In rare moments of higher consciousness, I substitute a mantra for this babble; I silently repeat “Rama, rama, rama,” as a yoga book I read suggested. Gandhi died with these words on his lips, and I figure if they were good enough for a saint, they’re good enough for me. Other times I use one of the Hebrew names for God. I figure it’s better for me to have any of these thoughts circulating through my body-spirit than the badly programmed comedy channel that usually plays there.
Another trick is to try to remember something from each year of my life as I swim that lap. Eight, eight, eight, eight . . . Who was my teacher then? Was it Miss Wardwell? I conjure up an image of myself with two puffy ponytails stuck to the side of my head like earmuffs. My mother used to spend hours brushing and then combing my unruly curls. Was she pregnant with my brother Jim that year?
Ten more lengths. I swim through high school graduation, college, my year as a VISTA volunteer working with Haitian refugees. I reach for the flushed cheek of myself as a 28-year-old bride, sweaty and euphoric on a sweltering July day in the 1980s. With compassion I float past her, kick and turn into my mid-thirties: newly divorced, in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, working with drug addicts and street people at San Francisco General Hospital and finding my own independent sea legs again.
In this way, I swim through my life, reaching back to my fortieth birthday, when I insisted that six of my friends accompany me to Ocean Beach and dip naked in the freezing waters of the Pacific. It was a bright, clear day in October, and I think I was afraid, as I officially entered middle age, that I would lose my vigorous body. My friends made me immerse myself four times, once for each decade, and afterward I shivered in the pure sunshine, feeling light and cold and heat and age and youth course through my bloodstream. In that moment I took a vow with every cell in me to keep moving, to keep stroking forward, reaching ahead to the ungraspable future, which slips through my cupped hands like water.
Alison Luterman lives in Oakland, California. Her new book of poetry, See How We Almost Fly, will be published in October.
Originally published in the September 2009 issue of MORE.