Diving (about swimming and writing)
Surface connects the acts of writing and swimming. When I swim, the tranquil surface of the water shatters, I send ripple upon ripple outwards; when I write, the paper - blank, pure, still - fragments into particles of meaning.
Immersion connects the acts of writing and swimming - I, the swimmer, the writer, am below the surface of the water, the surface of the page. It is here, immersed, absorbed, that I labour - legs, arms, mind, imagination - it is here that I become not-I, here that I disappear.
Fear connects the acts of writing and swimming. I fear the depths, fear drowning; or fear that perhaps there is only surface, no possibility of immersion and nothing beyond.
I fear the others who have plunged in before me - will they pull me
down - have my pockets been filled with stones? I fear the depths, the
unknown. Will I emerge? Will I emerge gasping and spluttering, bleary-eyed;
or will I learn to hold my breath, to close my eyes? Will I one day emerge
smoothly, triumphantly, buoyant, unblinking, into the sun?
I do laps at the olympic pool, swim in the centre lane, the one for medium swimmers. The fast swimmers - mostly men in their lunch hour - have the outside lane. They belt up the pool, tumble-turn and hurtle the length back, arm over arm over arm, churning the water, overtaking one another without pausing. In the lane to my right, the slow lane, elderly women in rubber caps, pregnant women with pony-tails, breaststroke slowly, glide - as graceful and gracious as swans on a river.
Sometimes it seems that she is afraid of everything, this child. There are the expected childhood fears - the dark, deep water, barking dogs, thunderstorms, spiders, the screeching suck of the emptying bath. But there are other fears, unpredictable and incomprehensible and more often than not slap-inducing: bearded men, clowns, the sticking-out teeth of her kindergarten teacher, moths, billowing curtains. Scared of her own shadow, sighs her mother as Amanda wails and trembles, begs to be held, clambers onto her bony lap, claws, clings. Some nights she wakes screaming, demented, inconsolable. What is it? What? For Christ's sake, what is it? and her father shakes her screamless, breathless, then sits on the side of the bed shushing her, stroking her hair as she sobsobs her way into another, gentler dream.
Once when she is about five and staying with her grandparents - a quiet, gentle, country couple - Amanda comes running out of the toilet mid-pee, her pants around her ankles, her face ashen, eyes bulging. Is there a spider? Oh Lord, not a snake? Harold! and her pop rushes off armed with a bread knife and then shuffles back, bewildered. Nothing there. How to explain to the concerned and kindly pair the sudden strangeness of that so-familiarly tiled room, or the enormity of the silence that seemed to empty into her. How to explain to them her sudden certainty that when she opened the door there would be strangers in the kitchen, drinking tea from odd shaped cups, speaking a foreign language. And that they wouldn't see her and wouldn't hear her when she stood beside them screaming for her nanny.
She is slow to learn to swim, Amanda. Nearly eight and her younger sisters are dolphining up and down the olympic pool at the public baths while she's still splashing in the toddler pool wearing floaties. Her mother, charmed with her two water-babies, is exasperated by this child who is afraid of getting water up her nose, in her eyes, her ears; who is terrified of drowning, though she can't really know what it means, but imagines a dark, silent place, depthless and empty. She learns eventually - kicking, breathing, paddling, overarm - and gets her twenty-five metre certificate. A good neat stroke, the instructor tells her mother, but not a patch on yer littlies. Naturals. Her father teaches the two little girls to dive, but Amanda's afraid that her goggles will fill with water, that her neck will snap; so he shows her how to safety jump instead. While her sisters hurl themselves into the deep end, somersault and backflip off one another's shoulders, swim underwater till their lungs must be ready to burst, Amanda steps carefully in at the middle, one hand delicately outstretched, the other pinching her nostrils, trying hard to outwit the water.
After twenty laps, one kilometre, I stop for a breather. It's taken me twenty-five minutes - a little slower than yesterday - but still not bad. There's a school group in a roped off area of the pool. Three lanes. They queue up behind the blocks and dive, one at a time. One. Two. Three. One girl, plump and awkward, obviously nervous, slips and flops heavily, belly first, into the water. There are sniggers, claps. The teacher sighs and motions with her head. Out. Do it again. The next girl - tall, brown, confident - stands waiting. One. She bends down, feet together, head neatly tucked, long fingers just tipping the edge of the block. Two. She straightens a little, arms out, tense, poised. Three. She dives - her body arcing fluidly - and enters the water with hardly a sound, barely a ripple. The teacher smiles, someone whistles. Good girl. Well done. Keep going.
The lunch hour swimmers finish, and the fast lane empties. There are two others in my lane now, and we are all moderately paced, orderly, polite. You go first. Sure? Thanks. I push off from the side, flippers on, wielding a kickboard like some kind of shield. The schoolkids are practising a life-saving drill. They safety-jump into the water fully clothed, swim to a drowning person and pull them back to the side, heave them out, resuscitate. One, two, three, breath. There's a lot of splashing and spluttering laughter. My goggle lenses are blue and have fogged up so that that everything - grass, trees, sky - takes on a weird, wavering, underwater look.
How to maintain such confidence? I am neither bold nor impudent. Perhaps I am too polite for confidence. What have I learnt? What am I saying? Have I been authorised? Who am I?
The first Christmas holidays after they move to Collaroy her mother enrolls Amanda in a learn-to-surf-with-a-pro class. Every morning for a week she walks slowly to the beach. It is a long, grey, dreary week, not even the peeling-nosed instructor's cheery patter can lighten it. Bit more wax, eh, girls. Don't wanna be slidin' about out there. It's a dreary beach, too, no real surf and always mounds of weed pile rotting and stinking, alive with flies. Amanda talks to no one, makes no friends, does as she's told. She runs into the water with the too-big board bumping against her bony hips, paddles out past the breakers, catches the first wave in, ignoring the champ's Up, Mandy, up. Now. Now! her breast cleaved to the board. On the last day, coming in light and fast on a big smoothmoving wave, she forgets about sharks and blue bottles and kneels, squats as she's seen the other kids doing, then tentatively, arms outstretched, grasping, grappling and she's up bent-kneed and balancing, hair flying, heart pounding, on a wave, on a curl and smiling as the champ good on yer girly's from the beach. She's up there light and fast for maybe five seconds before she thinks about dumpers and drowning and then she's prone again, nose to the wax, eyes closed hard and clinging, clinging.
So I swim, I write - but what's the good of it, anyway? Is it useful? Would I be better off tending the ill, concentrating on hot dinners for happy children?
What am I writing for?
What is it worth?
A woman in a zipped-up speedo, neatly capped and securely goggled,
makes her way to the middle lane. I've only got half a dozen lengths to
go and the fast lane's still empty so I slip beneath the bobbing rope
mid-lap. I drum my fingers on the soft foam of the kickboard. I like the
look of them, these fingers - thin, dark - crooked so purposefully at
the top of the board. Slish. Slish. Slish. The flippers make each kick
powerful and I slide as satinswift and comfortable as some aquatic mammal
through the chlorineclear water.
In swimming, in writing, there is a brief moment of transcendence, a moment of freedom, of limitlessness. I dive: My feet leave the ground, I am unburdened, unshackled, I soar. I feel that I could reach... could touch... Yet contained within this moment is my knowledge of the coming immersion/submergence; my acceptance that I am ultimately and inescapably subject to the forces of gravity .
Forty. She peels off her flippers, drags herself up, out. Schoolgirls are drying out, lolling on towels, buying sweets at the kiosk. Amanda pulls off her goggles and heads towards the changerooms, then pauses a moment, looking back up the pool, wondering. She walks quickly, then - walks faster than she can swim - up to the diving end of the pool. A plump girl, lying on the warm cement, looks up briefly from a lollipop as she rushes past. Amanda steps up onto the number one block, the fast-lane block, and looks down. The water is deep here and such a dark blue that the lines of the tiles at the bottom are obscured, indefinite. She puts her goggles on, straightens them over her eyes, then snaps them off again, lets them fall. One. She takes a breath and bends down, feet together, head neatly tucked, fingers just tipping the edge of the block. Two. She straightens a little, arms out, tense, poised. Three. She dives - her body arcing fluidly - and enters the water with hardly a sound, barely a ripple. A tall girl, watching from the side, smiles. Someone whistles. Good girl. Well done. Keep going.
Wendy James has had stories published in various journals and anthologies. She is currently working on her doctorate - a novel set in fin de siecle Melbourne - at Deakin University.
Notes1. All definitions are from the Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1985. Return to article
2. Nancy Mairs, "Carnal Acts" from minding the body, edited by Patricia Foster, p.280. Return to article
3. Helene Cixous, Coming to Writing, p.13. Return to artilce
4. Helene Cixous, quoted in Nancy Mairs, op. cit., p.280. Returnto article
5. Helene Cixous, op. cit., p.3. Returnto article
6. Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, p.73. Return to article
7. Michel Tournier, "to Write Standing up", The Midnight Love Feast, p.114. Return to article
8. Annie Dillard, ibid. Return to article
9. Samuel Beckett. The Lost Ones. pp.17-18. Return to article
Beckett, Samuel. The Lost Ones. London: Calder & Boyars, 1972.
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Vol 5 No 1 April 2001
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady