I’m heading out along the bobbing dock to swim south along the shore of Lake Champlain for a couple of miles in my leisurely version of the Australian crawl. I have a book to work on this week, and I’m recalling an essay by William Stafford titled “Writing the Australian Crawl”, a celebration of how that’s what writing is like when you are on, moving in intimate rapport with your chosen element. I’m not fast in the water and I doubt that I’m graceful, but I love to lie sleek and low, turning my head as little as possible when I must take in air, stroking the water without shaking it.
I love lake water best for swimming. Head down in the lake, I delight in the glow of green and golden amber light. Maybe some fresh pages of my new book will come to me as I stroke, but in truth I don’t swim with any agenda but to swim.
I wrote a piece about that and I’d like to offer it again here:
In the Subtle City, a teacher of the Way sees five of his students returning from swimming in the Great Pool. With a twitch of his lips, he makes them stop in midstride and sit with him under a flowering tree. He tells his students, “I wish each of you to tell me why you swim.”
The first student leaps up wihout shyness, muscles rippling. “I swim to beat all the others. I swim so I will be made captain of the swim team, and sent to swim meets in the City of Milk and the Archipelago of Delight. I swim so all will respect me and my name will be inscribed on our city’s rolls of honor.”
The teacher nods. “It is no bad thing for a young man to want to win. The spirit of competition in your spirit makes you excel. No harm. You may keep doing what you are doing.”-
The second student says, with quicksilver in his smile, “I swim because I love the water, I swim so I can feel like mer-man, at home in this element.” He blushes just a little because he is in love with a water sprite.
“It is good to know your element. You may continue to play with the water spirits.”
The third student is round-faced and solid and a little slow in his body and his speech. “I cannot deceive you, master,” he says at last. “I swim so I can eat and drink whatever I like and laze around the house when I am not in your classes.”
“It is good to recognize the dynamic harmonies of life. You are seeking balance as best you can. You may carry on.”
The fourth student is very serious. His high forehead and little round glasses suggest he is already devoted to a life of study and austerities. “I swim as a mental discipline and a mode of meditation. Sometimes, as I swim laps, I go through the sixty-four hexagrams of the Book of Changes and then through the changing lines, observing the laws by which one pattern turns into another.”
“You are enlightened. Please continue.”
The teacher of the Way inspects his fifth student.
A drop of pool water is slipping down this student’s inner thigh from his wet bathing costume. When it reaches the ground, the fifth student says, “I swim in order to swim.”
The teacher of the Way rises from his seat among the roots of the ancient flowering tree. Using his staff to help him bend his aged knees, he squats before the fifth student.
The teacher says, “I sit at your feet. You are my teacher.”