“You don’t have to be a great swimmer to appreciate the benefits of sensory solitude and the equilibrium the water can bring. “

Bonnie Tsui

Today was a travel day ,and cold and rainy, and I took cold shower this morning and, I went and looked at the lake with my boys and, and, and, I didn’t make it in the water. Blessing came my way with the following reflection, by Francesca Huemer Kelly, on the book Why We Swim, by Bonnie Tsui. Thanks Francesca, inspiring as always…

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Perhaps water dominates our lives more than we realize. We ourselves are more than two-thirds water, just like the planet we live on. We drink, we sweat, we pee, we shower and bathe. And we find places, both wild and tame, in which to swim. 

Why do we swim? Are we hearkening back to a part of ourselves that evolved from amphibians? Do we yearn to return to the weightless warmth of the womb? Or do we need that rush of adrenalin from the cold water hitting us as we run from the beach into the water? 

In Bonnie Tsui’s collection of essays called Why We Swim, she explores swimming from different angles: from the perspective of ocean swimmers, long-distance swimmers, record-breakers, and just normal lap swimmers. She opens with the astounding story of an Icelander who survived a long wintry swim after his fishing boat went down, talks to polar bear club members, meets and swims with San Francisco Bay swimmers, and, finally, reflects on the meditative aspects of swimming.

Her writing is as supple as water, as rhythmic as a butterfly kick. And the book is downright interesting, too. Take this passage, for example: “When we dive underwater, the spleen contracts as part of the mammalian diving reflex, shooting its supply of oxygenated red blood cells into circulation around the body.”

Or this one: “The first known record of swimming lies in the middle of a desert. Somewhere in Egypt, near the Libyan border, in the Sahara’s remote and mountainous Gilf Kebir plateau, there are swimmers breaststroking on the walls of a cave.”

And yet, the book is intensely personal, too. “I swam through [my parents’] divorce. I swam through college. I swam from Alcatraz, on a dare. I swam as rehab from knee surgery. I swam across a lake at my wedding. I swam to an Italian monastery and back, to help settle someone else’s bet. I swam through a miscarriage and on each of the days before my two sons were born. Three decades of swimming, of chasing equilibrium, have kept my head firmly above water. Swimming can enable survival in ways beyond the physical.”

Ms. Tsui also talks about the meditative state achieved by swimming, especially that feeling of “being in the zone.” She speaks about the adventure of it, too: the risks we take whenever we enter an element that is no longer our own; that could kill us.  Whether we swim for camaraderie, solitude, competition, meditation, adrenalin rush, exercise, or simply because we love it, by the time I finished reading, I was wondering why on earth we wouldn’t swim.

by Francesca Huemer Kelly

“To live deliberately as a swimmer means you are a seeker; a chaser of the ocean’s blue corduroy, a follower of river veins,” 

Bonnie Tsui

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Julie

    Excuses to stay dry came easy at 52 degrees Fahrenheit. But motivation from Elinor’s post and the will to honor commitment prevailed as my “second” voice reminded me of the gift — the true blessing — freedom, oxygenation and meditation offers submerged in clean water. Hardly a hardship at any temperature. Grateful for the daily ritual. Thank you, Elinor! Plunge on.

  2. Mollie

    Swimming not allowed today at LB beach due to water quality. Still got my toes wet and took this eerie looking shot just before watching the full moon rising with fellow meditators.

  3. Mollie

    And a much better photo … the full moon rising …Lake Bluff beach south end.

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