Swimming into September, and beyond

The Baltimore Sun

Summer is shorter than any one -

Life is shorter than Summer -

Seventy Years is spent as quick

As an only Dollar - - Emily Dickinson

Summer seems shorter every year. School systems cut down summer in her prime, calling all the young inside by the end of August. Football and soccer coaches blow their whistles a week before that. And music faculty practice with marching bands and cheerleading squads as soon as August begins.

What is going on here? Swimming pools, without exception, lock their gates at dusk on Labor Day. Swimming into September does not have a chance anymore. What are we to do? The calendar shows that summer runs 23 days into September this year, ending today. What about those people who still have some of that "only Dollar" at hand, and what about the temperature, the sky, the sea that declare there is still time to continue a good swimming summer? With just a bit of money in the bank, as it were, I have no time to lose.

Herein follows a plea to reassert the authority of the summer calendar and to honor summer with a full length of days:

Good swimming summers are made of good swims - as Robert Frost wrote, "out far [and] in deep" - at Ocean City and Cape Cod, the Outer Banks, Kiawah and Cape May, wherever the ocean is.

For some years my mind got moored in a countdown of the good swimming summers left to me, should I be lucky enough with life to swim out the full biblical line of three score years and ten.

The mortal moment struck me with astonishment long ago one drowsy August afternoon, 57 years into my swimming life. Like everyone else that day, I was full of sun and saltwater when suddenly the thought, like some fateful arrow fallen from the sky, pierced my attention, made me cry out, "The most to be hoped for is thirteen more good swimming summers."

My younger friends, finishing the fold-up of blankets and beach chairs, the shake-out of sand from books and shoes, were thinking only to call it a day. On the trudge back to the house they entered the cheer-up mode of reassurance, saying many come to the beach well beyond the 70th year.

"Oh, I know," I mumbled secretly in my drowning heart. Each of us will take that desperate notice sooner or later. We have already seen those few, frail, older persons stepping across the shadows on the sand at 5 in the afternoon. Bundled in terry cloth robes, they hunch against the chill, for it is, after all, late in the day. Even so, they seem famished for the taste and smell of the salt sea.

Like old seadogs, they scan the far-off horizon, searching for a whiff of those deeper days. The robes are put aside. They step forth in bodies convalescent-white to brace themselves, all unsteadily now, knee-deep in the cool, breathtaking beauty of the foaming surf. When the run-up waters recede, tiny fountains sparkle like chains about their ankles. They use the moment to anchor their feet in firmer sand.

Oh, but the longing for something more reckless races against this prudent caution, this faded heroism. The desire to plow at a run through a roaring surf burns in the blood. The desire to dive and duck beneath row upon row of whitewater rushing overhead, to scuttle under and out to those vastly greener pastures beyond the breakers, is a thirst unquenchable. Once out, we wait the chance to scamper up the rising hillsides of water drawing us farther out, to rise and fall with the will and whim of the wave, where we make no more difference to the tides than a straw in the wind.

When we want to come back in, we measure the cresting wave, calculate the roll, the moment of the turnover break, then throw ourselves headlong into the fallen force, body-surfing all the way, till we run aground in the shallow waters spreading along the shore. Turning about, to rise again, we see the brilliant beauty of that ride-in wave all gone to pieces now, looking for all the world like a giant water-meadow, spreading patterns of Queen Anne's lace over the surface of the sunlit sea.

Somewhere along this wonderful way, I let go of the counting (cast in Psalm 90: "the days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty if we are strong"); and without trying to be one of the strong, I have reached the shores of 80. Dripping wet.

Frost claimed the record for the longest swim in literature belonged to the Greek hero Odysseus, who after shipwreck swam the sea for two days and two nights. The Greeks, who made the best poetry, had a wisdom about many things, not the least of which was their poetic contemplation of the wine-dark sea.

For a whole lifetime I have been grateful to my alma mater, the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, for her Greek-like wisdom in making passing a swimming test a requirement for the baccalaureate degree. While an undergraduate, I thought the idea whimsical. What, after all, could a proficiency in swimming have to do with the life of the mind? But then, what did I know? Besides, there was the fact: I could not swim a stroke.

Five semesters later, more than half the distance to graduation, I was able to pass the swimming test. For that, I accumulated one physical education credit, and I had fulfilled one requirement my college thought necessary toward becoming an educated person.

The British scholar M.A. Screech writes that when the ancients "wished to accuse someone of extreme inadequacy they used the common proverb, 'He can neither read nor swim.'" Since my major study was literature, my alma mater also taught me how to read. These twin educations not only rescued me from "extreme inadequacy," they became the wellsprings of my life. Swimming and reading are spiritual exercises, excursions into the visible and invisible worlds. They require stamina and courage, exertion and stillness, thought and understanding, reverence.

A good swim and a good sentence have saved my life many a time. Looking back now at the full season of my years, I realize that good fortune has been the prevailing wind. That best of all, in my youth, I was given a taste for swimming and for reading. These proved no adolescent passions. The beauty and wonder of the sea, the beauty and wonder of words run deep within the human spirit, lift us away from our own dust, and grant us the genius of poets and philosophers, heroes and saints - so long as we all shall live. Amen.

Jo Trueschler is associate professor emerita at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. Her e-mail is jotruesc@bcpl.net.

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