The Purest Form of Play
“Place begins with embodiment. Body is a place, and it shapes our perceptions.”
— Malcolm McCullough
I grew up with a view of the ocean. When I was little my father used to take me out in the evenings, past the breakers, into deeper water; it was quiet and soothing. I took swimming lessons over the course of a number of years. My memories of these lessons are physical, not technical: I remember the intensity of the chlorine and the way my eyes stung afterwards, especially as they tried to adjust to the southern California sunlight. I remember the pervasiveness of the water, the way it always found its way down my throat, into my ears, up my nose, and I remember the feeling of alarm tinged with thrill at finding myself in the deep end. I remember the discomfort of goggles, which never seemed to work properly. I remember being particularly afraid of an instructor called Char, who had a booming, husky voice that conveyed disappointment or disapproval even if it was only saying “good morning!” She wore a clear plastic visor and had rough, saggy brown skin from too many years of sunbathing, too many years of pacing the deck, barking at frightened children, compelling them into the water, willing them to adopt better, more fluid form.
There's a particular aquamarine color to these memories, a painful brightness: they're characterized by squinting, headaches, intense afternoon sleepiness. I didn't exactly take to swimming. I didn't know that you could love it; I assumed it was something, like tying your shoelaces, that you had to learn—a rite of passage, another step towards eventual self-sufficiency. I made no particular effort to embrace it. I was always afraid: not of drowning, exactly, but of being underwater, being uncomfortable, being unable to breathe normally. I did other things instead: I played soccer, I played volleyball, I rode my bicycle to feed the horses in the morning, I rode the horses in the afternoon. I took my ability to stay afloat almost completely for granted.
Until now. A few years ago, while running, I sustained an injury so mild as to be almost completely unmemorable, except that as a result, prompted by my doctor's urging to take up another form of exercise for a few weeks while I let whatever bit of my leg was strained heal properly, I impulsively signed up for a membership at a nearby pool. I have not run more than a handful of miles since.
My preferred form of exercise, it turns out, is swimming laps. In the regimented, repetitive activity is an unexpected freedom. I see the pool as stage, as metaphor; the more I swim, the more it seems to mean.
It seems increasingly possible that I've only taken to swimming now precisely because it does seem so prosaic, so familiar—because it reminds me of my history and my home state, when I am always another day distanced from childhood, when 5,000 miles separate me from blood relations and adolescent haunts and that persistent California sun.
Perhaps I've taken to it now because although my 86-year-old grandmother is frailer than she must have been at 26, she still swims with purpose; she still does her laps, still tries to improve the efficacy and smoothness of her stroke. And I find this encouraging. I like to think that this is something I can do for a long time; I like to think that though I live in Oxford, smack dab in the center of England and pretty much as far from the sea as you can get, by swimming I'm enacting a sort of link to my watery roots. Because we are watery people, my family: surfers, swimmers, water polo players, divers. Only ever amateurs (our most successful story is also the saddest: the one about the aunt whose Olympic diving hopes were dashed when the USA boycotted the 1980 games), but enthusiastic amateurs, at least.
So this is about geography: it's about that childhood view of the glittering Pacific, the way that water was a part of everyday life, the way the bus drivers used to give a chocolate bar to any kid who spotted a whale off the coast on the drive home from school. It's about, literally, the physical location of my youth, the fact of my having been brought up on the very edge of California, right where it drops into the sea.
A few weeks ago, corresponding with a relative—an academic whose work centers on coastal zones—I mentioned this apparent familial inclination towards water. “Re: our family commitment to the ocean,” he responded:
“When I was a young boy I remember when your father and family came to visit us in Newport Beach. We went to our beach in Newport Bay. I was utterly amazed when your father dove into the water and proceeded to swim away from our beach, out and across the channel to Harbor Island. It had never occurred to any of us to swim so far. People talk about thinking outside the box. Well, your father taught us to swim outside the beach.”
When I mention this story to my father he laughs, and tells me that the reason it occurred to him to swim outside the beach was because of his own father, who, though not a distance swimmer himself, used to hang out with distance swimmers and had apparently absorbed their warped sense of what constituted a normal day in the water.
And true: the pool (the indoor pool, no less) is not the ocean. But it's what I have, and there's a part of me, too, that rebelliously favors the relative domesticity of the indoor pool: the way it's sheltered, tamed. It's always the same temperature inside, always lit in the same way, always attended by bored, uniformed lifeguards who pace the perimeter, killing time. Where else is anything so carefully controlled? Outside the wind whips against the window and the unwelcome winter darkness falls fast and early, but inside my body takes on a familiar, comfortable, comparative weightlessness in water that's exactly 27 degrees centigrade.
Yes, I may as well admit it: I prefer the pool. I like that it reminds me of the geography of my youth without actually being a place where much of my youth happened; it allows the imagination to operate relatively unfettered.
I also like the rules and regulations, the way they force a certain kind of interaction. I'm fascinated by the act of swimming. I use that word act deliberately, in the hope that it connotes the theatrical; I'm interested in the performance, the pool as setting, the costume, the rituals, superstitions, repetitions. Swimming laps, maybe, is like learning lines. Sometimes, when I'm swimming, I slide out of the role of participant and into the role of spectator. If I'm resting at the wall I'll rest too long, just watching. When the dogged university swimmers are doing their laps, jaded but youthfully energetic, or when there's someone in the next lane over who's just really good, who wears years of hard practice particularly well: I admire the fluidity and fluency of their bodies in water. I strive for this fluency myself, even though I suspect I'm past the point of ever being able to attain it.
I like the mask, too. It's odd to feel that wearing practically nothing—a tight suit, cut high at the leg, a silicone cap that hugs the head close, goggles that press rings around the eyes—is a protection, a way of preserving anonymity, but it's true: no one can see me when I swim, at least not the way they can see me elsewhere. I think some people are self-conscious about squeezing into swimwear, flattening their hair and ears, showing skin usually reserved only for lovers or doctors. But I like it. I like the way I look in costume: which is to say, not entirely like myself, or rather not entirely like the myself I'm accustomed to seeing every day, the myself I'm constantly, vainly giving sideways glances in mirrors and darkened windows on half-empty streets. I look like—someone. Just someone, someone who might be anything at all: renowned or habitually ignored, rich or poor or whatever. There are no particular clues to identity. The face, washed clean, is left to speak for itself; you don't know the color of my hair or that I only ever wear lipstick if it's red and expensive (Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent), even though I can barely afford to buy groceries most weeks. You don't know what I do or don't do for a living or a not-quite-living, who I'm with or not with, where I spend weeknights drinking after I've been swimming, where I come from, what my visa status is. You might intuit certain things from the fact of my being here at all, but you can't see those things, or any evidence of them on my person. And I can't see you.
You stand shoulder-to-shoulder with people that you may see in other contexts every day, but how would you know? I wouldn't recognize anybody that I see regularly at the pool outside of the pool—I only know them from the color of their caps, their distinctive or admirable strokes. Out of water the stroke means nothing—it's like a tattoo that disappears when exposed to air. But this is how I know these people, this is how we know each other.
Of course, a good performance demands practice. And practice outweighs performance: the play lasts only an instant compared to all the long days and long nights of rehearsal. Reading an interview with the author, illustrator, and ex-competitive swimmer Leanne Shapton, I become interested in this idea of progress, of measurement. “At least with athletics you actually can prove something,” Shapton says in the interview:
“You can go to the Olympics. You can say, 'I'm the fastest; I'm the best.' Whereas with art you can't say you're the best. I watched a Woody Allen documentary on the plane to London, and he was talking about how he doesn't go to the Academy Awards because he says, 'Who is to say I'm the best? If I win a race, yeah, but I'm not in a race.' So proof is funny.”
I think about this as a struggling writer, as a person recently embarked on a kind of career in gambling. I go all in, and I hope for the best. I've just had my first book published, as much, it now seems to me, by accident as by anything else. And it strikes me that that artistically, there's never a moment of being “best”; there's never a gold-medal moment. There's never even really a moment of feeling that something has happened: at what point did I become a published author? Was it when I signed the deal? Sent the manuscript off? Received notes from the copyeditor? Saw the proofs? Saw the hardback? Saw it available for pre-order on Amazon? Will it be when I first encounter it in the wild, in a bookshop somewhere? I doubt it: the goal posts keep moving, until you realize they were invisible goal posts, and you passed through them sometime ago—and that it hardly matters, it hasn't changed your life in any great way, to pass through those invisible goal posts, and anyway there's always another set up ahead, on the horizon.
This is different from athletic or physical endeavors, where measurement is more straightforward. On a grand scale, the champion can say, “I'm the fastest man in the world: I have this medal to prove it.” But on a more mundane level, you or I can get to the finish line, which is not invisible, which is, in fact, objective. Even better, you or I can make slow, constant, measurable improvement. Today I'm a second faster than I was last week. And if I keep doing what I'm doing, maybe next week, or next year, I'll be another second faster.
Haruki Murakami writes about this in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and about what happens when this is no longer true, when you get older, when you peak, when it's no longer physically possible to be any better than you once were. “I'm no great runner, by any means,” he writes:
“I'm at an ordinary—or perhaps more like mediocre—level. But that's not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be. Since my forties, though, this system of self-assessment has gradually changed. Simply put, I am no longer able to improve my time.”
When I read that I think of my grandmother, with her laps, her perpetual desire for improvement. “I've made a little progress on my stroke—some days it feels great,” she tells me in an email. As we get older, progress becomes a more private concern, but it's certainly still possible: some days feel better than others, even if you're slower than you might have been twenty years ago, or forty. Whereas measuring improvement as a writer or a painter is a more complicated task: what constitutes “getting better” is slippery, abstract, not necessarily agreed-upon.
But even after all that, artistic discipline and athletic discipline are similar (Shapton calls them “kissing cousins”). Sure you might be training for the Olympics, or trying to write the novel that's going to finally propel you out of the slums of obscurity and into the hallowed pages of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, but really it's always about practice: long, lonely years of practice for the sake of practice. It has to be. Because otherwise you'd go crazy, right? Otherwise you just wouldn't be able to wake up and keep doing it every morning.
Mark Rowlands identifies this feeling of “running simply to run”: “This experience is found in other sports too: an absorption in the deed and not the goal; the activity and not the outcome. This is play in its purest form,” he writes.
In her book Swimming Studies, Shapton quotes the artist Leon Kossoff, interviewed in his eighties: “Every day I start, I think, Today I might teach myself to draw…It doesn't make any difference how long you do it, it's always starting again, one's always got to start again.”
The practice becomes the point, at a certain point: why else would you do it? I don't find swimming laps boring, as I don't find writing boring. But neither action is guaranteed to bring me any result other than the immediate result, the immediate satisfaction—and that has to be satisfaction enough, whatever else happens. Even when you feel you've made a breakthrough, there's still someone next to you who's faster, more efficient, more elegant; there's still someone else whose words you admire much more than your own.
At least when it comes to swimming, I have this knowledge. I'll never be great. I'll never necessarily be the fastest swimmer in the pool, or the most adept. I'll never win competitions. So I'm at a loss to explain exactly what I'm doing it for, why it's so compelling, why I need to fill my evenings with something so seemingly selfish, why I use it as a tactic to avoid problems or an excuse to not do other things, except to say: I'm practicing for myself. I'm practicing for the play; but the practice is the play: play, as Rowlands puts it, “in its purest form.”
My partner asks me what I think about when I swim. His chosen form of exercise is soccer, on the basis that it's exercise that doesn't demand that you think of it as exercise. It's a game, first and foremost: play! He can't imagine how an hour spent staring at the bottom of a pool is intellectually stimulating. And to be honest, neither can I: but it is. Some days I wake up and can't understand at all why I'm not more bored—why I'm not so bored I'm eating my own hair. I moved abroad to be abroad, to see the world, to be part of the world. I thought such relative proximity to the whole of Europe, for instance, would inspire me to spend all my weekends away, seeing new sights, having transformative experiences that I could corral into neat little travel-cliché pieces that some fastidious editor somewhere would be grateful for.
But I live in the suburbs of a small city, and I spend my weekends at home, worrying idly about the ground elder that's taken over our garden, and since I left my job a few years ago to be a full-time writer, the borders of my world have shrunk significantly. What I encounter on the ten-minute walk to and from the pool is often the only bit of the city, the only bit of the world, that I see all week. I notice the sky over Iffley Road and the trees as they dress and undress themselves each season; I notice the hair tie at the bottom of the pool; I notice the mold growing on the grouting of the showers, which is not, I think, unlike the mold growing on the grouting of my own shower. I notice the slime-green Porsche that's always parked outside the rugby pitch, the water stains on the carpet in the foyer of the gym, the letters on street signs that someone has rubbed away.
And while my proclivity towards water is rooted in place, or a sort of familial tic—genetic, geographical—it's also, increasingly, about time. Not just the time it takes me to get from A to B, to swim 50 meters, or 400, or to complete a workout, though there's that, but time in its more abstract, anxiety-inducing sense: time the “ever rolling stream,” the arrow of time, time that facilitates decay. Every year I get older, but I'm not yet old enough for this fact to have ceased to amaze me: on birthdays I always wake up and think, stupidly, holy shit, I'll never be that age again!
So the pool becomes a reminder of my own fallibility, my own human-ness, and simultaneously an escape from it. “Swimming is about living in the present and against the tide of age,” writes Kate Kellaway in her review of Al Alvarez's Pondlife: A Swimmer's Journal. Eighty-something-year-old Alvarez—poet, novelist, critic—is, she writes, “an arthritic old man determined to free himself of age in the city's waters.” But I don't think only the elderly do this. I swim ostensibly for the future: for a stronger heart or the ability to fit into a snug pair of jeans—but also, perhaps primarily, for the present: for the hope, I think, that I can be briefly free, briefly and powerfully in place—never mind the future, the weight gained and lost, the pulse quickening and slowing. I do it to improve myself, but primarily to be myself. To be myself in my present. At 26 or at 86.
I'm in it for the long haul. That's what I think, whenever I get into a pool, and whenever I get out, whether it's been a good swim or a difficult swim. To be honest, the split is pretty even: I've been writing about swimming as if it were effortless, pure pleasure, and it is sometimes, but the truth is that it's also sometimes a slog; I'm tired, slow, frustrated, hungry, pressed for precious time, and I force myself to do it anyway, or I don't—I have a beer instead, or a nap. But I'm happy to acknowledge that my attitude towards swimming is sometimes undisciplined, that I am sometimes petulantly irked by my own physical limitations or laziness, because I've committed myself to a long-term relationship, a relationship serious enough to weather occasional sulks. And it comforts me that although I'll never be as lithe and deft as the 20-year-old undergraduate in the next lane over (who herself will never be as lithe and deft as the Olympian), I'll someday, if I'm lucky, have the advantage of perseverance, and of an uncomplicated love. There was never any glory to be had here, so it's an activity untainted by failure or expectation or competition.
Well, that's not entirely true: I haven't shaken expectation, or vain hope. Not quite. But I'm working on it. Part of my growth as a person, part of my inelegant transition into what I believe is adulthood, has to do with a very gradual acceptance of the simple fact that I'll never be the best, and that, moreover, more importantly, it doesn't matter that I'll never be the best. I haven't won prizes, topped bestseller lists, become a household name: but I have enjoyed an afternoon spent at my desk, glancing out the window at the spring blossoms on the plum tree, and there is a book on my desk authored by me, and that's enough, or sometimes enough, or almost enough. A man offers me some unsolicited advice about my clumsy backstroke, and I try not to let it get me down: I sink into a funk for a few laps, but I try not to let it matter. So what—my backstroke isn't great, it's true, and it'll never be great. But so what. I'm not going to give it up.
I've been fickle: I learn fast, to an extent that there often seems to be a great amount of promise. Historically I've been disappointed by the subsequent realization that promise is not the same as greatness, that learning fast is not the same as working hard, and that, also, there are always psychological and physiological limitations beyond my control, or at least beyond my desire to control.
And that's what is beautiful and terrifying about any athletic endeavor, in the end: this way it forces you to confront your own physicality. You can't run even just around the block and fail to feel something: you feel yourself, your own body, your own heart beating. For me, participation in sport has been about a continual realization and acceptance of my body-self: I can never break free of being 5'4” short, slim but heavy-chested, narrow-hipped, reluctant to push myself any harder than necessary.
But I know, or am starting to know, my place.
This essay originally appeared in Vela.