Last summer, for exercise and pleasure, I swam laps across the Delaware River. The river is mostly wide and shallow in my area but I found a public access point where the water was deep enough to swim and, if I aimed upstream, the current would bring me roughly across from the landing where I started. For safety, I attached a boogie board to my swimsuit as a life preserver. At first, I relied on breaststrokes and kept my eyes above water so I could see where I was, but with more experience and confidence, I put my head down with each stroke or did some crawl and back strokes. Swimming these laps was peaceful, beautiful, and just the right amount of strenuous.
Then a friend showed me a place where, because the current was weaker close to the shore, I could swim upstream for as long as I felt like it, enjoying the trees and sky overhead, The current strengthened toward the middle of the river and by moving a few feet toward the center when I was ready to quit, the river quickly brought me back to my starting point. Just swimming upstream for as long as I wanted was magical.
With the gift of time that is retirement, I anticipated more frequent magic this summer. Unfortunately, the current has been so strong that when I head upstream, I stay in place. Since I have time, I’ve experimented with different public access points but haven’t found the right mix of current and depth to give me the joy I was anticipating. Still, this summer, when it is warm enough, I drive to the closest river beach and swim upstream (actually in place). Not trusting the current, I have been doing my eyes-above-water breaststroke. It is not as joyous as swimming upriver but much better than riding a stationary bike at the gym.
I imagine myself from the vantage of the families and groups of young people that play in the water or relax at the river’s edge (although they don’t seem to pay any attention to me): The tall woman parks her car, puts her towel, glasses and keys on a rock and walks into the river. After a few minutes to adjust to the cold water, she swims, head above the surface. Sometimes she slowly moves backwards, then stands up to walk back upstream past the white flag that is her towel. After 20 or 30 minutes, she gets out and drives away.
When I was in high school, I spent a lot of the summer at the local town pool sunbathing. (I knew that the sun would damage my skin but I was living in the moment and wanted to maintain the deep brown that came with fresh sunburn on top of a suntan). When my skin started to feel sizzling, I cannonballed into the pool to cool off, my hair floating in all directions until I emerged to resume sunbathing. My hope was the chlorine would lighten my brown hair a little. (And this was not even the dumbest thing I did in my youth.)
On the fringes of my preoccupations with unhealthy goals and unhealthier boys, I did notice older women doing slow breaststrokes back and forth in the lap lane. They kept their heads above water so as not to ruin their sprayed-in-place hairdos, with the result that they looked a little like ducks or swans, with their heads — made taller by the hairstyles — gliding through the water and barely a splash to indicate the below-surface activity that powered their progress.. To the extent I thought about them — enough to give me this vague memory — I wondered if those languid laps counted as exercise and decided it was sad to have hair that needed to be so pampered that you could not get it wet.
Now I am probably decades older than those women were then (40 seemed ancient when I was a teenager), swimming against the current, comparing myself to them and thinking about the ways we are the same and the ways we are different.