I ended up at the YMCA as a last resort. Years of chronic neck and back spasms had stolen all the variety and fun I used to find in working out, especially that amped-up endorphin high. By my early 50s, I had spent thousands of dollars trying to mitigate this pain with alternative treatments, after burning through one routine after another: running, kickboxing, spinning, kung fu, weight training, aerobics, Zumba, walking, children’s karate, even alternative therapy such as the Feldenkrais Method. And yet knots clung to my spine like barnacles and flared up after such innocuous activities as doing the dishes or just sitting funny.
Once strong enough to propel me through the air in handsprings, sprint down a track and dodge oncoming players in rugby, my muscles had begun to atrophy by age 30. A physiotherapist told me then that it is not uncommon for dancers or gymnasts to remain hyperflexible as they age, but the brain thinks something is amiss when there’s too much rubbery movement, so it orders everything into lockdown. It’s the brain’s way of keeping you safe, even though you feel horribly unsafe because you’re in a spasm. I haven’t been able to do a sit-up for decades, since the year my mother died, one year before I was pregnant. That was 20 years ago.
The maladies of age begin long before white hair and a declining physique greet you across the dividing line of 50. When you reach menopause, you meet your new body. Mine was less peppy than before and more unpredictable. It had absorbed the shock of getting divorced and made me a cliche of a woman in her 40s. At 50, migraines pursued me daily. Medication to stave them off shaved 9kg (20lbs) from my thin frame. I seized up at the tiniest events. Neuromas – benign growths of nerve tissue – in my feet stung like electric shocks when they got inflamed and made weight-bearing exercise impossible. I traded down kickboxing and spin for the elliptical and the recumbent exercise bike, but I was barely moving on those machines – never broke a sweat, never got stronger, only got more depressed. I gave up the gym, the outdoors. I decided to try swimming.
Swimming was low-impact cardio that would pump my heart as it downshifted into middle age. It would supposedly make me fit, alert, even-keeled, strong-minded and noble. And on the way to the YMCA’s big, new, shiny pool, I’d see sunshine. My mood would improve.
On my first day of this new me, I bought an elastic pink cap emblazoned with the YMCA logo from the lady at the desk and trudged down the rubber-coated stairs in my favourite peacock-print bathing suit, quietly appalled at the thought of the bacteria smearing themselves on to my feet. I pushed open the door to the swimming pool with a towel. Two lithe, sculpted lifeguards tallied the activity from tall white chairs that flanked the pool. People were here to learn, to improve, to disappear into the anonymising water as they escaped the chaos of their homes and the unpredictable city streets. Things happened in quiet, slight resistance: water has a buoying immediacy and responds to every minor adjustment you make as you flip-flap down the lane. As time and laps accumulate, you hope it will pay off.
Being stuck with swimming instead of land exercise was my worst-case scenario. I grew up taking lessons year-round at Mumbai’s exclusive Breach Candy swimming club, next to the Arabian Sea – a privileged place where you were expected to succeed – and still more lessons at the community pool in New Jersey, but never got the hang of freestyle. I could hold my breath for a long time underwater, but I couldn’t time my breathing properly while thrashing; I always ended up guzzling water and standing up instead of treading water. Swimmers, I decided, were elite people. I was just an ordinary girl who had nightmares about drowning.
And here I was, a momentous feeling. I gazed at the pool and told myself to get in fast or I’d never do it. I hung up my towel, crouched over the lane and threw myself in.
On my first lap, swimming breaststroke in the slow lane, an older woman touched my foot as she passed. When she tapped and paddled around me a second time, I stood up in the water and yelled: “What are you doing? Stop touching my foot!” No peace in the pool: I shared the slow lane with animosity. I was there for fitness and the good life. I did not want this woman to interfere with my effort to follow the rules, which already seemed restrictive because they required me to swim to the deep end and back without pause and without veering into or kicking others in the same lane. I didn’t know how to adjust my speed to accommodate faster swimmers. I didn’t know that standing politely outside the pool would seldom get a swimmer to stop and agree whether we should circle together or split the lane.
Most serious swimmers would do flip turns endlessly, never really surfacing, to buy themselves more solo time. I learned to get into the water, position myself in the centre of the lane and block someone’s path if I wanted to get their attention. That was the way to secure my right to swim. How was I supposed to understand the psychology of the lap lane? I thought it was about swimming. But what is swimming about? It was as if all the aggressions and disappointments that happen outside the pool followed you into it. At first, all I wanted to do was propel myself through the water without anxiety. Slowly, I wanted to feel as if I could handle myself. Eventually, I wanted to be excited to be there.
I observed other swimmers intensely, memorising their moves, admiring their technique, and I probably seemed a little creepy. Instead of dreading the hard slap of cold water, I let it flow over me and refused to tense my shoulders. I told myself that, like ice, the water would help prevent migraines. When I pushed off the edge, I said to myself, “blue”, like a mantra key to the sublime. My mind emptied when I was submerged. Time was blue. My old friend who died was blue and every day she met me there underwater. Thinking got left behind as I entered the thrill of that quiet blue world.
The swimming pool at the YMCA reminded me of the impossibly clear and utterly freezing Lake Wolfgang, in the Austrian Lake District, where a straw-haired woman in her 60s who was swimming in lazy circles tried to entice me in. “The water is so clean you can drink it!” she said, and then she drank it, laughing. Above the steeples and terraced timber houses around the lake rose the low green peaks of the Salzkammergut range. The storybook setting made me wonder if the odds of living a peaceful life are greater where a lake is the centerpiece of a community. The personality of the village shifted according to the rhythms of precipitation and temperature rather than to the beat of the interior life. If I went back to such a place, I would not be circumscribed by anything but my own ability to accept Earth wheeling toward and away from the sun, getting older while the shimmer of the lake vivified my being.
Continually in play were the colours of emerald and lapis and opal on the water’s surface and purple shadows climbing down the hills at dusk. The air was cool enough for a jacket and gloves and I shivered at the thought of jumping in. The woman swam backward, paddling happily while talking to me and my then toddler on the pier. She was on the far side of life and fully alert to pleasure. She had settled into a routine in which the temperature did not disrupt her swim. She was outdoors under alpine light and maybe the plunge made her gasp, but it strengthened her lungs each time she sank in. “Come in,” she said. “You will never see anything like this again.” That true statement still rings in my ears.
It would have been so easy to run back to my hotel, slip on my bathing suit and wade in. I will always regret that I had not been more daring. What I remember most was how she moved through the water without design, sweeping forward in a breaststroke that slowed into a lackadaisical sidestroke, paddling backward as she laughed, swimming in one direction, then drifting in another.
I have thought about that woman for 15 years. I know that lap swimming in an indoor pool should make me hardier, and is something to be proud of as it builds confidence and strength, but it will never invite me to choreograph the gestures of being out in the wild under big skies.
The closest I came to swimming with any kind of freedom happened in those first weeks at the YMCA, when I defaulted to the sidestroke. I turned on my back and paddled with a mellow attitude. It wasn’t a bad option because it afforded me a view through the skylights that ran the entire length of the soaring room. As I shimmied down the lane leaves, robins, clouds, sky, smoke and a red church entered and exited the panels, one after another and made it feel a little like being outdoors.
To be honest, though, the sidestroke is a plodding repetition. This minimum-wage task of swimming brought memories of my mother flopping along, without the determination of freestyle people, in the lanes at the community pool in New Jersey. Sidestroke is the bane of middle age, the worry you’ll become so limited that you cannot adjust to the multiple simultaneous demands not only of staying afloat but also of advancing with skills you earn and which give you a more complex experience. You will never get to the end of the pool, you will never get to the end of the person you are becoming in and outside the pool, you will never become as wise as you once were strong. The more laps you accumulate over the years, as muscle shrinks and skin loosens and breaths get shorter, the more you will have to rely on the ability to make adjustments.
You cannot straighten out your life by swimming between two lines, but you can discover a few things. You can control your stroke better if you slow down and the patience and endurance you acquire inside the pool follow you outside. Eventually, you improve.
The YMCA has always been a symbol of resilience and renewal. It began as a faith-led organisation and expanded over time to accommodate young men’s varied needs and keep them off the street. The Prospect Park Y, in Brooklyn, New York, opened in 1927 in a six-story building with a neo-Georgian design. It sported a grand lobby, blue leather furniture and wood panelling. There were open fireplaces, a billiards room adjacent to the gym, a soda fountain, a tailor, phone booths, dining rooms, a “boys’ division” designed to resemble an Adirondacks cabin, a swimming pool and residences for 260 men.
The new lap pool at the Prospect Park Y opened in 2014. The original 1927 swimming pool must have looked good once, but when my son took lessons, it was a small, dank pool in a claustrophobic room with low ceilings. I sat with other mums on plastic seats behind a painted brick divider and clapped while his lips turned blue. It must feel magnificent, even heroic, to be young, to hold on to the edge while kicking and splashing and hearing the giant ruckus you create with other children. You catch your mother’s eye. She claps at all you can do and screams “Great job!” All her cheers are for you.
It is easy to think, when you are young, that you will become some kind of hero. You will excel at whatever it is you love and maybe you will make lots of money or win great prizes. After plenty of love affairs, you will marry a good-looking partner and grow old together in your good life. But what exactly is a good life? When you fail, do you know what you have failed at? Swimming? Love? “Experience is never limited and it is never complete,” said Henry James. Try to swim or try to love and you have succeeded already.
When I was fit, I would look in the mirror and think I was young – long after I actually was. I looked and felt the same, but of course wasn’t. Time crawled and then suddenly sped up. The illusion of feeling young was over.
I chose to swim because it was a way to escape or reimagine my circumstances. I’ve always dreaded a fate akin to the fictional character Millicent Kramer, the elderly woman in Philip Roth’s Everyman who suffers from searing back pain. “Don’t accord it power. Don’t cooperate with it,” she says of her condition, which she tried to mitigate with three back surgeries. “I repeat this to myself a million times a day … and then suddenly it’s so awful I have to lie down on the floor in the middle of the supermarket and all the words are meaningless.” She kills herself 10 days later, a coda to the story of a miserably ordinary age-torn life. I want to believe that normalcy includes an existence free of suffering. If I cannot make myself whole, I am ruined.
I was so terrified of being infirm and hopeless, like Kramer, that I did not think twice about going in the water on the day I saw a sign warning swimmers that the lap pool had a dangerously low temperature. I’d missed my chance in Austria, and I didn’t want to get in the habit of missing chances when conditions weren’t ideal. Swimming daily was my ritual and I didn’t want to skip it.
Something about the regularity made it seem like things could be managed there, if not fixed. Maybe the swimmers at the YMCA had discovered that in the process of removing their clothes, emptying their minds and cycling through strokes, they could pump and crawl through the psychic pain that inevitably arrives and know that creaky bones, weak lungs and tight lats hinder but do not ruin the experience.
History is filled with heroes who are swimmers, Karen Eva Carr reminds us, in her book Shifting Currents: A World History of Swimming. In the Odyssey, when Homer’s Odysseus leaves his lover Calypso to continue his journey home to Ithaca, Poseidon creates an onslaught of crashing waves and stormy weather, yet, with the help of other gods, Odysseus dives, drifts and survives. Julius Caesar was a great swimmer. The poorly behaved Romantic poet Lord Byron, who had a clubfoot, thrived in the water, and even swam four miles across the Hellespont. For Plato, not knowing how to swim is a metaphor for being stupid.
Benjamin Franklin was a different kind of hero. In his 1749 pamphlet Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, he believed an academy should be set up for boarding scholars to study arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, handwriting, drawing, grammar and style, oratory and history – and, for the sake of their health, their exercise should include running, leaping, wrestling and swimming. The academy graduated its first college class in 1757 and merged with the state university to become the University of Pennsylvania in 1791.
A liberal-arts education was always supposed to be about learning how to handle yourself. My son’s college still holds fast to a 1905 requirement that students know how to swim. (Only seven colleges in the US still require students to pass a swim test in order to graduate.) Before starting his first year, my son had to swim 68.5 metres (75 yards) without stopping. I did not think he could do it. The university considers it a life skill to break the cycle of non-swimmer parents whose fear discourages their children from learning to swim and puts those children at risk of drowning.
I went into the pool and swam my eight or 10 laps, figuring I could get used to the cold and build up to longer distances. Maybe one day it wouldn’t make me hurt like hell and I would get better at it.
But if I got used to being hopeless that would be failure. To swim was to resist an ending in which I could not find relief. Move forward! Flap around a little! I hated the idea of swimming as a last resort. Then I berated myself for having nothing more enthusiastic to tell myself. I started talking to the women I saw in the locker room and hanging out a little longer. Sometimes, I went in the sauna. The woman who touched my foot that first day in the pool usually took the locker next to mine and we became friendly. She told me stories about her dog, her trips upstate, her grandchildren. I asked people in the pool how long they’d been swimming and explained how I was teaching myself to swim. They offered tips, encouragement. One woman swam by my side so I could match my strokes to hers. Someone else offered to imitate how I was swimming, so I could see what I was doing wrong. It turned out that even the most elite swimmers had aches, soreness, disillusion. Everyone had bad days, but they kept swimming.
I’ve been telling you a story of myself as a witless swimmer, but I was making it across the lanes one way or another. I adjusted my strokes. Repeat, repeat, repeat! Go home, use Biofreeze (pain relief gel), take painkillers, sit against the heating pad. Unless you think it is only valuable to be in the first five decades of your life, there is everything to look forward to.
“Swim with the swimmers, wrestle with the wrestlers, march in line with the firemen and pause, listen, count,” Walt Whitman said. The fantasy of Whitman’s America turns on the feeling of renewal we are all entitled to, no matter our skills and what we think we are capable of doing. In the US, in the Brooklyn that started as farmland and was radically transformed into one of the most artsy, individualistic and sought-after places to live in the country, all you have to do is show up and remember that no one is better equipped to experience life than you.
One day, I joined the lane of a woman who moved slowly, performing handstands, cartwheels, ballet steps. She submerged herself before exploding out of the water, arms up, a 1950s girl in a cake. She was taking for ever to move down the slow lane. She was having a grand time. I watched her with dismay. When the acrobatics girl finally did a spin, she saw me waiting. I waved. She waved back, indicating now she would swim. Suddenly it didn’t matter how long she took. The spirited way she entranced herself with her practice reminded me how many ways there are, even when you are roped in, to make yourself free.
I showed up at the YMCA every day, inserted myself in the pool, and pretended that I was not freezing. Months passed. Besides my 12 minutes in the pool, my days were dreary. I lived for my mornings. I pushed off, kept my shoulders down while repeating the word “blue” and told myself this was my destiny. This was my destiny! Other swimmers dolphin-swam or flip-turned for what seemed to be an eternity. I counted laps while others counted miles. No one smiled or frowned. They precision-tuned their days by moving their limbs in ways that felt physically meaningful and which would save them from sadness, obesity, affliction, injury, early death. Cardio would give them half of what they needed; toning would give them the rest. Fitness makes you more resilient to a world that attacks you every which way after you leave the ruler-straight safety of the indoor pool.
One morning, I decided that if it took me 30 years, goddamn water, I’d do it, I’d learn to swim freestyle. If I died trying, that would be something in itself. I’d dedicate a half lap to freestyle after every swim, from that day to for ever. I pushed off, moving fast and without thinking, moving everything at once – arms like wheels one after another, legs scissoring and my breath at the centre of my body. I completed a set of strokes and began another. I had done it, I was swimming freestyle. Shocked, I stopped swimming, waded to the front of the pool, hoisted myself up and left.
I returned the next day, stared at the lane, got in, pushed off. My gears worked it out and I swam a lap. At the far end of the lane, hyperventilating, I folded my arms over the edge and started to laugh. I got out of the pool grinning. After three months of swimming daily, I had figured out freestyle. Swimming isn’t something you can be taught just by following the rules. You have to figure out how to move intuitively and you have to want it. Middle age isn’t something you can prepare for adequately. You have to figure out how to move through it intuitively and you have to endure it.
The calculated, rhythmic motions of doing sidestrokes and breaststrokes over time had trained me to make adjustments naturally as I swam. The repetition had taught my shopworn, atrophied, spasm-prone limbs to move in unison. Gone was the safe edge of the pool, gone were my worries, gone was the hustle of looking for happiness and managing my life – and gone was the disappointment of everything I couldn’t do.
My son is making his way through college, figuring out what he is good at and how the world responds to him. The time of caring for a child and preparing him to be independent is over – replaced by learning how to support him from afar and never with enough information. Love is no longer intuitive or easy. Like swimming, you earn it through time, emptying the dishwasher, folding laundry, shopping for groceries, talking about books, arguing about the apocalypse and accompanying one another to gloomy procedures or parties. You adjust the way you talk to one another and you adjust the quality of love you accept and the shape of the love you offer next. You take your giant calcium pills and lower your intake of wine, sugar, salt, dairy and carbs, and increase your intake of steps, friends and vegetables. You bulk up if you are thin, lose weight if you are fat. You tell yourself you can learn new things.
After 14 months of swimming, my imperative strokes chopped up the soft blue water. My feet fluttered on the surface, my brain orchestrated the rest. Stretch the arm forward. Downsweep, insweep, backsweep. Rotate the hip, turn the face, inhale above water, exhale underwater. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I switched from the slow lane to the slow-medium lane and thought: my postmenopausal physique is not so bad after all.
My swimming wasn’t particularly skilful, but it was good enough. Too often, my right, enthusiastic arm stretched straight up without bending the elbow and my left, sluggish arm barely scaled the surface of the water. I forgot to kick my legs and zigzagged or sank before remembering to kick my legs again.
I sometimes wondered how I’d manage if swimming were taken away, if it just ended. There was so much happening to me: invisible physics, the dance of love, the energy of waves, attention to order, the engine of the human system, the light of age, the long arms of experience, the realisation that everyone was vulnerable. I fell in love with the woman who cartwheeled down the lane, the stalwart silver-haired man who strode in with deliberation, the older lady who gravitated forward like a Galápagos turtle, the other older woman with scoliosis and dynamite pump-iron legs that propelled her through 50 fast laps and the svelte triathlete who looked like Michael Phelps and told me he didn’t start swimming until his 20s because his professional-swimmer parents refused to let him join the swim team when he was younger to save him the misery of competing.
Every day of those months, I looked forward to seeing them. I slipped on my swim-skin, flung my torso forward in my usual style and, before coming alive, for one paradisiacal moment, I sank. The water smacked my shoulders and I slipped the temperature on like a silk dress in the half-light of one day merging with the next, without landmarks or a landscape for reference. By now I’m in the middle of the lane, pressing forward. There is a sea change in my body. “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!” said Henry James.
My shoulders tighten in the evening. My shoulders loosen in the morning. For those 12 minutes, the blue world is impossibly clear, and my pain is gone.
Adapted from an essay published in the spring-summer 2023 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review.
The headline of this article was amended on 11 August 2023. An earlier version incorrectly gave the author’s age as 60.