Every exhale left a mark in the air, a very small cloud all my own. Each footstep, too, left an imprint into the feathery, thickening dust of the snow. The big, puffy flakes were falling in a steady rhythm to their own music. They showered the world in brightness; as if the stars had relaxed too much and left their pristine prisons in the sky to lazily drift to the earth…
It was not so very cold; the cusp of freezing. It felt, more simply, alive than anything else. The way the weather tingled and tickled against any skin; the same sensation accompanied every inhale as the winter introduced itself to my lungs. I hunched inside my light sweatshirt and held the towel tighter around myself without realizing.
I walked the familiar path to the Pond, crossing the trail now boasting markers for snowmobilers and dogsledders. I smiled at the markers. They must have been put up over the weekend. Signs of winter.
Arriving at the access, I stared out at Joe’s Pond. It was a perfect snow globe scene, our little bay. Charming, quaint and all the feelings of Christmas: hope and dreams and goodness toward all mankind. The snow clothed the world in white. Another chance to be pure and innocent; everything and everyone is new in the winter.
The water was gray like slate and I marveled at its beauty. The snow seemed to hide the distance, as if I gazed into a fog. All sound, too, was muffled by the snowfall. All the feelings of it, they held my spirit in a place where words could not touch. Reprieve like a snow day. Cheer like a holiday. Surprise like a perfect what-you-didn’t-know-you-wanted gift. Some hint of rebellion and danger seasoned the moment like cinnamon and nutmeg in a cup of hot cocoa.
I shed my sweatshirt, towel, and shoes. I made my way gingerly down the snow covered slope to the water’s edge. My bare toes warned me against my madness. I calmly informed them that they had not died before; they would not die this time, either.
I did not hesitate at the water’s edge but continued into the water, marrying my desire with my decision. I wanted to swim in the snow. I was not going to miss the opportunity again. The ripples made rings around me that pulsed away from my disturbance. My exhales still hovered visibly before me. I watched the snowflakes fall and disappear into the lake. They slipped from one form to another so easily. So seamless. So effortless. One form to another. Surrendering themselves to the water, without thought.
My mind, on the other hand, was working so hard. I could feel it trying to decipher the cold signals. The water was warm compared to the air, but the revelry of that feeling was extremely short-lived. It was not as hard as it could have been, and not the worst it’s ever been. I paused, waist deep, waiting for my mind to catch up to the stimuli that were beating against it.
It does not hurt so very bad. I suppose it isn’t as cold as I thought. Or maybe it’s just very cold. Are you numb? This is very dangerous. You can’t stay in long. Nobody knows where you are. Are you shivering, already? How are your hands?
I made some fists. My hands were working fine.
This isn’t so bad, I thought. I was not trying to convince myself. I was making an observation.
I turned my thoughts back outside of me. Now the world was hovering in anticipation, waiting for me to dive in and to swim. Again, it felt like a childhood Christmas, where the moments build upon themselves and every second has a value double or triple its typical worth.
Get in. The longer you are only halfway, the colder you will get. It’s freezing. Literally. This is dangerous.
I stared out at the snow again. So peaceful. So quiet. One second after wondering what I was doing, I dove in.
I was not like the snow. I did not slip into the water seamlessly and effortlessly. All around me was turbulence and thrashing; bubbles, sound, energy wasted in trying to keep warm. I could only quantify my breathing with my mind, initially. All of its creative energy went into moderating each inhale and exhale. How often do we have such occasion to celebrate the careful execution of each breath?
My head and face started to ache. I lost sight of the ground.
Not too far.
… but it’s not that bad.
I purposed my arms to continue. I purposed my breathing to be steady. I know these feelings of pain and shock and confusion. There is another side to them. If you just keep going, there always is. Another side. A place where few dare to go. Trust the feeling to have an ending – it isn’t as eternal as you might think. I know I can get there. Perhaps that’s the romance of it; courting the cold water.
Not too far.
I reluctantly, finally, obeyed the voice and turned back. My core was warm. I love that feeling. Like turning up the furnace inside of you, throwing another log into the wood stove. Warm. Fueled by that, I was the little engine that could. I focused on that warmth. I could go forever.
Not too long. Remember… you still have to get out.
That was a sobering thought. I had to have enough energy to walk up the snow covered slope barefoot and get into my shoes again. I had to wrap my towel around me and put my sweatshirt on. I had to make it up the hill to the house. Each action had to be designed first in my mind and then executed by my body.
Don’t make the snow and the water your enemy. Don’t stay too long in their company.
While I was still able to think so clearly, I allowed myself to terminate the swim and head for shore. Everything in me wanted to stay longer and to go farther. It wasn’t that bad. I knew I could have.
Nobody knows where you are. Your life is too valuable to gamble with. This is long enough.
Out of the water I went. Clambering up the snowy slope and into the shoes. My feet felt like blocks of ice beneath me. I disturbingly envisioned slipping right off of them at the ankles; they felt so disengaged from the rest of me. I wrapped the towel around me. My sweatshirt was covered with snow and I left it off. I laughed at the footprints in the snow leading down to the lake. I wondered how long they would last and if anybody else would see them and wonder.
My cap had kept my head warm and mostly dry. My earplugs had kept the sharp cold out of my ears. I wondered how incredibly out of place I had looked in my swimsuit walking into the lake like it was a summer day, the snow swirling around me.
Nobody ever makes a snow globe scene with a swimmer in it. I smiled at the thought. How cool would that be?
There were no numbers with this swim. No temperature. No time. No distance. No stroke count. No numbers at all. There was only calculating safety and processing feelings and judging reactions. There was only snow and water and a mind willing and a heart beating and the thrill and excitement.
I looked over my shoulder as I walked up the hill to the house. As I exhaled, the scene before me imprinted itself in my mind and stamped a permanent place in my heart with a memory that will always make me smile:
I had left behind me only the puff of every exhale, the footprints in the snow, and the ripple in the water.