Originally written for a CWRT700 portfolio at AUT in 2019. First part of swim | swimswim.
If you are born by the sea, you must be connected with it. If you are born on an isthmus, gentle bays on one coast and pounding surf on the other, you must be twice as driven to the water, a siren call from all sides, called by the waves to strip down and fling yourself in. It is foretold by the geography of your birth. I am an Aucklander. I grew up south, then south east, then a deviation via splintered family to the far-flung west from time to time. I dated a boy from the Shore. I went to school in Epsom. I’ve crawled every inch of this sprawling so-called big little city at some point or other. I have stood on many of its beaches. But I haven’t stepped into the sea at many of them.
I — ISTHMUS
We were at the beach, at Karekare, in winter. 1998, my eight-year-old brain thick with anxieties already – even if would be fifteen years or so before I would realise and acknowledge and react. The waves were impossibly huge as we walked along. It was winter, and we were fully dressed, and going swimming was far from anyone’s mind. But my parents walked close to the water, ever closer. I was convinced the waves were going to swell larger and sweep them away. The pang in my chest even now is not quite definable. A lingering fear… a sense of embarrassment at these decades-old misplaced feelings?
We had a programme at primary school called WaterWise. Safety and adventures on the high seas. Kayaking, knot-tying and sailing. We were going to learn to take Optimists out from the shell-strewn shores of various Howick beaches.
But before we were allowed out onto the ocean, we all had to pass swimming tests. The local pool was cool, chlorinated and not unfamiliar. The deep end touchable, the edges or lane ropes always within reach. I swam the required lengths, showcasing proper strokes and breathing technique. Tick.
The various vessels – the kayaks, the dingys – started delightfully, save a run in between swinging boom and head from time to time. One lesson loomed large, though: capsizing. The nature of boats is that they keep you above the murky depths, but the thing about water safety is that you have to be prepared for shit to go down. One at a time we were gently but firmly taken out deep enough for safety – from an adult’s perspective, anyway. For me, the deeper, the more paralytic. Anything could be there. Fish, creatures, rippling seaweeds ready to snake around an ankle. The boom could smack me in the head, concuss me, and send me spinning down to the bottom of the sea.
I panicked, I flailed, I did it. I bobbed in the Waitematā water in a red lifejacket, proud to a point – but mostly horrified.
II — FEAR
High school is often touted as some kind of torture facility. An eager learner and budding musician, life at an academically rigorous posh private place was a perfectly reasonable environment for me, in many ways. I may have felt a disconnect from many of my Remuera-local peers, underscored by factors like my less-than-trendy interest in things like Lord of the Rings and The White Stripes, my size 12 or 14 waistline, and my hour-and-a-half on buses every day. But intellectually I belonged, and that was the most important thing. But as any shitty American high school film will have you know, for most everyone but the jockest of jocks, PE is on par with one of Dante’s outer circles of hell.
As a posh private place, there was a price tag-appropriate on-site pool complex. This meant that, from the word go, swimming was both frequent and compulsory. As with all things sporting, I could do them, to a point. I could run, I could play hockey, netball and squash – and I could swim. I just couldn’t do any of them nearly as well or as fast as a significant number of of other girls.
We would file into changing rooms with pale-blue walls and wooden benches. Backpacks and sports bags hung from hooks while we shimmied underwear out from under/tartan skirts and hiked up navy blue togs. Blouse off, straps up, bra eased out from underneath. Ribbons removed from ponytails, hair bundled up and crammed under swimming caps in regulation house designs. Everyone would be able to see which houses were zapping ahead and which ones were letting the side down, even if we were otherwise anonymous in the water.
Speed was not on my side. For a while, I’d attempted tumble turns, even succeeded at them, mastering the sequence of tap, flip, go. It felt so efficient, so powerful – and so terrifying. Every time, I was certain this was going to be the time I’d smack my head against the wall. Or the time that I’d be unable to get my bearings underwater and run out of breath while trying to find the surface, never mind the fact that the pool was no more than two metres at the deep end. I was slow, slower, slowing. My aerobic fitness was inadequate for such things, despite two ballet classes a week. And then the indignity of slipping out of the water, up a ladder or lugging a body that feels more walrus than seal out at the edge. Wet footprints, white legs, goggle-induced bug eyes. All while the speed demons of the class lounged on the bleachers in big high thread-count towels and hair shaken free and powerful legs stretched out tanned from their family escapes to Phuket or Cairns.
III — STONE
Water and time can wear away anything, even stone. I am flesh and blood and bone, worn away at much more quickly than canyons or shorelines. Time passes, bodies deteriorate and water continues to lap at your ankles, the tide coming in and out. Childhood fear and teenage anguish give way to adulthood.
IV — GENTLY
A bad ankle fracture in March was timed well for the early days of the following summer. By then, I was secure enough on my feet not to be too trapped by the fear of losing my footing on slippery pool tiles. I had strength enough in that lower limb that meant gentle exercise – walking, as long as I could bear, and swimming – were on the table.
I put on a bikini, high waisted, and slipped on sandals with an ankle strap. Last summer was jandals everywhere, even the office. This summer was all about support and security. The rainbow jandals I wore when the fall happened sit haphazard at the back of my shoe rack, a trophy and testament to their failure to protect.
My feet dangled in the water, a salt-water pool in a Westmere backyard. It pays to have friends with rich uncles who give them first priority on their bougie rental properties. We played a playlist called FEMINISTMAS and squeaked as we slipped down, a step at a time. The water wasn’t quite at an ideal temperature yet, but we were determined. My arms trembled slightly from the tension of bearing my weight and clutching tight at terracotta tiles. Sitting on one step, then the next, immersing more and more of legs, abdomen, torso. And eventually, in one remarkably elegant movement, I launched under, ducking my head beneath something other than a showerhead for the first time in months.
It was cold, biting, wonderful. I was mobile.
My movements were easy, my ankle only complaining on occasion when kicking too vigorously. I doggy paddled back and forth, lounged in an inner tube, floated on my back with eyes clenched shut against the sun. My friends perched poolside, drinking cab sav and talking about work, holiday plans, teenage music memories. We all sang along to Outkast and slapped at mosquitoes as the sun went down.
V — AIR
The gap between Christmas and the New Year is a quiet period in retail when you’re not the sort of place that runs massive Boxing Day sales. So as a happy little shop whānau in an independent bookstore, you find things to occupy your holiday selves with.
We took turns filling our online quizzes to establish long lists of critical facts to attribute to each staff member: Which Harry Potter character are you? Which Harry Potter house would you be in? What would your patronus be? Booksellers are a little predictable. And we also made a list of everyone’s zodiac signs.
It turns out that there is a proliferation of water signs among us. Especially Pisces, but few rogue Cancers and Scorpios too. Scorpio as a water sign seems odd, given the arid habitats of their namesakes, but what do I know? Astrology isn’t my strong suit: I’m a Gemini, not only not a water sign, but a skeptic. Nothing about me is of water or of earth. I am a Libra moon, a constellation of the air just like the Twins. A Sagittarius rising, my fiery persona seen by others. Burning up water and floating away. Maybe being an air sign can explain that anxiety at being unable to breathe in two metres of water, the fire sign reflecting the burning fear in my chest.