Yesterday at 7:16 a.m. I waded into the local reservoir with Boulder Aquatic Masters. It organizes private swims before the main beach opens: without motorboats and crowds, the area is relatively silent, the water calm. At that hour, the air is still cool. It’s a bit like being on a watery Camino de Santiago: instead of following painted yellow arrows, I keep my eye on the inflatable neon yellow and orange buoys that indicate when to turn. I don’t need to think, calculate distance, or even choose a direction. That has all been predetermined. With kayakers quietly patrolling the course, I can surrender to the water and let my mind wander, or empty it completely.
Yesterday my father would have turned 83. When I was growing up, he took me and my brothers to the lap pool at Minuteman Vocational High School in Lexington, MA. He had been an aquaphobe, unwilling to submerge his head. He swam a modified version of the breaststroke, chin above water, but instead of breathing easily he took a big gulp of air before setting across the pool, then sputtered when his lungs were ready to burst. He lurched from one end to another like an awkward walrus. I asked him if he’d consider taking lessons. He shook his head. I can’t say I blame him; he remade his life after the Holocaust, learning many familiar things anew or, like ice skating and charcoal grilling, for the first time. For exercise, he jogged and rode a black three-speed around the neighborhood, the seat squeaking on it springs. Even though he found solace in the Atlantic Ocean’s rhythmic pounding against the coast, perhaps swimming was not for him.
Yesterday the reservoir was warm enough to not require a wetsuit but brisk enough to make me hesitate. I stood in the shallows as goosebumps sprouted and my toes sank into the muck. I lowered my body and started a slow breaststroke with my chin skimming the surface. My pulse pounded as my skin tingled and air caught in my throat. I evened out my inhalations and exhalations before submerging my face. That moment of contact is alchemical if not mystical, like entering into prayer or a dance. The instant I decide to turn myself over to the water and sky, to synchronize my breath with the movement of my limbs, the elements cradle me, erasing all preoccupations and recalibrating my highly sensitive nervous system to peace. At times my feeling of safety is its most profound and my sense of aliveness is its most intense in the middle of a lake, reservoir or pond, when I’m furthest from shore.
Yesterday, with the sky a blue canvas and distant peaks still bearing some snow, I was so present that there was barely room for sadness that my father has been gone ten years. I paused somewhere along the 1,000 meter course to lift my fogged goggles and do the breaststroke, chin in air, just to appreciate the view. One of the kayakers paddled towards me.
“Are you OK?” he asked as other swimmers sliced through the reservoir, skulls capped in colorful Lycra, bodies encased in slick black suits. Some of them were likely preparing for a triathlon the following morning.
“I’m fine,” I said, dipping my goggles to rinse them. “I’m just enjoying the day.”
Yesterday I felt sorry that my father, who otherwise embraced sensual pleasure, hadn’t experienced the particular delights of open water swimming. And I marveled that, over the years, I had found deep bliss and confidence in an activity that, like him, I had once dreaded. The transformation seemed so total as if to be miraculous. It’s easy, once we’ve overcome resistance to learn something new or change a behavior, to forget where we started or acknowledge our progress. We might set more challenging goals instead of stopping to blow a kiss to our earlier selves who shivered on the beach, afraid to get wet.
Yesterday, head bobbing as I squinted into the sky, I didn’t care if I was the last swimmer to exit the reservoir. I flipped over and did a very slow version of the elementary back stroke, relishing the caress of water on my skin and sun on my face. To savor is to sanctify, to honor where we are, how we got here, and the people who came before us. At the reservoir, I celebrated the many yesterdays ensconced in that moment.