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Notes on Swimming, # 1
Route and Repetition
My daily swim is not a hobby. I don’t do it for fun, or recreation. I don’t even think of it as exercise, even though it’s definitely that. For me, open water swimming is a ritual, a practice, a discipline, a meditation. It’s an absolute. I swim because I must. It’s a basic need, an essential part of my makeup. I swim so that I am.
Similar to the way my pictures are connected to place, so are my swims. I can get by swimming in a pool in the off season, or in a surrogate lake if I absolutely have to, but when I say “my swim,” I mean Upper Goose Pond, with a specific route. That’s my swim. It’s not convenient, and it’s not quick. It’s a 45 minute drive from my house, then a 35 minute hike. There are no roads leading to this lake. It’s remote, which is part of why I like it. With some slight variation for weather, when it’s lake season, I do the exact same swim every day. It doesn’t get boring, and it doesn’t get old. The repetition is part of it.
Having a fixed route that is familiar is key, and there are multiple reasons why. One is there is fear and real danger involved with open water swimming. There are various factors involved with that: unexpected weather, lightning, water temperature, air temperature, wind, and sun. These things can all make you disoriented. Having a route and sticking to it mitigates these factors. You can’t always tell from a map or from shore what a distance is going to feel like on a swim, and you don’t want to get partway in and realize you misjudged. But beyond that, the route is important to me for other reasons — more artistic reasons. My creative thoughts and ideas exist within that route, in a way that could be compared to something like a memory palace. Because I only breathe to the right side, I navigate by focusing my gaze on a series of fixed elements: a small island, then a rocky point, then two white pines, then a small rocky beach. Each one offers comfort, and also has the wellspring of thoughts and ideas from hundreds of preceding swims attached to it, as well as the inspiration I hope to find there on hundreds of swims in the future. Spending an hour and change in the water revisiting them every day allows me to tap into something I can’t otherwise. It’s the basis for everything.
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I’m not a technical swimmer. I have one speed, and one stroke; not slow, not fast, and always slightly crooked. People have tried to “fix” my stroke, but it’s pointless. I’m not interested in having a perfect stroke, or even in improving it, or in getting faster, or more efficient. I don’t want to think about my stroke. I swim so that I can think about other things.
Upper Goose Pond is not arbitrary. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, my father bought some land in Becket, MA. In order to do so, he enlisted the help of some other families we knew. We built a cabin there. There was a small pond on the property, which we called Upper Upper Goose Pond, fed by a spring. A stream flowed from Upper Upper to Upper Goose, which you could follow through the woods, bushwhacking as you went. My brother Michael and I did it a lot. It was an arduous journey, and you’d be scratched and bitten by the end, but it was worth it when the forest finally opened up to this amazing crystal-clean pond that seemed to go on forever. Upper Goose still offers that sense of childhood wonder for me. My journey now is not the same, but it still takes time, and patience. I now walk in via the Appalachian Trail at the other end of the lake. The forest still parts at the end of the journey to the sight of water, and a sea of possibility, and promise.