When I was a toddler, I was told on a family hike not to play too close to a stream in case I fell in. Of course I did, although it wasn’t certain whether this was an accident or my own orchestration. I also drove my tricycle straight into the swimming pool. I was a small child, not fully aware of danger or the concept of defying my elders. I was however beginning to make choices, one of which entailed playing in water at all costs.
People who know me, know that I have an almost bizarre need to be in water. It is as if I need to return to that element from which we came. Colleagues I travel with joke that I am grumpy until I’ve had my swim and have learned that a hotel with a pool is my gold standard. And this weekend, at a retreat where I was one of the speakers, I was teased as the uber person out there at 6:00 a.m. getting a workout in. I don’t know how to explain that being in the pool had nothing to do with some compulsive need to maintain fitness. It is merely a by-product of a much deeper compulsion.
Virginia Woolf, in her essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” makes the feminist case that female writers need “a room of one’s own” and financial means in order to write. Otherwise, without quiet, solitude and time, too many elements intrude, inhibiting women from staking out a professional claim to their work.
Even as a young person, I sought out a “room of my own.” I was an only child so I had my own room at home but even in public spaces, I would stake out a private one. Many of my high school lunches were spent in the library where I could get a few moments to myself free of the social demands of teenage life.
I am now a woman. For better or worse, I am free of the domestic challenges Woolf claimed were such an obstacle for female writers. But nonetheless, there are plenty of distractions and demands that can rob me of my creativity, including my own work that helps finance my passions. Yet I have found that no matter how busy I am or how stimuli-overloaded I feel, if I can get myself into a body of water, my life force returns. It is my “room of my own” – the one place I can get away from everything, including my own mind. Underneath the water, I hear nothing but silence. Looking up at the sky from the water, I see no one but the hand of God. The water is my baptismal font, my ctrl-alt-delete, my rebooting and renewal. And although the exercise plays a role, it is so much more.
My favorite book, aptly named, “Crossing the Unknown Sea” addresses some of these themes. The author, David Whyte speaks of the need for rejuvenation if we’re to maintain our vocation. Quoting Joseph Campbell, he states, “You must have a place you can go to where you do not know what your work is or who you work for, where you do not know who you are married to or who your children are” (p.157). He then warns of how work can trap us in a type of “postmodern serfdom,” (p.163) if we’re not careful and don’t carve out niches of time for our deeper soul needs. Then while addressing how we so often say, “yes” to everything that can rob us of work/life balance, Whyte states: “With regard to our marriage with time, to say yes would be the equivalent of promiscuity, of faithlessness and betrayal. Stress means we have committed adultery with regard to our marriage with time” (181). Those two gorgeous sentences explain why I swim and surf. The water is my form of marriage counseling when too much is coming at me or when I’ve made other things my idols. It is how I keep myself from cheating on my own soul and God as well.