A few years ago, over the winter, I read a book called How to Read Water, a guide to the “rare art of natural navigation.” I enjoyed the book, but I was unsatisfied with it in a way that I couldn’t put my finger on. It wasn’t until the next spring, when I swam in open water again, that I understood why: the book teaches how to read water from above it, from land or from the deck of a boat. I wanted to learn how to read water from within it.
It’s hard to navigate from the water. That’s why open water swimmers need kayakers to keep us on course during races (thank you, kayakers). But it’s not that we don’t see. We have a different view. I remember the first time AJ the kayaker and I went to the lake together. We were approaching a rocky point, and I had my head down, watching the bottom rising up beneath me until it was shallow enough to stand. When I did stand, AJ expressed relief. He said he was about to warn me to look out for the rocks. And I laughed: I had been looking at the rocks. AJ saw the water from the surface up. I saw it from the surface down.
In my day job, I often teach an Old English poem called “The Dream of the Rood.” The work exists in two copies: one handwritten in a tenth-century manuscript, the other carved into the sides of an eighth-century stone cross, five meters high. My students and I talk about the difference between reading while sitting in a chair, looking down at a book or a screen and turning pages or scrolling, and reading while standing under a tall stone sculpture, looking up and walking around it. In the first case, you read by moving the poem; in the second, you read by moving you.
That’s how it is with reading water: you read by moving you. I read the current from comparing how fast I’m moving to how hard I’m working. I read the depth of the water from its color darkening as I swim out into the lake and then lightening as I near land again. In Lake Jocassee, the water I know best, I can read how close I am to one of the cold mountain creeks which run into the lake from a drop in water temperature.
I want to learn how to read different waters. Last November, I went to Baja California, where I swam in a shallow cove in the Sea of Cortez, my husband watching from the beach. The first day I set out in bright sunshine through light green water. Then abruptly, maybe a half mile across the cove, the water turned dark brown. I stopped and stared in front of me. Incomprehension felt like fear. What did it mean?
Absurdly, I thought of a time, 30 years ago, when I got off a train in Brussels. I was meeting a friend, and I was nervous about my French. As I stood on the platform, a man spoke to me. I understood nothing — absolutely nothing. In that moment, my friend appeared, and looking at my face, he said, “It’s OK. He was speaking Dutch.”
I was alone, and I understood nothing. For all I knew, the water was speaking Dutch. But there was only one thing to do: you read water by moving you. Cautiously I started swimming forward. After fifty or a hundred yards, just as abruptly, the water turned green again, and then a bit later brown and then green as I moved across the cove. And then I swam back and met my husband on the beach.
Sometimes when you’re reading, you have to accept not understanding. You mark a line or a passage for later so that you can return to it and try again. That evening, I lay in bed and thought about the color change. Probably it was the effect of patches of dark volcanic rock on the sea floor. But I didn’t know. I swam across the cove next day, not knowing. Thinking back on it, I still don’t know for sure.
But I remember the blue of the sky, and the taste of the salt, and a little dot on the beach, my husband, waiting for me.
Last week, the world lost a great man. His name was Charles van der Horst. I met Charlie through swimming, but the more I learned about him and his life, the more I admired him. From his work caring for patients with HIV/AIDS to his advocacy for social justice to his articles about his own mental health struggles, encouraging others to seek help, he changed people’s lives. He made the world a better place. He saw what needed to be done, and he took up the work.
Charlie drowned during a swim, during a well-established, well-run, well-respected event. I don’t understand. Nobody understands. But I do understand that we can’t hold still, turning over the memories of his life. We have to act in the world, taking those memories with us. The way to honor him is the same as the way to read water: by moving ourselves.
May Charlie’s memory be for an eternal blessing.