“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.
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.
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