Writing from my cozy spot on the big blue sofa by the flickering fire while soft furry animals snooze like farting scatter cushions across the floor, a wilting Christmas tree beams a warm twinkling aura that settles on the room like gold dust, and I muse on some of life’s less comfortable experiences.
I’m not talking about that time in the Six Bells, when my father-in-law-to-be, on meeting my parents for the first time, desperately cast about for something to say, and eventually asked if I had quit smoking. My mother’s frosty reply was “ We didn’t know she’d STARTED!” Uncomfortable moments like these are commonplace and well beyond my control.
No, instead I’m thinking about the ways in which I have deliberately put myself out of my so-called ‘comfort zone’, and why.
I’m no daredevil. At school the outer limits of my courage were tested, not on epic D of E expeditions or foreign exchanges, but on stage in various guises, dancing, even singing and scariest of all, making people laugh (on purpose). I did sign up for winter sailing lessons in the freezing waters of Dover Harbour which I suppose required a certain courage and fortitude, frequently testing our ability to recover from mild hypothermia on the sometimes trippy trudge back up Park Avenue to huddle round the ancient two-bar heater in the Sixth Form common room until our lips lost their blue tint.
But it was much later in life, perhaps motivated by a need to unfetter myself from the constraints of conventional domesticity, that I started to crave adventure (with a small ‘a’). Choosing to deliver two big babies without pain-relief was an interesting challenge that I rose to with aplomb (apart from the bit where I think I pooed in the birthing pool) and Motherhood itself, like an episode of SAS Who Dares Wins, provided endless mini adventures in sleep deprivation, lifesaving and fending off total mental collapse in the face of unremitting torture.
Later, when the children were bigger and these things levelled to a dull hum, taking the leap of faith to start up a small business on my own was almost a step too far on the adventure scale, and while it taught me invaluable lessons in life and how NOT to do things, it proved to be my nemesis. After five years hard labour, that moment I decided to throw in the towel was almost as good as the relief of a 10lb baby finally exiting my ravaged body. I think it was during this pressurised and complicated part of my life that I subconsciously began to seek ways to ‘get outside of myself’. While not ruled out entirely, Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll made unsuitable bedfellows with Work, Motherhood n Housewifery, so when alternative ways to get a hit of therapeutic escapism presented themselves, I found myself naturally drawn to them.
A good friend extolled the virtues of a weekly session of 5Rhythms. Admittedly he was more bonkers than me at the time, but the idea of cutting loose to banging tunes in a darkened room full of strangers in the name of self-help, piqued my curiosity, and so, one warm evening, after we had watched an open air performance by The Handlebards in Museum Gardens, I decided to fling my inhibitions in the Ouse and join him in a spacious, parquet floored hall off Micklegate.
My heart thumped as I took off my jacket behind the screen at the entrance, stomach churning disconcertingly as I wondered how bad it would look if I just executed a swift U-turn. I wished I’d had the forethought to swipe a large shot of Dutch courage on the way there. The room beyond the screen was tangibly buzzing with seasoned strangers, all sober, all there like enthusiastic Fraggles, ready to dance their cares away. Then a reeling song by The Pogues began to pump from the sound system and, like a skydiver, I plunged into the space, casting off tension, kicking away care and completely losing myself into the swirling melee of kindness, love, forgiveness and acceptance that is 5Rhythms.
Two hours of continuous, wild, freestyle dance, overseen by a former Haçienda DJ turned 5R guru. At the end I was exhausted, drenched, weepy, and elated. I couldn’t believe I had found the courage to go through with it, but I was already looking forward to the next one. I even began to enjoy the strange mix of people I encountered on that dance floor. There was an enormous woman in purple, shaped like the Indian Chief in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. She preferred to stand rooted to the spot, rhythmically rotating her head from left to right, while some of the younger men had clearly spent time immersed in contemporary dance, performing impresario leaps and elasticated gyrations that took my breath away, but mostly, my fellow Fraggles stomped, skipped swayed and wafted with abandon according to our mood. There was no judgement, no mockery, and my initial terror gave way to ecstatic joy. Those sessions got me through some dark days and rebooted my whole body in a way that clubbing had in my teens and early twenties, just without all the sexual harassment and hangovers.
As my ‘issues’ were systematically unpacked and swept aside on the dance floor the 5R buzz gently wained. I had noticed a post on social media about open water swimming in our local boating lake. Ah! A new way to achieve Nirvana, perhaps? I grabbed a willing accomplice in the form of Tina, a wiser, older friend with a gleam in her eye and a penchant for trying new things, and we turned up at the lake like lambs to the slaughter. It was an early spring morning and I thought that my old ‘shorty’ wetsuit, (a Cornish holiday impulse purchase from a surf shack) would be sufficient to protect me from the icy water. I was partly right: Despite the painful sensation of freezing daggers stabbing every millimetre of exposed flesh, the increments of icy tricklets creeping between neck and collar snatching away each attempted breath and the joints in my numbed hands and feet seizing up like ice picks, I managed to survive that first dip. I even felt euphoric enough to wave at my disbelieving family on the shore and shout ‘I’M ALIVE!!’ whereupon the lifeguard leapt aboard his little speedboat and swiftly attempted an emergency rescue assuming that I was signalling for assistance, and not, as it turned out, showing off.
It was all very uncomfortable. But even the numb fumbling with cold wet neoprene and awkward flashing of blue tit in the cramped communal changing room, did nothing to dampen the triumph derived from taking one’s body to a very painful place and surviving. The old adage, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ was never more apt. The incredible physical and psychological after-glow it gave as reward compelled me to repeat the process over and over again. Tina, hindered by an over-taut wetsuit and possibly not quite as mad, was slightly less enamoured with the experience, and eventually lost her zeal, but for me, wild swimming gradually replaced wild dancing.
Alongside all this nonsense, of course, I also learnt to become a church bell ringer. (see On The Pull) This, perhaps not coincidentally, also provided the same thrill, flush of adrenaline, complete presence in the moment and a distraction from the everyday, while keeping me enfolded in a kind of friendly commune of supportive, like-minded souls. As with so many sociable things, COVID-19 has put a temporary stop to that, and I miss it terribly.
I’ve written in past blogs about the sheer blissful joy of open water and wild swimming, (see First Dip) I try to capture in words the silky shawl of cold fresh water slipping over bare shoulders, a mallard’s eye view on a secret aquatic world, the complete mental focus on the immediate, on the breath, while all other worldly thoughts and cares dissolve. Wild swimming allows a feral freedom under the open sky that is hard to replicate in a chlorine-fumed, Muzak-echoing swimming pool. Give me muddy duckboards and goose droppings over human hair-balls and verruca plasters any day! For me, there was no looking back, it has become a way of life and, five years on, I think I am getting acclimatised. I live in eternal readiness, so that should the faintest whiff of a wild swimming opportunity appear on the horizon, Superman style, I might rip open my shirt to reveal a tummy-support cozzy, allowing immediate headfirst dive into a crayfish-infested Wharfe or an eely Pocklington canal*.
*In my dreams, mostly.
Meanwhile I have faced and overcome other, less wet, physical challenges; deliberately put my poor body through its paces in order to somehow prove my worth, (see Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Getting Serious and Going The Distance) Maybe it is an attempt to defeat the dread feeling of ageing, which is perhaps why the cold water swimming has endured the longest as my favourite form of discomfort, particularly now that the boffins have associated it with delaying dementia. Learning more about how to use my own breath to overcome negative feelings and discomfort by adopting Wim Hof philosophies has been amazing, and there is a growing wealth of resources in literature and on YouTube that continues to inform and inspire my exploration of this practice.
Sadly lockdown put a kink in all that too, just when I needed it most. COVID restrictions meant that my beloved lakeland refuge was forced to close for a large part of the year. We live too far from the idyllic crystalline pools and tannin tarns of the wild limestoney North and I fear that as a lone female swimmer wading about unexpectedly in the damp hollows of East Yorkshire, I might attract unwanted attention, not least from the local constabulary. Danny has helpfully suggested I try bog snorkelling…I’m tempted. This longing for submersion is hard to ignore. Like a junkie frantic to score, I have been grabbing at the lapels of anyone who might offer me just one sweet hit, even eyeing local landowners who might be concealing a suitable dewpond behind their cowsheds that I might avail myself of. In desperation I took a couple of lonely sea dips, but, when not rescuing my daft dog from the waves, (see A Funny Thing Happened At The Beach) my head swam with worrying notions of riptides, strong currents and great whites, rather defeating the object of the exercise.
Hoping to find locations for a less risky dip I consulted Facebook asking if swimming at Hornsea Mere was permitted. The resounding answer came back; NO. But at 7pm that dark December evening just before Christmas, a new comment on my thread popped up. It was from a woman inviting me to join her and some friends at 8pm for a swim in the sea at Hornsea beach. I wrestled briefly with all the perfectly good reasons why accepting this irregular offer would be nothing short of utter (otter) insanity. Then I grabbed my swim bag and left, letting the children know I love them as I slammed the front door behind me.
Getting out of the car on the dimly lit esplanade beside the Floral Hall that Solstice night, I wondered if I might have bitten off more than I could chew. There was a terrifying thunder of invisible waves crashing somewhere beyond the sea wall, but I had come this far… I borrowed a tow float from Leanne, the seemingly sensible and level-headed ringleader of this madness, who, in her wetsuit looked reassuringly like the kind of person capable of rescuing my floundering body from the rolling tide, should it become necessary. Our little group approached the breakers and standing firm against each one, we waded deeper until we could push off into the smooth swelling sea beyond. It was superb. I didn’t even gasp, I just breathed in the salty night air and thanked my lucky stars I was fit and free to follow my instincts and seize this amazing opportunity. The strings of lights along the seafront looked especially ethereal, I felt especially alive, and grateful that these strangers had been so accepting and generous. It was like that first night of Five Rhythms all over again, but this time waterborne. Little marine mouths tickled and nibbled, attracted by the glow of the bobbing tow floats illuminated from within like floating lanterns and it felt strangely right and normal to be in the water in the dark.
Like myself, one other swimmer that night was in ‘skins’, (the technical term for open water swimming without a wetsuit), so the two of us wisely kept our ‘swimble’, as they called it, to a brief circuit between the groins. (And speaking of groins, mine was, after a few minutes, experiencing almost intolerable unmentionable sensations brought about by exposure to the chilled North Sea water. I cannot imagine how the opposite sex cope with this.)
By the time we emerged, chased ashore by white horses, (and, for all we know, great whites too) my skin was completely numb, but the grin on my face stayed for hours. Turning the car homewards, and safely out of earshot, I let out a great whoop of glee. This chance encounter was to mark the beginning of a new chapter in my cold water adventures. I have found a pod of like-minded porpoises to share safe swims with, and the new year ahead suddenly looks a lot brighter. I have already met up with two of them for a sunny daytime swim, this time in ‘teeny tiny waves’, and there was ambitious talk of a summer swim expedition to neighbouring Mappleton.
For my birthday Arthur gave me a copy of Wild Woman Swimming, by Lynne Roper, and for Christmas he gave me a copy of At The Pond, a book of essays on the Hampstead Ladies Pond by women lucky enough to include it in their daily lives. (He’s either happy to support my crazy hobby, or hoping to bump me off by proxy, either way, it’s nice that he’s noticed.) In At The Pond, writers much cleverer than myself describe some of the intense feelings associated with pushing beyond one’s comfort zone, especially in wintertime, and as I snuggle down here with it, the embers ticking and settling in the stove, I dream of joining those brave, empowered metropolitan ladies in their secret oasis, one day, when lockdowns are lifted and we can start to build a new normal.
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