The Pool Chronicles: Transcendence of Public Spaces

In recent conversations I’ve had with friends about the uncertain future of Flat Rock Creek Pool, each of them has mentioned, quite unsolicited, their own fond memories of a favorite pool from their childhood.  These memories are apparently intense and powerful, at least I would guess so by the vehemence exhibited in my friends’ recounting of how much these pools have meant to them.  And here I thought I’d cornered the market on having spent my youth in an extraordinary pool setting.

The pool at the Jewish Community Center was my second home each summer.  My good friend from the neighborhood, Jenny, (Before Her Time) disappeared to her father’s Arizona movie set every summer, so I was left to fend for myself against the wicked Midwestern humidity.  This I did by attending a day camp perfectly titled “Funtime” at the JCC when I was a child and by hanging out with my friends all day every day at the enormous outdoor pool there once I was in junior high.

In addition to all of the terrific play time, swim lessons, lifeguard gawking, Marco Polo marathons, and hours of unadulterated fun the JCC pool afforded me, my experiences there also shaped my world view.  The Jewish Community Center pool was my pool even though I wasn’t Jewish.  And I certainly wasn’t the only one there who wasn’t. 

So I learned early in my otherwise sheltered Catholic life in Catholic schools that there are lots of other people in the world who are different than me, that other people’s ideas and ways of looking at the world are as important to them as mine are to me, that it’s important to respect other people’s values and traditions even if they are completely different than mine and I don’t fully understand them.

That’s a lot to get out of a swimming pool. 

Honestly, I don’t think I can better capture what a pool can mean to people than I did in my earlier post, A Catholic Childhood at the Jewish Community Center, which offers a fuller sense of that place as a transformative intersection of lives. 

I listened then with interest at the last city council meeting when one council member with a background in architecture shared his perspective on pools in general.  Of course, given my own academic bent, I find the language and rhetorical moves of different fields endlessly fascinating.  In this case, he was explaining how a pool can be considered an expensive hole in the ground since all of its architectural significance is buried underground.  What is visible above ground is minimal: the mechanical room where the exposed pipes and valves permit monitoring and adjustment. 

He also pointed up the changing recreation patterns of Americans in general.  There’s much more bike riding and demand for bike trails than in decades past just as there may be less interest in tennis than there was 30 years ago.  As a tennis lover, it pains me to think that.  Fortunately, I do see very consistent use of the two courts near Flat Rock Creek Pool by a variety of folks of all ages, and this gives me hope that interest in the sport, though less, is still sufficient to warrant keeping the existing courts.  But these shifts speak to the question of what kinds of recreation do people want now?

Most people seem to believe there is something fundamental about a neighborhood pool.  Where an architect sees the pool for its structural essence, pool users see something more: not just a hole in the ground but a transcendent space, one through which you become weightless and ageless and through which time itself seems to stand still. 

Its true beauty is defined not by its subterranean depth but by the web of interactions it spins at the surface of the water.  A place where adults bounce on their tiptoes just as they did when they were children and relax when they let water lap against their bodies as they hang from the side and visit with friends.  A place where kids bob up and down in futile efforts to outrun each other in games of tag, the guileless water a resistant force to every shape and size, a true game equalizer. 

A place where buoyant babes in sun bonnets are cradled in mothers’ arms and seniors swim laps amid wild throws of nerf balls.  A place that gives packs of middle schoolers ample room to preen and play under the watchful eyes of moms toting giant swim bags packed with surreptitious snacks and colorful beach towels.  A place for sun worshippers to ply themselves with sunscreen and suck in Vitamin D through every pore, oblivious to the kids with goggles diving for coins.

And it’s not just for swimming: people visit, read books, take naps, people-watch, eat snacks and lunch, play cards and games, meet other people.  What people get out of the pool experience is entirely up to them.  And it’s hard to be anywhere else when you are there.

I like to call it pool therapy.  When my kids were very young, there were few moments in my busy life when I wasn’t thinking about something else, like all of the things I needed to get done.  My husband and I would take the kids to the pool on weeknights for an hour of swimming and to meet up with other young families. 

It was the most liberating time of my day.  Forgetting the to-do lists and stresses of work and just immersing in the water and the moment, enjoying the pure joy of my son as he pretended to be an alligator slithering across the sloped pool bottom in the shallow end, or my daughter as she jumped off the edge into my husband’s arms, and both of my kids laughing as water from the giant mushroom-shaped fountain cascaded from its cap and spilled over their heads.

We still go to Flat Rock Creek Pool, though our play now is naturally different from those earlier days.  But we still seek what we found then: the water lifting us out of our everyday lives, the promise of transcendence offered us by this public space.

Maybe it is just a luxury or maybe it means something more to a community than its price tag can convey.  This is your chance to write the theme you couldn’t have written in elementary school: what does a pool mean to a neighborhood, to a community?  What has a pool meant to you?


One thought on “The Pool Chronicles: Transcendence of Public Spaces

  1. Your series of pool essays would make a terrific book, with photos of your community pool, or several different ones. I have not given a second thought to community pools before this. You are conjuring more than just pools. You’re making me think about getting centered and finding ways to see oneself within a larger context – ways to be out with the public, but still alone if you want. Thank you for sharing your excellent writing.

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