When I was growing up, I swam. I guess it would be more accurate to say that when I was growing up, I was a swimmer. It was my main identity for quite a few years. When there was a creative writing assignment in school, I’d write poems about laps or odes to chlorine. If asked questions about myself by well-intentioned but nosy grownups at parties (kids, of course, never ask such prying questions; they just take each other at face value), I discussed swimming. The fact that I had electric-blonde, stiff hair kind of gave me away.
But then, I quit swimming – suddenly. One winter, between age group swim club and the beginning of high school season, I got a nasty case of strep throat and had to take a few weeks off. By the end time that I was feeling better, I realized that I didn’t want to go back; the thought exhausted me, even though my energy had returned. One night eating out at a restaurant with my mom, she proposed that I take a break. The thought never would have occurred to me. It was like suggesting that I stop having hair or quit being from Iowa. It just wasn’t an option.
At first, it was a trial. Not even that – it was a break. A single season rest. By spring, I would be back to the six a.m. workouts, the after-school workouts, the weight training, and the weekend meets. My locker at school would again emanate with the fumes of chlorine from the gear that I lugged to and fro. Of course I’d return.
But I didn’t. I never swam another race. And somewhere along the way, I stopped telling people that I was a swimmer.
And yet, I’ve never stopped. Oh, for a few years there I certainly did. I needed to dry out a bit. But by the time I got to college, I started doing laps again. When I moved to Seattle at 22, I sought out public pools. There was the nice, clean one on Queen Anne, where dot.com types made deals in the hot tub, and the pool at the UW where students and faculty crammed in, eight to ten to a lane. But my favorite was the Medgar Evers Pool in the old African American neighborhood – a pool named after a Civil Rights leader, whose ragtag swim team’s mascot was an octopus with African features and whose lanes were mercifully empty. Across the bulkhead, the old black grannies in their petal-covered swim camps and flounced suits would bounce up and down to The Village People along with the young gay guys in tiny Speedos – the newest comers to the ‘hood – during water aerobics. There was a soul food restaurant across the street and drug deals in the parking lot beyond.
When I go to the pool now – something I only manage once a week – there’s always a feeling of complete comfort and ease. It’s a feeling that I don’t have at any gym or when I run outside. (Though after fifteen years of downward dog, I do have it when I ever a yoga studio.) It’s that sense of being home, of being with a part of myself that is central to who I am. I am a swimmer. It’s not to be lost, only found again and again.
I bring this up because as I try to figure out the role of writing in my life — as I play hooky from work for an hour this morning just to be able to write this, this thing that will do nothing to increase my chance for work or my billable hours, this thing that pleases no one but me — I remember, again and again, that I am a writer. I return and return to this fact, to this part of me with awe and fear and, finally, relief.