If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.
“Water” (1954) Philip Larkin
On a gray day, late one September, and just beyond the very edge of summer, I landed in Dublin, and after dropping off my bags, I headed out purposefully in pursuit of a sure remedy for jet lag and a bracing experience to boot. A dip in the cold and turbulent waters of the Irish Sea, I knew, would wake me up to my new time zone, immerse me in an old-world tradition, and introduce me to a new body of water.
Over the past twenty years, I have swum my way around the world. Not the whole world, to be sure, but certainly a small archipelago of worlds of water. On trips to do talks and seminars in multiple sites, schools and contexts, I have always sought out, and I have mostly found, bodies of water, natural, salt and chlorinated, in which to immerse myself. I have swum in sterile and overly heated pools, and in numbingly cold Lidos. I have been challenged to immerse myself in ice covered pools in Finland, and I have bathed in the overly warm waters of Florida and the Caribbean.
These experiences—voyages really—have led me to the desire to catalogue a year in water, an amphibious existence in an element hostile to humans, and home to a host of creatures that you may or may not want to meet in the middle of a long swim. I am by no means an expert swimmer, I am competent at best. And I am certainly not a long-distance swimmer—after a mile or so my legs cramp up and compel me to seek out dry land. But I am a consistent swimmer, and probably for the last thirty years, with a few weeks off here and there following surgeries, I have swum three or four times a week, in winter and in summer, in sickness and in health, at the crack of dawn, and as the moon rises.
Why swim? We are accustomed to stories about the “loneliness of the long-distance runner,” and multiple accounts crowd the book shelves to discuss hiking, walking, lifting weights, biking, boxing and so on. And while there are some extraordinary books about extraordinary swimmers, few books meditate on the daily rituals of immersion, floatation, and the habitus of becoming fluid. Swimming is an activity like few others because it significantly alters the body’s relation to gravity. Probably closer to flying than walking, swimming brings the body into contact with the forces that hurl themselves against us, and as we feel the water breaking over our skin and pushing back against our strokes, we know ourselves to be constantly in the grip of dynamics that control and hold us.
We swim therefore we do not sink.
We swim therefore we are in motion.
On that bracing day in Dublin, when I approached the Forty Foot access point (to what James Joyce called “the snotgreen” and “scrotumtightening” sea), I readied myself for the plunge. But I noticed at once that few people were actually swimming, most were milling around, reading newly posted signs warning of an invasion of Lion’s Mane jellyfish. The list of potential symptoms from being stung by this large species of jellyfish was daunting and off-putting. I stood with others on the rocks, watching a few reckless lads jump into the ocean and then scramble quickly for the shore. And indeed, a quick glance at the dark green waters revealed more than a few of the ocean beasts floating around. As I stood looking with longing at the ocean, however, an old lady passed me by. “What are you waiting for?” She asked. “Well,” I sputtered, “the jellyfish, you know, looks dangerous!” “Follow me!” she said. After changing quickly, I followed this nimble and fearless old woman down a path that only she seemed to see, and we arrived at the edge of shallower water. As she jumped in and began to swim her way across a small bay, I followed, feeling safe in her wake even if jolted by the cold to my bones. When I left some 25 minutes later, my water fairy was way out across the bay, still swimming.
As I dried off, I decided it was time to write about my life in water. I pledged, then and there, to record my plunges into pools, my leaps into the deep or shallow, rough or serene waters of the sea, and my immersion in cold ponds or warm lakes. I offer a record of the body suspended, in air and space, in time and place, in wet and cold, an account of liquidity and immersion, of breath gasped between strokes, of strokes propelling the fleshly body across a body of water. This is a diary of damp pleasures and the return to earth that follows. “Ground control to Major Tom”—the swim offers a break with gravity and an experience of what it might feel like to be “floating in most peculiar way.” To float, to drift, perchance to sink, the body lingers on the surface while dipping in and out of an element not its own. I too, if called to make a religion, would call on water, and not the immersion of rebirth that Christianity favors, not the baptismal sprinkling of liquid onto the head of a child. My religion, which I would always try to lose, would, like Larkin’s and Samuel Delany’s, too (The Motion of Light on Water), believe absolutely in another world, where “any-angled light/Would congregate endlessly.”
June 14, 2019
“…that is what you do when you breathe, you trespass, again and again you trespass on the world.”
Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book 1
Bergen, Norway. I vaguely remember in one of the early volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s monumental (or monumentally tedious, depending upon your perspective) study of the quotidian, My Struggle, a long drawn-out description of a swimming cap crisis in the author’s youth. When his mother bought him a girl’s swimming cap, complete with a flower on it, the author tumbles into shame and embarrassment, forcing his mother to drive around town all day in an effort to return one cap and to procure another properly masculine cap. Knausgaard clearly thinks nothing of spending his mother’s time and energy this way. For him, she is a vessel, a driver, she is a vehicle, an access point. She is merely, in this episode, a means to an end. The whole sequence reminded me of a brilliant episode in The Sopranos, where Tony, in an effort perhaps to acclimate to the rhythms of talk therapy, tells Dr. Melfi that while taking peyote, he had a vision. He saw that “our mothers are bus drivers, no, they are the bus, they are the vehicle that gets us here, then they continue on their way.” The problem, he tells Melfi, is that “we keep trying to get back on the bus…instead of letting it go.” Melfi waits a beat, and then says: “that’s very insightful.” Knausgaard is less insightful—his mother is the bus driver and the bus, he never got off the bus, and now his wives are the buses and bus drivers. And as a special passenger, a unique white male, being driven from point A to point B while taking breaks to ogle breasts, read some books, examine the world from the vantage point of power and so on, Knausgaard needs the right damn swimming cap. Without his male garb, after all, he may himself be nothing more than a vehicle for the desires and journeys of others. While his mother clearly cannot see anything wrong with the cap, for Knausgaard, the gender violation screams from the cap and intensifies his ongoing crisis of masculinity.
I thought of this episode, a moving account of male shame on the one hand, and a clueless assumption of a male privilege on the other, as I entered the changing room at the Nordnes Sea bath in Bergen, Norway on a brisk “summer” day in June. My own swimsuit dilemmas have little to do with the concerns of a gender normative person not wanting to be marked as different, and instead stem from the inherent wrongness of my gender and my inability, therefore, to find something as simple as a suitable swimsuit. On this day in June, as on most of my swimming days, I wore what is called a “leg suit.” Probably designed for “modesty” concerns for religious women, the suit offers more coverage in the thigh region and in place of the deeply unflattering cuts of most women’s suits (that are cut from the pubic region on up towards the hip, necessitating careful pubic pruning while making sure that the suit is less practical than revealing). The leg suit ends in shorts, a kind of boxer brief sewn onto a tank top. These suits resemble old fashioned men’s all-in-one bathers from the Victorian period, and are comfortable, quite unisex, and devilishly hard to find!
For a gender queer person such as myself, the leg suit is a god-send, and whenever I find a Speedo shop with a few in stock (I have only found them in the UK), I buy a bunch! Anyway, scoffing inwardly at Knausgaard’s minor swim cap crisis, I slip into my legsuit and contemplate my options.
Before me, I have a gorgeous 25-meter pool heated to 84 degrees Fahrenheit, fairly empty and sitting up high enough to take in the view of the sea. Below me, I can take a dip in the sea in a roped-off area that currently looks dark, green, and choppy. The sea is around 55 degrees, and there are long ladders that allow you to climb down into the forbidding waters. I dip a toe in the pool and then turn towards the sea, take a deep breath, and climb slowly down the ladder. As I reach the sea water, the sun dramatically appears from behind a grey billowing rain cloud, and I take this as a sign. No, I did not think the universe was trying to tell me something. The only message coming my way was meteoric, as in the weather saying: this is as good as it is going to get for the plunge into a watery void. I slip into the water and try to calm my impulse to hop right out while breathing slowly in and out to adjust to the cold and stroking my way across the roped-in area. After the initial panic, a sense of euphoria sets in. I am in cold, clean-ish water, the sun is out for a minute, my heart is still beating, and rather than fighting the cold, I am embracing it and allowing it to embrace me. In this crisp environment, my ambiguous body has no gender. I am neither fish nor fowl, I am flesh loosed of its weight, I am held by the water, steadied by it. I float on my back and watch the next cloud sneak across the sun dropping a curtain on my aquatic drama, with no audience but the seagulls screeching overhead.
I do not think about Knausgaard at this particular moment, but I do think about what it must be like to grow up in a small, devastatingly gorgeous spot like Bergen. The combination of sun, sea and grey, the ubiquity of water, the rise of the mountains in the distance, the promise of even greater beauty just around the bend in the coast—would one ever get used to that? Take it for granted? And just as quickly as I imagine myself living in such a place, I feel claustrophobic in relation to the smallness of it all. I see locals nodding to each other and cannot imagine living in a place where everyone knows everyone. Perhaps Knausgaard’s massive six volume memoir, My Struggle, about his boyhood and manhood in and near Norway, is an attempt to reckon with and counteract the smallness of the place. I read, or rather listened, to all six volumes, devouring the narratives that paired the inconsequential with the pretentious to such addictive effect. I do not know why these books are readable—they should not be—they are full of minutiae, and the scale is all wrong, but once you are in such a universe, like Jim Carey in The Truman Show, you cannot find the exit. You know this is a fake universe arranged for the benefit of only one man, but it is rendered in such compelling detail that you believe in it. For me, it is also a perfect rendition of how patriarchy replicates itself across male bodies, making each one of those white men feel simultaneously omnipotent, important, special, and deeply resentful of women, who, despite not having anywhere near the same access to power, privilege and opportunity, represent some kind of obstacle to freedom for powerful men. Knausgaard is no different. He admires women, fears them, loves them, and ultimately wants to destroy them or turn them into sex dolls. The women to whom he comes closest, receive the worst punishment of all: his pity. After six volumes, you either want to be Knausgaard, or kill him. I want to kill him—another good reason to get out of Norway.
June 26th, Sydney
“Walking is a virtue, tourism is a deadly sin.”
Bruce Chatwin, What Am I Doing Here
It is Winter Down Under, and I know this, but still I cannot understand why the lap pool at our Airbnb is so frigid! Looking at this pool through the window from the living room makes me feel like the sailor lost at sea—water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink. Of course, Sydney is full of beautiful 50-meter pools, and has an actual winter pool at Bondi Beach (if I am serious about the winter swimming thing, which I am). So, I satisfy myself with a few of these amazing neighborhood pools before heading off to Bondi. Sydney is like Los Angeles, but walkable, and with much louder and more interesting birds. The neighborhoods are pretty and distinct, but, unlike LA, where all roads lead to roads, here, all roads lead to water. Head north and you are at the Circular Quay with boats heading out to some of the many beaches and attractions. To the east, you can find beaches like Bondi and Bronte and Manly, and to the West you will find gems like the Dawn Fraser pool built into the Harbor. Australians love to tell you how dangerous everything is there, and so, on one visit to Sydney, I was encouraged by my hosts at the university to jump into the water around Sydney at every opportunity. I cycled around on my bike the next day and then stopped along the way to cool down with a quick dip. When I relayed this to my hosts later on, they claimed that a bull shark had been spotted in the exact area where I took my dip, and I was led to believe that I had barely escaped with my life!
My partner and I like to joke that we should write a travel book titled Off-Season™. We would write about places that benefit from being visited outside of the usual parameters of a tourist season. One would go to Scandinavia in the Summer, Spain in the Winter, Hong Kong in May, Venice in February, Australia in June. You get the picture. We should have written that book about a decade ago…there are few places left with an off-season now. Massive cruise ships along with mega-tourism or over-tourism have turned a visit to a gorgeous place into a battle with swarms of Americans ransacking already overly commercial zones. Off Season at this point may apply only to very few places on the tourist circuit. Tourism, like so many other activities that we once filed under leisure or recreation, has become a powerful vector for climate change. Just half a century ago, the main critique of tourism would have been about cultural appropriation (think the Beatles in India), Orientalism (think Lawrence of Arabia), and health risks. Nowadays, however, tourism is about burdening small, beautiful places with the expectations of wealthy Europeans and Americans looking for “experiences,” and hoping to tick places off their “bucket lists.” I do not exempt myself from the swarming masses. With my frequent flyer status, and my journeys across the globe to give talks that are not so necessary, I use Uber, Airbnb, and all of the parasitical industries that have turned travel inside out. When I began traveling to give talks some twenty to twenty-five years ago, I had few expectations about hotels. I often sat in the middle seat of the plane for long flights, I bought maps, tried to figure out where to eat by wandering around a city, and dipped into places where locals seemed to congregate. Now I review hotels on some apps, organize my itineraries on others, book well in advance, and literally curate all possibilities of surprise or the unexpected out of my journey.
Of course, popular travel writers have always done this too, they just tended to hide the labor of planning their travels from their readers, and only offered up the juicy bits, good and bad. Reading Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, for example, I am struck by the romance of travel it offers from the introduction by Rory Stewart through all the adventures—some real, some imagined. Stewart introduces the book by describing Chatwin as the epitome of the European traveler: handsome, rugged blond, masculine, wearing faded jeans, carrying a little notebook and a leather bag. The whole mythology is fake, however. Chatwin, by the time he traveled to Australia, was not rugged, but dying of AIDS. He was not your run of the mill heterosexual global Lothario, but rather your run of the mill gay global sex tourist. He was not carrying any little notebook, but the original moleskin which now links its lineage to him. His leather bag was not a trinket he had picked up along the way, but an original design from a French artist. We get a sense of Chatwin’s actual reception in Australia from an encounter with another dying man, Jim Hanlon, a retired soldier who welcomes Chatwin and his muse, the Russian migrant, Arkady, to his modest house, and then berates Chatwin for being bourgeois.
Chatwin was bourgeois and more than that, he was the modern equivalent of a Richard Burton or David Livingstone. He was a colonial traveler, perhaps more interesting than others, but nonetheless a colonial who saw the world as his for the taking. Primarily interested in nomads, Chatwin wanted to universalize nomadism as a metaphor for restlessness. Along the way however, in writing about nomadic culture, he managed to alienate many of the people about whom he wrote, and he fictionalized much about the cultures he observed. Travel books do that. Dipping in and out of a place, just like dipping in an out of water, is not at all the same as immersion, or living. The quick dip that tourism allows has the simultaneous effect of polluting the water, giving one a sense of knowing something, and readying the restless tourist for the next experience.
As for me, the swimming tourist, I make my way to the Bondi Icebergs pool, a public outdoor pool situated so close to the ocean that waves crash in upon the lap swimmers. The pool is a frosty 14 degrees Centigrade. I prefer not to convert the figure to Fahrenheit, and I change quickly before joining two other swimmers in brisk lap swimming. We all stay two or three strokes ahead of hypothermia, and once I notice that I can no longer feel my toes, I hop out. The twenty-minute swim has made me light-headed, a little breathless, and the world out of water seems fuzzy around the edges. But the sun is go- ing down, the waves rise and fall with rhythmic certainty, and here, in the home of the front crawl, I linger in the euphoria released by the combination of cold, bodily motion, natural beauty and water, and watch the steam and the spray hide the pool from view.