A woman pokes her head around a corner. "Am I allowed back in?" she asks as she enters the changing room. The question is posed as a friendly greeting, with a girlish smile, and the women seated on the benches laugh lightly.
"Welcome back," someone calls out.
"I've had trouble getting out of my driveway with the snow," the woman says to explain her absence over the past few days. She's in her late 70s; slim and pretty with sparkling eyes, her skin like fine, crinkled paper. "And the cold!" she says as she undresses, stripping off layers of clothing, gloves, her puffy coat, a hat, scarf, sweaters. "My car almost didn't start."
A ripple of comments about the brutal cold sweeps through the room.
It is 7 on a weekday morning. We're waiting to swim in a public pool operated by the city of Toronto. At first, I came for the exercise. I still do. Half an hour of laps is a good way to start the day. But now, when I don't feel like getting out of my warm bed to go out in the cold to get wet with strangers, I think of my ladies, my little unexpected, multigenerational community I never knew I would like (or would give me comfort). And I get up, leave my husband, and head out into the early light.
It's hard to explain the appeal of it. Like many people, I have several experiences of community – online and in real life. Or at least, I think I do. But they're not like this. There's your workplace community, your summer-cottage community, skiing buddies, high-school friends, your world on Facebook. Few of them are random. Instead, they're our curation of the world. They're what we choose. And we see this as a privilege of technology, that the connectivity it grants us allows us to enjoy an isolation from the hurly-burly of the world, cherry-picking what we like or want or need from the serenity of our silo. The notion of curating experience is artful and sophisticated.
But there's a reassuring and unexpected beauty in the kindness of random strangers.
Some know each other's names – their given names, at least – and little shards of each other's lives. One was in Florida last week with her family. Another was babysitting her grandchildren last night and couldn't get them to eat their carrots. A young mother is worried about her toddler who keeps waking up in the night. An elderly lady is dealing with an insurance company about a claim on her house. A pair of young students complain about this term, their last, of high school, and how they long to graduate.
I had no idea what to expect. I thought the change room would be like sitting in a dentist office. You might acknowledge each other's presence – you know why you're all there, after all – but you don't feel the need to talk. But the fact that the pool opens at 7:15 and that there's an early contingent who arrive around 7, means there's about 10 minutes of waiting. And what are you going to do? Stare at your toes? So people talk until someone checks to see if the door to the pool is unlocked. "We're in!" she'll inform the group, at which point we all file in a line into the pool area, clutching our towels, like superannuated kids let into a playground.
That first time, when I went to take a preswim shower, I commented on how cold the water was.
"Oh, don't worry. Wait a few minutes, and it will warm up," an older lady told me. I felt like a guest at someone's cottage; welcomed without question and initiated into the idiosyncratic plumbing of her familiar place.
I went for my swim, and when I was back in the changing room, one of the women said to me, apropos of nothing, "Oh, you were brave to swim in the fast lane." I gave her a quizzical look. I wasn't expecting anyone to have noticed how or where I swam. "You're lucky the Slapper didn't get you," she continued with a laugh.
"That big whale of a man …," someone else pipes in.
"When he does the crawl, he brings one arm down with a slap. You can get hit by mistake!"
Since then, I have noticed the Slapper. He's there almost every morning. And if he isn't, I notice that, too. He's one of the characters in this merry band of regulars, who swim their lengths as the early morning light turns the branches of the bare trees outside the windows into fingers of gold.
Every morning, there is a new narrative. Once last week, while we were waiting, one of the ladies was telling another about how she made marmalade from scratch for the first time. And a grandmother passed a book of crafts to the young mother. "It was in my car," she explained. "I thought your children might like it."
And there's something lovely about the fact that this community is not gathered for an intellectual goal, as a book club or bridge gathering might be. It's not even fully a leisure pursuit, such as knitting or cooking or skiing. We're just physical beings, of all shapes, sizes and ages, in service to our physicality, trying to keep ourselves in reasonable condition.
"It keeps everything moving," my shower lady told me. She is 67, and has type 2 diabetes but has never had to take medication. Many of her friends complain of aches and pains, but she finds that swimming loosens her joints and never leaves her sore.
I like how reductive that is. Not accomplished to get thinner or faster, it's done as mere upkeep of the house of self.
But more than anything else, I have realized that the most meaningful participation in the world – real or virtual – is not about what you need to take from it. It's about what it gives you when you're not even looking.