Lidia Yuknavitch: I Will Always Inhabit the Water
On Living a Swimmer's Life
Two swimmers wrestled on the spar–
Until the morning sun–
When One–turned smiling to the land–
Oh God! the Other One!
The stray ships–passing–
Spied a face–
Upon the waters borne–
With eyes in death–still begging raised–
–Emily Dickinson, (1861) 201
Lately I’ve been haunted by Dickinson’s poem about the two swimmers wrestling on the spar. This has happened before in my life, me the lifelong swimmer, after all. The poem tends to recur and rise up in my subconscious in moments of danger. The two swimmers have risen in the mind’s eye twice in my life, when I was considering the choice between staying or leaving, living or dying. In the poem, one swimmer turns to shore, smiling, swimming for life. The other, because they cannot swim, or choose not to, or just because they cannot move inside the not knowing, drowns. Supposedly the poem is an allegory for Christianity. I wonder though. Every time it recurs to me, it feels like it’s about how many times we have to choose to live or to drown.
I’m walking around on land these days troubled, again, by my own mammalian physicality. I’ve noticed over the years that I become wrong-footed and accident-prone when things are not quite right around me, and just now things are so not quite right I could myself become a walking earthquake. It’s as if my body turns in on itself trying to signal that something is wrong, trying to get my attention. I’ll take a tremendous digger. Or fall down some stairs. Or my knees and elbows will trade places while I’m trying to get out of the car. It can be spectacular, these falls, these bruises and blunders.
At different times in my life I’ve experienced psychic or emotional implosions of various sorts—as most of us do—traumas and deaths and emotional upheavals. But what is going on around me just now is a chaos not born of me at all. Is it? A socio-political chaos that feels like an echo effect from our past, and yet more dire, more urgent. Is this just my age, aging me?
I’m talking about our present tense of course. Every single day of this new administration feels like all the fault lines of our country surfacing at once, as deep as the San Andreas, or the Cascadia subduction zone, or the New Madrid, the Hayward Fault, the Denali Fault—lines in the ground that could break us open. Social tremors mimicking land cracks and fissures, an allegorical earth beneath our feet.
Scientists off the coasts of Oregon and Washington have now gathered enough data to prove that low oxygen zones, or Pacific marine dead zones, are directly linked to global warming, and are growing at alarming rates. The oceans are screaming their stories, too.
So the swimmers wrestling on the spar have come back to me, strange familiars.
And yet here is water again, saving my life, me standing with my feet in the Pacific Ocean at Moolack Beach, the name Chinook jargon for the word for “elk.” Thinking about how Moolack Beach is partly known for its petrified tree stumps, some as old as 4,500 years. Thinking about a sea lion skull fossil found here which now sits in the catacombs of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, 60 million years old. And then I hear touch smell taste see the sea water again, because ocean water is full sensory experience.
Thinking about dead zones and climate change and global geocatastrophe. Thinking about how waves move. What is a wave. Focus on it. Waves move energy, not water, far distances. Water works as the medium through which kinetic energy, or energy in motion, passes. The water is moving, of course, but only in a circular motion. So when things are hard for me emotionally or physically, like now, a very acute “now,” a now within which I feel actual flashes of apocalypse (yes I’m serious) I think of waves. How water moves. How water can help a body remember that life and time are fluid. How all bodies are made of water and come from her.
In 1905, Australian swimmer and silent film star Annette Kellerman becomes the first woman to enter a race against men in the annual race in Paris, sponsored by Paris Match. She finishes in a tie with Thomas Burgess, beating 16 other men. Later that summer, Kellerman becomes the first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel. She goes on to become a sensation in America with a show billed as “The Diving Venus.” The act includes swimming and diving in a glass tank at the Keith Hippodrome Theater in New York. Swimmer-turned-movie star Esther Williams will go onto portray Kellerman in the 1952 film Million Dollar Mermaid.
What it means to me. Water. Swimming. My truer mammalian past.
What did it first mean to me, when I wasn’t even four years old and I’d leap into any water at hand, swimming pools, lakes, oceans, ponds, before I knew how to swim? I suspect it was simply wonder. Some form of imagination outside of me that I wanted to enter. All I can remember is the sense of the surface looking like it had depth. Being mesmerized by that. Wanting to jump. Believing in mermaids. When I imagined mermaids, when I wanted so badly to leave my land life, I just pictured us with our legs fused together, and our skin scaled. I wonder: Was I wanting to leave, or enter?
What swimming meant all through my adolescence was freedom from the house of father. All my mornings and afternoons were small salvations, all those hours and lap after lap away from home and family, two words that nearly killed me. I didn’t care about winning medals or my team or even my name in lights on giant digitalized scoreboards. I cared about the away from him. I cared about how within water, a body could be a body, a body could even be, dare I think it, mine.
Here is a home movie I’ve carried in my head all my life: after every single race I won as a tiny girl swimmer, I’d emerge dripping from the beautiful blue waters and into the aura of father. He’d nearly always be smoking a cigarette. That’s important. The cigarette. At sporting events filled with child athletes. He’d silently walk me away from the crowds, usually into a peopleless hallway. There, with me wrapped in an old towel, standing nearby like a shivering little monkey, he’d ask me if I thought I was something special—did I think winning made me better than anyone, did I think winning made me unusual? I’d drop my head. Look at me when I’m talking to you. Smoke.
Reel two: after every single race I lost he’d perform the same ritual, only the words, slow and deep and towering above me, would shift slightly: what’s wrong with you, you didn’t even try. That was pathetic. Pathetic people shouldn’t even get in the pool. Go to your mother. I’m leaving.
And he would.
His back, his wide shoulders, his strong arms.
Shame was a lesson that swam deeply in my blood.
You know, even at six years old I understood a blow would have been preferable. So when the blows came later in life, I didn’t flinch. I’d already learned to take what was worse.
A lot of people will recognize what I’m about to say next. It became a ritual for me. I think that’s what people who live through things they shouldn’t invent for themselves. Narrativizations. Ritualizations. Enough so that by the time I was eight, I had it down. The silent walk to some random hallway—all the hallways of my life. How to regulate my breathing. How to take the blow.
This is not a sad story.
This is an ordinary story.
There are much worse stories than this.
I think it’s true that I’ve responded to male authority with this shame model in my head my entire life. It’s not the men—the teachers or coaches, the lovers or husbands, the colleagues or friends—it’s me. It’s in me, the shame story. And it’s in me with a particular articulation that is male. It sounds male. It looks male. It feels male. It’s taller than me and deeper voiced and it has bigger shoulders, though my shoulders are formidable. I swam butterfly.
I’ve trained myself to stop cowering, to stand up in the face of it. But it’s still there. In me.
So when I watched Donald Trump stomp around a stage while Hillary Clinton tried to speak, I didn’t feel sorry for her. I knew she could take it. I felt named.
I also felt what was coming.
When dragged under, kick.
In 1875, English teenager Agnes Beckwith accomplishes a long-distance swim in the Thames River from London Bridge to Greenwich, a distance of about six miles and an incredible spectacle for people at the time. In 1880, Beckwith treads water for 30 hours in the whale tank of the Royal Aquarium of Westminster to equal a previous mark set by Matthew Webb.
The truth is, when I finally freed myself from the homefront, I went to college with a bottle of vodka in one hand and a fuck-you-world in the other. What was swimming to me then? I barely remember flunking out and fucking up—or maybe I do remember but it comes to me in a series of bad, blurry, underwater movie scenes. Sometimes the colors or settings or other characters bleed into one another. Sometimes the climactic mistake I made changes forms, dissolves, resolves as something else… like a chance. As for swimming, I know I got worse and worse as an athlete, and yet, something in me had not yet drowned. What was I keeping afloat in those years? While the competitor in me was dying and failing and losing, art and writing and ideas were coming alive in my hands and mind and body. Maybe it looked from the outside like I was leaving the water.
But I wasn’t.
I was learning to inhabit the water differently.
Instead of being in the water, I saw that the waters were inside me: imagination swims inside of us, like dreams. Like the energy and matter than no one can take from us, because energy never dies, it just changes forms. Is there a swimmer girl deeply inhabiting waters before I was born? And after I die will she travel the depths of time or release time itself into the fluidity of space and matter?
The Cave of Swimmers is a 10,000-year-old rock painting near Wadi Sura in southwestern Egypt. An Egyptian clay seal dated between 9000 BC and 4000 BC shows four people who are believed to be swimming a variant of the front crawl. More references to swimming are found in the Babylonian bas-reliefs and Assyrian wall drawings, depicting a variant of the breaststroke. The most famous drawings were found in the Kebir desert and are estimated to be from around 4000 BC. The Nagoda bas-relief also shows swimmers inside of men dating back from 3000 BC.
In 1919, Ethelda Bleibtrey and Charlotte Boyle, both national champion swimmers, are arrested at Manhattan Beach for “nude swimming.” As a public protest against bathing suit laws, they removed their stockings before going into the water for a workout, which was considered nudity at the time. The resulting publicity brought a change to women’s bathing suits.
In 1926, 19-year-old Gertrude Ederle, sporting the first two-piece bathing suit worn in public, becomes the first woman to swim the English Channel, doing so in 14 hours, 31 minutes—beating the best mark at the time by more than two hours.
There is nothing in the world like swimming naked. Particularly at night. Perhaps it’s the memory of a wombed world within which we understood our own existences as vibration and warm water. Maybe our breathable blue past is closer to us before we enter the world of light and land. Maybe memory is what’s left of that.
Like nearly all of us, my first waters were mother waters. It’s hard to talk about the state we are in when we are wombed, that preverbal, preconscious waterworld in a woman mammal’s gut. Who is to say what is us and what is other when we are lodged in a dark wet sac, tethered to life and yet not quite human. The as-yet unmade word hiding with spit inside the mouth of a girl.
The last time I swam naked at night I dove into a rushing river. The Willamette, near Eugene, Oregon. The only other human mammals there were junkies and hipsters smoking pot and riding stolen or just-repurposed bikes. Mostly young men; I was acutely aware that the body of a woman in her then forties was not part of the scene. I just didn’t care, because water, well, water is my better element. On land my use-value falters. Their pity and half-stares shooting away before they have to acknowledge drooping breasts, the gut of a mother mammal, and the map of life lines—I mean wrinkles—criss crossing the terrain of me—I feel all of it. I get it. But put me back in water, and I come alive in ways no one, not youth, not god, not any one at all, can ever look down on. In fact, in water, I am life. All of it.
In 1926, Charlotte Schoemmel becomes the first woman to swim around the entirety of Manhattan Island.
I’ve told the story before, how I once lived with a hippie poet on a defunct commune outside of Creswell, Oregon, how he took me to Dorena Lake one day to impress me with his lake sailing skills, how we rented a small sailboat and set out across the lake, how I learned rather quickly that he had no idea what he was doing. How I feigned patience. How I praised him in an effort to keep us afloat. How we nearly rammed the far shore just before we capsized, the mast jammed into the mud bottom of the lake. How a tow-boat had to come save us, how I refused to be saved, and so instead of riding on the motor boat with him back across the lake, I swam it in its entirety.
What I’ve never told, nor asked myself, is why did you do that?
I don’t think I wanted to know the answer, in case the answer was cruelty.
I’ve come to understand late in my life however that the ways in which women protect the egos of men is another way we give ourselves away. These miles of life I’ve swum—I’m no longer willing to give them away to a man who cannot feel secure without the adoration of a woman holding her breath so that he might float.
I am raising my son to invent his own way, his own comfort when he fails or falls, his own tenderness within himself. He knows his mother is in the world, and that there isn’t anything she wouldn’t do for him. But he also knows his masculinity is only beautiful when it makes a helix with his own femininity.
I swam the lake in defiance.
I swam the lake a song of myself.
I will not be the body who dies on the spar.
On September 2nd, 2013, 64-year-old Diana Nyad becomes the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage or swim fins. She swam from Havana to Key West.
I’m 53 years old, soon to be 54. When I enter the waters of the North Clackamas Aquatic center swimming pool near my home I am no longer the competitor, although I can feel the trace of her at the surface of my spine, like a girl who refused to die inside the drowning scenes of her own life. Swimming in water is the only state of being I know where I feel free.
What it means to me. Water. Swimming. In my now. A form of meditation, if by meditation we mean a body slowing toward prayer and presence inside rhythm and weightlessness.
I don’t care about exercise.
I am exactly the size I need to be to survive what is left of my life, to write the books I need to write; this is what a woman who is the size and shape and image she needs to be to stand up and inhabit her own voice and body looks like. I know. I look a little lumbering and soft, aged and lumpy. But put me in water… put me in water for even ten seconds, and I will prove to you that a body is anything you want it to be.
Put me inside language and I’ll show you how anyone anywhere can become again.
Water and language have this in common.
When I say that writing emerged in me by and through my body, I mean that literally. When I go to tell the story of that, I usually begin with a narrative about my daughter’s death, and how I became a writer when her body died inside the lifewaters of mine. That story is a true one.
But it really began before that, in water.
To the side of the lap lanes are the water aerobics bodies, mostly women, not much older than me. Maybe that will be my next incarnation, more of a manatee-like older woman creature, although to be honest, I cannot imagine a cessation to swimming, to my arms making their endless arcs, my hands gone to paddles, my body propelled forward a pull at a time, my feet feeling more like seal flippers, my shoulders rolling and rolling, and the slow whip of the turn, my head down and the push through the bubbles and blue and the great intake of air, a breath that keeps a human able to move through water as if we were not gone from our breathable blue past.