On an early November morning, my friend John and I stand shivering in our bathing suits, watching the mist rise off of Walden Pond.
“Refreshing!” John jokes, as he begins to wade in. I dig my nearly numb toes into the sand near the water’s edge and listen to the tick of falling leaves hitting the pewter-gray surface. My first swim of the year is in May when the bright green foliage is just filling in. As cold as the water may be, I am warmed and strengthened by the promise of summer ahead.
My last swim is with John, my 62-year-old Arlington neighbor, a three-season swimmer who is undeterred by low temperatures and the nearly bare trees signaling winter’s approach.
As I stand there, unable to will myself into the water, I begin to question the need for this ritual that began when I was spending too much time in the virtual world and wanted to feel more fully alive in my life. Or as Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden: “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”
Seven years later, two brutally cold swims still bookend my favorite six months in New England. But I couldn’t do this alone. I wouldn’t have the strength to go into the water that now feels like an ice bath when I test it with my toes. That’s where John comes in. When he started stretching the Walden Pond swim season into the fall months, I decided to join him.
We have walked along a wooded path to arrive at this jut of sand across the pond from the main beach. A few morning joggers stop to watch us, seemingly shocked that we are swimming without wet suits. So am I, and, after several moments of misery, I decide that this is the year I’m not going to. At 54 with a wonky thyroid, I am too old and cold. The day is bleak with that steely gray New England sky. Dry leaves rattle on the trees overhead.
“I can’t,” I call to John, who is in up to his waist. “I’m chickening out.”
Instead of answering, John dives in and, seconds later, comes up sputtering, his face flushed. “Very refreshing,” he says.
I slap my arms and moan. “How bad is it?”
“Not that bad,” he says. I watch him swim out several yards, trying to keep warm while he waits for me, not revealing the whole cold truth, the way we often hold back our own reactions to temper someone else’s fear.
I think of my daughter, facing the daunting college application process. “You can do this,” I had promised her the evening before, setting aside my own worries to hold space for hers.
And I remember my sister in Germany when she was going through cancer treatments two years earlier. “You’re going to be OK,” I assured her in our daily phone calls. Though I didn’t always believe it myself, I said it with conviction, wanting to build up her courage.
An early autumn swim is hardly comparable to chemotherapy — and I’m doing this by choice, after all. But anticipating the shock of that plunge makes me consider the things I’m afraid to do, the professional risks that I’m not always up for, and the daily courage needed to fight for our planet. I think of all the people who have to face situations far worse than cold pond water — and, finally, I take a few small steps back toward the edge.
“You got this,” John insists. And for some reason, I believe him.
Clenching my teeth, I move forward a few more steps, and dive in. I come up squealing and laughing. I am cold to the core and feeling fearless.
“Thank you,” I tell John after catching my breath. “You make me brave.”
We wade out of the water together. I’ll be back in the spring.