Swimming is her favorite state of being: ‘Chronology of Water’

From the moment I saw its title, “Chronology of Water,” I trusted this book. I continued to trust it as I read, even as Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir diverged from my experience, my point of view and my deepest beliefs.

I trusted because water speaks to me, too. Maybe it speaks to all of us. Only, these days, I’m listening. So is Lidia Yuknavitch.

“In the water the swimmer feels weightless. The blue of the pool fills her ears and holds her body and shuts out the world,” Lidia writes in “The Pull,” a short story in her new collection, “Verge.” Many of these stories echo her real-life experiences before branching off into another fictional life. The emotion stays the same, though: “Swimming is her favorite state of being. On land, the swimmer can barely breathe.”

In Chronology of Water, Lidia tells her life cycle of being more at home in water than on land, detailing the deep anger and abuse of her early life and tracing, in utterly original language, her path to a reconciliation through words. Her project is to “rebuild the wreckage of a life a word at a time.”

Green swimming pool next to dark blue ocean
Photo by Marc-Antoine Roy on Unsplash

Three times a week these days, I seek this other world in a relative fishbowl—the YMCA pool near my house. It’s not distant or wild, but it is another element. Outside the floor to ceiling windows is a parking lot crusted with re-frozen snow, limited by gravity. Inside, is warm blue, a world metered not by the cycle of seasons but by my breath. I leave earth for a while, while I swim. I always have. Bodies of water—lakes, rivers, pools, oceans—have always drawn me to them.

This, I share with Lidia. Also water as a potential route of escape.

“I went swimming in the river alone every night that week,” Lidia writes about the fallout after nearly drowning—a willful act—kayaking while high. “At a spot where hoodlums and teens got drunk and jumped in to shoot the rapids. Nobody cared that I was there. Or that I was older than them. Or alone. In nightwater, I didn’t have to feel what people are supposed to feel. In water, like in books—you can leave your life.”

“There is a way for anger to come out as an energy you let loose and away,” she writes. “The trick is to give it a form, and not a human target. The trick is to transform rage.”

My experience is vastly different than Lidia’s. I grew up in a family in which love, not rage, poured from life to life like the water through the levels of the tiny fountain in my writing room. Still, I know from close contact what it’s like to receive not love but anger, abuse, and manipulation poured generation by generation. What can a person do with that inheritance?

From inside deep anger I hope Lidia’s words are true: that rage can change form from destructive to useful or even essential the way water can change from a polluted flood to a pure trickle in a stream, a faucet, a cup.

Lidia finds sanctuary in a place that seems familiar to me: a “green world” of a house she shares with a man she loves, their art and their child. She seeks the same things I do, and we end up in much the same place.

“In our forest we gave art to life, and life to art made us,” she writes, recreating a Shakespearean chiasmus, “Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.”

Besides different live experiences, Lidia and I diverge in two philosophical ways:

Lidia’s done a lot of drugs, and despite the chaos substances introduced to her life, she writes that getting high is essential to making art; that Art (in the general sense) couldn’t exist without drugs.

Call me square, but I disagree. I do believe that altered consciousness of some kind is almost always necessary for creating—rather than simply reacting or surviving. But this altered mind can come from many different things: meditation, exercise, sex, or simply paying close attention. Substances are just one avenue, and arguably the most destructive one. I think an act as simple as dropping into a body of water is enough to spark creation. The real high is figuring this out.

And she rejects (not just ignores) God, faith, church. At one point late in the memoir, she creates her own sanctuary:

“I am in a midnight blue room. A writing room. With a blood red desk. A room with rituals and sanctuaries. I made it for myself. It took me years. I reach down below my desk and pull up a bottle of scotch. Balvenie. 30 year. I pour myself an amber shot. I drink. Warm lips, throat. I close my eyes. I am not Virginia Woolf. But there is a line of hers that keeps me well: ‘Arrange whatever pieces come your way…'”

We have two different approaches to life and to art, but we both find ourselves in water. I love this. I’ve learned so much from this memoir.

Water shows up for Lidia at critical points in her life: childhood, sexual awakening, the death of her first child, the birth of her second. The near death of her abusive father and her escape from his pull. Loves, losses, discoveries, frivolous night swims. Water is there for her–the way water has been here for me at other critical junctures. Maybe this is true for everyone. As humans, we can’t go a day without water in some form. But Lidia and I are paying attention.

If we ever ended up in the same YMCA pool, Lidia would swim me out of the water. She’s the big girl in the next lane lapping me over and over, but we’re in the same pool all the same because we both know what it means to show up. And every time I get in the pool lately, I wonder what workout she’s swimming today.

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