Place strategy

The place that is water

I remember the first person I saved from drowning.


A little girl, blithely descending from the diving board into 13 feet of water, then quietly, with remarkably little noise, refusing to come back to the surface. Underwater, eyes as big as plates, the hands of a six-year-old scratch my neck with surprising force. It was my first summer on the job as a teenage lifeguard. I would end up patrolling all kinds of waters, from pools to beaches, but that very first rescue stuck with me.

After I pulled her out of the scuba tank, her siblings gathered around her, thrashing loudly: Why did you jump? You can’t swim! She immediately burst into tears. The truth was she had jumped anyway, the lure of the water was too great for her to refuse.

Rescue taught me that water is a liminal space, holding all infinity for us somewhere between life and death. A pool encircles us in a neat, orderly rectangle, but there are other, more porous boundaries that can be harder to reckon with – not just between life and death but between us and our fears, between what we we can see and all that is not visible, under the surface.

Getting to know a place from the water can be sublime – it combines awe and terror, beauty and risk.

The place that is water is a place that travels. As much as water is a real place to enter with your body, it also lives in the spirit. Getting to know a place from the water can be sublime – it combines awe and terror, beauty and risk. It’s no wonder we have a romance with the people who watch over us while we’re there, who keep us on the right side of the line between this life and what lies beyond.

At my municipal swimming pool, I swim with a French woman who regularly brings pastries to the lifeguards, as a sign of respect. This summer, on a swimming tour of Europe, I thought of that nice gesture in London, when I visited the famous bathing ponds of Hampstead Heath and watched the lifeguards paddling on surfboards. I read in a book that Katharine Hepburn once went to the Ladies’ Pond. She brought biscuits as an offering to the rescuers, to enjoy with their tea.

While in London, I also made a pilgrimage to Hyde Park, where the sparkling sample of Serpentine Lake has quirks like floating duck eggs and a bright green pondweed clinging to you for the rest of the day. The only swimmers allowed in the lake early in the morning are those of the Serpentine Swimming Club, Britain’s oldest. Members are permitted by Royal Parks to swim every day of the year from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., without lifeguards, as each has passed a 50 meter swim test. I consider this potamot a badge of honor.

My father was a lifeguard at the Hong Kong pool where he met my mother. Perhaps it was inevitable that my brother and I would also learn to survive water, and then to love it. We joined the swim team and became lifeguards ourselves. We gave swimming lessons and, in turn, invited others to fall in love with the water. Twenty-five years later, I have succeeded in transmitting this love to my two children.

Although I grew up in New York City on the beaches of Long Island, my sons learned to swim at our local community pool in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we now live. As they grew, they too went through all the stages of the swim life cycle, improbably transforming from tadpoles to dolphins before triumphantly transitioning to swim team. It is an environment in which they can navigate comfortably.

Although my sons enjoy a pool, they are happiest in the ocean, bodysurfing in the shore break, their little shapes pushed by the force of a crashing wave. When I look at the Pacific or San Francisco Bay, I see waves and water, the promise they hold for us as swimmers and surfers. But I also see cold, fast currents; container ships; the view of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. These things tell me another story: it is a port city, a brooding city, a city of beauty and ambition and dangerous seas.

Every time I watch my sons swim and splash around in open water, whether at home in California or elsewhere, it’s with my heart in my throat. Look how fun they are. Look how much there is out there beyond my control.

The truth is that we all swim at our own risk.

Our summer swimming tour also took us to Amsterdam, where our family rented a small electric boat and ventured through the city’s canals. You can’t swim in the canals, one of the captains of the riverboats told us, but you can follow the narrow waterways that lead to the Amstel River, right in the heart of Amsterdam. The water here is relatively clean and you are free to cannonball as you please – just use your common sense and avoid the boat traffic.

Outside the stately 155-year-old Amstel Hotel, I jumped into the clear green river and swam a few laps along the waterfront as well-heeled diners gaped from the cafe terrace. My nine-year-old also jumped in and we glided together, happily marveling at our birds-eye view of this magnificence.

My husband took a picture: here we are immersed in a picturesque town which was formed in the 12th century around a dam on the Amstel. The sun shines on our goggles, water taxis ply the quayside, and the Grande Dame of Amsterdam and her eight lions on the roof serve as the backdrop.

What the photo does not show is my brain calculation as I note and calculate the dangers: water temperature, number and size of moving vessels and their trajectories, river currents, floating objects, proximity to the wharf or of the boat, time spent in the water, exit strategy. I’m forever that rescue-alert teenager, acutely aware of the tiny body in the water I’m caring for.

My children like to say that they always have a lifeguard: me. The truth is that we all swim at our own risk. I can’t save them from everything, as a parent or as a rescuer. I can only show them the portal to all those watery places, and how to stay afloat. One day they will swim. I’ll be able to follow them for a while, if I’m lucky. But I will never catch up.•

You Are Here is a monthly column that examines ideas about places and places in the West, written by members of the writers cave.