It’s the type of morning where beach walkers say “you’re crazy” when they walk by us in their down puffies and knit caps. Barely light, gray with only a hint of lighter gray to the east to indicate dawn. It’s easier to smile and nod, agreeing with their flash psychoanalysis, which is more accurate than they probably realize.
Everyone should be a little crazy about something. A little off. A little wild-eyed. A little too in love.
Some of us pull on wetsuits. One of us is going skins. Water temp has dropped unusually fast these last two weeks. No foreplay or shoulder season, just straight into winter temps, 52 now, heading down to stay around 46 by November, if we’re lucky.
No gloves or booties yet, I want to save something to put on for November, a small warmish treat that will make a mental difference for me when getting in.
Tide is low. Robinson beach is a gradual sandy descent down to the edge. I never hesitate, just walk straight in, taking a first assessment with my bare feet: colder, warmer, the same as yesterday.
I stop when the water reaches my lower thighs, dip to rinse my goggles, first touch of the water with the tips of my fingers. A swirling touch, a type of familiar greeting, the same way I stroke my daughter’s hair absentmindedly when we’re standing in line somewhere, or she’s cooking ramen at the stove. A passing gesture of familiarity, a claiming of sorts, to say: “I see you, I’m here.”
Goggles on. Straps straightened, quick prayer to the gods of suction and silicone that it’s a good goggle-karma day. Some days they leak every 20 yards, a goddammit day, and my swim rhythm takes on a necessary break: rolling onto my back to tip and empty, then rolling back again to take a forward stroke and keep gliding.
The next day the same pair will seal for the entire swim. Moody bitch. New or old makes no difference. “Goggles are an art form,” my friend Kristin once told me.
I stop at my waist, take a look around. It’s not quiet. It’s deeper than that. It’s silent. Still, but everything breathing, alive. Sacred. I turn a slow circle, taking in the blue heron fishing on shore; the white buoys in the bay abandoned like soccer balls on a playground after the bell; the slight breeze coming down through the fir trees on the hill, riffling the Sound’s surface; the summer cabins shuttered and asleep; our colorful pile of clothes, yellow dry bags and purple jackets, left on the driftwood to wait.
This is the moment, the “before”, the pause that comes in front of submerging and taking that first stroke. If I’m late, it’s not long. But if I have the gift of time, the presence of mind, a moment or two, I can feel my senses sharpen to the moment, buzzing.
I’m about to enter a hostile environment, a thief, one that does not support breath but steals it, cold water that hunts my core, and makes the exposed space between my goggles and cap ache. My skin hums, knows what to expect, braces for the break-in through the zipper, upper collar around my neck, smallest gap in the neoprene at my wrists.
Everything I am: anticipating.
If I hesitate long enough to question, to entertain the ever-present doubt (nonexistent on a flat sunny day, insistent on a day with gale-force winds), I always find a mantra:
-You know you’re not getting out until you get in.
-There’s no turning around without wishing you would have.
-You never say no.
These words reflect my truest self, the part of me that every once in awhile I let myself admire: the non-quitter, my do-it-anyway side, the gritty girl, the committed.
Then, the letting go, the split-second loss of control as I fall in. Not a jump, not even a lean, just a relinquishing of the need to be upright, a giving in to gravity, denying the force that holds my feet to the spinning, speeding Earth. My lungs shrink in, my legs rise to the surface, and I reach out with both hands, pulling through a single breast stroke. I breathe out, eyes level with the water, and instantly belong to the stillness, once again accepted into a body bigger than myself: afloat, akin, never more alive.
–TJ Wiley Forsyth