14 August 2009

Watery reflections: swimming laps outdoors

The closing of the 50-meter, outdoor pool where I swim my laps adds to the mounting melancholy of August’s dog days. Today is my last day for making my way length after length, lap after lap in this big, beautiful blue gem of a pool. It’s almost as sad as closing day on the mountain at the end of ski season except there are other swimming pools. Indoors.
But swimming laps outdoors is the best: submersed in the quiet aquamarine water beneath the blue sky, observing the rippling nets of sunlight on the pool bottom, feeling the sun on my face every time I turn my head for a breath, watching the clouds as I backstroke.

Stroke. Kick. Breathe. Stroke. Kick. Breathe. Stroke. Kick. Breathe.

Demanding repetition and conscious breathing, lap-swimming becomes meditative and washes my mind clean. Gliding through the water feels akin to flying, albeit slowly. Do you ever have that flying dream that allows you to breast-stroke across the sky?

The buoyant sensations of the swimming pool bring to mind my youth. Water is my element. Even before I learned in elementary school science that water can take three forms—liquid, solid, or gas—I knew water was magic. As a kid, my little sister and my best friend and her little sister spent every afternoon at the pool. We hosted underwater tea parties, dove for buried treasure, then raced our Stingray bikes home to watch Star Trek while slurping Popsicles or Eskimo Pies. In high school, I got my first real job as a lifeguard and instructor for kids’ swimming lessons. I have the wrinkles and sunspots to prove that I sunbathed with abandon, my only concern that the pool chemicals might be off enough to turn my blonde hair chartreuse.

Somewhere in one of my many journals, I made a list of all my swimsuits over all the summers, beginning with a tank suit color blocked to resemble a beach ball. I had the suit when I was about four years old.

At the pool, pulling on my swimcap and goggles, I eavesdrop on conversations that now have switched from opinions about Michael Phelps’ racing suits and Dara Torres’ injury to opinions about the best indoor lap pools. Many are 25 meters, or crowded, or costly, or more difficult to get to, or offer limited parking. All are indoors. Not the same. Not at all the same. The pool chemicals have no way to escape, so the smells are all off in a nautatorium.

Last winter, after skiing, I had the good fortune to swim in the most glorious pool in Vail. Gorgeously constructed, the pool was filled with saline. Aaaaaah. Like the watery womb, this warm and salty pool comforted.

One of my favorite aspects of the outdoor pool is that when rain falls—and lots fell this season—it mingles with the water in the pool. Then evaporates. And falls again. The water cycle teaches us that all water on the planet is the same water, eternally antique. The same water I swim in is more or less the water dinosaurs drank, the same water Jesus Christ turned to wine at the wedding at Cana, the same water I swam in as a child whether ocean, pond or pool.

The only thing better than an outdoor pool is an ocean. Not that I swim laps there, but the beach heals me in another way, and I'm soon to be on the sands of the Jersey shore. A beachcomber, I've had a seashell collection since I was a girl. About 10 years ago, on a beach at the southern tip of Portugal, I began collecting seaglass. I have a large bowl filled to the brim with translucent glass from far-flung beaches. The ocean has a way of softening even my sharpest edges.

I've always thought if I could be another animal, I'd be a dolphin. I had a swim with the dolphins in the Bahamas a few years ago. They are the dogs of the deep blue sea.

When the astronomers seek life on other planets, they look for one necessary element: water. Water is life. And we, when alive, are made up of mostly water. H 2 Ohhhhhh.

Photo by Colleen Smith
Image shows detail of one of Monet's waterlily paintings in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

For a slideshow with more captivating details from Monet's masterful waterlily garden paintings,
click here.


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