Swimming in Seoul: purgation through the pool

Swimming in Seoul: purgation through the pool

March 15, 20103177Views

By Thomas Reynolds

I almost drowned when I was about ten at Race Point off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, an island just south of mainland Massachusetts where Jaws was filmed.  Sucked in by a giant undertow, I was pulled from the safety of the shore to the depths of the ocean. marthas-vineyard-dusk-1024x673 Actually, it was probably only about the distance of fifty yards or so but to a ten-year-old, I might as well have been dropped into the middle of the sea. With all my struggling I was left in the same position, fucked.

Every time I managed to pull my head above the water, my breath was wasted on screams that went unheard and unnoticed by the laughing and lounging people playing and resting in the comfort of the sand.  With each breath I found myself farther and farther from the comfort of the shoreline.  All the while other children seemed to laughingly mock me from an ever increasing distance.  Pulled, turned and twisted I was lost.  For the first time in my life I felt it:  I was alone.  And at that moment a silence over came me.  The quiet, the absence of sound surrounded me.    The water giveth and the water taketh.

Memories of summer linger in this sub-zero morning in January as I tread through snow and cold saying to myself:  THE WATER GIVETH AND THE WATER TAKETH.  Needless to say I am no natural swimmer but I still do it in a controlled environment hoping to see what the water may giveth because I have seen how the water almost taketh me.  I am far removed from that summer on the Vineyard; literally a world away in frozen Seoul.  The Korea our grandparents remember, of GI’s frozen in foxholes, misery etched into each face. Black and white footage seen between the matinees of early 1950’s Americana.  It is cold, real cold with wind settling into bones and making a home there until spring.  The lesson of the Vineyard lingers as I approach the door.  And the honing over the door reads “Namsan Athletic Club” But I see it as:

“Abandon all hope all ye who enter here”

My frozen body in early morning, hung-over and hurting, asking myself, why? Why do I do this to myself?  I am alone again no real friends of family in this place only “drinking buddies” and “hook ups.”  Seems I’m drowning in a different sea these days.   But I remember hell is a place of our choosing.  So I begin the decent down the stairs.  About fifty steps down, d…o…w….n, d…o…w…n.  Damn, I really don’t want to be here this morning but I must see what the water may give today.  The cold outside gives way leaving only the chill lingering in my bones.  But the cold is replaced by the smell of the dying.  “Old man smells;” that strange odor only given off by those of retirement age.  This particular fitness club is not a place for the young. This is not California Fitness.  This is a place for the old and aged. swim2A place for faces and bodies ravaged by time or drink or both.  Old Korean men who have seen a far worse hell than I could ever imagine.  Their bodies and withered faces tell it all.   I see the horrors of war and the rapid industrialization of a country in weathered and wrinkly skin.  I’m sure some of these old wrinkly men have felt themselves drowning like me in a country they no longer recognize, but remember old men; hell is a place of our choosing.   And that’s why I chose this place. For the quiet emptiness and lack of techno music and the empty swimming pool that greets me.  So, I am here among comrades in hell though I occupy a higher circle in this hell.  I am still somewhat young after all. Though my dreams are few there are still some left to be dreamed. So maybe, I might find some hope. Strange I feel welcomed here among the withered and aged, right at home amongst the dead and dying.

I have a pre-swim ritual, almost like preparing for a sermon— the water sermon.  I slowly, carefully undress, noticing the wrinkles and flab that have taken over my body, going over each wrinkle, each bump and each piece of flab carefully scrutinized with hands that remember going over what used to be a somewhat athletic physique.  Then I pray. More like a grumble “why bother” chanting like a monk.  “It’s cold, “I’m tired,” “I’m cold,” “I’m tired.”  I’m hung-over and sick of this place. This smell, this hell, “What the fuck am I doing here?” I slowly undress and stagger toward the shower and the warm water teases me and reminds me of the chill and frozenness that resides within me. Naked and alone again quiet in this chapel-like room where men prepare for the worst but hope for the best.  Here is our confessional here the truth is revealed.  Here we are all naked and alone, chilled to the bone rubbing aging bodies wondering what happen to our youth. It is our second baptismal.  I am ready now to enter the inner sanctuary— to enter into the water sermon.

Smack!  My body hits the water and there is an instant loss of breath.  Pins and needles hit both body and soul.  Martha’s Vineyard all over again.  There 20080812_Laforet_Diving1__AF10603is no heat in this pool and it’s crazy how cold the water is but I remember hell is a place of our choosing.  This is a cold hell but there is an escape.  Motion.  Movement can save me.  And so begins my penance. Skin rising into tiny bumps is the first reminder that I am still alive.  There is now a flurry of cures that run through my mind.  Because in the water there is no place to vocalize, there is only silence with the occasional murmur of water sliding over serpentine skin.  Shedding with each stroke.  Here in these early moments of the water sermon there is no thought, there is only instinct.  Move. Move or drown; move or freeze; move or die.  I am convinced now that the world will end in ice.  A liquid ice that enveloped me that day many years ago.

The second part of the water sermon starts with the phrase “Arbiet Macht Frei”  bouncing in my head. Work will set you free. Work will set you free. Work will set you free.  I can see the metal sign hanging over that ominous gate, “Arbiet Macht Frei.”  There is a truth in that— that truth that comes into being in the second movement of the water sermon.  Arms and legs struggle to move in a coordinating manner.  Flapping around searching for a rhythm. Smack, smack, splash. Smack, splash, splash. Splash, splash, smack.  Move or drown, move or die. Arbiet Macht Frei. There is a heat dawning from within.  From my core I feel it faintly now.  I am growing in strength.  Arbiet Macht Frei!  I feel the water now more so than when it was stabbing me with icy fingers as it now moves smoothly down my back.  I am not fighting it anymore. I have given up— the sound of smacking and splashing has ceased.  I am alone in the water and in silence.  But I am not lonely. There is a change occurring in me a heat that is growing.  I am becoming motion, the water giveth and the water taketh.  Giving me strength, giving me back memories, giving me time to think with each lap.  In the water there is no time.  No work problems, No mother with Alzheimer’s, who won’t remember me when I finally make it back home.  No questions about marriage or kids.  No sins.  There is only motion and as the second part of the sermon ends I have found my rhythm.  Smack, smack, splash. Smack, smack, splash, smack, smack, splash.  I am moving now through wide water without sound.

Morning is giving way to afternoon and sunlight starts to pierce windowpanes so strange, so bright, strange fingers of light. I am all motion now I am the water sermon.  I am now in a place where thought and motion are one.  I am acquainted with this place like I am acquainted with a walk in the rain.  Back and forth and back and forth and back again.  Down drunken city lanes, etherized upon the alter of the water sermon.  Water can clean, burn, purify cheap nights in cheap hotels, finding the meaning of the many sins I swim from.  I feel them now sliding off my back muttering their retreats; this snake is shedding its skin. Arbiet Macht Frei. Now my motion is transparent and I am naked in the truest sense. There is only self now— I am free.

Here there is no right or wrong all is forgiven here, so I give more of myself into this motion into the water sermon: “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.”  This Buddhist phrase now takes over my motion and my mind.  This prayer of refuge. Also known as the Lotus Sutra.  Here I have found my refuge, shed my skin, acknowledged my sins and forgiven them. Work has set me free.  I am warm now, hot actually.  Now spirit and body are one and I remember why it is I do this.  I am laughing now here in the silence, water moving through my beard and I remember Walt Whitman and I love him and thank him for the image he has put into my head— he is here with me.  In the motion all are here: my mother and how she used to be; me, the me I want to be; the nameless poets crying out of the basement bars of Boston; old lovers; friends; family.  They can see me now and I am not scared of the nakedness the motion brings.

Here there is no body.  It time to be released from my refuge and go back to the true hell and the winter chill of a Korean January. The water has done it again. It has given me strength piece of mind and refuge. I have been resurrected and my faith in the motion and the truth of water has set me free.  The water has given and the water has taken.  And I remember back to that kid who heard the ocean say as it released him, as it giveth him back to life in motionless silence:  “see kid, you’ve learned something today.”

TL ReyTommy___pic[1]nolds came to Seoul from Boston seven years ago as a result of falling in love with a beautiful Korean woman. Ten years later he is still happily in love and working as a teacher, singer, song writer and poet. Loving adventure and never being published he decided to try his hand at writing. It seemed a natural step for a person who enjoys reading just about anything he can get his hand on. He decided to see how the other half (the writers) live. It turned out to be a bit more arduous than he thought. He can be reached at:





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