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Pickle Me This

September 11, 2018

I am a swimmer

What I have to show for my last decade in athletics is not a whole lot—I once signed up for ten yoga classes but only went to one, and we still have the evidence of the running shoes my husband bought me when I decided to take up jogging that show remarkably little wear. Which is just two examples, and narratively anti-climactic, but it underlines the point I’m trying to make: I dislike most forms of exercise so much that I rarely quit them, because I’d have to join them first. Not doing things I dislike doing is pretty much the cornerstone of my approach to being alive: I don’t want to push through the pain, or feel the burn. If being miserable, even for limited periods of time, is a pre-requisite for physical activity, than take my name off the list. For a while I made do with a stationary bicycle, because while riding it at least I could read.

But now—like the shoes, and like the yoga passes nearly a decade expired, the stationary bicycle sits unused—draped with winter coats in an upstairs closet. It’s been at least two years since I’ve sat upon its little seat and spun its futile wheels into nowhere—but not for the reason you might be thinking. Oh, no. Because it’s also been two years now since I purchased a membership to the university athletic centre near my house. A membership I bought (inspired by Lindsay) just after getting a raise at my job and therefore being able to afford to put my youngest daughter in full-day preschool, which left time in the day for some kind of physical activity. I would go swimming, I decided. Maybe this would be a thing I could do, and I wouldn’t quit, because it wouldn’t be awful.

And it wasn’t, and I didn’t. And in the next few days, I will renew my membership again. Because I love it, swimming. I love it so much, I get up early in the morning to do it, much to the surprise of the people who know me, because it’s the only thing I’ve ever gotten out of bed for, and before 7am either. Four days a week (but not Friday, because on Friday everyone at rec swim is crammed into half of the 50 metre pool—the long half and not the short half—and it’s crowded and unpleasant) I wake up at 6:50 am and wriggle into my bathing suit, which is set out with my towel. Throw on clothes over top and rush to the pool, where I’m in the water by 7:15, and I swim for half an hour. During which I think, catalogue anxieties, solve plot problems, compose blog posts, try to remember all the verses to “American Pie,” and swim back and forth in the medium lane. Which is so my speed—the medium lane. It’s where I like to be.

I’ve loved swimming for a long time—I was lucky to have a pool in my backyard when I was growing up, and so even though I failed Bronze Cross twice because I couldn’t do the timed swim, I recall spending ages under water, turning somersaults, leaping high, partaking in an agility I did not partake in on dry land. When I lived in England, I longed for lakes, and once went swimming in a pond just to get my fix. One day on holiday in 2004, Stuart and I jumped into a hotel pool  and discovered after two years together that we both liked swimming a lot, so much so that later in the week we’d jump into another hotel pool even though it was green, and I’d get a rash—me getting a rash will become a running theme here. And when I was pregnant with Harriet, I worked at the university, and went swimming every day on my lunch hour, delighting in the freedom of movement, and of floating suspended the way my baby was—the very first thing we ever did together.

But it’s hard to fit swimming into a busy life. For a long time, swimming was a special occasion, and I started buying expensive mail-order movie star bathing costumes to better suit my weird-postpartum body. But the thing that no one tells you about movie star bathing suits is that when you wear them a lot in chlorine, they become worn out and hideous. Six years later, my body even weirder and more-postpartum, I buy unflattering sporty suits from the clearance rack, because I like the uniform, its utilitarian nature. I am not a bathing beauty, I am a swimmer. I am a swimmer. In Swell: A Waterbiograpy, Jenny Landreth writes about the power of this realization, her reluctance to own it, how we undermine our abilities—”I’m not that good. And I’m not fast.” To belong in a space like a pool, a gym. I have a place here. It has been two years, and I am a swimmer.

I am allergic to lake water, and have a sunlight sensitivity that a lot of other people have tried to tell me that they have experienced too, and some of them have, but not the ones who say, “It’s like a heat rash, right?” Because those people have never had their eyelids swell up or been unable to sleep for unbearable itching. This year was the third summer in a row that I’ve gone through in big hats and SPF clothing, including a purple hoodie I wear in the water. (The photo above is me like a normal person in a bathing suit just because I wanted a photo opportunity. Naturally, after three minutes of sun exposure, I got a rash, but the photo was worth it.) And so it’s a bit absurd that I love swimming and beaches more than I ever did, when a practical person might find a different kind of pursuit—badminton? But we make it work. We have a sun tent so I can beach all day and stay in the shade, and when I go to the beach I always bring a bathing suit to change into, because my lake water allergy kicks in when I sit around in wet bathing suits. (I know, I know. I am infinitely sexy.) And while this is inconvenient, the result is that I now have so many bathing suits. While we were away on holiday by a lake in the summer, I marvelled at the array of them drying on pegs in our cottage bathroom—I have so many bathing suits. Because I’m allergic to lake water, okay, but also because I am a swimmer. I am a swimmer.

And I love that, having so many bathing suits. Some of which look really good on me and others (see the purple one above: NOT FLATTERING) do not, but how I look is not even the point (although it certainly is in this stunning photo to the left), but what I can do: swimsuits are for swimming. I am a swimmer. And once upon a time I paid a lot of money for a bathing suit that made me feel good, and I know there are other women for whom bathing suit shopping is a form of torture, and some women who won’t appear in public in a bathing suit at all. Whereas I have a bathing suit bouquet. And as a woman on the cusp of being forty, I see this as an accomplishment I’m proud of, how it sets the kind of example I want to set for the two small women I gave birth to. An indication that I’m right where I want to be at this point in my life, a good and fortunate place.

A place which is, often, literally flying.

7 thoughts on “I am a swimmer”

  1. theresa says:

    I LOVE this. I’ve given up worrying about my body because where I swim, most of the people (apart from those coming in for a quick dip after yoga…) are even older than me, larger than me, but who love how they feel in the water just as much as I do. Where do I buy my bathing suits? Fields. They have Roots suits, several years old, I suspect, which is they cost around 35 bucks, so that I always have two or three, and when the chlorine eats them to bits, even with rinsing, I don’t feel quite as badly as I did when my Hudson’s Bay suit that cost 100 bucks fell to bits in a few months.

  2. carin says:

    Love this, Kerry.
    I’m a swimmer too…
    (and ps: bugger the suits, it’s about bodies in water)(by bugger I mean pffffft to style… not sans suits… which is surely another post.)

  3. Cathleen says:

    Love this. Also lands end has good sleeved suits. I have sun probs too.

  4. Alice says:

    What a great read! I am a swimmer too with similar experiences with bathing suits and being in my body–though I sidestepped the movie star phase and have a skin sensitivity to chlorine and dislike pool swimming, so that sorta sucks since I live inner-city, so I am mostly a would-be swimmer. What I wanted to say, Kerry, is that you are also a walker–which is not be discounted. You came to Montreal and walked from Drawn & Quarterly bookstore with a load of books to the Atwater Library to give a talk, a good long tromp in hot weather, which a lot of Montrealers have never done.

    1. Kerry says:

      I WILL NEVER FORGET HOW MUCH MY FACE LOOKED LIKE A TOMATO AFTER THAT TREK. (and yes, indeed, I am a walker, which is the very best thing, as you know, because I live inner-city too!)

      1. Alice says:

        Mais non! Not a tomato because you wisely wore a red dress! *That* was red.
        Not enough people walk. I love walking. Just my speed.

  5. melanie says:

    I love this post. I want to be a simmer – and I once was, I used to get up before school in high school and go swimming. My goal this year is to heal up and get back to swimming because I’m not that happy outside once the cold weather hits (oh wait – it’s here! Currently snowing in Calgary right now). And swimming is such a great time to think too – about everything. There are other exercises that I enjoy (yoga even though I will always be at the beginner can’t-touch-my-toes-or-straighten-my-legs stage) but watching you talk about swimming in the last couple years has been really inspiring.

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