by Sandra Bark
Last week, I swam for hours. I swam early in the morning before anyone else was up, under the blaze of the midday August sun, and at night with the stars lighting the sky. I swam in Vermont and on Long Island, with hippies and with Hamptonites, in the middle of the woods and amidst manicured lawns and hedges. I swam in a bracing river that felt like melted ice, in a lake that stretched for what felt like a mile across, in an ocean edged with the lace of fallen waves, and in a pool heated to the temperature of a bath.
At first, the river was so cold that I was almost afraid to go in. Even idyllic surroundings can require a measure of courage, and so I forced myself to plunge in despite the goose bumps. The lake was temperate thanks to its sun-soaked layers; the lakebed was slick with mud and stones. The ocean was glassy near the horizon, but at the shore the waves stood guard like ferocious dragons. And the pool, so lovely and heated beneath the cool of the stars, felt less refreshing with the sun boiling overhead.
Too cold, too muddy, too rough, too warm. “Too” turns observation into judgment; turns experience into a problem to be solved instead of a moment to be experienced. By cataloging instead of just swimming, I was fully enveloped by water—icy, salty, chlorinated—and still trapped in my own brain.
How could I be so immersed and still not be completely, one hundred per cent there? Why would I waste time and dilute experience by wishing the river was more like a pool, the lake more like a river, the pool more like an ocean, the ocean more like a lake?
River, ocean, lake, pool. Each is just itself, not more or less. Icy currents, salty waves, placid freshwater, a man-made tub 12 feet deep at one end. Would I have the river warmed with hot stones, pave the lake and paint it blue, cancel the tide, throw seaweed and oysters into the pool?
What if courage is not getting into a river despite the cold? What if it is accepting the icy nature of a river as part of its inherent majesty?
If we can learn to accept the intrinsic qualities of what is around us, perhaps we can then learn to accept our own natures. Our heat, our cold, our saltiness. Our ferociousness. The ebb and flow of mood, of desire, of all the queer quirks that make me be me, that make you be you, that make an ocean into an ocean, a lake into a lake, a river into a river.