in the river on Christmas eve

January 15, 2015

xmas eve 3… were a pair of wet suit gloves and matching booties.

That’s all, just the miracle of neoprene to protect the extremities.

Because of course the water was cold — 6 C, around 43 F — just about bearable, i.e., not freezing, not literally. Ice is my cut-off point. I don’t break ice to swim.

I’m not that hard core.

I know someone who is, a woman all the way hard core, who breaks the surface ice with her heel and shoves the fragments aside to make a lane for herself through the water. I’ve seen her a few times at the riverbank club, the two of us the only ones out that early in the morning. We usually chat, a brief discourse about the weather or the big male swan who’s had a go at both of us: what’s his story?

These encounters are always very civilized, but they’re also slightly surreal, because what we don’t acknowledge, not ever, is the essential weirdness of the situation, the fact we’re standing there naked in winter with goosebumps and river hair.

I ran into the ice breaker on the train to London not long ago. We were both dressed so it took us a while to realize we knew each other, and in what context. Even then, having figured it out, one of those shared lightbulb moments, we didn’t talk about the riverbank club.

The first rule of riverbank club is you do not talk about riverbank club.

I’m kidding.

We didn’t talk about swimming because it’s a boring subject. Images of flesh and dark water and the inscrutability of ice aside, what is there to say? You get in. It’s wet. You swim. You get out.

The only halfway intriguing aspect has to do with why.

The ice breaker and I have never discussed our respective motivations (the first rule of riverbank club…), but I suspect the reason she breaks ice is because she can.

I say this because the reason I inch down a soggy ladder into a body of water that, duh, gets colder every day is because I can.

It’s something I can control. This matters because there’s a certain amount of slippage in my life right now. Without going into details (I’m striving for discreet), I can reveal that events are out of kilter, emotions are running high and my future is undergoing what a self-help manual might refer to as an interval of readjustment.

And this small business of lowering myself into a near-icy river is one of the few obstacles I’m able to surmount. Or dismount, as it concerns descending a ladder.

I start my descent. Urged on by my internal pep squad, who rally the crowd with a chorus of, Come on, come on, you wimp, I pry my fingers off the sides of the ladder, release a series of dog’s-tail-caught-in-the-car-door yelps and, with the neoprene booties deceiving the rest of my body into thinking, Well, this isn’t so bad, I sink backwards into what turns out to be – every single time! — aquatic hell. Thermoreceptors in overdrive, I flirt briefly with cardiac arrest. I’m mid-river by this time so it’s swim or drown.

Simple, really and only marginally insane.

But marginally insane is the current state of play for me and at the conclusion of my version of the ice bucket challenge (sponsorship welcome, btw), I get my pay off: the drug of smug. Of all the endorphins the brain supplies after a bout of physical activity, this has to be the best– the obnoxious, buoyant balm of self-regard.


21 Responses to “in the river on Christmas eve”

  1. James Shepherd-Barron Says:

    “… drug of smug …” … love it … must try it myself one day … endorphins, that is, not winter ice-flows in the Cambridgeshire Fens … James Shepherd-Barron(in France)ConsultantDisaster ManagementDisaster Epidemiology Mobile UK: +44 7785 70 34 90Mobile New York: +1 917 822 9627 (note new number)Skype: james.s-b

  2. Daniel Says:

    Great post Michelle! Very dry and discrete, unlike your swim.

  3. Matt Jaffe Says:

    Having spent my whole life swimming, I can’t imagine how cold that water must feel.

    • whatiwaswearing Says:

      It’s a little like childbirth. I never remember how horrible it is until I’m in the middle of it. We had two days of freezing weather here, which brought the entire country to a halt, natch, but now that it’s thawing I’m thinking of chancing a swim again.

  4. Jo Compton Says:

    its giving me great images of the neoprene extremities! I know David would be jealous of the opportunity to swim – he yearns for the Riverbank club…

  5. jenlkjenlk Says:

    I love your writing, and your brilliant shivering self whose buoyancy always rises.

  6. jenlkjenlk Says:

    I love your shivering self lowering into the terrible hairy depths and climbing out full of your buoyancy that always wins.

  7. Marginally insane? Totally mad! Perhaps you’d like to try the north sea in February?

  8. Jess Says:

    I just could not do it. Unless I lived in the tropics and the river was VERY warm xxx

  9. Elgy Says:

    Dripping with Leda-like images like the river hair and swan who always has a go at you … one of your best, Michelle, discreet and dripping !

  10. Ed Says:

    Another wonderful ditty…mazal tov!

  11. One of your best, Leda — dripping with images like the swan who has a go at you, and “naked in winter with goosebumps and river hair” …

  12. Loved the metaphor of icy lowering for control over the maelstrom life sometimes can be. Makes me think of watching Russian ‘walruses’ (men and women) braving broken ice channels in Leningrad, and wondering WHY?

    David L.

  13. Aileen DB Says:

    It didn’t initially click that the booties and gloves were all that you were wearing, having forgotten the nature (no pun intended) of the club. Thank you for reminding me of the pleasure post cold water swimming, probably different for everyone, and not so odd. I think the Russian walruses enjoy the feeling of a strenuous workout with a lot less effort, as I do.

  14. Martyn Sakol Says:

    The Swan is saying “I have no choice but to be in this river, but you?….Meshugah!” Great post Michelle

  15. Sophie Says:

    I love you Michelle. Always put a smile on my face on reading your reflections. Sounds utterly hell. But can see why you do it. Am toying with doing the Camino pilgrimage walk across France & Spain. I am completely unfit and don’t walk much. But heh I might just do it because I can…..

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