Not waving but…

not waving but

Friday was the last day our local pool was open. We’ve had the luxury of swimming 3 times a week since September — last spring they were closed during the first part of pandemic but found a way to open safely, with strict protocols regarding numbers, etc. We’ve been swimming there since 2016, though many years ago we also swam pretty regularly when our children were in school. Summers we swim in the lake, though I spent years not going with John and the kids because I don’t like crowds and there were always quite a few people at the little sandy beach area late afternoons. And who could blame them? A clean lake, good access now that a parking area has been put in and the regional district brings in sand every year? When we first began to swim in this area, 40 years ago (and even earlier for John, who came for years before I knew him), anyway, when we first began to swim here, you parked in a little area off the highway and walked on a rough trail to where you could get into the water between native willows and wild spirea. The lake bottom was a bit mucky but the water was lovely. It still is. When I began to go again regularly, about 5 summers ago, I realized that it was quiet first thing in the morning. We’d arrive around 8:30, mostly to kingfishers and the prints of deer and bears in the sand before the maintenance guy arrived to take away garbage and rake the beach. The sight of the sun coming up over the mountain, behind the cedars, as I swim in deep green water is something I cherish on summer mornings.

Nobody heard him, the dead man,   
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought   
And not waving but drowning.

It’s not quite summer yet. But the pool, as I mentioned, is closed until July for some upkeep work. When you swim regularly, you need it. You need the feeling of your aging body in water, you need the buoyancy, the silkiness as you reach out your arms to propel yourself forward and back. Lake swimming is heaven. I tried to keep it up over the winter but honestly it wasn’t really swimming, the times I went down, wrapped in towels, a toque on my head. It was more a waking. The water was so cold and I’d immerse myself, doing a few circles until I couldn’t feel my feet or hands, and come out. I felt spectacular, so alive, and I loved the sense of knowing the lake in winter. I’ll do it every year. But this morning the water was not that cold. Cool, yes, but once I did a length or two, I felt the way I feel in summer: strong, purposeful, held by water.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,   
They said.
The lake has its stories. It was used as a holding pond in the early years of the 20th century and sometimes if you are out in a boat and the light is right, you can see the huge logs that never got removed. People have drowned in the lake, several over the years we’ve lived here. Last summer one person died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a cabin. A few months ago, someone at the pool told us about an accident he’d been involved in which his boat ran over a swimmer. It has happier stories too. Families whose children have grown up swimming in the lake each summer, families who now have grandchildren who come to the lake each day they are staying with their grandparents. When I hear a young girl calling to her father as she swims, I remember our Angelica diving from the rocks near where we swim, asking her dad to score her dives. 8! 9! That’s a 10!
It might be just rumour or legend but supposedly there are drowned bodies still in the lake. I think of them now and then, wondering what’s left of them. It’s rumoured that the lake is salt at the bottom and that makes sense. It drains into Sakinaw Lake which was once connected to the ocean; the top 100 feet of Sakinaw is fresh and the bottom 350 feet is salt. Some years we’ve found jellyfish in the lake. There are fresh-water clams. Lots of geese. Loons. Ducks of several species. A special race of fall-spawning cutthroat trout—our family knows about these because Forrest once conducted a census of the trout population as a science fair project in grade 8 or 9.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always   
(Still the dead one lay moaning)   
I was much too far out all my life   
And not waving but drowning.
If a lake can be haunted, so can be its swimmers, the ones who come in toques in January, the ones with the plastic buckets and swim rings in July, and the ones like the woman who is the tiny dot in the middle of the photograph at the top of this post. (She talks to the water as she eases through it. Does it talk back? She’ll never tell.) As I swam this morning, I felt like myself again, the self that almost feels she could circumnavigate the lake without stopping. Almost.
Note: the poem is Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning”, from her Collected Poems.

2 thoughts on “Not waving but…”

  1. My last regular swim was March 11 2020, and I would have thought having to be this long without this daily routine would be impossible to bear. It’s remarkable how much we underestimate what is bearable, and even more so how we entertain the idea that we have any choice in the matter or whether we do or we won’t. I have found that yoga does make my body feel good, stretched and worked in the same way that swimming did. And I can’t quite believe that I will ever get back to daily swimming again. Though I never would have believed I’d have to go without it, so what do I know anyway…. Except that there is plenty of lake swimming ahead for me in the next few months and i am very excited.

    1. I’m glad you’ll be able to swim again. And yes, we do underestimate what we can bear. Beyond imagining, actually. Swimming has been J’s therapy after his surgery. In water he is able to do the stuff he can’t on land, or at least he can’t as easily. And the water exercises help to strengthen his damaged foot. So that makes me hugely grateful.

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