Not Swimming

Blue water and sand

Blog by Natalie McGrath

The last time I swam and submerged myself in water was the 28th December 2019.

It was a lagoon. It was about 25 degrees out of the water and around 15 in the water maybe 16. We were on holiday and travelling home that day so it was my last time in waters I never thought or could have imagined I would swim in.

The lagoon was swollen and full in a way I hadn’t experienced in the two weeks we were there. Full to the brim, but not yet high tide.

Salt on my lips tasted for the last time. Water up to my chest standing and my confidence growing in the sea.

I was a beginner in the ocean having only just learnt to swim at the age of 44. Four years ago.

A milestone then in my young swim life.

Deepest greens with aqua marine and fish swimming along beneath us with their mouths open wide.

Sea seduction growing in my heart.

Water with magical powers to lift the spirit and the soul.

We had finished the year in this way in a warm place as cancer had dominated 2019, my partner having been diagnosed and then treated for a rare form of it, and we wanted to mark the years end on a celebratory note. To escape long hospital corridors, the looming general election results and the politics that weren’t ours that dominated the headlines.

I was grateful to be getting away. Thankful beyond words for the NHS. My partner was well and alive and the tumour was shrinking. I was relieved as earlier in the year something like this seemed impossible.

Each day I thought: Thank fuck. Thank fuckety fuck fuck fuck.

Then we came home and I got sick. Some kind of cold or flu or coughing virus that lasted about six weeks that hit so many people in Exeter. There was no pool time for me and by the time I was starting to feel like I could start to swim again the world started to change.

Then the pools closed.

And my body.

I started to miss swimming.

To miss the water.

Being in it under it is like travelling to another world. Each time another world anew. Light bouncing off its surface. Here there are no words spoken out loud no noise from the daily traffic of daily life. Here there is barely any sound at all.

Silently and slowly as the news before us unfurled and became something addictive. Something to cling to as we searched for answers and for hope and for meaning in this moment that we weren’t yet quite sure would have the impact it has eight weeks later. As the early stats presented each morning on the news started to disappear as things became more serious than we could have imagined I realised I had to forget about the water.

And so under lockdown I silently crave it.

I learnt to swim later in my life and I wasn’t prepared to fall in love with it. I just wanted to get by on a big holiday a few years back. To be with the children in the family in the water.

To be with J in the water. Just the two of us.

It was her bravery that led us to that moment. To our first lesson.

I was terrified as we approached the pool for our first lesson together. Hiding my body with a long t-shirt.

I felt a lot of shame in those early days of learning.

Shame and then some small crackles of excitement which was really probably fear.

The deep end was 3.5 metres. Fuck that I thought. Not going anywhere near that.

Before I fell in love with the water.

Before I found myself in the water.

Before I discovered I had a body and that it was beautiful.

Especially in the water.

So eventually I did go to the deep end. Shaking from the inside out. Tidal waves of fear.

In the water I learned to let go.

In the water I discovered a new home.

That first lesson was bizarre. Younger kids leaping in. Laughing like they lived in the pool.  Like they owned the water. Not the other way around.

I didn’t want to put my head under the water. J didn’t want to be above it.

Our instructor held us fast in the confusion.

For half an hour a week.

But we needed something to shift.

Something more silent and meditative. We needed to learn how to just be in water before we thought about swimming.

So we went to Wales and ‘swam’ without stress.

Learnt to be in water in a new way.

That’s when I think I started to write about being in the water. Privately. On my own. For myself. Until now.

Swimming has brought me a new sense of awareness.

It has been a revelation.

An immersion on a biblical scale.

A release from the increasing levels of anxiety I suffer.

Helping me face them in a totally different way.

Through a meditative bodily act.

My body leads my mind.

That’s new. Letting the chattering stop.

Being a writer means it is so often the other way around.

And I was tired of this.

So tired of the knots and contradictions living in my head.

I needed something new.


So now in this time when I am safe and currently well and J thankfully is well too. I am dreaming of water and being in water. Of swimming and the coldness that a river can bring or the swell of the ocean as it catches your breath even though last year was the first year I ventured just a little out of my depth and felt the thrill of confidence not being held by land but by something way bigger than me by the magnitude of the ocean. AND wanting more.

I am a water baby now.  A pond tourist.

Interested in the solitude being submerged brings. To the disappearances that can momentarily take place. From the world. From myself.  Just the sound of the ocean around  me enveloping me.

When I swim again I will put my head under the line of the water. I will do it for as long as I can. Letting air slowly out of my lungs until I have to come up for air. It is my favourite part of being in water. Not learning to crawl. Even though I love that too. The crawl and the rhythm it brings and I will write about this at another point. Easier in a warm pool than the coldness river or sea water brings.

I miss the ritual and nods of hello as the outdoor pool finally opens in April. I go on the first day usually and those of us who are obsessed by the water see one another again, not knowing one another’s names, we are the devoted, the regulars, the tourists who have to seek out water wherever life takes them and most of us probably couldn’t fully explain why. And on that first day it is usually nippy when you get out but worth it for the sting of April on your skin. Not yet warm enough to languish in.

In every city and town I used to go to I would seek out water.

Now I walk to reduce my need and I garden to reduce my need and I listen to the news and weep as the death toll rises and I forget about my need and I watch the end of D.I.Y S.O.S, where it helps someone in desperate need of help and I cry like a baby even though I didn’t see the whole programme but the way it makes everyone involved emotional and connected to one another helps me see something else and gives me hope what we need is as much hope as possible at the moment. And kindness. Kindness. For one another. For ourselves. As we begin to move back in the world a wee bit wearier than before.

(And maybe at some point when the time is right some water to swim in.)

Until then we move with a different kind of current beating against waves of a different kind.

I hope that you are all staying safe and well.

Natalie McGrath