Some mornings the locker room feels like the anteroom to the afterlife. I’m shedding my clothes and music is playing loudly, as if to get me ready for the next step on my mortal journey—music from elementary school, high school, college, from when my children were young. There are songs that I thought I’d completely forgotten, the one-hit wonders whose band members have gone on to careers in law and medicine and insurance. The woman at the front desk told me it’s Spotify, but it could be my unconscious mind. If I swim early enough in the morning before I’m completely awake, I expect to open the door and emerge not into the swimming pool of the YMCA in Blue Hill, Maine, but into the world to come.
Goggles on, I slip into the water and begin my slow crawl. In the lanes on both sides of me I can see the other swimmers, the people who have jobs they go to, homes they sleep in, alarms they set, who are now next to me pulling their bodies through the water. I can see their arms and legs as I turn to breathe. These regular bodies take on a graceful form in the silence underneath the air. I feel like a scuba diver watching fish at a coral reef.
I swim in the chlorinated pool, stroke, breath, stroke, breath, pulling myself along while my mind is adrift. I am a child learning to swim, I am remembering gym classes and the hierarchies of every class in every school. I am aware that I’m literally and figuratively in water over my head. I think this is the amniotic water we begin in or the river we cross to the other side–or maybe it’s both at once. Presence and absence.
I confess to having moments of fear as I’m pulling my body through the water, as if I may not exist, or that I am swimming toward the end of my life. I hadn’t anticipated I’d have my spirit so engaged when I signed up for a pool membership. Counting laps can bring me back to the surface of my mind, but I think about that absence, the feeling that I might not be there. And someday I won’t be. That is irrefutable.
It’s in that absence that presence begins. Presence, an image or sound or word that is beyond our grasp, but close to us. Presence that comes from memory and metaphor. Every creative act begins in silence—in that space where we are here and not here—and something emerges. We try to name it. We spend our lives trying to name it even though we know we can’t.
We ourselves are mostly water and we emerged from the primordial seas, so it makes sense that my morning swim takes me to a deeper place. It makes sense that I want to stare at the ocean, which has its own enormous silence, and the waves that are not water, but pass through it, eventually reshaping every shore.
Image at top: Stuart Kestenbaum, Water Reflection.