Nov 17, 2021 • 2M

From an old city by the sea #3

Studies in minor details: Too long after we arrive, we finally go swimming—in search of a dazzling shore. Plus: a swimming lesson from Mao and Khrushchev.

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Short audio notes to accompany a newsletter about how we seek and tell stories to make sense of a changing world—and our personal and collective place in it.
Episode details

Before we begin: press play for an extended reading of a passage from one of my favorite Cheever stories. It’s about a man who, in a sudden fit of inspiration, decides one day to swim through the pools of the upper-class houses that populate his neighborhood to get home, and the hallucinatory turn his journey takes. (It shares the same spirit as another short story I read from, by Steven Millhauser, in this previous letter.)

His own house stood in Bullet Park, eight miles to the south, where his four beautiful daughters would have had their lunch and might be playing tennis. Then it occurred to him that, by taking a dog-leg to the southwest, he could reach his home by water. His life was not confining, and the delight he took in this thought could not be explained by its suggestion of escape. In his mind he saw, with a cartographer’s eye, a string of swimming pools, a quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county. He had made a discovery, a contribution to modern geography; he would name the stream Lucinda, after his wife. He was not a practical joker, nor was he a fool, but he was determinedly original, and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure. The day was beautiful, and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty.
—John Cheever, “The Swimmer

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Dear readers,

This is the last of my personal dispatches from Croatia. I wrote fragments of it months ago, and finally pieced them together into something coherent so I can close the chapter on my time there: as one of the places W.C. and I, citizens of different countries, could both enter and stay in together during the pandemic. Does anyone else feel like their heads are bound up in chapters—of all the things yet to record, threads yet to pull at, contradictions yet to resolve, in order to move on to the next chapters? I feel like this constantly, both in documenting the external world and my own.

Part of the reason I left this for so long, and I fall into this trap almost every time I write something personal, is, I asked myself, So what? Does anyone actually want to read about me observing my surroundings? It has to do with the current moment, when just about everything else happening in the world feels more pressing. I have to remind myself that I mostly write for myself, to remember; and I started this newsletter to keep myself writing more outside work—to give myself permission to explore the minutiae of places and environments more keenly, as practice that I know will, in turn, sharpen both my observational and writing skills and how I make connections between things. In many ways, writing or creating for myself has always been a greater motivation for me than writing to to sources of authority. In primary and high school, I built websites about things I found interesting and made actual paper newsletters while procrastinating on homework. In the adult world, it’s harder to do that without serious consequences, but this newsletter has granted me something of a halfway house.

Anyway, I realize I often preface my letters with thoughts on writing, and I hope it hasn't been too repetitive for the non-writers among you. But I look back on previous letters now and find it interesting to remember how I felt about writing at certain points in time—whether I am doing it (Am I doing it right?) or not doing it (Am I doing enough?). With this letter, I was encouraged to make something of the fragments I had jotted down after reading Deborah Levy’s autobiographical Real Estate. She’s so deft at elevating the simple details of life, which we’ve all surely come to appreciate more in this pandemic, to connect with larger themes—segueing smoothly from one memory into the next, and the next. Every detail on its own can seem insignificant, but strung together they make up a lively tapestry of meaning. I don’t dare say I was trying to do what Levy does; this letter was simply an attempt at freewriting to discover what surfaces.

P.S. There’s a bonus at the end—a story about Mao and Khrushchev and that time they went swimming.

From a moment and place already left behind:

Searching for a patch to lie on. Photo is mine.

The sea salt has curled our hair in places, misted our skin. We wear our straw hats slant across our faces and lie on our backs to dry off on towels spread across a concrete slab, paved between craggy rocks. We can hear the waves slapping against the shore, bright green Aleppo pines swaying overhead—and every so often, the breeze sends a rustling through the leaves, casting dancing shadows on our faces, shaking spiky brown filaments and pinecones down on us. Earlier, I had seen ants scurrying in their midst, and try to keep a childhood memory from intruding: sudden stabbing pains deep inside my ear, my parents driving me to the nearest clinic as I whimper in the backseat, the doctor tipping in an oily solution to wash out a pinprick of a creature that didn’t look like it could possibly have caused so much trouble.

It’s the late afternoon, and we’ve spent several hours at Divovici “Beach”, emerging every so often from the water just so we can dive in again off the steel ladder that has been affixed into rock and cement—left rough and rugged in places so that what’s manmade segues seamlessly into the natural, and smoothed over in other places to provide concrete sunbeds. I relish feeling the current course all along my body as I push deeper into the water, its glacial weight slicking my hair back onto my scalp as I come up for air. Sometimes, we tread into pools of iciness and it’s a jolt to the whole being, reanimating bodies that have been hunched too long over laptops. W.C. likes to open his eyes underwater while I prefer to keep mine closed. Despite all the hours of my life that I’ve spent underwater, I never learned to condition myself to the seawater’s sting on my eyeballs.

Diving off into the Adriatic. Photo is mine.

It’s been a long time since either of us has been to the beach. I grew up taking swimming lessons until I turned twelve—I want to say every evening except the weekends, though that sounds like a lot. As far as amateurs go, I was a fairly strong swimmer, won some medals. I swam less frequently in secondary school but made its reserve team. I took secret pride in beating an Aussie girl who was bigger and taller than me in a hundred-meter freestyle race. The body retains the memory of the strokes, the breathing. But after that, I never swam regularly again—occasionally in home and public pools, occasionally in the sea. Despite growing up in tropical Malaysia on family holidays by beaches and waterfalls and, a handful of times, on sputtering wooden boats where I first marveled at an injured sea cucumber that had washed up on deck—Daddy, how is it possible that a vegetable bleeds?—I’ve rarely felt the urge to go swimming, to sink my feet into burning white sand. I sometimes think I prefer the idea of flinty desolate beaches, the kind I’ve seen in Dorset or Lima or in mysterious movies, where I might be dressed in a coat rather than a bikini, sitting on a large piece of driftwood, watching the waves roll in and out while I read a book—though this season here in Dubrovnik might well change my mind. I’ve changed my mind before, after Rawa, after Canggu. It’s also true that when I glide into water, anywhere, it is always with practiced ease, and I always ask myself why I don’t pine for this underworld more often.

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