Wholly Immersed in the Walden Experience.

When I turn on the ignition in my car it is 69 degrees on a grey day in Lexington. Eight miles later the sun is streaming down from a blue sky patched with white cotton ball clouds. The temperature readout on my dashboard registers 72 degrees.
I am exhausted and could just as easily have taken to the couch as the car but here I am at Walden. I unlatch the door inviting in some fresh air and close my eyes for a few minutes.
The sun is still strong when I open them.

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The water feels chilly but I don’t allow myself to focus on it. Instead I enjoy its long slender strands like dark, perfectly horizontal pencil lines that stream past me to my left and to my right. The water is so calm moving through it is almost as relaxing as napping. I focus on the sky, that perfect shade of summer blue arching over and beyond the green of the forest. This to my left and to my right. Just as my body is poised on the surface of this pond, so some unfathomable equilibrium is being reset within it. By the time I reach Thoreau Cove I am beginning to think this swim is one in an episode of quiet contemplations. I make a slight curve toward Ice Fort Cove and the wind picks up.
I had not noticed there had been much of a breeze until I made this directional change. The water surface which I tend to watch closely had become slightly choppy, but only so that smooth glassy sheen at the beginning of my swim had been transformed into a dappled pattern of circular troughs and tiny crests. I had not had to amend my stroke noticeably to account for the swell. Now all that changes.

Suddenly I find myself both looking into the sun and swimming across the direction of the wind and waves. As I raise my head to breathe I see through the wind swept spray tiny fragments of light. I cannot quite make out clearly what it is I see, but I imagine a small boat full of refugees, standing shoulder to shoulder on the deck, the lights, a strand of lanterns hanging above them. Are they trying to make for safe harbor? How ridiculous, I tell myself. Am I hallucinating? I’m in the middle of Walden. Boat people, refugees? Here? But the vision keeps appearing to my right every time I raise my head.
I swim on, determined to swim past the point the light will play its tricks on me. I turn, swimming across the neck of Ice Fort Cove, feeling more and more like I myself am a boat in a harbor, pointing my bow into the wind, taking the waves full on. My stroke slows but somehow my body manages to rise up against the power of the waves so I almost swim above not through them. Each limb is achingly heavy and moving like lead, one arm pawing one after the other, my legs slowly steering from behind. I am moving so slowly I feel life itself has stalled but I am also feeling such stamina my power and  strength is overriding all else. Instead of heading back out toward the center of the pond as I would usually do, I decide to follow the line of the southern shore, staying about one hundred meters out: A old boat steaming along against the wind and waves. I am in no hurry. It is late on a Saturday and the afternoon sun has settled into the sky.

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My mind wanders back to earlier in the day. How I had eyed that thick blanket of cloud, wanting to make it an excuse for heading back to the couch, except for the little voice inside my head that had encouraged me to make the most of the opportunity to get to the pond. How when arrived and I had turned off the car ignition and taken a short nap. How the sun had shown up. How the power in me had exploded out of nowhere to meet the demands of the wind and waves and how it still is, this vessel which amazes me as it sails closer and closer to the main beach, crossing now from the southern side of the pond into the middle and making a straight line for the beach house.

Seldom do I manage to swim the whole length of the pond without losing my rhythm and beginning to flail. But today I seem to be getting stronger and stronger, spurred on by the choppy water belting against my body. And the benefit of this struggle is that I am entirely living and feeling it. It is consuming my mind and body that I am wholly sensing the now of it, something I have been struggling to do in my life lately. To my left is the blue of the sky with its wisps of windswept cloud, and to my right the same, only the clouds are misshapen into other odd formations. I watch first one oddly formed cloud and then the other and then sweep my eyes over the forest green before I am engulfed by the rising swell of water. On the next stroke I watch my browned arm rise above my body as it pulls me up into the reach of the sky. A moment later I feel myself fall back into the arms of the water before the rise of the other browned arm takes its cue. The constant rise and fall as I steer my course for home, the space between the two orange painted buoys signifying my exit onto the beach.

When I pull my body forward for that final time and flip over to see where I have been the water appears surprisingly calm, as if the battle I have been waging with the waves has been staged inside my head, not on the watery playing fields of Walden. I emerge fully from the water and stand on the beach and turn to look out over the pond.

Perhaps it has… I think, smiling as I walk off to find my towel.

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Friendship

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I had been wondering when would I venture into Walden’s tranquil or sometime wind rippled water again. I had seen figures, clad in black with flailing insect limbs thrown rhythmically over their sleek torsos, goggle eyes cruising the choppy surface. It must have been cold, I thought, watching their ungainly strides across the pond. Or was it just an excuse I gave myself for not feeling as adventurous as they were?

But on Monday the calendar, already turned into May and the thermometer climbing into the upper eighties, I no longer had an excuse. I scanned the car park looking for signs of wetsuits as I carried mine, its lifeless sleeves dangling from its doubled over body, its legs poised to stand on ankles as thin as sapling trunks. I flung my bag over my shoulder, jammed with what I thought I might need for this, my first swim of the season. I had no idea what the water temperature might be. I only knew that I would warm quickly once I clambered out after my swim and stood in the heat of the summer, the really only spring, sunshine.
A smile shaped my face as I recognized my friend’s car. Cathy was here. What more could I ask to get me over the anxieties of the unknown! I hastened my steps across the road and onto the ramped walkway, skipping down the stone steps and around the side of the rock wall onto the beach, only to find that Tom and Barbara were sitting in low beach chairs looking out over the pond. The gang was back. Walden’s community reassembling after a long harsh winter.
After swimming indoors for the first in a dozen winters, another excuse which had been keeping me out of Walden, doing stroke correction with a local masters group, I had finally progressed to a point I was enjoying freestyle, the feeling of gliding through the water with a long slow stroke, allowing my hands to drift downward before pulling them swiftly through the water. “Make it feel like you’re skating,” my coach had constantly been reminding me. I didn’t really want to go into the pond in a wetsuit and I couldn’t even contemplate wearing gloves. I would quickly slip back into the bad habits I had spent months conquering. Having my legs float in the wetsuit would be bad enough. I knew it would throw off the action of my kick but gloves…

I didn’t wear gloves, though I was cautious with the cold and wore a synthetic shirt and bike shorts under my wetsuit, as well as a neoprene cap over my regular bathing cap. I stood in the water greeting Cathy who arrived back after her swim and already I felt my feet beginning to chill. “High fifties” she told me, referring to the water temperature. “That reading was taken in the shallow water” she continued. We both knew that meant it was probably colder further out.“I’d better go before I get to cold,” I replied giving her a hug.

On my journey down the right side of the pond, the waves, pushed by the onshore wind washed into my face, making the grace which I was anticipating feeling a disjointed gasping for breath. But as I approached the point leading into Thoreau Cove the wind relinquished its push, the waters flattened out and the gliding began. Thoughts of turning back and making this enough for day one dissolved despite the fact the chill crept further inside my skin.

The return journey felt easier, possibly due to the fact the wind was now working with the waves as I sloshed through them, or perhaps it was just the sheer exhilaration that I was back in Walden after months of flip turning every 25 meters. Or perhaps it was a little of both.

Back on the beach Cathy was sitting in a chair waiting for me. Her face was turned to the sun and her eyes closed. “I wanted to wait for you to get back,” she told me as I wandered up to her, trying not to drip on her outstretched legs. “That’s so kind of you,” I replied, touched once more by her friendship.

When we said good bye in the car park to go to our respective ways I thought again how lucky I was to have found Walden and all it bought me. But most of all, I felt grateful for friends like Cathy.