Winter is here and here I am, swimming alone in a lake, eye level to the birds, to the roots of the trees, the blue sky and dark clouds up above. Being in this tranquil space leads me to reflect on my swimming. Swimming is my joy. It is the time when I feel every bit of my body, and enjoy it in a way that is lost to me when I am on dry land. Swimming is a way of feeling completely at one with my surroundings, when my body doesn’t hurt and when I feel fit and alive. And even coronavirus has made me appreciate swimming in another way, having to find different, colder and more adventurous ways of being able to be in water. I have always been a swimmer. Having grown up in tropical countries and heat, I learnt to swim young and was always underwater. It gives me both a calm and an exhilarating place to be, a time to reflect, to write essays, to write letters, to think about problems or things troubling me. And then that moment when I switch off and just enjoy each stroke, each breath, each feeling, of each part of my body. Swimming is so much more than exercise.
The last five or six years have been punctuated by the swimming of other people. I am part of an organisation called Swim Oxford and, with my ‘tea tent’ friends, have provided tea, coffee, hoorays (and occasional commiserations) to the hordes of people who have joined the Swim Oxford challenges. Being part of this organisation is very important to me. Apart from caring very much for the people who run the organisation, and the other helpers, it is also about these amazing riverside community events I get to be part of four times a year between June and September. All sorts, all ages, meeting on the banks of the Thames, and with excitement and hope they throw themselves into the water and swim miles, and at the end together they reflect and laugh, eat cake and enjoy. It is the most glorious time, it is caring and thoughtful, not just for the participants but for each other….
In the past four years I have been stunned by losses; of a dear friend, a sister, a beloved young friend, a father, and then another friend. Swim Oxford has not personally known all these people, but it has been a place of continuity, of community, a place to be supported and appreciated and thought about, and it has had that quintessential ingredient of the water, swimming, the rhythm that the swims and the river and the seasons provide. This year, I took the plunge into outdoor cold waters, having usually restricted my enjoyment of this kind of swimming to warm summer days and holidays at the seaside. Inspired by the lovely Fra (a lifelong, all weather outdoor swimmer), I have braved the muddy, the dirty, the freezing waters. Fra is my friend, and my family, and her birthday is in January and last year, also having suffered terrible losses, we met to celebrate. She and all her lovely young friends and her partner plunged in, and I shivered and watched at the side. I wanted to be one of those people but told myself I suffered from the cold and I wouldn’t be able to manage it. But I really, really wanted to be one of those people. I decided then that next year I would join them for their New Year’s swim to celebrate. In May (deciding this was a sensible time to start), I started getting into various bits of the Thames and have carried on every week since then. This morning, stepping into the lake, feeling the icy chill around every part of my body, looking at the beautiful clouds across a pale blue sky, daring myself to stay in for a couple of extra minutes, swimming near the cormorants and around the seagulls sitting on the buoys, I reflected on the last few years. I thought about why this ice-cold water is such a pleasure and what that sense of really wanting to get back in, even though it’s freezing, is about. And I thought about how it helps me feel alive, in a way that is shocking and skin-tinglingly delightful. Ashes of some of my loved ones are in the sea, and the sense I get of being at one with nature and with myself in water makes me feel like I am touching them, and I am enfolded by them in some small way. This is a comfort and a catharsis. So thank you water, thank you swimming, thank you seasons, and the challenges of friends, thank you Swim Oxford, and all the influences that you bring. I know that in January I will be in that water.