I know it’s not September yet but it’s in the air. And during this morning’s swim, in water a little cooler than I like it, I thought of John Berger, swimming, his “texts in a wordless language”, and I remembered this post from early last September.
As we were walking down to the lake this morning, to the area where we swim most days before the beach-goers arrive, we could see a young couple just coming out of the water. You beat us to it, I told them, and the woman said quietly, It’s beautiful. They both had the look. I know it. The way you feel after a swim in water that is full of weather somehow, lit green by sun and reflected cedars, pierced with dragonflies, shadowed by the mountain we live under, and wrinkled by light air movement this morning. You are never more yourself but you don’t even begin to think that while you are there. For a few moments, there was the sound of a boom box somewhere and then it was replaced by a loon warbling near the little islands half-way across the lake.
(Yesterday, a video of my Edmonton grandchildren showed them clutching new music boxes, exactly like the one I have on my desk, the one that plays Für Elise, that I bought at Mouat’s store on Salt Spring Island a few years ago, and my granddaughter told us proudly that she has a boom box. She turned the handle and across the mountains I heard the faint and familiar notes of Beethoven.)
I finished reading John Berger’s Confabulations last night. In the essay “On Vigilance”, he wrote about swimming. He is in a pool, doing lengths, and he watches a tree he can see through the glass walls surrounding the pools. It’s a maple. Drawing it later, he realizes that what he has made is a text, “…a text of a silver maple tree.” I think we are always wanting a code for the moments of our lives that are numinous. I swim. I try to tell you how it feels to be in a lake made of weather, to come out the water with the muscular memory of it on my legs and my shoulders, to carry its scent home with me so that later in the day I stop, touch my hair, realize that I can smell the lake in the braid on my back.
When I was a child, my family camped on St. Mary’s Lake on Salt Spring Island. I lived in the water. It was green, it was light-filled, it held a girl’s body as tenderly as a mother cradles a baby before sleep. When I bought the music box in a store we’d visit on those camping trips so that my father could pick up fishing lures or kerosene, I knew I had found part of the code of those summers. How the canvas smelled when we woke to sun filtering through the trees around our campsite, the sticky sap on our fingers when we brought wood for the fire, the sound of my mother scraping burned fish off the old iron skillet.
Such texts belong to a wordless language which we have been reading since early childhood, but which I cannot name.
— from “On Vigilance”