Friday, January 23, 2015

Sublime swimming (Psychology Today)

Wading into the sublime: Mordialloc beach
My new How to Think About Exercise blog is up on Psychology Today: 'Why Swimming is Sublime'. Here's a sample:
Midsummer Melbourne. After almost three hours sitting on trains and buses, and then a walk along a shadeless highway, we made it to the nursing home. Ruth—my wife—and our two kids shuffled into the clinical foyer with sweat-wet clothes and dry tongues. We took five minutes to cool and calm ourselves, then looked for my grandmother, Dorothy.
She is not who I remember from childhood; not the vibrant golfer who served me toast with sprinkles and milky coffee with heaped sugar spoons. She forgets. She weeps. Walking is threatening. But she remains my grandmother, and the trip is as necessary as it is quietly gutting.

Over the afternoon we share photos, watch the kids' antsy shenanigans, give Dorothy chocolates. We talk knitting and beautiful music. A gifted pianist, she can still entertain a room with decades of big jazz played with big hands. Without a moment's hesitation, she names her favourite work: Chopin's Nocturne in E Flat. 
Before long, it is time to leave again. Dorothy, who of course misses her late husband and their home, wants to leave with us. And, of course, she cannot. This realization, which occurs regularly between Dorothy and my mother, is merciless. And the feeling leaks into me: I feel cruel as the doors close behind me. 
Halfway into our train trip, we stop at the beach. The kids are cheered and, for all the bile in my gut and heat in my face, so am I. The water will make things right—for a little while. 
I strip down to my underpants and dive in. Immediately the world is gone. Instead of sun and sky there is just the bay's murky to-and-fro. I swim out, and the sand gives way. I cannot stand, and I am enveloped by water. I grew up by the beach, but this first descent still frightens: as if the world has fallen away. Yet I am also ecstatic. It is sublime. 

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