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Women Who Swim

The purpose of this post is to see if we can arrive at an inspiring and actionable contribution to women’s social-spiritual potential. This topic would normally travel a route which passes by direct political matters, feminist theory, and so on. And it’s not that this post isn’t about those things, it’s just that my intention is to arrive at social-spiritual power by way of stories, symbols, and swimming — from which we work backwards to derive appropriate action.

Specifically, this post is about Trudy Ederle, the sea, post-God spirituality, and the symbol-story complex which all together point to a society which doesn’t just value the social-political-economic conditions of women, but also their enlightenment.

The following is a look at the real life of Gertrude “Trudy” Ederle, and how her experience, though exceptional in some ways, is perfectly common in others. The recurring pattern is what most interests us — as in, what makes Trudy an archetype of women’s spiritual and social power, or at least the drive towards that reality? Glenn Stout writes about young Trudy learning to swim with her sisters:

“She was floating, a strange sensation that was at once utterly new yet strangely familiar, a sensation that caused her first to gasp and then squeal, delighted to be suspended in the water, her arms and legs free to move about… Then, with Helen and Margaret often paddling along nearby, and giving their younger sister advice and encouragement, she slipped away from the piling and into the deeper water, paddling with her hands like they did, lifting her head up and kicking madly with her feet, trying to stay afloat. With each breath more of her fear and anxiety gave way and in their place came peace and joy. Helen and Meg gently teased their younger sister farther out, periodically allowing her to reach out and hang on and catch her breath, wrapping their arms around her, laughing and smiling as she beamed back at them. Trudy was equal now, just like them, exactly the same, able to do what they did.”

The first theme of the woman’s enlightenment is an affinity for water, which at once appears as a symbol for self-transcendence, and as a representation of women, per se, as in “that art thou”. Additionally, beyond an early love of water, scenes like the one above involve a kind of power-sharing that is non-exclusive. The power-with (or partnership model) dynamic frequently accompanies woman-centric stories and symbols. As with Trudy Ederle learning to swim with her sisters, one woman giving another the tools for spiritual growth does not tend to diminish her own experience in any way. In fact, having more people to swim with is likely seen as a good thing to everyone involved — and I would think we’d say the same about a world with more enlightenment.

As far as I can tell, the sea as a symbol and source of women’s power and potential fits within a long tradition of masculine-feminine structure in current and historical symbol-story complexes. Nearly every ancient culture depicted this, respectively, as Man and Mother Nature, Sun and Moon, Order and Chaos, Blade and Chalice, or (presently): Land and Sea. The sea, mythologically, is the ideal of the enlightened woman, to which every woman can aspire. Thus, women who encounter the sea as a powerful but friendly and familiar source of power dive deep and surface — they integrate their self-transcendent experience, such as the kind evoked by being in the sea, into their everyday being. Stout writes of Trudy Ederle:

“She would even tell people, ‘To me, the sea is like a person — like a child that I've known a long time. It sounds crazy, I know, but when I swim in the sea I talk to it. I never feel alone when I'm out there.’ For the rest of her life, like the tide itself, she would return to her conversation, again and again and again, with the sea.”

And Sherry Ruth Anderson includes in her book a similar experience from another woman:

“‘I was captivated by it as a little child,’ she told us. ‘The power of those waves, the continuous movement — I thought it was all just marvelous. I could feel the mystery in it and I loved it. Somehow I knew that the mystery that was in the sea was in me too… Although there really are no words to describe it, it was as if something said, This is me. This mystery is me. And this is love. This is your life. This is it. All at once, what was inside me and what was outside me came together in that experience. Now that struck me as mysterious and wonderful. I remember running down the beach saying, ‘I love you.’ Just running and saying over and over, ‘I love you, I love the sea, I love this thing in me. I love all of it.'“

In these examples it becomes clear that swimming to enlightenment isn’t an externally-imposed prescription, but a description of what is already happening and how it challenges us to help girls connect this to the symbol-story complex and channel the experiences into greater social-spiritual growth. “Swim girl, swim” isn’t a command to get in the water; it’s a cheer of encouragement for someone already in love with the sea.

But why the sea? Why swimming?

Because we can make a complete journey between the symbol-story complex, where women and the sea are one, to the spiritual matter of creating and maintaining a society and worldview where self-transcendence is abundant, to the practical matters of storytelling and, yes, swimming itself as rituals which remind women to become fully themselves, and reinforces women’s enlightenment as something we collectively value. Astrida Neimanis writes:

“Watershed pollution, a theory of embodiment, amniotic becomings, disaster, environmental colonialism, how to write, global capital, nutrition, philosophy, birth, rain, animal ethics, evolutionary biology, death, storytelling, bottled water, multinational pharmaceutical corporations, drowning, poetry. These are all feminist questions, and they are mostly inextricable from one another… Here is gestation, here is proliferation, here is danger, here is risk. Here is an unknowable future, always already folded into our own watery flesh. Here is hydrofeminism.”

We take these as inextricable quests, from which it logically follows that the symbol-story complex which creates, represents, and enacts the spiritual quest is as relevant to women’s future as the ongoing social quest. In other words, connecting with the sea as a formative spiritual experience, especially for girls, is one way to broaden individual awakenings into a stable pattern of nurturing women’s social and spiritual power. Carol P. Christ writes:

“Women’s spiritual quest thus is not an alternative to women’s social quest, but rather is one dimension of the larger quest women have embarked upon to create a new world.”

Trudy for example, born 1905, was the first woman to swim the English Channel — and in far less time than it took the men who had previously completed this exceedingly difficult passage between France and England. I think she is especially relevant in this post, because her story challenges us to fit together this Aquatic Theory of Enlightenment with the social liberation that follows in the wake of trailblazing women. Trudy wasn’t just a master swimmer, Queen of the Waves — she made it impossible for men to continue claiming that women simply couldn’t swim the English Channel. And this is the heart of this post. Trudy’s famous, parade-worthy swimming made the activity itself more accessible and prestigious for girls in general.

We know that our search for ultimate meaning has a self-transcending component — being part of something bigger than ourselves is a prerequisite for being fully ourselves. And we know that the sea has the potential to give girls like Trudy their very first spiritual experiences. The challenge, then, is large but simple: Help girls like Trudy contextualize the joy, beauty, and power of swimming as one face of spirituality, of self-transcendence. Currently, swimming in the sea as an initiatory spiritual experience is unfortunately isolated from the symbol-story complex, and the idea is to turn this connection into a cultural norm — thereby creating a more comprehensive system for supporting women’s spiritual and social journeys.

The sea also appears as this powerful source of perfection and self-transcendence in the work of Iris Murdoch, whose character, “Marian” is the subject of sea-inspired spiritual journey. She arrives in an unfamiliar setting, immediately noticing that something is off:

“She found the vast dark coastline repellent and frightening. She had never seen a land so out of sympathy with man.”

She is to stay at a castle called Gaze (a symbol of Land, Order, Man — especially in the Gothic fiction Murdoch draws from, with modern parallels in stories like Sleeping Beauty), and be a companion to another woman, Hannah, who never leaves the castle. Soheila Farhani Nejad writes:

“The name ‘Gaze Castle’ places a double emphasis on the idea of entrapment. As the staple architectural enclosure for Gothic fiction, the castle typically incarcerates its inhabitants or any character who enters it. The psychoanalytic notion of ‘the gaze’ as developed by Lacan, can be used to describe the way Hannah’s entrapment in Gaze empowers the onlookers while it signifies Hannah’s ‘otherness’. As the lady of ‘the Gaze Castle’, Hannah is the target of everybody’s obsessive ‘gaze’… Almost everyone in the novels treats her as a beautiful object. She seems to exist for the purpose of satisfying the other characters’ idealistic fantasies and their delight in myth and legend… Projection of male fantasies on women is a recurrent theme in Murdoch's fiction. This often leads to the loss of individuality on the part of female characters… That is to say that in these novels, the male power figures pose as romantic lovers who impose their own notions of ideal feminine identity on their victims”

It’s important, therefore, that Marian questions her hosts about the sea, but is warned away from it:

“‘Are there good places to swim?’ said Marian. ‘I mean, can one get down to the sea?’ ‘One can get down to the sea. But no one swims here.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘No one swims in this sea. It’s far too cold. And it is a sea that kills people.’ Marian, who was a strong swimmer, privately decided to swim all the same.”

From the moment of her arrival, her existence, agency and spiritual potential are eroded by men or male-coded symbols like Gaze itself. She ventures out to the sea anyway, but is overwhelmed by it:

“She did not know what was the matter with her now. The thought of entering the water gave her a frisson which was like a kind of sexual thrill, both unpleasant and distressingly agreeable. She found it suddenly hard to breathe, and had to stop and take deep regular breaths. She threw her bag down on the sand and advanced to the edge of the sea… It was a matter of pride; and she felt obscurely that if she started now to be afraid of the sea she would make some crack or fissure in her being through which other and worse fears might come.”

Through the rest of the novel, she does not return to swim in the sea. The Castle Gaze and its garden (a symbol of Nature restricted by Man) assert themselves over Marian — removing her from contact with the sea, with her potential source of wholeness:

“The garden was thick and magnetic behind her. Her desire to go out was gone. She was afraid to step outside.”

In the symbol-story complex, this is a warning not to lose touch with the those things which are sources of spiritual power. The estrangement can become permanent through an extended impoverishment of self-transcendence.

In another woman’s dramatic encounter with herself, Edna is spiritually transformed by the sea, yet experiences social powerlessness. Like Murdoch’s story, it is a conflict of the social and spiritual quests, which we must now reconcile. Not just for women, who can come into closer contact with more perfect versions of themselves, but in turn for us all, who until then suffer a society which is less than what we know it could be. Carol P. Christ writes:

“Edna’s suicide is a spiritual triumph but a social defeat. In it she states, even if only partially consciously, that no one will possess her body and soul, and affirms her awakening by returning to the sea where it occurred… But Edna’s suicide is also a social defeat in that by choosing death she admits that she cannot find a way to translate her spiritual awareness of her freedom and infinite possibilities into life and relationships with others. From this stand-point the real tragedy of the novel is that the spiritual and social quests cannot be realized together.”

Therefore, we can live in one of two worlds. In the first, “spirituality” makes women and girls think of religion in the sense of a patriarchal God. “Self-transcendence” sounds like something a charming cult leader would want you to do. And swimming is just one of the low-prestige sports women can participate in while men are honored and paid disproportionately for their athletics. Nobody in this world would have any reason to think that swimming had a deeper significance to women’s social-spiritual quest.

Alternatively, we can live in a world in which our symbol-story complex feeds forward, giving meaning to experiences like swimming in the sea. And the ritual of swimming-to-self-transcend feeds back to our stories and symbols. In this mutual strengthening, swimming becomes the radical act of asserting the need for a society with both justice and enlightenment. It is both self-evidently beautiful and highly practical. All we need is a less haphazard approach — to bring the connection between swimming and social-spiritual growth to the surface. A young Trudy, in this world, would tell people how she loved the sea, and felt at one with it, and there would be people around her (parents, teachers, etc.) who could help her connect the dots. The symbol-story complex would complement her joy of swimming and turn it into something greater, more significant. She would learn to connect it to the spiritual quest, which she understands as the sister-struggle of women’s social quest.

This is why the “strong swimmer” like Marian or Trudy is an archetype of spiritual fulfillment. Women who dive and surface become more fully themselves, and with this inner strength they are more capable of extending enlightenment to others and advancing the social causes which affect us all, and women most acutely. And a stronger social movement, continuing the feedback loop, creates conditions for women to direct more attention beyond basic needs and towards greater wholeness.

The connection between women, the sea, and spiritual-social power can be summed up as follows:

  • There is a wealth of stories and symbols which draw connections between women and the sea, or water more generally. This can be culturally discarded by asserting that this symbol-story complex perpetuates an unhealthy masculine-feminine structure in which women are the natural, wild, chaotic forces of the world, which are ultimately reconfigured by Man. Alternatively, it can become a productive basis for spirituality which does not depend on any specific religion’s gods, and produces feelings of power, love, freedom, joy, and oneness

  • There are additional historical moments like Trudy swimming the English Channel which translate these early self-transcending experiences into breakthrough moments of social progress. Together with the symbol-story complex, this helps form an inspiring foundation for the water-as-power narrative which can feed forward into the act of swimming, giving it a richer context and significance. This accumulation of symbols, stories, and real swimmers makes it an excellent target for connecting the social and spiritual quests, though it is non-exclusive with other actions or movements which produce social-spiritual power for women

  • There is a pattern of girls having their first spiritual awakenings through being immersed in the vast bodies of water which tend to produce self-transcendence. This is the heart of religion, spirituality, and humanity generally. But we do not systematically connect this to the symbol-story complex, which ultimately limits women’s spiritual-social quest. We can attempt to connect these, such that a girl who is curious about what she has just experienced will be guided towards the symbol-story complex and historical events

  • By creating a more active connection between swimming as a ritual of self-transcendence, the role of famous swimmers who became forces of social change, and the symbols and stories in which Woman is imbued with power, creative energy, and indomitability, we can move closer to a world in which women are all that they can potentially be in the social and spiritual realms

I feel there is much more to learn and say about this. I have read a number of books on these topics, but feel like my ideas here are still incomplete. But I thought this was interesting and important enough to write about, at least as a first step. My upcoming book has a lot more to say about self-transcendence and related (or even identical) concepts. Until then, I hope this post encourages women to explore spirituality as an innate, inner possibility which can be brought to light in surprisingly simple ways, such as swimming in the sea.


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