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Solace and Sanctuary

I want to swim — really swim. Laps and laps, shutting out everyone and everything, letting the noise in my head wash away 

It’s only mild exaggeration to say that I learned to swim before I learned to walk. Other families took trips each summer; we took to the pool.

The pool conquered boredom. It swallowed heat and humidity. It melted arguments and absorbed tension. Swimming was summer’s solution. A two-month salvation.

For me, swimming is about the peace of being underwater, alone and yet not alone. Free, stretched out; not even gravity pins me down. My muscles are busy, freeing my mind. The water is the place I can just… be.

The ranch house of my youth has been replaced by an apartment building. The green lawns gave way to red-brick parking lots.

I do, however, have a small yard — which houses a very small above-ground pool.

From Pesach till Succos, our kids spend hours each day romping and splashing, Marco-Poloing and doing handstands, and, of course, swimming. I feel tremendous vicarious satisfaction when my daughters and granddaughters spend an afternoon bonding in a way that only happens in a few hundred cubic meters of water.

But this pool isn’t for me. It’s too small, too confining, and since it’s enclosed, I wouldn’t even have the feel of the sun on my face while a breeze tickles the air. It would be a tease; underscoring what I can no longer have. Because I want to swim — really swim. Laps and laps, shutting out everyone and everything, letting the noise in my head wash away.

After ten years, one of my daughters convinces me to try the pool. I duck my head under the water, shoot off the wall, and all I can think is: What on earth took me so long? Suddenly I’m calculating the hypotenuse of a right triangle. I swim diagonals and length-width combos and ellipses. I swim the perimeter and figure-eights. I try different strokes, with and without breathing. My conclusion: No matter how you slice the water, swimming in a six-by-three-meter pool is not very conducive to laps. But I’m pulled by the memories, the peace, the temporary solitude. I want more.

I research how to maximize a small pool for swimming laps. Yet none of the gazillions of swimmers frequenting Google chime in. This isn’t encouraging.

I research “endless pools,” pools that create a current so that when you swim, you’re essentially swimming in place. I learn that pools built this way cost roughly the price of a small house in Wisconsin.

I research “current machines,” which attach to the side of the pool with promises of doing what the endless pool does, at a fraction of the price. However, these pools aren’t stocked anywhere, leading me to believe they never actually worked well enough to take off commercially.

Additional research actually yields a viable, affordable solution: bungee swimming.

Basically, you wear a belt that connects to a long elastic cord, which wraps around the pool legs. Kind of like playing paddleball, only you’re the ball.

I find a local store that sells this contraption.

But summer’s nearly over, and by the time I find my rhythm, it’s time to dismantle the pool to make room for the succah.

Covid arrives, and as the outside world shuts down, I spend increasing time in my yard, attempting to maximize fresh-air flow to my lungs. I’m a sunshine detective, scoping out which hours yield the brightest results.

The weeks creep by, days of semi-isolation weigh on me. The Chanukah lights flicker briefly, reminding me of brighter days. The citrus trees in my small yard wake up to greet Tu B’Shevat, promising that spring is not far off. Purim is tame this year.

It rains some more, clears, rains again, as the seasons engage in a final tug-of-war.

I catch a whiff of summer.

The pool is dragged out of the storage shed, the hose unraveled. The faucet is opened, and water trickles in until the pool is filled to the brim.

Finally, it’s time.

Dawn. The streets still sleep, the birds sing Modeh Ani.

I attach the belt to the pool, slip it on and… I’m swimming in place!

The world is muted. Stroke after stroke, all I hear is a gentle splash, bubbles rising up through the water. Just me and my thoughts, me and my existence, me, here and now. Me.

The water welcomes me, offers me solace and sanctuary, and I shed all that is external. I begin to feel that it’s not really just me. I’m alone, yet not alone. Deep inside, in that calm, quiet place just under the water’s surface, lies the stillness in me. The pureness. The G-dliness. The G-d.

In this place of disconnection, I’m able to connect. For when I’m enveloped in His presence, I can be present, too.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 743)

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