No Man’s Land

The pool at my gym is in a huge room, with a knotty pine ceiling, pierced by large, square skylights. The room is at least 20 feet tall, and the skylights are at least 15 feet across, so you feel like you are under the open sky if you look up. Or, if you are like me, prefer to swim the backstroke.

I say prefer there, like I have a quiver full of strokes available to me, but swimming is a skill I learned as an adult, so it’s pretty much backstroke, breaststroke, or sink. But it’s fine – I like the backstroke and the relaxed pace it forces upon me. It’s hard to stress about much when you are in the rhythm of the backstroke.

The guy in the lane next to mine, however, was doing the freestyle crawl, and he had lots of gear with him. He had a person who was timing his laps, and while I’m strolling along, leisurely stroking (Tickle, T, Touch. Tickle, T, Touch…), he is powering through. It’s obvious he is preparing for some form of competition.

I decidedly, am not. As I make my slow way down the lane, he passes me multiple times. Part of me feels some form of atavistic urge to accelerate,  some concern that he is doing better than I am, that he is somehow superior to me, somehow more masculine than I am.

As I swim down the lane, I am looking at the sky overhead – another reason I prefer the backstroke in this pool. The clear blue sky with traces of white clouds sail by, and the 25-meter pool has two and a half skylights under which I will pass as I swim each length. As the swimmer next to me flails past, I suppress the urge to push ahead, to be faster, to engage in some futile attempt at competition, and instead notice, high above, a jet airplane headed west, away from the airport.

I wonder briefly where they are headed, the people on that plane. Are they on a business trip, the fate of the account depending on their being sharp at the meeting to which they are headed? Is it for pleasure – perhaps a trip to see grandma, after almost two years apart because of COVID? Or an emergency trip home, because someone’s unvaccinated parent is about to be taken off the ventilator?

This passes through my head as I count my strokes, while Greg Louganis in the next lane is splashing for all he’s worth, and the time keeper shouts encouragement. I have to count my strokes, because this is not a pool designed for races, and thus has no row of flags near the end of the swim lane. Which means that if you lose yourself in your thoughts while doing the backstroke, you will smash your head into the wall of the pool.

As a person with ADHD, I have before described my inner monologue as actually like being in the electronics department at a store, where there is a wall of televisions, but all with the volume up and all tuned to different channels. At times I can tune into one, while the others drift into the background, but it always requires concentration to do, and if I relax too much, it all becomes just noise.

So here I am, counting my strokes – I hit the wall somewhere between 21 and 23, so at 21 I become careful. But while I’m counting my strokes, I’m also aware of swimmer guy in the next lane, and also balancing my urge to compete with my awareness that the vast sky is above me, seemingly going on forever (12, 13, 14). And it occurs to me that competitiveness is based on scarcity – the certainty that only one of us can win, that there are only so many ways to win, that the person in second place is the first loser, and all that – while the unfolding blue sky is a sign of the abundance that exists all around me, and (16, 17) there is no reason to think that I should be denied participation in that natural abundance.


I hit the wall. Hard. And not for the first time in my life, I reflect on the balance that I came up against in that moment, in the deep end of the pool, as I thrash about for air. The desire to live in my head, where I feel connected and integrated, and the necessity to maintain an awareness of the world around me so I do not hit my head on the wall, or lose my license because of a forgotten ticket, or watch undocumented folks get scapegoated.

That no man’s land on the border, between the aspiration of what could be and the stark reality of what actually is, seems to be my lot in which to dwell, and so I find myself here in the Deep South, living between Humidity and Hope.

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