small towns

Another kind of swimming

Once upon a time, I used to be a swimmer. I was never all that fast, but I pulled in a few blue ribbons for backstroke on my town’s tiny swim team. In my late teens/early twenties, I worked as a lifeguard during college summers, when I taught swim lessons and got more interested in form than speed. Guards had to clock so many laps a week, and by midsummer, I would be in decent shape, logging around 1800-2000 meters every day or so. I’d hop in the lane, snap on my cap and goggles, duck down and push off underwater, taking a long pull and kick before breaking the surface and launching into a steady freestyle. As the summer progressed, my stroke grew stronger and more confident, my breathing deep and controlled. A constant battler of weight and diets, I felt almost athletic, almost graceful out there in the lane, immersed in my own underwater rhythms, counting pulls and breaths. I perfected a wicked flip-turn.

I tell this scintillating tale because I’ve been sitting here for a half-hour, tidying my dusty desk, running a computer backup, and staring out the window, taking in the happenin’ streets of rural Alabama (my neighbor just pulled in her trash bin AND our other neighbor’s bin). To push the swimming analogy, I guess you could say I’m treading water. Or dog-paddling. Just three months ago, I was in top shape, zipping up and down my little writing lane for hours at at time, six days a week. For these past three months of the semester, however, I have waded in up to my waist, splashing half-assedly at this so-called blog every few weeks. This morning, the Saturday of Thanksgiving break, I woke up determined to dive back in. I wanted to take off in full stroke, to churn up the white space with perfect form and grace and precision. Instead, I’m wheezing and panting midway through the first lap, feeling the amino acid burn, my arms spaghetti-sloppy, my kick anemic.  I lean on the tile gutter, huffing, feel the doughy lump of yesterday’s Indian leftovers in my cramping stomach.

Three months. That’s all it takes for my muscles to atrophy, the flab to form, to lose not just my breath but my confidence. The truth is, it doesn’t even take that long, and the longer I go, the harder it is to want to dive into that cold, shimmering expanse. It’s what I need to do — I know it — but too often exhaustion trumps all.

So here I am, dog paddling in the shallow end, in a flowered rubber cap and skirted tank suit, while other young, lithe writers zip past in their slim lycra t-backs. I bob in their churning wake, choking on the chlorine fumes, wondering if I shouldn’t take up another competitive sport. Like lawn darts. Or curling. Skee ball?

Here’s the thing, though: Dog-paddling is swimming, too. You can get from one side to the other just the same. It may not be as impressive or elegant or efficient, but maybe it doesn’t always have to be about those things. Maybe this visit to the pool is about the chance to feel water on your skin, to feel the gentle resistance against your limbs, to revel in your own buoyancy. From this pace, you can easily flip into a lazy sidestroke or buoyant backfloat (thanks, body fat!). In fact, from this slow-legged, ungainly pace, you can take in the whole scene: check out the hungover lifeguard with her chin in her fist, the kids monkey-climbing around the gutter in the deep-end, the best girlfriends making front-folded “George Washington” hairdos, the boys wobbling on each other’s shoulders for chicken fights. See the boy walking along the fence perimeter, dragging his fingers on the chainlink, singing to himself. Or the girl alone in the shallow end, walking the slick, black line as if it were a beam and she a dancer, for once a graceful gymnast, weightless, lost in a watery world of invention.

From dog-paddle to freestyle is not that far of a stretch. When you’re ready, just take a deep breath, lean forward, put your face in the water, and strike out. Be patient. It’ll come to you. For now, just keep moving. Just keep your head above water.

The pedestrian view

Lately I’ve been doing some (half-assed) research into the concept of psychogeography. At the moment I’m reading (in short snatches) Merlin Coverely’s Psychogeography and Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Both have lots of great history about this somewhat amorphous subject, whose roots and contexts are heavy on the French, heavy on the urban environs, include Charles Baudelaire and the flaneur, Guy DeBord and the derive, and currently Will Self and his many walking adventures.  In an interview with 3 a.m. Magazine, Coverley gives a nice catch-all definition: “[Psychogeography] in its most general term, the main components: the political aspect, a philosophy of opposition to the status quo, this idea of walking, of walking the city in particular, the idea of an urban movement, and the psychological component of how human behaviour is affected by place. You can read that into many writers but especially Blake, Bunyan, and Defoe, this idea of the dream, or some psychological imprint overlaid on the landscape.”

It’s clearly more involved than that, but it’s that last bit, about the poets and writers and “this idea of the dream,” that has been at the heart of my interest. I’m not a philosopher. I don’t pretend to be a heavy thinker or scholar, even when I am in professor mode. But one thing I am, and always have been — long before I was a writer — is a walker.

My first experiences were not urban. I grew up in a small town in northern Arizona. From a very early age, probably 7 or 8 and till I was 16 and bought my first car, I walked everywhere. To school. To and from the bus stop, a mile from the house: up Coffee Pot Drive, cut through gravel Grasshopper Lane, over the fence, up the trail, and onto my street, Farmer Brothers Drive. I can see every step of it.  In a town with no bus system save for the tourist trolley, and parents who worked full-time, I walked home from friends’ houses and swim practice and the movie theater and the creek. In a town ringed by a famous red landscape, I walked up the sides of rocks, sometimes without shoes on, so smooth and climbable was the sandstone. From an early age, I saw the world from a slow, rock-kicking pace, a world of sun-heated hair and swarming gnats and mating grasshoppers, my cheap rubber shoes scuffing the edge of pavement.

It’s only looking back (of course!) that I see how much of that time trained me in solitude. Back then, I just wanted a freaking ride, to get home and sneak in some TV before my folks got home. But that walking was also very much a time of dreams. As my body worked externally, moving me forward, I went inside my head, into imagination. I remember, very clearly, wondering who lived in those homes on Grasshopper Lane, what their furniture looked like, what kind of dinners they had, if I would get in trouble if I stepped into their yard. I can still remember the shapes and spacing of houses on my routes, the shortcuts. I still remember the gray gravel, the powder-soft red dirt, the cat claws and foxtails and tumbleweeds that tugged at my pant cuffs.

Later, living in a small-sized city, a sprawling desert metropolis, and then a large Southern city, my walks were more recreational. Walking and hiking remain my two favorite modes of exercise. That urban environment indeed changed how I walked and how I saw, especially because otherwise I was driving everywhere. When I walked, I felt a little closer to the “traditional” psychogeographists, who are often working in resistance to what cities present. And at some point, I want to think more about those walking experiences, too.

But right now, I am going back to those early days, in part because I find myself again living in a small town, this one across the country from my original environs. The landscape here is softer, with towering trees that blur the horizon, a misty-heat. I am long into being a writer at this point, and I am conscious of how much walking plays a role in my sanity, as well as my creative process. During long weeks at my job, I find myself desperate to get outside, to slow down and breathe, to become aware of my feet hitting dirt and pine needles.

I don’t think of walking and writing as a direct connection; I’m not necessarily solving story problems or coming up with plot answers out there. It’s more, in some ways, that the physical act mimics the creative act. In both cases, I peer in windows. I gaze at the trees and clouds. I note weird things on the ground. I listen. I wonder.

(These are just some initial notes; I see more walking notes in my future.)