winter swimming

december lake

Everything truly changed here on March 16, 2020, because that was a day when we would have gone to the local pool for a swim but it closed that day due to Covid-19. We swam on the 14th. I noted in my daybook that my distance was 1.3 kms. We went for supper to the pub in Egmont that evening and the tables were widely spaced. Joe Stanton was playing his guitar and singing in his wonderful gravelly voice. But even then we realized it probably wasn’t a good idea to be in a restaurant and when we drove home along the dark Egmont Road, we knew we wouldn’t have a meal away from home until it was safe to do so. What does safe mean? I keep adjusting my measure. We did have some meals out in the summer at the pub in Madeira Park because we could eat on the deck with an ocean breeze blowing viruses away (we hoped); we met friends there very occasionally until September when it no longer felt like a good idea.

We started swimming in the lake near us in late May. The water was cold but the days were often warm and it just seemed necessary to swim again. We went down every morning before anyone else was there and the green water, holding early sunlight, was such a solace. I think in water. I swim back and forth, planning how I will proceed with particular writing, or I order essays in a collection I am working on, or I tease out a problem of some other sort. The water warmed up as the days moved into summer. And by late September, when the water was cooling off, the pool was open again. You have to book times and often you are the only people there.

And in October we were preparing for John’s surgery mid-month. The time went by so quickly. There were 10 days in Vancouver, him in hospital or spending two nights at the little suite of rooms we’d reserved for me nearby, and me in those rooms or else walking back and forth to the hospital. A few fraught trips to pharmacies for various pieces of equipment that were deemed necessary because the surgery went sort of sideways. And then home. A return to hospital, this time in Sechelt, where our family doctor and others worked out a plan for some issues that developed after John’s surgery.

Sometimes what you lose is a sense of being alive yourself. I don’t mean I’ve been unhappy or anything dire. A little lonely from time to time–in those rooms in Vancouver when I couldn’t sleep and the branches of the maples brushed the window of the bedroom. Or driving back and forth to the hospital in Sechelt, again on very little sleep, hoping I was up to the task of caring for us both. Once he was home again and I was confident he would be ok for an hour or so, I began to swim again in the pool, rushing out and rushing home. As soon as John’s surgeon said it was ok, he came too. We try to book 3 swims a week.

The day before yesterday I told John I was going to begin swimming in the lake again, too. He wasn’t happy about it. What if something happened, you’re 65 years old, what if you ran into trouble, he said. I won’t be able to help you. (Right now the only footwear that works with his paralyzed foot is a big snowboot with the felt liner removed.) I listened but I was still going to go. Not for long. Not the first time. I knew it was a good idea to wear a tuque and gradually increase the time I spent in the water. Reluctantly he agreed to come along.

I did wear a tuque. And it was very cold. But also exhilarating, the water silky the way it is in summer. I felt every cell in my body rejoice. And then I didn’t feel much because I was numb. But I did a few strokes back and forth and know that I’m going to do this at least twice a week. I quietly said to the water as I entered it yesterday, I’ve missed you. It’s a lake I’ve known for 40 years and I want my relationship with it to continue through these winter months when so much of our lives is constrained and a little fearful. When I was stretching my arms into the cold water, I thought of the mornings I swam in an unheated pool in Ukraine, frost on the sunflowers fringing the water. I felt alive then too, at home in a body that often feels old and kind of lumpy. The memory of those swims sustained me through the first part of the pandemic when I was making a little book of the essay I wrote about that trip and these swims will guide me through these dark winter months, the lake bottom dreaming of how the sunlight gathers there on June mornings, mergansers leading their young from stream-mouth to stream-mouth, and the kingfisher alert on one of the sentinel cedars I use to mark my progress.

Everything I am remembering is burnished with moonshine, the taste of cherry-filled varenyky, sweet butter on dark bread. Mornings I swam in an unheated pool, the bottom littered with drowned insects, while all around me mist rose from the valley below our mountain slope. The mountains above me, source of the Dniester, Tisza and Vistula Rivers, the upper streams of the Black Cheremosh and the White, the Prut. I thought of those mountains forming a long spine to the Beskids in the Czech Republic, where my grandmother was born, 2 years after my grandfather, though they didn’t meet until 1919, in the badlands of Alberta, she a widow, and him? I have no idea of his romantic history, though in his small archive of papers there are two photographs, one of two women, taken in Chernivtsi, one of whom resembles him enough to be a sister, and another of a woman with a generous mouth, dressed in a fur vest like the Hutsul women wore. Everything I am remembering, burnished with light too faint to read by, like the moonlight that came through my curtains at Sokilske, haunting the room like old history.
(from “Museum of the Multitude Village”, an essay from Blue Portugal)

morning lake 2

10 thoughts on “winter swimming”

    1. It might be a form of subclinical Covid madness, Leslie. (Aging woman in baggy swimsuit found frozen to floating log during freak winter storm.) But seriously? It felt amazing.

  1. Yes, so you _have_ been swimming in the lake.
    You convinced me of its importance when you wrote, “I felt every cell in my body rejoice.”

    Ever since I started visiting your blog and reading of your morning swims in the lake, it has rekindled a long-held desire of mine to do open water swimming. Oh sure, I go in the water and paddle around a bit, but keep thinking what a waste it is not to really get at it, especially since I’m there. The only thing that held me back (again) this year was that I’m not in the best shape and worry that I may get into trouble especially with those undercurrents of which I’m not entirely familiar.

    And, as always, such lovely writing and memories of your time in Ukraine.

    1. Pool swimming is good exercise but somehow I’ve been missing the feeling of my body in the lake. How I feel so alive in that context. I’ll keep swimming my slow pool kilometres but look forward to two lake swims a week goo.

    1. Heidi, I read that piece in the Guardian and it reminded me of when I lived in London in the mid-1970s. An older friend used to swim in Kenwood Ladies Pond on Hampstead Heath and I often thought of joining her but didn’t…I began regular swimming in 2016 after a health issue made my daily walks a little too painful for a bit. And I’ve kept up with swimming — daily in the lake from June through September and 3 times a week in the local pool for the rest of the year. But I miss the wildness of the lake. I miss its vitality. So I’ll try to go down twice a week for that. The recovery is slow but steady (thanks for asking). We’ll get there.

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