Extract from “Wintering” by Katherine May (about beginning a daily sea-swimming practice in the winter)
Encountering the extremes of cold drew us both into that most clichéd space, the Moment, forcibly pulling our minds away from ruminating on the past or future, or tilling over an endless to-do list. We had to tend to our bodies right here, right now, ever watchful that the cold would not encroach too far.
More than that, the sea offered us an endless number of gifts to observe. It was different every day, sometimes ridged with waves, sometimes millpond-flat. It turned pewter under pale skies, and craggy grey under storm clouds. Still days left it clear and blue as the Mediterranean. Sometimes black-headed gulls or herring gulls bobbed alongside us; sometimes a cormorant would swoop past; sometimes a flock of sanderlings would flit by, low over the water, chirping as they went. The occasional dog swam out to meet us, and one day I watched, helpless, as one ran off with my towel. There were days when the water felt silky, and days when it was thick at the edges, nearly slush. We began to feel how the sea would fall slack at the height of the tide, as if pausing to take a breath before it began to flood away again. It tasted saltier just before the high tide, and fresher after it turned. We speculated that the river was diluting it.
Soon, others joined us, drawn in by our crazed enthusiasm, and we became coaches, urging people to grapple with their fears, teaching them to breathe through those first seconds, to get out when their thumbs ached. The sea was like a shortcut to intimacy, and while we were all riding our cold-water highs, we found ourselves blurting out all the troubles of our current lives. We swam alongside each other’s anxieties about money, our parents, our children; we dispensed with social niceties and started talking as soon as we hit the water. We let the cold unburden us of our own personal winters, just for a few moments, and freely shared our darkest, most vulnerable thoughts. We talked, barely knowing each other’s names, and then wriggled back into our everyday clothes and walked away to our everyday lives, shivering a little, feeling that sparkle in our veins. The brevity of our swims was an ideal window in which to loosen our tongues, and then to tighten them again. We buttoned ourselves back up and went home.
At the end of that first month, we lit a bonfire on the beach just as the sun was setting, and dried off in its warmth as our children played. We drank wine and toasted marshmallows, and we attracted some new recruits, complete strangers who walked up to say, ‘Have you been in? Was it cold? How did you manage? Can I join you one day?’
We smiled and said, Welcome.
Katherine May is a writer of both fiction and non fiction. She lives and breathes everything the natural world has to offer and is compelled by how wild landscapes can benefit our mental and emotional wellbeing. Wintering: How I learned to flourish when life became frozen was published last week.
Photo: Sara Norling