the dark ages


It was 2015 when we visited the Almendres site in Portugal. This arrangement of stones, constructed between 5000 and 4000 BCE, has astronomic significance and is in alignment with other Neolithic sites in the area. We went on a warm day in March, in the company of an archaeologist, and I remember vividly the scent of the cork oaks, olives, the wildflowers on the path from the parking area. It was a page from an ancient story, full of light and beauty.

These days it feels like we’ve entered a dark age. This morning the death count from the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria: approaching 20,000. 351 days since Russia invaded Ukraine and continues to reduce towns with their hospitals, schools, housing, and the infrastructures supporting these to rubble. In Pakistan, months after catastrophic flooding, huge areas still remain underwater. Closer to home, coal mining in the Elk Valley have been polluting fish habitat with selenium, the government is still committed to the use of glyphosates, and former residents of the town of Lytton, burned to ashes in 2021 try to recoup damages.

Some days it’s hard to be hopeful. For years I’ve begun many mornings with a swim, a wonderfully meditative way to think myself into the day ahead. From late September to early May this swim takes place in a local pool. What I appreciated in the past 7 years was how welcoming the facility was, how even during the first year of the pandemic, it was possible to swim, with strict protocols about numbers and so on observed. We booked 45 minute swims and there was a window of time to use the change room and showers safely before the next group arrived. I thought through parts of my book Blue Portugal & Other Essays in the pool, mostly doing the backstroke, finding ways to organize sections, approach new material, and if there’s a watery rhythm to the sentences, that’s why. Lately, though, things have changed. You realize how the healthy ecology of a morning swim has a lot to do with who else is using the pool, and how. We’ve always gone early and there’s a regular small group who have their favourite lanes, their own style of swimming. But as I noted, that’s changed. A few newer swimmers who are wildly performative, who thrash and splash, and one of whom has actually complained about me to the lifeguards for not showering before I enter the pool. I’ve been using the pool for more than 40 years and I’ve never not showered. I don’t think the lifeguards believed him but of course it stung. The other day we went for our swim and I realized as I came out from the showers that John and I would be expected yet again to share a lane. It’s a 4 lane pool and with us, there would be 5 swimmers for that early period. Two of them were the thrashers and they were already in. The lifeguards were hastily putting ropes (which aren’t ropes at all but big plastic dividers strung from end to end) between the lanes because they knew there would be turbulence. That meant that people couldn’t simply move over a bit and use, say, 2/3 of a lane. Instead of swimming, I had a brief sauna and then put my clothes on and went to wait for John in the lobby. (He suggested we each swim half of our usual regime, taking turns, but I was filled with something I realize now was rage. I didn’t want any part of it.) A lifeguard came out to talk to me. When I explained that it was too hard to share a lane that had the dividers in place and that it was better to keep the pool open so that people could nudge over a bit so that we were using a little less space, and that after all, John and I were always expected to share and no one asked the other swimmers to share, she said she didn’t know what else to do. (She’s a nice woman and I know she’s not to blame.) She said I could find another time to come maybe? We tried this last week but the time she’d suggested turned out to be just as busy. I realized that the courtesy and kindness I’d associated with the local pool was a thing of the past. The alpha males had taken over the quiet early swim and I was out of luck, edged out of the pool by their aggression and splashing.

I’ve spent the past 4 months writing the first draft of a book. It’s happened that way because I went 3 or 4 mornings a week to the pool and thought my way into the next section. I thought my way around the difficult issues presented by the narrative, the memories I needed to parse for meaning, the various ethical considerations at play when you write about others, even if you are primarily writing about your own experiences influenced or shaped by them, and this morning, saying goodbye to John as he took his rolled towel out to the car, I felt — feel — bereft. Something is lost. Has gone dark.

During the awful first year of the pandemic, after John’s surgery that went sideways and resulted in a permanent injury, I had weekly plunges in the lake nearby. I loved the feeling of every cell waking up as I submerged my body in the cold water. But it wasn’t swimming. Now I’m wondering if it’s time to buy a wetsuit and make that my daily swim, year round.

This morning I’m remembering those stones in the dry grass near Evora, remnants of a culture that knew phases of the moon, solar positions, and star alignments. We walked from stone to stone, some of them incised with symbols both anthropomorphic and celestial. It was quiet, a few birds, the young archaeologist showing us the patterns, the distant view of a single menhir that aligns with the Almendres stones at the point of the winter solstice. It felt like a high point in human understanding of their universe. This morning I am wishing for something like that to remind me of what’s possible again.

6 thoughts on “the dark ages”

  1. Ah yes. It is sad. Today I have been wrestling with online access to some medical records and the impossibility of reaching a human being. Feeling that rage. Knowing it will be like this—and worse—from now on, and there is nothing I can do about it.

    1. I think you’re right, Susan. Like this — and worse. I’ve noticed a lack of courtesy, civility, lately that I don’t think I’m wrong in believing wasn’t always the case.

  2. The last few years, it feels like circumstances, the pandemic, and particularly Trump and his acolytes around the world, have opened the Pandora’s box of human intolerance, racism, cruelty. When Obama was elected, we felt we’d entered a new era of human openness and tolerance. Turns out, the dark side was waiting to erupt, and erupt it has. There’s a park near here which has always been a pretty, tranquil space. It now has about thirty tents and two teepees with fires going, garbage, detritus, human misery everywhere. Stabbings on the subway. People are desperate and our governments have not kept up with the dire need. Plus, yes, some younger folk have grown up thinking themselves, being shown that they are, the centre of the universe. It’s hard to hang onto the good stuff, the vaccines, the humanitarian effort underway right now in Turkey and Syria, the young ecologists struggling to persuade us to change our ways. There is lots of good too. Hope you find a peaceful time to swim, Theresa. Your readers depend on it.

    1. Yes, there is lots of good, Beth. Thanks for reminding me. It’s been a strange week. I never expected to be edged out of my swim. And in the scheme of things, it’s a very small splash, thinking of the difficulties of others in the world.

  3. Theresa, the idea that your pool feels inhospitable is so sad and unfair and I am sorry. I have always looked on my own swims (which usually have lots of lane sharing in our fairly small pool) as an exercise in learning how to share space with others, especially those who use the space differently than I do (people who stop at the end and then resume their swim just as I’m arriving so I have to wait for them, what is UP with that) which isn’t always easy, but that’s the point. Hopefully the more aggressive swimmers will lose interest in their pursuit and your pool will be yours again? And yes, I know those moments where it all just feels like darkness and attempts to look for light seem just impossible, and the only answer is patience. Nothing is ever the same, for worse and for better. I hope things feel easier before too long. xo

    1. Thanks, Kerry. I spent a week sort of sad and angry, looking up wetsuits online, and then decided to go just a little later, when the aggressive guys would be finishing up. It sort of makes my workday a bit muddled but for now it’s ok. I am usually quite patient but this time I was angry because it felt like the changes had to mine. On the other hand, I get to swim and that’s a privilege.

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