Lately, I walk in pools. I call it swimming; I say, “I’m going swimming,” but mostly I walk. I wear a vintage-style swim cap, robin’s-egg blue with cream strap at my chin; a blue racerback one-piece suit; lavender water shoes; clear goggles; and a waterproof mp3 player that tucks behind my ears, hugging my neck. I walk through the water with foam weights and listen to short stories. Deborah Treisman’s voice introducing the New Yorker fiction podcast now reminds me of chlorine and the musty smell of puddles languishing on cement.
It took me a long time to find a new exercise I loved. It used to be dancing; I would spend at least a couple of days a week in high school doing ballet, jazz, tap. My favorite was “lyrical” because it allowed me to indulge my emotive inclinations, performing to songs like Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life,” a song which even in high school I knew was uncool, but still adored.
It's harder to dance as an adult (as this adult)—it can be expensive and depending on where you live, difficult to find classes geared toward adults who once danced, but who no longer want to do backward rolls on unpadded floor or spin until they are dizzy. I haven't given up finding that good match again, but for now, I swim. I know I must look comical to other people if they notice me at all—bug-eyed and purple-clad, a 33-year-old woman engaged in her own solitary water aerobics.
Part of the beauty of the pool is the other people there. That is what’s scary about it too; I’m afraid for people to see me in a swimsuit in this constantly-new and heavier body, afraid of being that weird woman that walks in the pool amidst kids slapping each other with noodles, the efficient lap swimmers, the new teenage lifeguards getting trained how to rescue. Or at least I was afraid of that until I decided not to care.
Over the past five years, my body has changed; I’ve gotten older of course, but also more stressed, particularly due to being a low-paid TA and uncertain Ph.D. student (and in this country at this time). I’ve gained a significant amount of weight and sometimes I look in the mirror and think, “Who is this?” Sometimes I feel so very tired that even walking through the muggy Georgia air feels like too much. So, I head to the pool. I don’t go to lose weight; I go to feel like a body. That I have one, am in one, that I recognize it and know it as mine. I am capable, I then feel, of powerfully moving through space.
I want to be clear: it isn't the fact that I've gained weight that makes me seek a connection to my body. It's the stress that surrounds me that feels the most alienating. I am trying my best to undo the work this culture has done to me, the damage that tells me fat = some kind of failure. It doesn't. To quote my friend, the writer Rebekah Frumkin in a recent social media post on body positivity and the persistence of fatphobia; "you don't earn your humanity by being 'healthy,' whatever that means!" My body is not a failure and neither am I. It’s the world that continues to overwhelm.
Until Ann Helen Peterson’s essay in Buzzfeed, “How Millenials Became The Burnout Generation.” I never fully labeled what the last few years have felt like. Peterson says, characterizing the shared reasons for millennial burnout:
We’re deeply in debt, working more hours and more jobs for less pay and less security, struggling to achieve the same standards of living as our parents, operating in psychological and physical precariousness, all while being told that if we just work harder, meritocracy will prevail, and we’ll begin thriving. The carrot dangling in front of us is the dream that the to-do list will end, or at least become far more manageable.
Peterson talks specifically about graduate school as where she learned, in particular, that she should be working constantly. She talks about errand paralysis and I certainly have that—the packages that sit in my room for months, the email I just can’t seem to compose. But it’s bigger than that too; I have been sitting on an (unpaid) book review for a year and my (unpaid) interview blog lays dormant.
I am terrified to write this because I don’t want to seem “lazy.” And in so many ways I've worked so hard for so long. But there, nagging at the back of mind is the idea that I will never pay back my student loans, even despite the fact that I recently signed a contract for actual, full-time post-graduate employment. I needed those loans to pursue my degree and to get this position, but I will never have financial security and, in addition to other illnesses, this will always make me tired. I hear conservative people around me in Michigan and Georgia and on the news blame me for this debt, for deciding to follow this path and their refusal of the systems we live within exhausts me even more.
But in the water, at least, I am at momentary ease. For once, it doesn’t feel like self-care in the way that self-care can feel like one more thing to do, one more thing to fail at. But it does take time and sometimes I fail to carve it out. In my favorite pool, in Michigan, the sun shines in a wall of glass windows as I make my way around the perimeter. In some ways, I am still multitasking with my earbuds in, but I try to stick to only interviews and stories that feel like diversion. I am trying to have fun again with stories and writing and books. I listen to author interviews and hear writers I admire talking about why they are doing this thing I am trying to do. I move through the water, through the stale air of the indoor pool, through this corner of Michigan. The resistance of the water tires me pleasantly, but I don’t feel it—not yet. I am in a solitary world where literature matters, where people’s talk about devoting their entire lives to it fills and fills my ears.
Lindsay Tigue is the author of System of Ghosts, which was the winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize. Tigue writes fiction and poetry and has been published in journals such as Verse Daily, Blackbird, and the Indiana Review. She was a Tennessee Williams scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a James Merrill fellow at the Vermont Studio Center, and a former assistant to the editors at the Georgia Review. She is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University and is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia.
Read earlier posts from WALKING THROUGH here.