Over the last few months, a few research participants have asked me variations of the same question, which is something like: What’s your research for? What do you hope it will change or inform?
It’s a good question, and one that, until recently, I hadn’t really given much thought to. On the one hand, I’m wary of overplaying the potential implications of my research, and it would be disingenuous for me to claim that I’m aiming to directly influence policy, or that I have some grand notion that my project is going to change the world. On the other hand, I do believe there’s value to what I’m doing beyond just the satisfaction of personal curiosity.
To some extent the project is about highlighting the potential good that swimming can do (physically, emotionally, societally), and recognizing the importance of the pool as a site for this activity - particularly through an exploration of the extent to which specific material aspects of the pool environment may help or hinder regular participation. So I hope that the research may shed some light on how people are using and interacting with indoor pools, what about the pool environment is important to them and encourages or enables a regular practice and what about the environment is discomfiting or discouraging.
I’m also interested in the way people experience places via their bodies, and vice versa - the way they experience their bodies via certain places. So I think there’s also an opportunity here for the research to illuminate ways in which habitual lap swimming changes or brings to the fore people’s awareness of and attitude towards their own bodies. I’m thinking, for instance, of the participant who told me that she likes what swimming has done to her body both in terms of what it can do and also what it looks like; it took exercise, she said, for her to learn to love her body. So the value here may lie partly in using an exploration of people’s relationship to their swimming bodies as a way of exploring what facilitates comfort in/with one’s body more generally. The body, after all, is the home we cannot leave, and the pool provides a uniquely intimate and anonymous environment in which to exercise and experience this home.
Fundamentally, though, I’m just fascinated by swimming pools as places, particularly given how banal they often seem, how ugly and purely functional and even unwelcoming the architecture and environment can be. So the project is, at its heart, about not only valuing the place of the pool - which may be easily overlooked - but also about valuing other everyday places more generally: it’s great to write about grander landscapes, but I think it’s also important to pay attention to the kinds of smaller-scale places that people encounter repeatedly in their daily lives.
There’s another, more personal, facet to this last point. A few months ago, I sat down to make some notes for myself about why I felt it was important to write about all this - the swimming pool, the swimming body. And the thing I kept coming back to was the significance of the pool in my own daily life, the way it’s become a central location in the geography of my everyday world.
I first started to notice this during a particularly difficult year. It didn’t seem overly difficult at the time: I was newly self-employed, and enjoying my giddy freedom, although at the edge of my mind, always, was a slight sense of panic: Where will my next paycheck come from? What’s going to happen? Meanwhile my partner was involved in starting a brand new business - always a stressful process, made more so in this case by a lack of funding. He was stretched thin and we were stretched thin. I fantasized about leaving - not him, but this situation, our life as it was. We could go elsewhere, do other things. It sounded simple - we had no ties, no mortgage, no children, no notice periods - but these things are never simple, and the truth was we were tied, in a way, to where we were, and the only way to get out of the slump was to stay and fight.
I was also working on my first book, a lonely process that no one could particularly help me through, because after all, at the end of the day, you have to do it yourself. Eventually I found regular work as a shop assistant. The job was poorly paid but really a saving grace; the money augmented my meagre freelance income enough to cover the rent, I loved the people I worked for and the five minute walk to to the shop and the simplicity of the act of being there. I folded tea towels and packaged shipments and made small talk with the people who, like tumbleweeds, occasionally blew in during the day. I knew I was restless, and winter was taking us in its wicked grip, rain beating against the windows and darkness falling early, but with the shop to mind I didn’t mind as much as I otherwise would have
It was during this time that the pool became a refuge, an escape. It took on greater importance than it ever had before, though I’d been swimming regularly for awhile now. I’d dabbled in taking it seriously before, but I had never needed it like I did now; before, it had just been something I did to stay fit, whereas now it felt like something I did to stay human. And now, too, I had the time. In fact I had the time and there was almost nothing else I could do with it: my pool membership was paid through the end of the year, but I had so little in my bank account that other amusements - eating out, going to the pub, the cinema, the theatre, another city - were mostly out of the question. The pool was the only place I regularly went, walking on dark, chilly evenings with music blaring in my ears. And it was really a place I went to be someone else - or rather, to be myself stripped down, without any markers of anxiety or uncertainty, to be myself the swimmer, who was competent and dedicated and who put in the hours, knew the place well. I was also improving - there were tangible measures of this, and tangible things I could do to facilitate the improvement, whereas with other things in my life - with freelance writing for example, writing generally - I mean, where do you even start?
I liked the innocent encounters with other bodies and other people, too; there were, after working in offices for years, not enough other people in my daily life, even in the shop, which often had no customers all day. I admired the sleekness of the more accomplished athletes, the tight bodies of the men and women who swam well. It seemed to me that this place was healthy, even if my dependence on it was not entirely, and that it was important to have somewhere like that to go.
And things are much different now, but I have never quite recovered from that particular sense of enchantment, which is why it matters so much still. Not just for the physical benefits, but because it’s a place I can go - like there are places in our imaginations - for that sense of deep-down comfort, that necessary re-grounding; like being a ship righted, a scale balanced.