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COLUMN SIX | Open Water

A soothing routine in stressful times W henever I am feeling less than carefree, I look for some big body of water in which I can swim. This has happened a lot lately. I think I must have inherited a love for open water from my mother.
The author, invisible in the distance, in Lake Michigan. Glorious sunset courtesy of the western wildfires. SUPPLIED

A soothing routine in stressful times

Whenever I am feeling less than carefree, I look for some big body of water in which I can swim. This has happened a lot lately. I think I must have inherited a love for open water from my mother. Some of my earliest memories are of her swimming in an Ontario lake, one of those so tightly spread across the province that it seems as if they were placed there by buckshot fired at close range. In some park or other there was one that she actually swam across, and forever after that I asked her on every trip whether she was going to cross the lake this time or not. She uses only a single stroke: a powerful crawl, her arms arcing long through the air, and, in a habit I have also inherited, turns for breath only on her left. This causes her to drift ever slightly to that side. If she were a jet with a stream behind her, it would be crooked.

My father, meanwhile, barely swims at all. He could out-run or cycle her any day, but on a triathlon’s first leg he would be utterly hopeless. Water sticks in his ears for weeks, even months, after his head has been submerged. Long ago he adopted a method to protect himself—a sort of hop into the water with his arms held aloft and his neck craned, which keeps him from going fully under. When I took swimming lessons, there was a test for jumping in without getting your head wet. I got perfect marks every time, all from watching and mimicking my father’s form.

(Sorry, Dad. Consider this repayment for all those golf columns during my childhood!)

So my mother was my inspiration on this front. Her laps in the pool never had the same effect on me as her swims in open water. Maybe this was because she was still right there in front of me in the pool, safe in the clear water through which the bottom was so easily visible, so very different from when she was but a distant dot in a lake’s lapping murk.

I didn’t realize how much I loved doing this too until I was much older, and working in Ottawa for a summer. On my days off, I would cycle up to the Gatineau hills to Meech Lake, the famed site of one of Canada’s doomed efforts to get Québec on board with the new constitution. (The conference was not on the beach, though having it there may have eased tensions.) My job that summer was giving tours of Parliament, repeating endlessly the same answers to the same questions from different visitors, informing them that the big building with the tall tower was not, in fact, a church. After those days of talking, those hours at the lake were a salve. I would swim out into the middle and lay on my back, my ears filled with the water’s silence, my eyes by the sky’s spans.

I have taken to open water many times since then, most memorably on Mexico’s Pacific coast, where, once you duck under the breakers and make it out to the swells, you can lie back and let the energy of each pulse heave you up and down as if in rhythm with the breathing of some great sub-sea giant.

But never more have I looked for water as now. The St. Joseph River runs through South Bend, Indiana, where I live. When it’s running fast, it seems clean enough to swim in. By summer it’s shallow, slow, and soiled looking. The eastern shore of Lake Michigan is there, though, and the beaches nearby are mercifully out of range of the swarm of Chicagolanders, whose descent has likely prompted the closure of beaches along the lake’s southern tip.

Whenever I can, I go to the lake. I nod and smile at those who have spread themselves out on the beach, and then I try to find a spot past them. In the evenings the sun falls directly over the water, and with the Wisconsin shore far out of sight it looks as if the lake itself is swallowing the sun. I would not put it past the water’s power: wind and sandbars routinely produce roaring rip currents that pull swimmers far from shore. Many do not know that the only way out of these is to float on your back and wait until you have drifted aside from the current’s path. Dozens drown every year.

I remember reading that the writer Joan Didion, who apparently loved—and maybe still loves—to swim in the California ocean, said she was once told to “swim with the tide,” and that trying to struggle against it would only exhaust her. You have to go with the change, she decided.

Not all see water this way. Robert Moses, the New York civil servant who amassed more power over his decades in office than probably anyone else in US history, was notorious for his swimming prowess. When not dominating his subordinates in the boardroom, he would do so at the beach. Even into his ninth decade, they would send far younger men into the waves to keep watch on Moses as he swam out into the Atlantic off Long Island. He would invariably outlast them all. More than once he was gone from sight for so long that his “Moses Men” deliberated about how best to break the news of his drowning to his wife. The sea was, seemingly, just another thing that bent to his will.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps Moses wanted to go so far from shore, and stay there for so long, because it was one place where he could submit to the tides, acquiesce to change that did not—could not—bear his signature.

This has been a season of going with the change, locked as I effectively am on the southern side of the border. Lake Michigan is not the ocean, and I do not intend to go looking for rip currents. But I do intend to return to its waters until it is too cold to consider it. And if I am pulled in a rip current, I will flip over, breathe deeply, look up at the sky, and wait until I have drifted out of it.


Former staff writer Sam Piccolo is now a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, in South Bend, Indiana.