“Ten Thousand Lakes” by Kimberly Peterson

Kimberly lives in Ontario, Canada.


An arthritic hip brought me here; water aerobics and swimming laps acting as the panacea to replace the failure of physiotherapy and massage. Self-doubt flutters around in my rib-cage like a trapped moth until I see the braces and surgical scars of the other women waiting for class. I belong in this group.

I read the posted signs, mostly the usual fare: Swim at your own risk; No diving. A few stand out, one which outlines three lanes for swimming laps and one for everything else. Another sign explains proper pool attire. The diagram singles out the modest swimwear that Muslim women wear and lists allowable fabrics: nylon, spandex. Not very welcoming. Do other materials contaminate the pool? I wear a two piece swimsuit somewhere between the skimpy bikinis of youth and Muslim modesty.

I am encouraged by the words of a classmate with hip pain following my path. “Months of physiotherapy with no improvement. After whiplash, I swam every day. The water healed me.”

Alternating between aerobics class and swimming laps, I cherish the clean scent of chlorine. While I lumber along on land, like a seal my body slices through sumptuous ripples slurping against the concrete border. I relish the strength in my arms that thrusts me forward.

I seek the rejuvenation, the harmony of body and surroundings, portrayed in a picture mounted above the pool’s shallow end. A youthful woman arches her back as if to cup the crescent moon while air bubbles surround her. She trusts the air in her lungs to lift her to the surface after her dive.

Today, I occupy this harmonious place until a woman cuts across my lane in clear violation of pool rules. I’m plunged back into my aching hip and the cool water. How selfish. On the shallow end of my next lap, I notice the concentration on her face, her modest swimsuit, that she is buoyed by both a floatation belt and pool noodle while she struggles to dog-paddle along the wall. Another lap and I am forced to stand up as we nearly collide. Although irritated, I smile.

This provides an opening for her. She asks me how I float on my back. I am unable to explain this, I just fall onto my back and the water supports me. She asks how I propel forward in this position. I demonstrate the lemniscate shapes I carve in the water with my hands. She shares her story of emigrating from an arid land of conflict with three young children. Shortly after they arrived in this country, they encountered their first pool with a slide. Her three-year old, believing all slides end in the sand, managed to squirm away to race down that slide. Although she could not swim, she plunged into the deep end and miraculously dragged him to the surface to hand him to safety. She cannot explain how she managed this. When the water began to swallow her, she thought, Allah, I am not afraid to die, but now is not my time. I still need to raise my children.

She woke up in the intensive care unit at the beginning of another journey, this one a month-long path to return home. She tells me, “People see dying as difficult. Death comes easily, the challenge lies in living.”

“So brave of you to return to a pool, but why?” I ask. “Water holds the power to harm or heal. Now that we live in a land of ten thousand lakes, I must learn to swim as an example for my children.” Her accent hints at struggles beyond learning to swim. I recall imagines of cities reduced to rubble, of families fleeing down dusty roads only to find barbed wire borders blocking the path to safety. Why begrudge her a few feet at the end of my borrowed lane?

On the way out of the pool, I stop to read the eight by ten-inch plastic-coated sheet titled “Pool Configuration Lane Options” buried amongst a multitude of other instructions. Difficult to find and confusing to read for anyone new to the language. As I pay more attention to the languages spoken around me, my hip pain diminishes in significance. I watch for opportunities to help newcomers find buoyance in their adopted home. The immigrant women I encounter remind me that to receive the rejuvenation offered in a land surrounded by thousands of lakes, you have to wade into the water.