When I was eight or nine, we took a trip to the NSW north coast, my only experience of a family holiday. My mother, a single parent, working shifts as an enrolled nurse, frequently exhausted, had little time or money. But this was special: a return to Nimbin, to her childhood roots. A road trip with five of us squeezed into the hot Cortina, en route to a cramped caravan in Lismore.
I remember little of it, but one memory stays with me: a day at Evans Head, the surf pounding. My mother sat on the beach, as mothers did then, reading magazines and talking to an old friend. My brother was off picking fights or finding girls, doing things that were a mystery to me.
And I, I was gloriously tumbling, dipping in and out and over the waves, pushing myself further out, swimming to each perfect curve, my mind clear and clean, only my body thinking. It was perhaps the first time my body knew bliss. I felt rather than saw the set of waves that dumped me; had no language for the tumbling down. As I came up, gasping for breath, the next wave pounded over me, pushing me back down. I could feel the squeeze in my lungs, breath ready to burst out of me, gagging with the force of it, and the turn and turn of my body under the water. Although it felt that it would never end, there wasn't time to be afraid.
Hands reached down, and I was lifted to the surface by a long-haired teenaged boy. I can still remember his eyes, almond shaped, and the immediate, searing crush I developed as he carried me in to shore. For the next year I plotted my return to Evans Head, perhaps when I was a sophisticated high school girl, where I would find my crush and demonstrate my marine skills. I was not afraid, not then or after. Embarrassed, yes – to be found wanting in the water, to fail beneath its grip. But more than that, I was awakened, full with the force of life.
Leisure was for rich people. Kids from school who didn't live in rented houses. Other people. My best-worst frenemy, Lisa D, had a boat, and water skis, and camping gear. Her mother was a single parent like mine, but of a different breed – young, pretty, supported financially and practically by wealthy parents and a willing ex-husband.
Every month Lisa's mother would head off to the river with her loud friends, and take me along as the distraction for her bored daughter. While the tanned, fit adults water-skied, Lisa and I swam and did handstands in the river, holding our heads under for as long as we could. We had to play her games because I was the guest, always the guest. Once, she said: you don't even own your house. And another time: I only bring you because I feel sorry for you, anyway. I dived under the water then, flipping down to the bottom, deeper than she could go, deeper than she ever would, running my hands beneath the mud.
No one can touch you, under the water. It's free, and you are free.
Leisure is for the rich, but the ocean, the lake, the river: these are for everyone. This is the place, far from the cathedrals of luxury goods, far from the orchestrated bustle of airports, that wilderness offers the communion that I believe we seek when we are seeking leisure.
In Iraq last year, 22 million Shia Muslims travelled to Karbala for the commemoration of Arba'een. In India, 75 million Hindus journeyed to Ujjain to bathe in the Shipra River, for one of four massive Kumb Mela pilgrimages. Connecting to each other, to their communities, their traditions. Although hawkers, travel agents, airlines, guest houses and guides will do their best to make these journeys about purchasing, at heart what is this religious leisure activity if not a driven, deep desire for meaning and for connection? This is who we are.
I grew up, like many Anglo-Australians, with no spiritual traditions and few family ones. The large sprawling extended family my much older siblings enjoyed was lost when my parents divorced. The habits of silence were not observed, the need for ritual never noted. With no money for the purchased pleasures of leisure, and the impoverishment of a lack of ritual, there was this, only this.
Me and my primary-school gang of girls, four of us, part of the local free canoeing club, running after school to the coach's rundown bungalow, calling out Jim Bob Boy, Boy Bob Jim, our voices echoing across the flat water of the lake. Pulling the canoes from under his house, lugging them down to the lake, and paddling off for the horizon. Like the kids in Swallows and Amazons, we were contained. Unlike them, we had no adults watching discreetly. There was both freedom and danger. Each of us raised in an atmosphere of '70s neglect, a neglect often far from benign, there, on the water, we were safe. Water would not harm us.
And there was this, too: the sailing club, with the fleet of heavy Sabots. Me in the club boat left over for those who would never own their dinghies, heavy-bottomed and with a sail that had probably first been unfurled when the Beatles were together, lagging behind the others in every race. But in my yellow TAFT sprayjacket, the little boot of the Sabot fluttering on the flag above me, I was solitary, adventurous. I did not feel poor, then. I was powerful. Not merely free but in communion.
And later, this: long bus rides to the beach, the hot sand prickling my feet, the crowds of fellow high-schoolers rising and dipping in the surf. All the familiar angst of fitting, not-fitting, being too fat, not tanned enough, not coupled enough. All of that, yes, but over-ridden by that one perfect curve of blue, fanning towards me, lifting me in its swell and holding me before the fall. There, with the sound of the sea, their voices were gone. Soaring beneath the water, caught in that perfect cool embrace, time itself disappearing.
I remember, too, my first moment of snorkelling, the stunning understanding that what lay beneath the surface was not visible above, the duality of the world revealed.
As an adult, I have been as guilty as any of commodifying my leisure: obsessive love affairs with various water sports over the last 15 years or so has seen me buy small sailing boats, kayaks, lighter, brighter and better paddles. But I knew, always, that it was me, my body, and the water.
About four years ago I learned, for the first time, to Scuba dive, spending weekends diving on the edges of Sydney, discovering the extraordinary world beneath the water. On one of my first dives a playful blue groper followed me for 40 minutes, nudging under my arm like a slightly needy puppy.
On another, I sat on the sandy bed watching orange seahorses gently bobbing. I'm slightly embarrassed to admit the animals beneath the sea weren't – aren't – the main attraction for me. It's in the moment of descent, that moment when the colours of the land disappear and the world changes. And then, slipping down, like flying.
I noticed, though, each weekend, a heavy inertia when I thought of the process of getting into the water. Checking tanks, weights, vests, air: every bit of equipment checked and re-checked. There were – are – those for whom this is part of the pleasure. Discussing the gear. Playing with the gear. Crucially: shopping for gear.
One afternoon I came home from a dive and read a report of Nicholas Mevoli, an American freediver who had died at an international competition in the Bahamas. Strange that the story of a fatality would lead me to a new and intense obsession, but it did. Sinking beneath the water on a single breath, no purchase required, free of technology, free of industry, free. Descending to silence, in solitude, communion with nature and the self: this seemed to point to bliss.
I discovered freediving too late to be anything other than a fan; the equivalent of the bloke sitting on the sidelines of a Tigers game, shouting encouragement and kicking around a footy on alternate weekends. But something about that Jungian descent and return, the image of rebirth, being held by the ocean: this seems like home to me.
Growing up, there was no shrine for me, no pilgrimage but this: the water, always the water. And this is what I return to.
The market does not own us. In spite of all the signs, it does not own our leisure, our rest, our communion. We own that. And we can find it everywhere, in nature, and especially in the sea. We come from it and in some way, wherever I am, I will always belong to it.
Kathryn Heyman is the author of six novels, including Floodline. Her new novel, Storm and Grace, is available in bookstores from February 1.
The story Kathryn Heyman recalls the first time her body knew bliss first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.