After two and half years away from my local pool due to COVID closures I went swimming again today. It was heavenly.
Swimming is the one constant form of exercise I have done for most of my adult life. I love the meditative aspect of it: the rush of water above and beneath me, the counting of strokes, the focus on breathing. I normally begin with slow laps letting strength come to me, which invariably does. Somewhere in the middle of my swim my limbs find speed and strength and I kick and pull harder and faster. It is a delicious moment to arrive at the peak of my physical power.
Today standing in the shallow end of the pool catching my breath after a spirited lap, I took in the peaceful scene: the lifeguard in a white t-shirt and red shorts looking bored and sitting on the tall chair at the deep end of the pool, crates at the sides holding noodles, floaties, fins, and other gear used in classes, the smell of chlorine suffusing everything. Surveying the space I delighted in it, smiled, even gave myself an imaginary hug.
The memory of me and my younger sister walking to swimming lessons back in El Salvador arrived unexpectedly. We were thirteen and ten years old respectively. Nothing about going to the gym for our lessons was relaxing, peaceful, or safe. My sister and I could have been killed on the way there or back. El Salvador then was at war with itself. Yet once we jumped in the pool the terror of the civil war fell off from us and we became like kids everywhere else, full of joy and eager to learn the different strokes our earnest teacher taught us.
Maybe that is why swimming has been such an important ritual for me over the years. It is a reminder that I did not die. I lived. My body lived, and on a day like today, a nothing special day, my head realized what my body has known and remembered all along.
Here is a poem that tells of walking to swimming lessons all those years ago in El Salvador. It is taken from my new book of poems Cipota Under The Moon from Tia Chucha Press - out in May of this year. Just two weeks away!
Two girls slinking alongside barbwired brick walls on their way to
swimming lessons, doing their best to remain collected past the turrets
stationed with armed soldiers. Ensconced in their lookouts, the troopers
held their metralletas close to their bodies, as if they loved them, but not
so much they would not use them ill. After our lesson, we headed home
the same way we walked to the pool, guillotining chatter and laughter,
scurrying along the garrison’s walls. Only the sound of our flip-flops
striking our heels betrayed us. What if today’s soldiers were in a foul
mood and pulled their triggers? What if they noticed our bulging bags,
our weekly comings and goings, and tagged us as informants? What if, right
leg, what if, left leg, we got through it that way—like prayers in a
rosary—one bead, one foot in front of the other, one bead, one foot,
one bead, one foot all the way home.