Falling In

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

I Should Probably See My Therapist, But I Wrote This Instead: An Ode to My Mom

Guest Blog by Bailey Forsyth

I should probably start by introducing myself – my name is Bailey, and I’m Teresa’s introverted, first born daughter. I think I’ve made an appearance on here once or twice, thankfully all good things – my mom didn’t HAVE to be so nice, but she was. Thanks, mom :).

This is me! Post-swim, probably inquiring about who brought the beer this time.

Anyways, brief background on me: I am a senior at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, double majoring in International Affairs and Economics (please don’t ask what I want to do with that, I still don’t know, and I’m so sick of coming up with some bullshit answer every time – I’m just trying to survive out here). I’m also a sprinter and a captain on the track and field team (I know, I know, hold your applause); I love the grittiness of sprinting, and it’s something that I am immensely proud of.

Me and my awesome team right before Covid hit.

As we all know, 2020 was pretty shitty, for a number of reasons. If you’ve been following my mom’s lovely blog, you know my family has had a doozy of a year – why not throw cancer at my mom, too? Just get all of the shit out of the way in one terrible year. Anyways, the middle of March was when my 2020 track season officially got cancelled due to Covid. In a word, I was devastated. To have that pulled out from under me was a blow, and I took it pretty hard. I’ll admit that it was far from the end of the world, but track was (is) one of the biggest factors to my mental health. To lose that in the middle of a pandemic, while still trying to process the information that my mom had cancer, was Hard. Watching one of the most important people in your life go through something like that is Fucked Up, and I felt pretty helpless about the whole thing. 

Me and my kick ass mom at sunrise!

I ended up moving back home to the island, because school was online, and I wanted to be around for my family while my mom went through her cancer “journey” or whatever bullshit people call it. I never thought I would be living with my parents again for the long term, but all of a sudden I was back in my childhood bedroom. Which isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I was a fresh 21! I should have been doing stupid college kid things with my friends on the weekends! I mean, don’t get me wrong, Jim and Teresa know how to party, but having a beer with dinner and then going to bed by 10 wasn’t *exactly* how I had pictured my evenings going. 

Just look at these party animals!

I probably sound ungrateful – that wasn’t the case! I’m lucky to have such a great family who loves me so much. It was just too much all at once for my brain to handle in a healthy way. In short, I got depressed, and hit a low that I hadn’t seen since high school. It was tough. My motivation was at an all-time low, and I couldn’t do anything but watch as my mom took on this monster that I couldn’t do anything about, and I had to face it every damn day. There’s no distracting yourself from the Bad Thing if you’re stuck in quarantine with it for weeks on end.

Despite everything, I think my mom caught on, because she started dragging me along to swim with her and her friends, even when she wasn’t allowed in the water herself. Now, I’ve swam with these guys occasionally during the summers, when it’s nice and warm out, but APRIL? No offense, but what college kid wants to get up for an 8am swim in 50 degree water?? It certainly wasn’t very high on my priority list at the time. But I did it, because it was something to do, and I finally found something I could do for her – I could be her place holder in the water until she could get back in. 

So I got up at 7.

And swam. 

And froze my ass off. 

And immediately wanted to go again. 


Me freezing my ass off while I wait for my mom to take her sweet time.

I mean this in the most literal sense: it just might have saved my life. I was quickly losing all sense of myself, which is something that terrifies me. The water was cathartic.

All of a sudden, I was surrounded by beauty, and people who just loved life. It was infectious, and I couldn’t possibly be depressed when I was immersed in salt water and surrounded by friends. I realized I was probably in the best place possible – where else could I run for 20 minutes and end up on a beach where I looked out and there were dozens of porpoises playing at the drop off? Nowhere, I tell you. The cold water seemed to shock me out of whatever funk I had fallen into, and I emerged feeling resilient. It was meditative and cathartic; the water was a safe place to work out problems in my head, while simultaneously exhausting my body. 

There were countless times I found myself smiling like an idiot into the water (the flounders that saw me probably thought I was a psychopath). My favorite days were when the water was a little too rough, and you got out feeling like you just went 10 rounds with Rocky. A close second was when we were playing in the bioluminescence at 10pm on a Tuesday night after drinking shitty Kirkland-brand margaritas. I mean, come ON! 

Rocky waves!

I ended up spending the summer surrounded by friends, and had some of the best times in recent memory – I think I laughed harder and longer when I was with them than I have in years. Granted, they weren’t the friends I had expected to be hanging out with this summer, but rather were new friends I made that I lovingly refer to as my “old people friends” (I should clarify that none of them are actually old, but I think the age gap between myself and the next oldest of the group is roughly 35 years).

My old people friends!

They welcomed me with open arms, and I loved spending any kind of time with them. The water not only saved me mentally, but it led me to some of the coolest people I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet, and the cool part was I think they liked me back! 

I can now say that one of my best friends is a 50-something year old Canadian – I would be remiss if I left her out of this. 

I was home for Thanksgiving a few weeks ago, and was overwhelmed, kinda sad, and completely stressed out of my brain. The water was a balmy 47 degrees, and I hadn’t swam in about a month. But it didn’t matter. My mom and my friends were there, grinning like the lunatics they are, way too excited about getting in the Sound at this time of year. The water welcomed me back home like I hadn’t missed a beat, and, taking after my mother, I cried into my goggles.

– Bailey James

(Note from TJ: Some days you’re given a gift you can never repay. So much gratitude. Love you, Babygirl.)

Not Exactly a Glamour Sport

Open-water swimming isn’t glamorous. I was reminded of that today while attempting to pull on a new wetsuit. 

Does anyone else sweat like a cold Corona on a hot beach trying these things on? And why is there ALWAYS a good-looking, incredibly fit 30-something triathlete/sales rep helping you try them on? Is shaming part of the sales tactic? 

The new suit was a thermal version of the suit I usually swim in. Thermal means lined in synthetic orange fuzz, which is supposed to be warmer for those winter days here in Puget Sound when the water is down in the 40s. Great idea, right?

And even though it was a bigger size than I normally wear, it was still “an umph and a prayer” to get it over my hips. And when I say hips, I mean my ass. We all have our demons. And when I say “we”, I mean women.

Have you seen what men swim in? At least Australia can dish the truth; they call the mens brief-style swimsuit a Budgie Smuggler. If you haven’t heard the term before, just give it a minute….

Budgie, Friendship, Affection, Love

Men’s swimwear could be an entirely separate blog topic. Oh, if only I had the time!

Lately in our swim group, we’ve had some discussions of modesty at the picnic table. The picnic table is where we all meet and chat while changing into our gear before a swim. Every open-water group has its own form of picnic table.

Unfortunately ours is right below a family pizza joint, and a few days ago one of our dear members inadvertently exposed his member to a family trying to enjoy their pie in the restaurant above.

Another swimmer in the group ran into the father of the family after the swim. He said his daughter had a few questions about “that naked man.” He wasn’t upset, but he was curious about why people were swimming in “that really cold water.”

Why do we do it? (I mean swim, not forget our towel and expose ourselves, but that too I suppose.) The question becomes louder to me in these days of dropping night temperatures, the shortening daylight, and finding gear that will best get me through the tough swims of winter. 

The group at the picnic table is already growing smaller. Soon it will be just a handful of us that answer the call to keep getting in. I believe we would all say it isn’t a choice to swim, but a necessity. 

I’m going to have to ask those friends why they keep swimming. And remind everyone to bring a towel.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Why Lion’s Mane Jellies Are the Best!

The title here reflects my suspicions that I somehow offended our scarlet-armed friends of the sea with my previous post (Then There’s These Bastards). How else to explain the 27 (twenty seven!) encounters our group had soon after I posted?

Assuming that an invertebrate can read is a stretch. I don’t think they can even steer themselves, they just float along the currents. I have friends like this.

But many things exist in the world that defy explanation. Like swimming with a swim buoy, I saw no reason not to be overly cautious, and decided to give them some love in this title. They most likely just skim and only read the big print anyway. 

No one was stung in the face, no one swam directly into one, so it obviously was just a threat and demonstration of strength in numbers on their part. 

Being of a certain OW swimmer mindset (see “Definition of Insanity” in previous post), we returned the very next day, same time, same place, to swim. 

The beach was littered with their fallen. And I’m not saying beach as in a long swath of a few hundred yards. There were 12 washed up within a 30-foot length directly below the stairs where we always get in.

It was obvious to me then that some serious reconnaissance had been taking place. They’d been planning an attack for awhile.

We all, of course, swam anyway (see “Definition” above, again). Yet the water was crystal clear, and of the eight of us that got in, no one saw a single jelly. Not one.

After getting out, someone had the gallant and thoughtful idea to collect the ones washed ashore in a plastic shopping bag and throw them into the nearby blackberry bushes. 

But we shouldn’t have.

As much as we find lion’s manes a scary stinging nuisance, the sea has a plan and a place for them. We just might not be smart enough to understand that plan yet. Maybe we’re just reading the big print for now.

As humans we treat the Earth’s bodies of water and the life in them like entitled children, always expecting to receive but rarely giving back. What belongs to the sea must remain with the sea. 

Except Dungeness crab, because they’re delicious.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Then there’s these bast@rds….

When it comes to deadly, highly poisonous, sudden-death kinds of critters, the Pacific Northwest is pretty lame. The best we can do is a super highly toxic mushroom. Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite glad about this. But it kind of lacks in the sexy thrill department, if you ask me.

But we do have red stinging jellyfish! Lion’s Mane. Big ones, some as large as garbage can lids once they wash ashore, like this one that blobbed up on Useless Bay. They’re far from deadly, but can leave a burn to remember if you happen to be swimming in their path. 

I have so far (and luckily) only cruised by or over them. In the water they’re gorgeous, floating silently along the currents like a scarlet ballgown missing its evil princess. 

They’re most common in the Fall, when winds bring the colder water up. Also, when crabbing season starts in June, I will often pass through a severed arm or tentacle, broken off by a trap or pulled-up rope. 

While no longer attached to the main body of the jelly, these pieces still pack a bit of sting. The burn is brief but surprising on the backs of my hands or across my face.

But it’s not enough of a threat to keep myself and most of my friends from swimming. Even when some of us have been stung on successive days in the same area, we still show up and swim in the EXACT same place. (What’s the definition of insanity again?)

The sea is dangerous and its storms terrible, but these obstacles have never been sufficient reason to remain ashore.

Magellan

Besides knowing the seasons, and hoping a fellow swimmer shouts and points one out in the water ahead of me, there’s really no tactic to avoid a Lion’s Mane. My swim trajectory for the day and theirs will either cross or not. 

All those gazillion different paths through the water from point A to point B on a swim, and I might be unlucky enough to smack straight into one. 

I like to think about this idea. It reminds me of life. How sometimes everything aligns in a way that is perfectly horrible. Or tragic.

Or glorious. 

–TJ Wiley Forsyth