On the pool as container

I’ve been thinking lately of the pool as a site for encounters with - not mortality, exactly, but with something like it: encounters with my understanding of the limits of my own body. A site for developing a relationship with that understanding, either by directly changing the limits of the body or adjusting my expectations. Why is she swimming faster than me? Why can’t I do that? - thoughts that serve as a balance or a temper to the sort of smug feeling of knowing I’m faster than someone else in my lane, or in the lane over, or that I’m faster than I was yesterday, or last year. It’s a continually bolstering and humbling experience, being in the pool: I fluctuate between confidence and despair, and like waves contained in a pool, rolling across the surface, gentle, never breaking, symmetrical, the thoughts flow: I can, I can’t, I can, I can’t; I do, I don’t, I do, I don’t; I am, I’m not, I am, I’m not; I have control, I don’t have control, I have control, I don’t have control; I’m made for this, I’m not made for this, I’m made for this, I’m not made for this; I’m young, I’m old, I’m young, I’m old, I’m fast, I’m slow, I’m fast, I’m slow.

What the pool contains is the possibility for a measurement of worth, which is actually impossible to measure. Perhaps when we swim we are trying to measure ourselves, to quantify ourselves, to decide once and for all if we’re worthy, to see how we square up. The tame environment of the pool, then, is deceptive: true there are no dark fishy shapes swarming below us in the clear, chlorinated water; true there are no waves except those pushed towards us by other solipsistic swimmers; true there are no currents except the ones we create, no poison, no scrums, no unplumbed depths, but we are still doing a form of battle with something relatively elemental: the self, facing its self, saying, well, come on then, why can’t I do that? Could I do that if I tried harder? Am I just not built that way? Should I give up and go home? Should I do the brave thing: stay anyway, even if I’m never going to be able to do that? It’s a pretty pathetic form of bravery, but that doesn’t always make it any easier.

So there’s a wildness in the rigidity and discipline and structure of the pool. A lot of the experience of swimming in the pool has to do with boundaries, which reinforces this idea of the container, of something with edges, of something that has a within and an outside of. There’s a frontier of sorts. I’m not sure it’s always architecturally-based or physically evident - sometimes the experience of the pool begins elsewhere, sometimes the pool is porous, letting in thoughts from elsewhere and elsewhen, less a point on the map than a fuzzy-edged chunk of time - but certainly, somewhere along the way, you cross a line and enter the pool: whether it’s when you drop into the water and submerge your head, or when you cross the threshold of the leisure centre, or when you wake in the morning and think to yourself, sleepily, I’m going to the pool shortly, I mustn’t forget that I left my suit to dry on the edge of the bathtub last night.

Roger Deakin puts it this way: “Swimming is a rite of passage, a crossing of boundaries: the line of the shore, the bank of the river, the edge of the pool, the surface itself. When you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens. Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world.” In this sense the “place” of the pool is both external and internal, physical and experiential, enclosed (physically/architecturally) and open (mentally/experientially); it is both “the pool”, a building, a site, and “the pool”, a state of mind, a haunt, an hour, an abstraction, a physical action. Its beauty, then, may be in the way it balances all this, provides a site where one can find, or chase, a state of being which is neither fully one thing or the other; in water and air, floating but submerged. The body is cradled, though it flirts with discomfort: it’s contained, it can’t stray, it is - as far as the body ever can be, especially when it’s in a dangerous environment - safe, while the mind is free, to an extent, to wander - I think of the narrator of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library, doing his laps: “My mind would count its daily fifty lengths as automatically as a photocopier; and at the same time it would wander”, and then Thomas A P Van Leeuwen, in his history of the private swimming pool, astutely observing how the architecture of the pool corresponds to its use: “While the pool allows, even invites, intellectual wanderings, at the same time it prevents the wanderer from losing his way. [..] The container encloses but also retains, holds together, and keeps from spilling. While stirring the imagination, it also prevents it from rambling; the container both kindles and quenches.”

And within the pool, too, are lines - so we’re not just drawing lines around it, but also within it. Lane lines, for instance. For awhile a year or two ago I was waking up or going to bed with a tender, pale bluish bruise on my left hand, in the fleshy spot between thumb and forefinger. I didn’t know what had caused it; I don’t bruise especially easily but I’m spatially unaware enough to crash into things on a regular basis without it being notable, and I chalked it up to clumsiness. But then one day, while swimming, I suddenly understood: when I swim in lanes that go clockwise, I sometimes smack my left hand on the lane lines, as if I can’t quite gauge distance on my left side in this situation, and indeed I naturally prefer to swim counter-clockwise. And the fleshy spot between thumb and forefinger was where I was hitting the plastic lane lines, and the bruise was a marker of this: a mark of my accidental attempted transgression, my running up against a barrier and being unable to cross. So I am disciplined by the pool; perhaps when I am not disciplined enough on my own it intervenes, as it were, reminds me to pay more careful attention to my form, to the positioning of my body in place, to increase my spatial awareness - to temper my wandering thoughts, not let them wander so far that my body is tempted to follow them out into the ether. Preventing the wanderer from losing his way.