, but I love all the great memories you’ve been able to put in writing here on your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe your desire to swim waned in adulthood because it was a mandatory part of your earlier life? Of course, I recommend getting back in the water, but that’s me. I had a great swim in the ocean on my 62nd birthday. I’ve watched all your travels over this summer. There may not have been pools nearby, but natural bodies of water to try out? That is AWESOME about your nephew’s wife working on a fear. Good for her. I hope you give it a try again sometime in the future.

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