By DL Acken for FOLKLIFE Volume 4. 2021.
Standing at the water’s edge, I brace for the cold I know is coming. As I stride into the water, I feel the bite and sting as the capillaries in my legs begin to close against the frigid assault. “It’s not cold,” my husband tells me, “it’s just the ocean.” And so I surrender, embracing this primal connection, this return to the sea. There is no pain now, only joy and release. Those of us that have taken to cold water swimming understand this pleasure in pain and have developed our own rituals for taking the plunge.
Some charge in and dive headfirst, others go slowly but deliberately until they’re deep enough to submerge; I walk forward with purpose until the water hits my hipbones, and then I pause, allowing my senses to acclimatize and take in the world around me. I listen to the waves whispering or crashing on the sand, the sea birds crying overhead, the wind moaning through the trees, or sometimes just the stillness that surrounds me. When I’m ready, I take two long breaths and then stroke forward, stand up again, take a breath, submerge, pop up for another long breath—and then I’m in, pushing forward through the water.
I’ll admit that it took me quite a while to get up the nerve to try it. When my husband and our eldest daughter Caitlin decided to start swimming daily in November, I would accompany them as far as the bank of logs at the top of the beach. I’d sit, huddled in layers, and marvel as they stripped down and took to the water for longer and longer stints. They would return to shore and try to convey how they felt about their exertions that day. I didn’t understand. How could they feel something different today when to me it looked the same as the day before? It seemed bitterly cold and impossibly uncomfortable.
Now, as a seasoned swimmer, I get it. The ocean, much like our inner selves, is always changing, and no two mornings here on the beach are ever the same. There are days when the ocean seems angry, raging with the wind, judging humanity for our crimes against the environment, and others when the quiet turquoise waters at the shore whisper, “come play, come play!” Today the sea lies still like molten silver, a colloidal mask hiding the world of life below, beckoning me to join in and receive the gift of healing that it offers.
Healing: that was the tipping point for me. I read all the research on the health benefits of cold-water immersion, from personal anecdotes to renowned medical journals, all touting increased circulation, improved mood, lowered anxiety, boosted immunity, and activation of the vagus nerve. After enduring a year of health issues that culminated in a double mastectomy, I was looking to alternative wellness for some respite. I was emotionally bruised, physically scarred, and in search of a deep healing. It was time to brave the water.
It wasn’t immediate, but after the first few weeks of walking in, and very rapidly walking back out, I found I was able to tread water for a few minutes. That’s when the healing began. I started to notice that feeling was returning to the areas around my scars and that I had the “swimmer’s high” for hours after returning home. This is what I had hoped for, given all I knew about the effects of cold water on the body, but I was surprised to discover several additional gifts that came from swimming in the Salish Sea.
I began to experience a deep connection with my own physicality that I hadn’t anticipated, an awareness of self that, after years of routinely separating my mental and physical landscapes and hating my “baby body,” was beginning to heal. I now liked having a body that has stood the test of 51 years of living, of bringing life to my four brilliant children—a body strong enough to pull me through the frigid waters on a cold December morning. After years of fragmentation, I felt whole for the first time.
That wholeness began to bubble over into all aspects of my life. I love our house, one of the oldest landmarks on this island, but had, after five years here, never felt truly at home. Now, after returning to the shore from my morning swim, I see this place with fresh eyes. I can feel the earth around me and have found a place of peace for myself within its yearly cycles of growth and decay. I only needed to let go of the past and the future and be present here. The water taught me how.
We began to swim daily, and with every dip, my confidence and health improved. I became so enamoured with the water that I tried to convince every friend I came across to join me, and much to my surprise, they began to show up. In a year of deep isolation caused by the pandemic, I had not realized how much I missed and needed community. Now, here on this familiar stretch of beach, I’ve once again found the joy of laughing with friends, old and new, of quiet moments spent in the company of others, and of the camaraderie of shared experience.
I went into the ocean for my physical health, and in doing so discovered a healing that reached out past the water’s edge. I found healing in my own well-being and a new appreciation for my body as a whole, healing in the spirit of this island, and most importantly, healing within the greater society of humankind. So, to all those still sitting on the shore: come on in, the water’s fine! And it has gifts to offer that may just shock you.
A poem from daughter to mother
She walks to the water’s surface
shivering and trembling
sinking her feet into the sand, trying to ground herself.
The salty wind pierces her skin
blowing her mousy hair behind her.
She takes a breath, a cold ocean breath
that travels through her body
and down to her toes
awakening a thirst for adventure.
Once that craving is apparent and greedy
she steps in.
Pain creeps through her legs burning
and clawing but she moves with grace.
Farther and farther in till
the penetrating cold is at her waist.
And then she lets go.
She feels no pain.
Her body is merely an outer shell
of flesh and bone shielding her soul.
She is aware of every cell
entwining with each other as she tells her limbs
to kick and move, befriending the waves.
An overwhelming strength takes over her
wrapping her into the universe that she is a part of.
When she breaks the surface of the ocean
gasping for air
she’s awake for the first time.
~ Georgia Acken, 13