You Are Here: The Place That Is Water

Swimming contains a universe full of beauty, risk, and rites of passage.

bonnie tsui
Bonnie Tsui

I remember the first person I rescued from drowning.

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Alta

A little girl, stepping blithely off the diving board into 13 feet of water—and then quietly, with remarkably little fuss, declining to return to the surface. Underwater, eyes as big as dinner plates, six-year-old hands scrabbling at my neck with surprising strength. It was my first summer on the job as a teenage lifeguard. I’d eventually end up patrolling all kinds of waters, from pools to beaches, but that very first rescue stuck with me.

After I hauled her out of the diving tank, her siblings gathered around her, loudly fussing: Why did you jump in? You can’t swim! She promptly burst into tears. The truth was that she’d jumped anyway, the allure of the water too great for her to refuse.

Lifeguarding taught me that water is a liminal space, holding for us all the infinite somewheres between life and death. A swimming pool cordons us off into a neat and orderly rectangle, but there are other, more porous borders that can be harder to reckon with—not just between life and death but between ourselves and our fears, between what we can see and all that is not visible, beneath the surface.

Getting to know a place from the water can be sublime—it combines awe and terror, beauty and risk.

The place that is water is a place that travels. As much as the water is an actual place to enter with your body, it also lives in the mind. Getting to know a place from the water can be sublime—it combines awe and terror, beauty and risk. It’s no wonder we have a romance with the people who watch over us while we are there, who keep us on the right side of the border between this life and whatever lies beyond.

At my local pool, I swim with a Frenchwoman who regularly brings pastries for the lifeguards, as a sign of respect. This summer, on a swimming tour of Europe, I thought of this lovely gesture while in London, when I visited the famous swimming ponds in Hampstead Heath and watched the lifeguards paddling around on surfboards. I read in a book that Katharine Hepburn once went to the Ladies’ Pond. She brought biscuits as an offering for the lifeguards, to enjoy with their tea.

While in London, I also made a pilgrimage to Hyde Park, where the sparkling swatch of the Serpentine Lake has such quirks as floating duck eggs and vivid green pondweed that clings to you for the rest of the day. The only swimmers allowed in the lake in the early morning are those in the Serpentine Swimming Club, the oldest in Britain. Members are permitted by the Royal Parks to swim every day of the year from 5:30 to 9:30 a.m., sans lifeguards, because each has passed a 50-meter swim test. I look at that pondweed as a badge of honor.

My father was the lifeguard at the swimming pool in Hong Kong where he met my mother. Perhaps it was inevitable that my brother and I would learn to survive the water, too, and then to love it. We joined the swim team and became lifeguards ourselves. We taught swim lessons and, in turn, invited others to fall in love with the water. Twenty-five years later, I’ve managed to pass this love along to my own two children.

Though I grew up in New York, on the beaches of Long Island, my sons learned to swim at our local community pool in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we live now. As they’ve grown, they, too, have moved through all the stages of the swimming life cycle, transforming improbably from tadpoles to dolphins before graduating triumphantly to swim team. It’s an environment they can navigate with comfort.

Though my sons enjoy a pool, they’re happiest in the ocean, bodysurfing in the shore break, their little forms shoved along by the force of a crashing wave. When I look out at the Pacific or the San Francisco Bay, I see waves and water, the promise they hold for us as swimmers and surfers. But I also see cold, fast-moving currents; container ships; the view of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. Those things tell me another story: that this is a port city, a moody city, a city of beauty and ambition and dangerous seas.

Every time I watch my sons swimming and splashing in open water—whether at home in California or elsewhere—it’s with my heart in my throat. Look at how much fun they are having. Look at how much is out there, beyond my control.

The truth is that we’re all swimming at our own risk.

Our summer swimming tour also brought us to Amsterdam, where our family rented a little electric boat and ventured out into the city’s canals. You can’t swim in the canals, one of the riverboat captains told us, but you can follow the narrow waterways as they wend to the Amstel River, right in the heart of Amsterdam. There, the water is relatively clean, and you are free to cannonball as you please—just use common sense and avoid boat traffic.

In front of the stately 155-year-old Amstel Hotel, I hopped into the clear green river and swam a few laps back and forth along the waterfront as well-heeled diners gawked from the terrace café. My nine-year-old jumped in too, and we glided along together, gleefully marveling at our duck’s-eye view of this magnificence.

My husband took a photo: There we are, immersed in a picturesque city that first took shape in the 12th century around a dam on the Amstel. The sun glints off our goggles, boat taxis bob on the quay, and the grande dame of Amsterdam and its eight rooftop lions serve as backdrop.

What the photo doesn’t show is my brain calculus as I note and work out the hazards: water temperature, number and size of moving vessels and their trajectories, river currents, floating objects, proximity to dock or boat, time in the water, exit strategy. I am forever that teenager alert for rescue, keenly aware of the small body in the water I am caring for.

My kids like to say that they always have a lifeguard: me. The truth is that we’re all swimming at our own risk. I can’t save them from everything—as a parent or as a lifeguard. I can only show them the portal to all those watery elsewheres, and how to stay afloat. One day they’ll swim away. I’ll get to follow them for a time, if I’m lucky. But I won’t ever catch up.•

You Are Here is a monthly column that examines ideas about place and places in the West, written by members of the Writers Grotto.

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