Water music

P and C

Patricia, right, and one of her daughters on a windy beach in Trouville, Normandy, France.

By Patricia Conover

“All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea…we are going back from whence we came.”
— John Fitzgerald Kennedy

In one of my earliest memories, I am standing at the edge of the ocean. My feet are burning on hot summer sand as I watch my mother swim. Effortless, elegant silky strokes through blue-green water.

So much majesty.

So much fear.

On a visceral level I understand that the ocean is beautiful, strange and powerful. I am drawn to the sea and I am afraid.

My mother calls to me and I wade in. She teaches me how to float. She shows me how to move in the water. She reminds me to breathe.

(Oh, how lucky I am to have a mother who loved the sea.)

Another memory: Swimming in the ocean for hours. My mother has packed a picnic basket with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a thermos of orange juice. She calls to us. My brothers and sister and I climb out, shivering, lips purple and hands and feet wrinkled. We wrap ourselves in beach towels and devour lunch.

We know that we will die if we dive in before a half hour is up. We walk to the bay to look for crabs. We fill our pails with shells and sea glass and pieces of sea creatures. We chase butterflies but can never catch them. Now it is time to swim again. We dive in and we do not emerge again until the sun dips below the horizon.

All through college I swim in an enormous lap pool beneath timber beams. Later, in New York City, I wake up at 5:00 a.m. to swim at the Y around the corner from my apartment before work. When I move to Oregon with my growing family we have a neighborhood pool and the vast Pacific Ocean. Our next move — to France — offers the grey Atlantic Ocean and the azure Mediterranean Sea.


To swim is to be human. Paintings over 10,000 years old in a cave in Egypt depict swimmers who appear to do the breaststroke. Swimming is mentioned in the Iliad and the Odyssey.

To swim is to meditate. The rhythm of the body moving through water is calm and peaceful. Swimming is mindfulness. Anxiety melts away.

To swim is to produce endorphins, improve oxygen flow, and strengthen muscles. Swimming for only one half hour a day improves heart health.


The sea has its own peculiar magic. It calls to us — a seduction like the mermaid’s siren call. It is beautiful, mesmerizing and deadly.

Once I was caught in a riptide in the ocean off the tip of Long Island. A college friend and I had jumped in to help a stranger who was in distress. Once we were in deep water and near the drowning man, our eyes met. Panic. We both realized that we were out of our depth. We yelled until we were hoarse, “Swim parallel to the shore,” which we attempted to do as well. He did not seem to hear us. An inner voice — my mother’s voice — told me not to struggle, to remain calm, to breathe.

After what seemed like hours but was really only about twenty minutes of hard swimming, the three of us rode a wave back to shore. We lay gasping, panting, coughing, hugging, salt tears running down our faces, as beachcombers strolled by and looked at us with curiosity.


Today I dive deep into an ocean on the other side of the globe. The cold clear water takes my breath away. I remember not to buck the tide. Long strokes, even kicks, measured breathing. My mind, floating in my skull, empties itself of the world and all its cares. It is a sacred time: The sun is setting and the sky and the sea and the night are becoming one. Tiny bright stars appear and the pale moon is reflected on the shimmering dark water. Here, in my element, I am serene in the face of eternity.

The sea reminds us that we can never be still for long. Take the plunge. It is best not to struggle. Keep moving, always moving, always forward.

And don’t forget to breathe.


PC between flags

Patricia Conover: Re-invigorated after a swim.

Patricia Conover spent her early professional career in the editorial departments of G.P Putnam’s Sons and Random House in New York City. She began her writing career when she moved with her husband and three daughters to Portland, Oregon. Her work ranges from an overview of women in architecture to expat strategies in pursuit of an international education.

Patricia teaches writing workshops in schools and libraries in both the United States and France. An advocate for literacy, she’s volunteered many hours to teaching reading and writing to primary, middle and high school students.  She is currently a project editor and writer for Going Global, a multi-platform site that offers guides for expats.  

Twitter: @ParisRhapsody

Editor’s note: I met Patricia back in the days when I was a new editor in a suburban bureau at The Oregonian and she was a young mom, looking to get started as a freelance writer. She got the gig and since then her byline has appeared in The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications. After ten years in Paris, Patricia (and Kirk) have lived and worked in a suburb of New York City for the past two years. 

Tomorrow: Sharon Tjaden-Glass, Being creative — while being a parent

12 thoughts on “Water music

    • Nike, I am grateful for your words. Thank you for your appreciation. We are all in love with something, whether it be words or music or water or…dogs! (Another one of my enthusiasms…) We are indeed lucky if our enthusiasms fulfill us while keeping us healthy and happy, all at the same time.

  1. Patricia, as Nike put it, this was indeed poetic! For years I yearned to enjoy the water and due to the nudging of my wife and daughter, finally learned to swim as an adult. Now, it’s my most relaxing aerobic activity. While I’m far from an accomplished swimmer, each time I enter the water, whether it be a pool, lake or the ocean, I feel as though I’ve gained something. Thank you!

    • Al, Thank you for your delightful comment. Congratulations on learning to swim as an adult! That’s quite a feat.

      Sometimes I stand at the shore and think, “The water is so cold!” Yet, as you say, every time we enter the water, whether it be a pool, lake or the ocean, we’ve gained something. Never regretted a swim…and always grateful for the lovely calm and tranquility.

  2. Swam competitively for years in middle school and high school, took the simple joy out of swimming, swimming in open water is still somewhat disconcerting. But it is nice to be reminded about the joy in a dip.

    • Eric, thank you for your comment. Many people share your feelings about competitive swimming. Early practice sessions, bossy coaches and tough competition can, over time, make swimming feel more like a job than a relaxing activity. It sounds as though you still find joy in the water. I hope that, over time, you can reconnect to the simple fun of swimming you may have had as a child.

  3. Swimming is my meditation, my youth, my hope, and the sea reminds me how small my problems are — in the grand scheme. Thanks for this read. It’s beautiful. Now I’ll go swim.
    I hope my kids someday see me and my swimming as you remember your mom’s: effortless and elegant. Swimming is the only time I feel either.

  4. You have such a gift with words. Thank you for sharing this. Whereas I don’t share your love for swimming (I learned to swim as a child and can swim, but it’s just not a huge deal for me to be in water), the serenity you describe when you are in water was unmistakable. Bonus points for the mention of Neskowin. It’s one of my favorite places, too.

  5. What an inspirational read! The art of swimming is difficult to put into words but as always you have captured it beautifully. I’m grateful to be part of a family that loves the water, too. ❤️

  6. Yes, swimming is a meditation for me as well. Especially when I do a backstroke and all I can hear is my breath. I actually fear the water, but I still swim. One of my most thrilling experiences is jumping into the water in the deep end at a swim class. The instructor was there to receive each person and take them to the wall. Another one was a katamaran ride in India. The narrow boat rode the waves of the ocean and then when it reached calmer waters we jumped into the sea. With life-jackets and a rope, but still, it was great. It was generous of you to save someone’s life while risking your own. What an experience that must have been!

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