Swimming Studies, by Leanne Shapton

I am most at home in the water. I’ve been around pools my whole life: at swimming lessons, whiling away summer days in my grandparents’ backyard pool or at lakeside cottages, as a synchronized swimmer, a competitive swimmer, a lifeguard. I was not born in a bathtub, but it seems that way, that I swam into this world and have been swimming through it ever since.

When I’m in water, my mind drifts and something primal takes over that knows just what flick of an ankle or sweep of an arm is necessary. My body instinctively twists into new shapes and patterns, unfurling in a subconscious choreography. I feel supported, embraced by a buoyancy that extends beyond the physical. I am something other than my land-locked self — elegant, fluid, free, and peaceful.

It was this innate love that led me water sports, and eventually to competitive swimming. I spent all of my high school years (five) in this sport. By my last two years, that meant being at the pool eight times a week, climbing out of bed at 4:45 in that viscous early morning darkness of winter for my first practice of the day. It meant perpetual exhaustion from pushing my body to its limits, or if not that, far enough to be hopelessly tired. It meant thousands of meters a day, insatiable hunger (mostly literal and sometimes metaphorical), sweating chlorine even when I was on land.

I swam at my club’s highest level, though I was never that good. I tried hard, but was not as passionate or as talented as others. Did I love it? It’s hard to tell, the pleasure so fleeting, the pain so persistent. I loved my teammates, my band of brothers, who shared the rigours of practice, the crushing early mornings, the in-jokes and strange obsessions, the triumphs after the race or the cries in the shower afterward. I loved the water. I loved the beautiful symmetry, the incredible lightness, of my body racing at its fastest, when the water was like air, and you were more bird than fish. But looking back at the sport itself? I’ll admit to some ambivalence.

It’s the reason I was so excited by Swimming Studies, why it affected me enough to shake me out of my blog torpor to write this.  It captures all of that, and more. The highs, the lows, the ambivalence of a sport where training is unfailingly grueling and success can be fickle and elusive. Leanne Shapton (author of the much loved Important Artifacts) immerses you completely in the swimmer’s life, conjuring the smallest details: ritual foods, types of goggles, the complex notes in the smell of a coach or a teammate.

Those physical details are a huge part of the book, but like the swimmer who stroking along the surface, she always has an eye to the depths beneath them. Take, for example, her description of one morning practice:

The interior of the Olympium hums in the mornings, the aural scale amplified by the density of the chlorinated air over the water’s surface. Mid-practice we do lungbusters, fifty meters underwater. We push off at one end glide, then kick soundlessly through the blue. At the far end we release the air in our lungs, and our bubbles rush up in a muffled crash. As our heads break the surface, the pool echoes with our breathing. The whole process is overseen by the silent sweep of the pace clock swallowing time, rest, and seconds of air before we inhale and slip under again.

It’s not only an incredibly evocative passage, but I think reflective of the book as a whole, the prose embodying these intersections of effort and grace, the repeated immersions below the surface and into the past.

Swimming Studies is just what it says it is: a series of studies, scenes, impressions, and stories that alternate between Shapton’s swimming career itself, and events years later, in which the ripples of those years persist. Since Shapton goes on to become an artist, the metaphor is apt, for as she retraces these scenes you get the sense that like an artist she was preparing for something, for a greater work of art she’s still trying to grasp. (The book also includes some art: paintings of pools and swimmers and photos of her vintage bathing suit collection — other pieces of the puzzle she is trying to assemble.)

But artistic analogies aside, I first saw these vignettes through a swimmer’s eyes: I recognized the drifting, meditative trance that happens while churning meters into kilometers, the fragments of consciousness that break up the monotony. But even further, in these oblique entries into her past I recognized the familiar pattern of every practice, circling back again and again, tracing the same paths in the hopes of new results. We circle back so we can move forward, to transform that pain, that effort, that conflict into something greater.

That constant striving comes through so clearly in Swimming Studies: for the right clothes, for faster times, then for artistic accomplishment, for appreciation and love, and ultimately, in the act of writing this book, to reconcile the person who was — a swimmer, day and night, on land and in water — with the person she is now, an artist who can’t quite leave the pool behind. For swimming is not just a hobby you give up, a skin you shed — it is knit into your very muscle fibres, and may relax but will always remain. In those teenage years the self-discipline, the endurance, the focus, and the relentless striving shape you as much, if not more than family or friends.  And for Shapton, this is more true than for most: it’s also a road not taken, but one that she can’t stop looking back at.

I think Shapton hits the right metaphor at the end of her book, when she compares swimming to a relationship: “I think about loving swimming the way you love somebody. How a kiss happens, gravitational. About compromise, sacrifice, and breakup. The heart can suffer more than a few not-quites, have poor timing. We are outtouched by others, can psych ourselves out of victory, we lose, win, become our results, find our places and rank.” We have loved the same person, Shapton and I. Her affair may have been longer, deeper, more joyous and more torturous, but it was the same lover nonetheless. We both still carry it in our very bodies — in the breadth of our shoulders, in our muscle memory, in the way a whiff of chlorine elevates the heart rate. It’s an affair we can’t shake, and perhaps we shoudn’t. If we return to the beginning, Shapton nailed that indelible connection in her very first, perfect sentence: “Water is elemental, it’s what we’re made of, what we can’t live within or without.” The relationship is simple, but understanding it, and its legacy, is a lifetime sport.

Books in 140 Seconds: Mad Hope

It’s our 50th video today! If we had a studio audience, there’d be confetti and definitely cake. So if you have either of those things on hand, indulge and celebrate with us. I mean we’ve done at least 7,000 seconds of work here, so celebration is in order! And also heartfelt thank yous: to our loyal audience, generous publishers, and supportive authors for your enthusiasm. We have fun making these videos, but sharing them with all of you is where the real fun is.

Now cake and sappiness aside, let’s get down to business, shall we? Last month we chatted about Jenna Wogrinich’s memoir of farm dreaming and the hard realities that can get in your way, and this month we’re still talking about hard realities, albeit in fictional form (thank goodness), in Heather Birrell’s sharp, insightful, and totally wonderful collection of short stories, Mad Hope. Have a look:

We only had 140 seconds to talk about this book, but if you’d like to know more, check out the rest of the Mad Hope blog tour. Many people we admire are saying smart, interesting things about Mad Hope that will make you appreciate it all the more.  

Stay tuned for next month’s Books in 140 Seconds, when Erin and I combine our love of extreme adventure narratives and environmental issues in Charlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt. (And yes, I consider tree planting an extreme adventure — and if you read the book, you will too.)

"We're just water, soil and sunshine": Garden Songs

Though the garden season is just beginning, it’s time to bring Garden, Farming and Food month at KIRBC to a close, and what better way to do it with a little music?

At the risk of getting too sentimental on you, I’ve decided to share a song my musician boyfriend wrote about my garden. Have a listen, not just because it makes me a bit teary, but because I think he captures the gardener’s frame of mind, connection with the land, and the passage of the seasons so beautifully. So here it is, “Albany Botanical,” written and performed by Jordan Venn:

Want more Jordan Venn? You can get a taste of his rock ‘n’ roll on his website and at fine music venues around Toronto as Jordan Venn and the Slizneys.

But what of other garden tunes? In my interview with garden guru Gayla Trail, she pointed me to her list of gardening songs, which you should definitely check out. I’ve made my own preliminary list on Grooveshark, which you can listen to below! Probably you saw the abundance of Sarah Harmer coming, but what can I say, the lady gets it. The list opens with her “Escarpment Blues” because I can’t tell you how many times my garden has brought me back to these lines:  “We’re two-thirds water, / What do we really need / But sun, showers, soil and seed?” The rest of the list alternates between upbeat and mellow, with a common thread of sunshine and outdoor living.
Garden Songs by JK on Grooveshark

And if you’ve listened through to the end of the playlist, you’ll get through to “Trouble in the Fields,” Sarah Harmer’s gorgeous Nanci Griffith cover. I got to hear it live at Foodstock last October, when Sarah played it to a crowd of farmers and foodies, huddled in the rain, at this incredible event organized to stop the Mega Quarry that threatens their livelihoods and the food we eat. And even though it was cold and wet and we were there under unhappy circumstances, the crowd livened up at these lines, cheering their support, showing their spirit:

“You be the mule, I’ll be the plow,
Come harvest time we’ll work it out,
There’s still a lot of love here in these troubled fields.”

And those still all-too-relevant words are really the lasting message of GFF month, and of most of the reading that I do. It’s not easy to do what’s right by the earth, by plants and animals and each other, even to sprout a damn hot pepper seed, but there’s a lot of love to keep us going.

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