Swimming does wonders for the soul

Willard Spiegelman, the Hughes professor of English at SMU, is the author of Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness. His book is quoted in this column.

By Susan Schwartz
Postmedia News

In an elementary-school production once, I played the part of a real-life resistance fighter who parachuted from a plane into enemy territory during the Second World War: I carried an open umbrella wrapped in green crepe paper and a bench moved from the lunchroom to the auditorium stage was the perch from which I was to jump.

I still remember the reverberations of the wooden floor boards of the stage as I landed with a thunk, umbrella in hand, and the audience titters - although the play was not remotely funny.

I have come to accept my clumsiness, but I still wish I'd been born graceful - or for even a single activity played on a court or field or hill that I could manage with something better than mediocrity. . .

Still, I feel unencumbered in the water. Mostly submerged, I also feel camouflaged. The only sound I hear is my own splashing as thoughts and musings dance about in my head, as if loosed from their moorings by the movement of my strokes.

Every time he swims outdoors, Willard Spiegelman thinks of a poem by Charles Tomlinson about a lone swimmer in a New England lake in autumn: Tomlinson, an Englishman who apparently can't swim, wrote Swimming Chenango Lake while teaching at a university in upstate New York in the late 1960s. It reads in part: For to swim is also to take hold/ On water's meaning, to move in its embrace/ And to be, between grasp and grasping, free.

Spiegelman, a scholar, editor and teacher, makes the observation in Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), a series of lyrical, thoughtful and evocative pieces on activities he enjoys: reading and writing are among them, as are dancing - and swimming.

In swimming, he writes, "the swimmer becomes part of the element that supports him, part of an everchanging geometry through which he slices and which then corrects itself as he moves past. ... You move beyond yourself and leave no trace. Swimming frees you from the world."

Spiegelman, Hughes professor of English at Southern Methodist University, started to swim in earnest in his early 20s, initially to keep fit. His first day at the pool at Harvard, he made it two lengths before he got out and vomited.

In time, though, he taught himself to turn his head from one side to the other and to breathe properly, and his strength and endurance increased.

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