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  • Treading Water
  • Dionne Irving (bio)

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[End Page 48]

As long as I have been able to afford it in my adult life, I have found, whenever possible, a swimming pool. I learned to swim in Canada of all places, the only little black girl in my swimming class. I had been anxious to get in the water for as long as I could remember. My only delay was the tubes I’d had put in my ears at three years old. I come from island people, and my love of water happens on the prereflective level, joyfully, and with abandon. The [End Page 49] smells of sea, of salt, of chlorine, of damp, slightly moldy bathing suits—all make me happy. My people come from Hong Kong, India, Africa, Scotland, and have ended up in Jamaica, Canada, and now the United States. I am the first who will have lived most of my life here. My family history is a collection of names and a handful of dates, most lost or faded. Like the way the ocean pounds away at the shore, our history, like the white sand of the island, slips through my fingers all the time.

Both heritage and joy bring me to the water. I swim laps, sometimes in community swimming pools or at fancy gyms with heated pools and bins thick with flutter boards. I will sometimes emerge from a stroke to see an older black person staring at me, the man or woman usually in his or her sixties or seventies. They might be a part of a water aerobics class or running in a physical therapy pool.

If I catch their eye, they will say “Hello” or “Good morning” or “Good evening.” Our pleasantries break them from some kind of trance. I return to my laps, turning my head usually to the right in order to take a breath. I love feeling my lungs expand and contract as I move through the water. I am aware of them for the first time all day. I marvel at my body’s capacity to stay buoyant, to take in air, to propel me forward. There are no sounds but the thrum of my heart and the cadence of my breath. In these moments, I understand the human body as a beautiful construct. When I stop, out of breath and panting, those eyes are on me again, watching.

As a symbol, water can be heavy-handed. My writing students too often use it as a metaphor. They come back to it again and again to indicate cleansing or purification.

Bad student poems are usually where one finds water used as a metaphor to describe rebirth or the miraculous. But I find that I come back to it as often as my students do. Water captivates me. Water is refreshing but powerful, pleasurable, and dangerous. Figuratively, literally, symbolically, it has no equal for potency. Water is both backyard Slip’N Slide and tsunami.

When we swim, when we plunge into oceans or lakes or backyard swimming pools, we feel some mastery over water, as though it could be ours to control. In these spaces we don’t wear much clothing and are in close contact with strangers. In and around these bodies of water, we reveal our public private parts. I think about this every time I pull on a bathing suit. I look at the way each of my “flaws” becomes visible and open for judgment. As we swim together, we experience intimacy [End Page 50] regardless of age, race, or size. Each time we enter the water in a public space, we show ourselves.

It took me a few years of living in the United States before I understood the way water is loaded for African Americans. A horrible legacy surrounds water, and the story of who has access to it is a story dominated by a violence that is intricately tied to the ongoing battle for civil rights.

It took me a few years of living in the United States before I understood the way water is loaded for African Americans. A horrible...


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pp. 48-67
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