When I was little, I would paint water as a low blue stripe along the bottom of the paper. Not much different from the sky—a high blue stripe across the top. Maybe a darker blue. Then I learned how to swim and the waterline moved up, over my head. It became the whole page.
Here’s how my father taught me to swim: He would hold me, facing him, in the shallow end, then let go. He’d back away slowly, laughing and teasing as I tried to grab him. I would panic, inhale and swallow water, and laugh. It was horrible, like being tickled: alarming and exhilarating.
Water promises joy and fear. Looking at pictures of swimming is like looking at pictures of tenderness or violence—the body reacts, a sensibility beyond seeing. Some pictures evoke the smell of chlorine or the chill of water creeping up a rib cage, or rumbling bubbles underwater.
Like Narcissus, I see myself in swimmers. Narcissus fell in love with his reflection in a well and, according to some accounts, died when he dove into the water to embrace his own image. Other versions end with him starving to death at a pool’s edge.
My father took a picture of me when I was nine, in one of my first races. I’m not wearing a cap or goggles, my eyes are bloodshot, mouth gaping like a goldfish, I’m flinging my arms frantically as I near the cement edge of the pool. Later I learned I didn’t have to take my whole head out of the water to breathe. That I could carve a little eddy beside my shoulder with my bottom lip. That swimming is all exhaling.
I’ve always been unsettled by the Yeats poem “The Stolen Child” and
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Not a poem about swimming, but about drowning.
Pictures of swimming have, suitably, an undercurrent. Of danger, of fun, of childhood, of being in over one’s head.