The generosity of water: Jessica J. Lee's swim memoir, Turning

Tuesday, June 6, 2017



In the weeks after my daughter was born, I wasn’t allowed to swim. I missed it desperately though and those eight swimless postpartum weeks felt like months. BUT, one Saturday, I was hauling children and car seats and emptied boxes of raisins out of the car and a woman showed up on my front lawn – a friend of swimmer/writer Jessica J. Lee, who had a book for me – Lee's swim memoir Turning: A Year in the Water, sent all the way from Berlin.

I e-met Lee months ago through Twitter (thanks Shawn!) and have been inspired by her swim-ventures ever since. I was fascinated and dumbstruck by her tweets about swimming in the coldest days of winter, packing a hammer and a toque (and I interviewed her here!)

"I'm at home in the water, and I'm not scared to be alone here," she writes.

In a single year, Lee decided to swim in 52 lakes around Berlin, in part to heal her broken heart, in part to reclaim the geography as her own. There is something so healing about submerging yourself in a different element – I can't count the number of times I have swam through deep grief, my goggles filling with tears I would have to empty in the shallow end. It is the closest thing to meditation as I have ever known and has saved me on too many occasions to count – broken hearts, lost loved ones, a failed dance career, debilitating injuries, postpartum chaos…

"There's a kind of offering in the generosity of water holding you afloat. In the way water holds feeling, how the body is most alive submerged and enveloped, there's the fullness of grace given freely,” Lee writes. Yes yes yes, I nodded while reading. Yes yes.

The rules for the project were: no swimming pools, no wetsuits. All the lakes had to be reachable by public transport, bike, or on foot. All had to be reasonable distances (i.e. day trips) from central Berlin.

Lee writes with depth and eloquence, weaving together her personal relationship to swimming and lakes, to the complications relationships of the geography of the lakes she swims in (swimming in lakes near former Nazi bunkers, and a lake that was once divided into East and West Germany by a line through its centre). It is a beautiful meditation on swimming and water and what it is to heal and find your strength once again

I am a fair-weather swimmer when it comes to outdoor swimming. I'm a summer swimmer, and even then it can take me forever to get in the water. I’ve never once even considered doing a polar bear dip, but Lee talks about the endorphin rush of swimming in the winter lakes, literally hammering her way through the ice, toque on, counting out her strokes, and I would find myself reading these winter passages faster, wanting to get the same rush vicariously through her winter swimming. I didn’t ever think that swimming in a frozen lake could be romanticized, but I caught myself dreaming of a trip to Germany next winter – toque, suit and hammer packed…

In reading Turning, I learned more about water than I have all my life – the physiology of lakes, the biology of lakes, how the temperature changes, how wind and depth and algae determine the quality of the water.

Until we three swimmers were swimming in the Gatineau River last summer, I hadn’t thought much about the different textures of water, but Rhya was fascinated by how silky the dark river water felt (turns out it comes from the many, many sunken and decomposing logs at the bottom of the river). And of course Lee explores the different textures of the water she swims in. “The water I grew up with was hard, cutting...the lake a whetted blade,” she writes of the Canadian lakes of her childhood. “The water in Berlin has a softness to it. Maybe it's the sands buffing the edges of the water like splinters from a beam. It slips over you like a blanket.”

“There's a safety in this feeling. In the lakes here, there's a feeling of enclosure and security that Canada can't replicate.”

(This is where it took all of my will power not to buy a plane ticket to Berlin…)

After swimming through heartbreak, three seasons in, Lee develops a friendship with another wild swimmer, Anne. Their connection is deep and generous in a way that swimming friendships are. I’m not exactly sure why, but swimming friendships are special, different somehow than other types of friendships. And as the two of them sought out the last few lakes in the 52-lake year, their friendship deepening and widening, the lakes: "became points of light in the landscape, generous, steady and incalculably beautiful.”


Jessica’s coming to Toronto this summer and we’re going to go swimming. I truly can’t wait.

You can buy the book here, or at your fav indie book shop!

Tuesday, July 11 from 6-8pm

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