I’m not being deliberately contrary. I’m not trying to be counter-cultural. But there’s no getting away from it: what I’m about to share is not a fashionable view. This is a time when the Wim Hof method is a primetime TV series. When Dryrobes are worn on high streets. When Ronan Keating is a swimfluencer. When people say swimfluencer. Yet here it is: at a time when it seems everyone and their dog – often their literal dog – is having a love-in with outdoor swimming, I’ve felt increasingly ambivalent.
I’ve been able to look at a sparkling body of water, sometimes the sea, sometimes a loch, and think… not much. I haven’t wanted to get in. I haven’t always taken my swimsuit on trips, just in case. I’ve stopped wishlisting high-end Econyl bikinis and maintaining a mental map of future swim spots. I’ve unfollowed lots of swimming-based Instagram accounts. During lockdown proper, when noone was swimming, I found this a relief rather than a disappointment. At least noone is going now, I thought, this buys me some time.
The elephant in the room – or whale in the lido, if you will – is that I’m a director of the Outdoor Swimming Society and edit its monthly e-journal ‘elsewhere’. It’s not painfully awkward – I don’t have any kind of public profile to maintain – but it is a bit awkward. I had always been an unorganised but regular outdoor swimmer. No groups, no schedule, but a reliable compulsion to enter most available bodies of water. Since beginning to volunteer with the OSS in 2018, I had become more organised and started to think about training for distance swims. Do I wait for my former enthusiasm to return? What if it doesn’t? Will I bluff my way through conversations about wetsuits and cold water for years; finally being caught out one day, fully dressed and disinterested at a popular swimming spot? I have to resign, I told myself, this is absurd.
I stopped being interested in swimming when my dad became ill in May 2019. We didn’t know he was terminally ill at the time, but my guts knew otherwise. Anticipatory grief sometimes sounds like a grief-lite, a taste. But I experienced it as a sudden and complete disassembling of the world, with the promise that it would only get worse. I felt it in my torso: it wasn’t as if my internal organs were reassembling themselves, they definitely were. I felt a strong sense of being constituted by him, and that his collapse would be my collapse. At the same time, the external world became an increasingly unnecessary place: none of my pain was reflected back at me and so it lost meaning. I was disassociated from everything around me, yet easily overwhelmed by it all.
A fellow volunteer mentioned in an email that swimming outdoors was the only thing that made him feel better after his dad died. I held onto this; I had my way out, my remedy. How coherent it would be to have a story about grief being healed through outdoor swimming; how zeitgeist. Except I didn’t want to get into the water.
And water, which I had always run to, couldn’t help me. Grief was also in the water. Two things about this. First, outdoor swimming has come to represent qualities such as salvation, nourishment, and transformation. Evangelising these properties has emerged as the accepted narrative: whatever your maladies, outdoor swimming is the cure. That’s great for those who experience it, but it’s not my experience and I doubt I’m alone in that. When everything started to fall apart, I only wanted to be dry, warm and under-stimulated.
Second, water holds a rich set of metaphors of life and so of grief: impermanence, the river flowing into the sea, and the perpetual change of which we are all part. Swimming outdoors can crystallise these for a few moments. It was a ripe world I could have run to, and I half expected that I would, eventually. A fellow volunteer mentioned in an email that swimming outdoors was the only thing that made him feel better after his dad died. I held onto this; I had my way out, my remedy. I knew how it worked, where to go, what to do. How coherent it would be to have a story about grief being healed through outdoor swimming; how zeitgeist. Except I didn’t want to get into the water.
Me, my dad and the water, especially saltwater, have history. In childhood, as a single father to me and my two sisters, traveling six miles from our hometown to the Moray coast was a frequent event. We’d go to Hopeman West Beach, Primrose Bay (also known as Cove Bay) and Lossiemouth West Beach. This choice of rocky beaches was intentional. Dad had wanted to study marine biology but failed his maths A-level, becoming a mental health nurse instead. Rockpools were where he could dip into this alternative life, his famous patience on the psychiatric ward put to work by out-staring a hermit crab. He’d also swim in the sea.
In the late summer of 2020 when he was really rather ill through not eating and cachexia (a muscle wasting process common in cancer that I had misheard as ‘cancerexia’), I bought him some swimming shorts. I thought he could use the hot tub and maybe remember his previous enjoyment of immersion. He hadn’t swum in the sea for years, only agreeing to pause beach walks while I satisfied my compulsion, and for a long time had been firmly wedded to the land: his allotment, his garden, the possibilities of a seed catalogue. I also became obsessed with the idea of planting his bulbs, thinking I was a stand-in for him until he got better. Joan Didion described such actions based in “magical thinking” in her grief memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. The logic behind them has a tendency to collapse in on itself while you’re doing them. He’s not going to see these bulbs, you idiot, planting them isn’t going to keep him alive, I realised as I stabbed his new bulb planter into the earth, tears watering the crocuses and narcissi as they were buried. By the same unsustainable logic: people who are dying don’t need new swimming shorts, so let’s definitely buy him new swimming shorts.
But I didn’t stop wanting to swim because I associated it with dad. The shock of grief severed me from almost every sense of self I had, beyond being a daughter and a mother. I took this to be an objective fact about the world, which I assumed would be obvious to everyone else. I perceived my goggles and swimsuits as artefacts, not even of my former life, but perhaps of someone else’s life that I had no ability to answer for. People would talk to me about swimming and I would answer them, but also think “what has this got to do with me? Surely they know?” She might have swum, but why would I have her memories and talk as if I am her? And what should I do with all her swimming stuff?
People would talk to me about swimming and I would answer, but also think “what has this got to do with me? Surely they know?” She might have swum, but why would I have her memories and talk as if I am her? And what should I do with all her swimming stuff?
I couldn’t stop entirely because some of the infrastructure of my life was built around it. I continued doing the very bare minimum – and in hindsight frequently less – for the OSS. In summer, I would take my daughter to a local loch or beach and we’d swim. We’d visit friends where it was a non-negotiable part of the trip. But I was anxious and monitorial during these swims. Alert for things going wrong and not fully taking part; certainly not feeling anything positive. Then there would be moments when it seemed to come back. In the summer of 2021, I observed myself walking very quickly down to the shore at St Abb’s Head to follow the snorkel trail. Of course, snorkelling is not really swimming – and I thought I might take it up instead. The otherworldliness suited how my brain now felt in real life.
It decisively changed around the anniversary of dad’s death on the 9th of January this year. For the two weeks leading up to it I viscerally re-lived his final weeks, his final days, his final hours and minutes. And the day after, I felt I had been spat back out into the world of dates and calendars and other external structures that contain and guide usual existence. This included a drawer and a couple of bags of wetsuits, swimsuits, tow floats, goggles, caps and all the other stuff outdoor swimmers tend to accumulate either out of necessity or enthusiasm. I texted a friend about a full moon swim (I have never felt the need to do a full moon swim). I agreed that swimming in the Scilly Isles would be a terrific idea. I wondered about swimming the section of the River Lossie I’d walked along the day before dad’s funeral. Yes, I’ll swim the Swoosh this year, I heard myself say. And so it was that I came to understand – though I possibly always suspected – that outdoor swimming doesn’t have to have utility. I went away for a while, and it was all there when I came back.