Last year, OSS member Helen Edwards decided to embark on a dip day for a whole year. She began her journey around the winter solstice – not the cosiest of times to start such an endeavour, but there was a reason she felt compelled to start it then. Below she shares her year of magical swimming with us. We hope her thoughts and words may inspire some of you to embark on a dip a day for 2018.
Piano practice was my first daily practice. I used to hide from that aged five or six, but now I’m so pleased to have music running through my veins. Around 25 years ago I stumbled across “morning pages”; writing every morning as a stream of consciousness to rekindle creativity. It was a daily practice I really took to, suggested in a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Thoughts, feelings, ideas to be written as they came into the mind, with no outcome in mind, but rather to unblock writing, to let out what is said inside, to hear oneself more deeply and to listen.
When I started swimming outdoors eight years ago I felt another loosening of this inner sediment, a “way” opening inside me. This brought back memories of that daily practice. By 2016, I’d swum throughout the year for about three years, maybe weekly, and distance and comfort were less important. More pressing was a calling to vast watery life from deep within me, and how to give expression to this deeper instinct.
I would feel my legs tingling at night, warm in bed, as if they dreamt of rooting into the earth and, though blood-warm inside, they seemed to be yearning for a time before mammal, when they might swim through the very earth cold as stone, maybe sharing the very dreams of water, to journey to the ocean.
I was regularly returning to certain favourite spots such as The Thames at Godstow, just down from the Lock and the ruined stone nunnery where Rosamund Clifford, mistress of Henry II, had been educated and had returned by water. I had made friends with trees there, also reeds and grasses, an imprint of the horizon beyond on my mind’s eye alongside bird companions; cormorants, herons, geese and swans.
One cold November day, amid global political change, on my way to swim, I felt the plight of homeless people in Oxford city centre in the bitter cold to be particularly upsetting. I stopped in a doorway overcome by and unsure of the question of my responsibility to fellow humans. The music of a buskers’ song reached me and looking up I saw the trees around leading me to the meadows. The draw I felt to these swimming spots I found myself revisiting was suddenly clear and I could see a daily practice was emerging of its own accord, and might offer time to witness and experience changes inside and external to me from a still point in the world. As if to seal the deal the swim friend I then met told me I must meet another swimmer swimming each day for December 2017.
Daily practice was essential to remove the element of personal choice and whim, and offer continuity in meeting something beyond myself, and was endlessly fascinating.
How to hold conscious intention with a yet unknown outcome? How to make any planning relevant and be mindful of my safety whilst opening space for any previously un-encountered experience? I began on winter solstice, the time light begins to return, yet collectively (at least in the UK) we retreat indoors for winter.
Last January I raised money for Oxford Homeless Pathways with Dip a Day January, highlighting the impact of encountering cold, which tapped into deep felt concerns about the impact of relentless cold weather on those homeless through the winter and cuts to services. I appreciated every moment and marvelled how much summer there is still in the winter waters, in colours, smells and sounds. Memories of the seasons past, present and future live in each daily swim and approaching winter solstice this year
I feel such instinctive inspiration, gratitude and a direct relational experience of nature, having felt many seamless dimensions to the light returning and gradually leaving again over the year.
I have kept a dream diary for years. When I began daily swimming I added the location of each swim, sometimes I added the time. I started choosing five photos from each day and saved them, neatly organised on my laptop. I also began to add memorable sightings of birds, fish, animals and other humans, river users and non-river users. I logged stories about encounters with fishermen and boaters. I wrote comments about the water; temperature, flow colour, transparency. Sometimes poems came that seemed to have grown within me. Occasionally I would write reflective passages on my state of mind. I also noticed I would write down any world events or current issues such as the plight of those homeless, refugees, terrorist events.
Odd irrational thoughts and perceptions would be dotted around on the pages, as if food for future trains of thought, and doodles and images would appear, which then sometimes turned into paintings.
December 6, 2016
Swim River Thames Port Meadow, ‘The Bend’, Oxford
Bright sunlight, clear water
I decided to swim every day today. I had a strong memory, a teenager, scared to trust my own path.
My skin dissolves into river
Moments of mammalian gold creep all over my body
As they carry me out far into the flow
The water dips suddenly, so suddenly that my shoulders rush around myself from all sides
In my lungs a rushing once drowsy comes deep and downy
Innocent light runs into my eyes blinding me
No longer yearning as once, yet now
Lost to the course of life which runs through a distant memory and into life
Now rising around and within me
January 22, 2017
Stainforth Foss, Settle, North Yorkshire
This was a childhood swimming place for me. Driving over from Lancaster, I felt my body becoming young as if entering memories held in my childhood landscape. My travelling companions were precious friends from a co-housing project there, committed to realising new visions of co-housing. My parents met us there to share the morning swim. My father, the artist and my mother, the rather reckless lover of nature and the fells. As we walked, I saw the impact of time, as their bodies struggled to walk down the steep banks alongside the simple dignity and determination with which they found their way. On reaching the old rope swing I drew a breath taking in the unbelievable beauty. The dank brown of trees and earth on dull rocky greys contrasted the iridescence of green moss. The water, pure and dark like glass, was cold.
The full force of mountain water on skin came with a smell like forever, and inner peace began glowing in my heart.
We were all together for a moment, Miles like a water baby, my mother a seal in a full wet suit at 76, my father near her to help, Jo’s still presence glowed amongst the trees. The force between us silent as stone.
April 28, 2017
just downstream of Iffley Lock, Oxford
I dreamt my legs didn’t work, I couldn’t stand, I had no strength in my legs and it was going to be forever. I needed people to hold me up, I felt frightened and shocked.
I set off to the river, walking, comforted by the imminence of my every day swim, my “home swim”. So near yet so wild. A commotion as I crossed the lock made me look round. I saw crows, wings flapping wildly and people near by. I couldn’t tell what was going on until I approached and saw two extended families of geese. It dawned on me I was another perceived danger, the crows hovering around the goslings. In the flash of an eye, that lasted forever, a large relentless crow landed briefly, hooking a small gosling into its beak, and flew off. Geese hissed in vain, the gosling helpless, no way of loosening the grip, just calling……………………………………………………………………………………………………. Somewhere the crows’ own young…………………………………. calling……………………………………
I shouted at crows, I left – I could do nothing. “Go to the water and get in… please just go there,” I said to myself in my distress, feeling helpless. “Feel what you feel,” I heard myself say. In the water there was no room for loss, I had to swim and be present. I slowed down floating on my back. Birds were above me; red kites, crows, gulls. Their outstretched wings loomed. I spread out my arms and legs, could I fly? How? Could I carry anything in my toes or my mouth? I wanted to look huge, I couldn’t bear any doubt, the birds must be certain of my being a large mammal they couldn’t carry. Time passed, ducks and geese slipped past me down river. Finally I got out by the willow tree, red root tips spilling into the water strangely comforting as
I pulled myself out onto the exposed edges of earth’s skin where water meets land.
I felt contained in my own skin again, above my head the green tree canopy feeling strangely protective. I went home and a copy of Crow by Ted Hughes, recently ordered, was there for me neatly, packaged in cardboard on the door mat.
June 26, 2017
South Hinksey Lake
Over the summer when possible I swam daily here. A quiet, beautiful lake, near the city centre by the railway line, yet clean, full of fish, wildlife and water lilies and surrounded by trees. These swims were both ordinary and extraordinary. That day I sat by the lake as if dreaming, insects hovering around me. The longer I sat the more came, water boatman surfed on water meniscus, damsel flies darted, and dragon flies landed on my knees. Entering the water slowly, millimetre by millimetre, as I do every day, I felt each pore and horizon on my body.
Nervous, circulatory and digestive system had time to adjust to changing temperature and light, gradual loss of gravity and presence of water holding my skin together giving me the grace to fly and flow as fish.
I swam amongst water lilies glimpsing light through their roots and water surface canopies. As I rested there moor hens came out of hiding, I was forgotten me. They splashed and dived, teaching their three young to fish. I yearned to learn with them. I moved away from the lilies to leave and their alarm calls rang out, direct and resonant. I breathed a silent thank you for the morning.
I didn’t really have any days when I didn’t want to swim. There are certain beliefs I carry that helped. I have tried to put these into words here.
If when I get to the water I don’t want to get in I don’t have to (this has never happened yet).
If I get in the water and I want to get out, then I can. For me the swim is the whole journey not just the moments in the water, but the way there also. I like to remember the water inside my body and the pull of natural waters and the moon on the body. Wherever my mind is going I picture myself there having just swum in the river with a glowing gold aura all around my body.
Look out of the window and see nature, I am already there.