Saturday, June 9, 2012


Toes by Norah Jones

Open Water Swimming

     I hadn’t been in the water for months. During the winter, I swam indoors, where the water is fine. But I am sick of chlorine. The toxicity makes my nose itch, ruins my hair and as a perfume is anything but alluring.

     I am entertaining the idea of a 5k Lake Swim where I’d join my two daughters, claiming solidarity in competitive swimming. A three plus mile swim is no joke so I need some training.

     At Clay County Rec Park, my favorite spot is a quiet cove area. Never seeing any fisherman, I figure there is no danger of a hook and eye. Adjacent to the bay is the fairly populated swimming area roped off by orange PVC piping. About 30 yards beyond are buoys warning boaters to heed the boundaries. Rob plans a three mile run to the dam and he worries about me alone in the cove. “What if you get a cramp?” “I’d rather you swim where there are a few people,” he says. “Well, ok, I say.” As we venture over to the sandy beach I count the folks who would serve as lifeguards. There are two skinny bikinis with dry hair lying on metallic mats. Then there is a couple riding herd on toddlers. The dad is a big fella, (a landlubber) with plenty of fishy white skin and tattoos. Yea, I’m at my own risk.  I’ll just stick close to the moors and look up to make sure I’m clear of propellers.

     Rob watches me for a minute then turns to start his own workout. I tip toe down to the shore kicking off flip flops. The terrain is that rusty rocky clay and ant piles mined throughout. I step gingerly into the lake and look out, thinking it doesn’t look too murky. We’ve had a lot of rain, and that’s a good diluting factor. My ears are plugged to discourage a foreign flesh eating bacteria I’ve read about on the internet.

     Swimming is primal. You know, like when you realize you have to face your fears—my most challenging being the chilly temperature of Lake Chatuge. But I’m committed now. I’m shaved, suited and goggled. There is no wriggling out of this Speedo® now.

     So I dive in. Ok, it will get better, my teeth chattering. I’m good. I paddle out to the first buoy on the left. It’s ok after 25 yards or so. I realize that I should’ve worn a cap—my bangs already streaming into my face. I fight a bit of choppy current and seek rhythm in the front crawl. 

     Swimming has got to be the loneliest sport in the world. Even more so than running. My senses submerge in an underwater think tank. Scenery is limited, hearing is muffled—there is no dialogue. Come to think of it, what business does an extrovert of my caliber have to do with swimming, or even writing, for that matter?!

     But again, it’s basic. It goes way back to where I started, in the womb and then the Atlantic.  There is no audience, no referee, no heckling. Just the water and me. I need and crave it. A lot connects between the ears as arms syncopate with legs. Yea, under the surface, there is nothing wrong with talking to myself.

     I kick hard to work my core and legs. I see things, like floaters. I can’t decide if it’s my 47 year old vision, you know those veiny spidery things that you see if you press on your eyeballs real hard? We used to do that when we were kids. Maybe it’s lake weed? I don’t know and it is unnerving. I can’t see too far below or ahead. Long gone are the days of swimming with sharks or alligators in Florida. Now monsters are only symbolic, sometimes reality being harder to reckon with than actual sea predators or toothy green reptiles. A picture of a giant catfish lurks in my imagination. I’ve heard they hang out way down deep.

     I’ve swum 30 minutes. I take a breath and pivot my face back towards the bottom. I see a dark mass and splash in startled fear. Although it’s only a shadow, I say aloud, “Lord, please protect me out here, I say.” “Protect my kids, too.”   

     My kids are never far away from the forefront. I think about two funerals within the past two weeks. They were classmates of my kids. One was killed in car accident, no seatbelt. The other lost his life in an accidental drowning.

     Ok, one more perimeter. Rob waves as I do the breaststroke gathering my bearings. I glide to shore, walk out, tuck everything in and grab my towel.

     I consider the pending 5k swim. It doesn’t seem like I have much choice. If I could just hurdle over this, things will settle down. I’ll swim head on. Maybe it will help me brave the waves of real life. Lord knows I’ve faced more difficult races.

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