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Swimming

ESSAY

Swimming is something I’ve done my whole life. There is a photo of me at age one by a pool in West Africa, alight with happiness. I inherited an aquatic gene from my mother, an irresistible urge not just to get into water whenever it presents itself but to travel through it, to go somewhere. When I’m some place new, exploring its waterscape is an essential part of getting to know my surroundings.

When I first moved to Madison I lived by a small lake, and that summer I swam across it every day. I loved striking out for the opposite shore under my own steam, and, once out in the middle, I loved seeing the Capitol from the water’s surface, like an otter. But to get there I had to overcome a certain amount of fear. The water was murky, and there was thick weed around the edges. There is something primeval about the fear of the deep that arises when you can’t see below you. I was sometimes seized by images of being ambushed by a shark-sized muskie, or dragged down by some malevolent lake plant. I had to tell myself that what I was doing was just as innocuous as walking through long grass. It helped that swimming is meditative – it focuses so much on breath, rhythm, and flow that you have plenty of time to confront things in your own head and let them go.

One fall I visited Whitefish Bay in Door County in September. It was Indian summer and the weather was glorious: a cornflower-blue sky, searing white sands, and shallow, turquoise water.

So of course I went swimming. Every morning during my stay, I swam down the shore to the point and back. It is worth braving the early morning cold to get the calmer water, because as the sun rises higher the wind freshens and whips up waves. Also there is no danger of being accidentally decapitated by a speeding Skiddoo.

There’s a moment of agony plunging in, then a few moments into the swim the exertion of front crawl warms me up. I’m suffused with euphoria. The water feels like a silken sleeve. The swells seem to go through my body and not just below it. Lake Michigan might look dark and opaque from a distance, but underneath is another world – there is a diffuse, greenish-golden radiance, a clarity, shafted with sunrays. Bright particles are suspended in the water like dust motes in the air when the sun is at a certain angle. The surface below is rippled sand, with hardly a stone or shell or plant to be seen. After about twenty minutes the chill sets in: the air with each upstroke feels warmer than the water. Again and again I plunge my hands into dark fire, speeding up to get back to the cottage and a hot shower.

A quarter-mile later I emerge, dripping and exhilarated, chilled to the bone, ready to do it all over again.

Catherine Jagoe is a British writer and translator who lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Poems from her collection Casting Off (Parallel Press, 2007) were featured on The Writer’s Almanac and Poetry Daily. This essay originally aired on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life series. Read more of her work on her website, catherinejagoe.com.