“Swimming is like prayer” (Adam Zagajewski)


I’d spent the day lugging pots of soil in and out of the greenhouse. My arms were tired. The sun kept sliding behind clouds but when it was out, the day felt like a June day. So when John asked if I wanted to try the lake, I said, Why not? Two winters ago I tried to swim once a week in the lake, just to maintain my relationship with its water. I know that might sound strange but it’s living water. Swimming in it is like love, a relationship. During the darkest days of the pandemic, when we were isolated and John was recovering from a surgery gone sideways, I wanted the solace of lake water, even though I knew it would be cold. This winter I didn’t feel the same need for it. Three times a week I swam in the pool and although it’s not the same as lake swimming, it was enough. Enough for the cold days, the long weeks of wet days, the days after nights when I hardly slept. In February, when my Ottawa family was here, we went down to the lake for a quick swim. An immersion. The little boys played in the big pile of sand left on the shore and John and Manon talked at one of the picnic tables while Forrest and I plunged into the lake’s dreamy water. When we came out, we stood in sun that was almost warm.

summer in February

But sure, I said yesterday. Why not? A couple from Washington State was there with their son and the son and his mum had quick dips. John had a brief swim. I swam out beyond the rope you can see in the first photograph, and did a couple of laps, the ones I do in summer, my body so alive in the green water. And what is it? What is it about this living water that I am immediately home in it? A woman at the pool confessed that she is nervous about swimming in lakes or the ocean because of what she can’t see. But what you can’t see is the huge living body of water that holds you up, allows you its currents, its riffles, its history of trout, of kingfishers dipping their beaks, of mergansers and loons in the distance, of crayfish and sticklebacks, of freshwater clams, wild mint in the shallows, the shadows of swallows on the surface as they take insects in flight. Like a river or the ocean, it allows you a place in its living water, and now having entered again, my arms propelling me forward, hands meeting in front of me, then pushing out, a gesture of arrival, in sunlight and rain, I am home in my body within it.

The rivers of this country are sweet
as a troubadour’s song,
the heavy sun wanders westward
on yellow circus wagons.
Little village churches
hold a fabric of silence so fine
and old that even a breath
could tear it.
I love to swim in the sea, which keeps
talking to itself
in the monotone of a vagabond
who no longer recalls
exactly how long he’s been on the road.
Swimming is like prayer:
palms join and part,
join and part,
almost without end.

                 –Adam Zagajewski, trans. Clare Cavanagh

2 thoughts on ““Swimming is like prayer” (Adam Zagajewski)”

  1. I love this! I got in to Lake Ontario to my waist on Sunday, but it was too cold for me to go further. (these things are relative! My 8yo managed it!) but I’m hoping a few hot days this week will warm things up a bit and I will try again on Saturday. Indeed, there is nothing quite like a lake.

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