From the Books: Why We Swim

Swimming in the rain.

Swimming in the rain. Via

Sometimes people cite the lack of browsing as a reason why it sucks that the independent bookstore has fallen on hard times in these, the Days of Amazon and other online retailers. And that’s true: one of the great joys for me, as a bookish person, is wandering through the shelves of this bookstore or that, seeing what random things I may find that I didn’t even know I wanted (while likely carrying around a stack of things I already knew I wanted). Well, indie bookstores seem to be rebounding of late, but there’s another place where you can get your Serendipitous Finds Whilst Lazily Browsing game on, and those places are libraries.

A couple weekends ago I had occasion to be in the Hamburg, NY public library. It’s a lovely place, recently renovated and a member branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, so my library card works there, too! I wasn’t planning to leave that day with six books under my arm, but that’s what happened. Among them was Why Se Swim by Bonnie Tsui.

Tsui is an Asian-American journalist who has written on issues of interest to that community, including a book called American Chinatown that was a bestseller and won an award for Asian-American journalism. (I have not read it, but on the strength of Why We Swim, I may.) Why We Swim is her second book, and it is quite simply exactly what its title suggests: a look at why human beings, evolutionarily descended from sea creatures but no longer of the sea, are so strongly compelled to the water. Swimming is one of the most common things we do as humans, despite the fact that this obsession with the water so often brings us to harm. We keep coming back. Why?

There are a number of basic reasons, Tsui argues, and she boils them down the sections of her book. We firstly swim for survival, and she opens here with an examination of an Icelandic fisherman who survived alone the capsizing of the fishing boat on which he worked. He swam three miles through icy seas after his mates either froze or drowned, and he lived to tell his tale and become a folk hero for the people of Iceland.

Next Tsui discusses how swimming heals us and how swimming regularly contributes to our overall fitness. She writes about the effects of regular swimming in cold water and how some competitive endurance swimmers turned to their activity after suffering illnesses or injuries.

We also swim for community, and Tsui describes impromptu swim clubs that formed after the fall of Baghdad in the Iraq war. She also discusses the sad history that racism played in the destruction and dismantling of public swimming pools in American cities, during the decades of white flight from urban centers for the suburbs. It’s another example of the fact that no matter how hard we try in America, we can never get far from our deplorable history of racism and the racist motivations behind some of our oldest public policy choices.

These are all practical reasons for swimming, but Tsui saves the most profound reasons for the latter portions of Why We Swim. Water is almost a psychological need for humans. She reports that hospital patients report better sensations of well-being when the decor of their rooms includes water imagery, and she notes that Henry David Thoreau included a great deal of swimming in his treks to Walden Pond and the woods where he went to live deliberately. The water calls to us and guides us, even if we are no longer a part of it; we recognize that some part of us comes from there.

In this passage, Tsui relates a bit of personal history in how swimming played a part in forging connections with her family-to-be. The book is full of beautiful passages like this.

Once upon a time, I fell in love with a family and a lake. In the ritual of swimming, the connection of one body to another, of one person to another, there is flow of a different sort to be found.

The first summer we were together, Matt took me to visit his grandparents at their cottage on the northern shores of Lake George, five hours north of New York City. Ted and Shirley met on a swimming raft on that lake, in 1939, and got married after the war. Their safe harbor was the tiny hamlet of Silver Bay and the grand old YMCA resort that had been there since 1899. Matt and I were young ourselves on that visit, just out of college, and would not be married for another eight years. But that liquid-mercury lake–framed by evergreens in the picture-postcard view from the screen-in back porch–would be a touchstone from the first.

Everyone in the family had a particular way of crossing the lake. Grandpa Ted had a special affection for tooling around in fishing boats. He owned three in his life: The Ultimate Folly III, and III, each larger and more elaborate than the last. No one could remember him having ever actually caught a fish.

Uncle Chris, all six feet five of him, folded himself into a kayak before paddling across. Matt’s mom, Robin, loved to float around in a rubber dinghy–she wasn’t a frequent lake crosser, but she was a spirited shore dabbler. Her husband, Jan, a marine surveyor, traversed the waters on a windsurfer and, later, on a stand-up paddleboard. Uncle George, a National Outdoor Leadership School instructor and all-around outdoorsman, like to sail; Matt’s little brother, Jesse, had just earned a license to pilot the thirteen-foot Boston Whaler.

One morning over breakfast and his daily crossword puzzle, Grandpa Ted casually mentioned that he and his friends used to swim the mile from Silver Bay across the lake to Diver’s Rock, for generations the spot where children have made a heart-stopping jump into the water. “That was the thing to do back then, like swimming the English Channel,” he said, his eyes sliding over to me before returning to the crossword, each completed square lettered in unwavering ink. “If you said you’d swum across the lake that day, that was something.”

My ears perked up. I smiled back at him. This was something I knew how to do, and he knew it. I loved the idea of joining the generations of lake crossers before me, in a way that was me. He was handing me a personal invitation.

That afternoon, we pushed off from Silver Bay, Matt swimming and me beside him, paddling Grandma Shirley’s old blue kayak, so he wouldn’t get run over by speedboats.

We made our way past the sailboats and motorboats bobbing in the harbor; past the raft at Bay Beach, where Ted and Shirley first set eyes on each other; past the tiny island of Scotch Bonnet, where Matt’s parents were married; past a man in a boat who yelled at us through a megaphone, “Swimming in the lake is hazardous to your health,” what with all the boats and Jet Skis racing about. Forty-five minutes later, we arrived at Diver’s Rock, the stone-faced cliff where each member of Matt’s family has made the jump. It was a veritable water tour of his family history at Lake George.

After we performed the solemn ceremony of jumping off the ledge, it was my turn to swim back across the lake. I tried not to think of the speedboats and trusted my man in the blue kayak to keep me safe. When I beached myself on the shores of Silver Bay, I felt initiated. I thought I finally understood something about what the place meant to Marr and to the company of lake crossers before us.

Eight years later, we continued our Lake George swim, the day after our wedding, with forty of our closest friends in the flotilla. Both sets of our maternal grandparents were there to witness it, and I suppose you could say that I swam from one family into another. We returned, year after year. Even after we moved across the country to San Francisco, we kept going back–sometimes in fall or winter, mostly in summer. There have been variations on the swim. One New Year’s Day, our bare feet stinging in the snow, Matt and I held the first and only meeting of the Silver Bay Polar Bear Swim Club (total members: two).

In the years since, Grandpa has gone. Jesse, too. When we go back now, it’s the fireflies and the stars that get me every time. Much of modern life is filtered out through the dense trees and mountains on the winding approach to the lake. Those winking lights, bobbing along the ground and filling up the night sky with their impossible density, send a signal. It’s a reminder to slow up and be awake to the real connections we have while we have them.

Pablo Neruda wrote Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, published when he was just nineteen; he uses aquatic imagery to depict the intoxicating gorgeousness of being in love, the loss of control when we’re immersed in it. The ninth poem in the collection, “Drunk with Pines,” is my favorite, for its vivid conjuring of a pair of swimmers caught together in the outer waves; two passionate, parallel bodies, one yielding to the other, “like a fish infinitely fastened to my soul.”

What are these if not stories of love?

Why We Swim is a wonderful book that made me think, most of all, of the fact that I really do miss swimming. I could claim that there’s not much opportunity for swimming around these parts, but come on: I live in a city that’s near one of the Great Lakes. That notion doesn’t pass the smell test, does it? I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of at least some way of how to swim, when I was uncomfortable in the water. I remember public pools like the one in Hillsboro, OR, where one summer I had diving lessons; I remember pools at the colleges where my father taught. I remember sandy-bottomed ocean beaches and rocky-bottomed lakes, lakes full of seaweed and other lakes where the water was warmer than the morning air, even in August. Lakes, two oceans, and rivers whose names I don’t remember. Small streams that don’t even have names. All of it, water.

I was good at swimming in grade school, sufficiently so that my school’s swim team coach would occasionally say to me, “Hey, goin’ out for swim team this year?” I always laughed and said no. I assume he was kidding around with me.

Thing is, that’s one decision I’d like back…because now, I’m not so sure he was joking. And what a thing that would have been….


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One Response to From the Books: Why We Swim

  1. Sounds fascinating, especially the part about the segregated swimming pools (and even lakes!)

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