Tag Archives: swimming

The Humble Body

The pool where I work is part of a rehabilitation center, which is part of the local hospital. There are actually two pools. One is a lap pool of about 82 degrees. The other is a large therapy pool, nearly as big as the 4-lane 25-yard lap pool. The therapy pool is about 92 degrees. The pool patrons are a mix of the public, hospital staff and rehab patients.

As a lifeguard, I spend hours in an elevated chair watching people in the water and moving around on the deck. It delights me that I’m paid for doing what I naturally do in the world, which is to people watch. In an environment with a consistent air temperature over 80 degrees with more than 50% humidity, all of us — staff, patrons and patients — are necessarily without our usual armor of clothing, make-up and jewelry. We are physically revealed to one another to an unusual degree in a public place.

I’m struck every day by the humility of flesh, the wonder and complexity of our physical being; the almost painful innocence of small children with their rounded, unselfconscious forms; the incredible and paradoxical endurance, resilience and fragility of the human body, and the inexorable truths our unconcealed bodies reveal.

I’m touched by the everyday, patient, humble courage of people whose bodies are ill, injured and aging. I watch people participate in classes: Water walking, water aerobics, arthritis and fibromyalgia in the therapy pool, and swim lessons. I watch couples and families, caregivers and their charges, school groups and special needs groups. People come to lose weight, to rehabilitate after a stroke or cardiac event, to increase their strength and endurance, to recover from surgery or injury. People also come to socialize, to play, and to be inspired and motivated by staff, classes, music and one another.

Photo by Doug Maloney on Unsplash

Some folks swim laps. Others water walk and go through exercise routines with buoys, kickboards and weights. They come out of the locker rooms with walkers, canes and wheelchairs. Some need help getting in and out of the pool, or even down to the pool from the parking lot.

For the most part, people who make use of the facility are patient, pleasant and good-natured. Watching them, I wonder at their resilience. What must it be like to be so bent one can only see the floor? How does one cope when the only ambulation possible is to creep along with a walker? The joy and laughter of a wheel-chair bound young person with contorted and twisted limbs like sticks when she’s carried into the therapy pool make me weep.

There’s really no place to hide in the world, at least from ourselves. We all live in a body, and many of us struggle with loving them, including me. We spend an amazing amount of time, money, anguish and effort in disguising our perceived physical defects from the eyes of the world. We tell ourselves nobody can see our shame. No one can see how unlovely or imperfect we really are. No one will ever know.

Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash

But we know, and our shame and self-loathing poison our lives.

I wonder, as I sit in the chair, what is it about the people who use the pool that enables them to risk physical authenticity? Do they love and accept themselves as they are? If so, how have they developed that ability? Are they unconcerned with what others think of them? Are they like me, and simply resigned to their physical reality, feeling that the benefits of using the pool are more important than hiding their appearance, but privately ashamed and embarrassed?

In thinking about this, I realize my own relationship with my body is complicated. On the one hand, I feel affection, loyalty and gratitude. I’ve never aspired to beauty, whatever beauty is. On the other hand, I cringe every time I see a picture of myself, which is not often, as I hate having my picture taken and avoid it whenever possible. I think I cringe because I wish I could protect that vulnerable woman from the eyes and criticism of others. I cringe because my deepest and most private shame is that my physical envelope contains some hidden foulness that makes me unworthy of physical affection and contact. I’m not talking about sex. Sexual attraction and desire are a whole different conversation. I’ve been good enough for sex, but not good enough for consistent loving, nurturing touch. Not good enough to hold.

Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

In fact, one of the biggest reasons why I love the water so much is that it touches me.

The shame I feel around this is corrosive and chronic. It’s my intention that it also remain entirely invisible to any onlooker. The pain of this hidden vulnerability of mine enlarges the way I observe others in their bodies. It seems to me we must all have some degree of skin hunger that’s more or less satisfied, depending on our situation. We must all feel some degree of physical isolation and alienation at some point in our lives. Surely every body I see is worthy of care, of love, of touch and nurture, in spite of skin tags, scars, cellulite, bulges and sags, hair distribution or absence, aging, injury and disability, too many or too few pounds.

As I sit on the lifeguard stand, counting heads and scanning the pools, I keep coming back to courage. Courage and humility. The willingness to be seen without the comfort and concealment of clothing. The willingness to be physically authentic and vulnerable. Not a story of courage that will ever be made into a movie, but a kind of daily, humble heroism that touches and inspires me.

Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

As an observer, it’s effortful to discard childish judgements like “ugly” and “beautiful.” It’s hard not to apply an internalized rating system. I’m tainted by Hollywood, by digitally altered images and by my own private romantic fantasies. Somewhere underneath all the limitations imposed by that conditioning and brainwashing, I glimpse a vast compassionate wisdom that encompasses all of us. Life, after all, is beautiful and miraculous. Doing what we can to care for and accept the body we have is an act of courage and strength. Allowing ourselves to be seen and vulnerable takes humility and heroism.

I wonder, somewhat uneasily, if we are no longer able to grasp the beauty inherent in our physical forms. We seem determined to approach the planet’s body, our own and the bodies of others as commodities and resources to plunder, manipulate and then discard when they become boring, worn-out, ill or (at least to our eyes) ugly. Perhaps we’ve lost the ability to appreciate and value everybody in every unique, individual body. Maybe our culture is so injured all we can do now is hate, judge and criticize not only ourselves but others.

Perhaps we’re determined to tear ourselves apart and nothing will stop us.

In the meantime, however, I live in a body, just as you do, and we all have a deeply private and largely invisible relationship with our structure of flesh, blood and bone. My choice is to remain present with the wonder and complexity of the human body, yours, mine and theirs. My choice is to enlarge my compassion and observation until I touch that edge of wisdom that acknowledges beauty and worth in all of physical life, be it human, tree or creature.

Reverence instead of destruction. My daily crime.

Photo by Khoa Pham on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Driving in the Dark

The last time my job necessitated driving in the dark, I was a young married woman. I worked afternoons and evenings in a hospital in a large city and drove home on well-lit highways and city streets after the chaos of evening rush hour. I never left the hospital after dark without Security, who saw me safely to my car.

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As a child I was terrified of the dark. I was a fearful child in general and the dark was the culmination of every nameless horror, imagined and real. Somewhere in the years of early motherhood when I became a single parent my fear of the dark vanished and it became my friend — a place of peace, rest and privacy. It shielded me from critical eyes and harsh words.

If no one could see me or find me, they wouldn’t discover what a failure I was.

After some years of friendship the dark became my lover, and I adorned it with candlelight, welcomed starlight onto my pillow and delighted in night walks. I feel strangely at one with the pale, musky blur of the skunk; the large clumsy rustling and noisy chewing of the bear eating windfall apples and the kingly owls conversing solemnly overhead. The warmly-lit world inside where people talk, laugh, and live their lives is another universe and I a wild, aloof creature, silent and unseen under the grandeur of the night sky.

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

Miracles happen in the dark.

Now I’m driving in the dark again, slipping through the folds and creases of the hills, passing over the river and gliding under the half-naked trees. The small city’s lights glow dimly, behind me if I’m going home after closing the pool, ahead of me if I’m coming in early to open it. The pavement undulates and curves, unfolding under my headlights. Lit windows give me intimate glimpses of people moving around in kitchens and living rooms, sipping from a cup, glancing at a TV screen. Other drivers are out, too, strung loosely along the road. Oncoming headlights force my gaze to the shoulder, scanning for hapless porcupines, impulsive deer or careless pedestrians.

Last night, an almost perfect Hunter’s Moon rose over a stubbled field where corn grew a few weeks ago, lighting a black and white vista of fields and scattered trees. It hung low, gleaming through bare branches, silvering my right shoulder as it saw me home. As I backed into the driveway to park under the friendly light at the apex of the barn roof, moonlight flooded in my windshield as though embracing me before I opened the cellar door and stepped inside the house, no longer half fey and wild but my usual civilized and responsible self.

Photo by Linda Xu on Unsplash

This morning, snow and leaves whirled in my headlights and my tires hissed on the wet road. The trees hunched, dark indistinct shapes, and the river was invisible as I crossed the bridge. I opened the car window for the pleasure of the wet snowflakes on my face, the damp autumn smell and the cold lash of dark air on my cheeks. I might have been the only living human being in the world. For a moment I wished it was so. I might have been going anywhere or nowhere through the darkness, the snow and the leaves. It seemed perfectly possible to stop the car and abandon it, to fling myself into the arms of the landscape and disappear into wood, stone, hair and bone.

Yet ahead lay the swimming pool, waiting in the humid darkness of its building for lights to discover it, for people to measure and balance its chemicals, for computer screens to come to life, for the daily schedule to be printed and the showers to be run to prime the hot water. In the town ahead were therapy patients, members of the early water aerobics class and crack-of-dawn lap swimmers. I was driving through the dark for them.

So I shook off the wistful feeling that there are other ways to live, deeper, older and more magical, shut the window and drove on, through the waking town under the dim dawn sky, heavy with downy snow, and stepped into the humid warmth and sound of the swimming pool, blue and white and brightly lit. The darkness and I parted for a time, but it has a piece of me I can give to no one and nothing else. The dark is a lover unlike any other.

I will always return to it.

Driving in the dark again. My daily crime.

Photo by Miranda Wipperfurth on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

 

Droopy Drawers

Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash

I hate to shop. I hate the seductive manipulation inherent in the activity. I’m frustrated by the variation in sizes and disgusted by the ridiculous fashions and prices and the terrible quality. My idea of a great shopping experience is to go to Goodwill and find men’s button-down cotton shirts or buy multiples of Carhartt jeans and shorts on sale. Whenever possible, I shop online, concentrating on sales, outlets and brands that emphasize durability, comfort and easy care rather than shoddy glamour.

One of the drawbacks to shopping online is getting the size right in unfamiliar brands. Regular swimmers know that swimming suits don’t last. Sun and pool water take a toll quickly. Suits become thin and transparent and loss their elasticity. The fabric breaks down.

Swimming suits are expensive, and they have to fit well or they’re miserable to wear and impossible to swim seriously in. Teeny-weeny bikinis might look great on the right body poolside, but every woman knows actually swimming in them is another matter, and forget about diving. Men’s comfy jeans cover a multitude of body imperfections, but women’s swimsuits are a different story.

Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash

All my life I’ve needed a long torso suit, which means fewer choices and more money. When tankinis came out I was delighted because they allow me to wear a regular size, but they’re just as expensive, if not more so, than a standard tank suit. I buy from a big online retailer that specializes in all things swimming, and they had a huge Labor Day sale. I was ready. My old suit was beginning to bag, sag and break down.

I shopped for a week, watching prices come down and considering my needs. I finally took the plunge (so to speak) and bought what I wanted. The tankini tops were easy. I’ve worn a 10 in every brand since I was a teenager. No problem. I chose tops that would coordinate with black and got black board shorts for kayaking and black bottoms for swimming. The swim bottoms, however, were an unfamiliar brand. Great price, but unfamiliar brand.

There was a size chart, which I looked at — impatiently. I wanted to make the order and be done with the whole miserable thing. I was pleased to be saving so much money, but I was sick of thinking about swimming suits. I have a sewing tape measure somewhere, but I don’t know exactly where. I had a little construction tape measure in my desk drawer, so I dropped drawers and measured my waist and hips with that. No mirror. Wrong kind of tape measure. Impatient and irritated. According to the size chart, I needed an XL in the swim bottoms. That seemed ridiculous. My ass isn’t that big!

Is it?

Well, I thought, maybe it is. Or maybe the brand I was buying ran really small. My favorite cotton bikini underwear is made in such a way that size 10 is large, not medium. I needed a new suit. I was sick of shopping. I didn’t want the hassle of returning a wrong size, and I didn’t want to refuse to acknowledge the dimensions of my body out of shame or pride.

So I placed the order and a few days later it arrived. When I unpacked the swim bottoms, they looked huge. I tried them on, over underwear. You couldn’t call them tight, but I thought I could make them work. Everything else was great. I threw away the packing and receipt, discarded my old suit and put my new suit in my swim bag.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Getting into a new swimsuit is like trying to stuff yourself into a spandex straight jacket. Getting out of a new suit that’s wet is even worse. I always wind up giggling and feeling as though I’m wrestling with an anaconda. I suited up, showered and got in the pool, feeling spiffy in my new cobalt blue and black swim gear. I put my goggles on and pushed off the wall. My waistband floated up off my waist, the swim bottoms filled up with water and began to slide gently and elegantly off my ass and down my legs. Whoops!

I stood up, took my goggles off, and yanked the bottoms back up. The pool was not busy. Nobody was paying any attention. I was torn between hilarity and frustration. I really wanted to work out, and I hadn’t brought a spare suit. Dammit, I was going to make these work! Maybe if I didn’t push off the wall with my usual vigor it would help. I put my goggles back on, made sure no one was looking, and pushed off the bottom, gently.

The waistband floated off my waist, the swim bottoms filled with water and started to slide off my ass. I kept going, just to see what would happen. I was swimming freestyle, and the bottoms couldn’t quite slide all the way down my legs. Maybe, I thought, I’m not as exposed as it feels like I am. Maybe from above no one can tell how loose they are. Except that I could feel a big bubble of air trapped between me and the fabric. Bubble butt.

Shit!

I tried tucking the hem of the tankini into the bottoms. No dice. The tankini fit just fine, but it’s not long enough to do more than meet the waistband of the bottoms, especially on me.

I was irresistibly reminded of my youngest son, lifted out of his crib in the morning and toddling down the hallway with his usual sunny-natured glee and his sodden diaper hanging to his knees.

Except his diaper had been white and mine was black.

Shit! Shit! Shit!

I longed to tear the stupid bottoms off and throw them on the deck. I’d rather swim naked any day of the week anyway. Seeing as how I was trying to get hired at this particular pool, I thought that might not create a favorable impression.

I climbed out of the pool via the stairs, holding onto the waistband of my bottoms as unobtrusively as possible, and asked a staff member for a safety pin. Surely they had a safety pin, or even a diaper pin somewhere. Things like safety pins, paperclips and rubber bands are in every desk drawer in the world, aren’t they?

Snorting with laughter, because every woman knows the drill of a sudden broken elastic in a waistband or a bra strap, a broken heel or strap on a shoe, a hem that lets go or a stocking that runs at the worst possible time, the lifeguard searched the desk. No pins.

Another lifeguard suggested a rubber band. Good idea!

No rubber bands.

The second lifeguard reached in her pocket and handed me a covered hair elastic. It was even black!

I pulled in the fabric at the waistband, pinched it together as hard as I could and fastened it with the hair elastic. Now the bottoms were much tighter and I had a thick pigtail of fabric poking out at the waistband. It would be invisible in the water.

I returned to the pool, went through the goggle thing and pushed cautiously off the wall.

Hooray! It worked. There was still a little too much slack in the waistband, but they stayed on and didn’t bubble up.

Photo by Chris Kristiansen on Unsplash

In the end, I had a great workout. I returned the hair elastic with thanks when I was finished and then stood in the shower and took several minutes to extricate myself from the tankini top, banging my elbows, writhing, wriggling and squirming. By the time I was free of it, my swim bottoms were around my ankles. No effort required.

Fortunately I have a friend who has a sewing machine. I can sew on a button, mend a simple tear and patch (sort of), but you couldn’t call me a skilled seamstress. I swim again today, and there’s a great big pin in the waistband of my bottoms and a rubber band in my bag, just in case. I also went back to the sale and ordered another pair of bottoms in a smaller size. They were even cheaper.

Here’s what I learned:

  • I hate to shop.
  • When taking your own measurements, do it with a cloth tape in front of a mirror. Better yet, have someone else do it for the sake of a reality check.
  • Don’t throw away packing and receipts until you’ve worn the stupid thing!
  • Always carry a couple of safety pins and rubber bands in your swim bag. Consider also Liquid Nails, Super Glue, waterproof duct tape and a staple gun.
  • Always carry a spare suit.
  • One of the most important keys to life is a sense of humor.

Have I mentioned that I loathe shopping?

My daily crime.

By the way, I got the job!

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted