I have been on a quest lately to find a swimming hole within biking distance of my house. Living in Maine, and with the multitudinous rivers, streams and ocean inlets in my general vicinity, this would seem to be an easy task. But not so. Of course there are various places to swim, but I’m looking for a place a little more secluded, if you know what I mean. Thoreau and Ben Franklin are on my side in this quest for a place where I can indulge in an “open-air bath.” But there’s always the chance that I might get caught and viewed as some kind of freak. I had an experience last summer where I drove out to a secluded pond near my home. I hiked about a mile into the woods, and jumped into the water. Not seeing anyone around, I took off my bathing suit and threw it onto the rocks onshore. It was dusk, and the chances of anyone happening along were slim. And yet, who should appear out of the woods but four women. I was floating about twenty yards offshore and they called out to me, asking if I would mind if they joined me. Of course I agreed. What else could I do? They didn’t notice my state of undress, and, clad in their various swim attire, they jumped in as well. So here we have a great moral dilemma. Does a man, floating naked in the middle of a pond, admit to his newly manifested female companions that he is in fact naked and that perhaps they would like to take their leisure elsewhere? Or does he pretend that everything’s fine, just fine, nothing to see here? Well, I opted for the latter choice. But when the sun started to go down and the water got chillier, I had to make a decision. I slowly paddled towards shore, and gingerly retrieved my suit from the rocks at the water’s edge. You probably don’t know how difficult it is to put on a swimsuit while you are trying to tread water, but let me tell you, it’s not easy. As I climbed out of the water, clothed, I heard giggles behind me. They knew what had happened. I distinctly heard one of them say, “That must have been a thrill for him.” As if I was some kind of pervert. As if it was my plan to go skinny-dipping in a remote pond and hope that some women came along. Please. And yet, they had come out of nowhere, intruded on my privacy, and here I was, feeling like the creep. I remember swearing to myself that I would never let this happen again. But here I am, one summer later, looking for some kind of swimming hole utopia. I’m a married father of two, not some weirdo hiding in the bushes. All I want is someplace where I can be alone and feel close to nature. People can legally go off into the woods, drink a few Buds, and fire shotguns at innocent animals, or tear across frozen lakes on loud, belching snowmobiles, or plow through the woods on ugly, dangerous ATV’s, and all this is legal. And yet I, with my low carbon footprint, am some kind of freak. A man who goes into the woods with a gun to kill animals is called a sportsman. But a man who goes into the woods to swim unencumbered in a secluded pond is just a creepy naked guy, apparently.
I don’t have anything to say today, so I give you a journal entry of Zen master Soen Nakagawa Roshi, from his book of poetry and prose, Endless Vow:
(Another trip to Manchuria)
Deep at night I had a dip in a hot spring, surrounded by the vast plains. I looked up at the constellations; the stars were dancing in the field of the sky. I was totally absorbed in “this Matter” and vowed to settle in a hut on Mount Dai Bosatsu.
various races naked
in the stone tub
Even though it’s April, it’s still winter up here in Maine. There’s still snowpack in the forests, and large dirty banks by the side of the road, frost on my windshield when I go out to start my car. I don’t think you should be able to see your breath in April, but there it is. I went to the Richmond Sauna Saturday night and as I usually do, was able to glimpse a kind of perfect world there. The saunas are wood-fired, so no matter where you are you can smell the earthy scent of woodsmoke. I don’t think there is a finer smell anywhere. The people are companionable, everyone is relaxed and at ease, non-judging. The night air was cool and envigorating. Sitting in the hot tub, watching the steam rise up into the starry night sky, with a little jazz music coming from a speaker somewhere, the illumination like candlelight; this was heaven. The warmth, the woodsmoke, the steam, and the cool air all coalesced into something like eternal bliss. I lost myself a few times, closing my eyes and just being present and aware of all the sensations going on around me, just feeling, not thinking. I know I’m in the minority, and I know that perhaps like skydiving, some would never, ever consider an experience like this. And that’s fine. The phrase “at one with Nature” is probably overused, but these experiences are the closest I’ve ever come to that feeling. We all have our own pathways into wild nature, and I hope whatever way we take, we do so as often as possible.
“The summer, in some climates, makes possible to man a sort of Elysian life. Fuel, except to cook his Food, is then unnecessary; the sun is his fire, and many of the fruits are sufficiently cooked by its rays; while Food is generally more various, and more easily obtained, and Clothing and Shelter are wholly or half unnecessary…Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” – Walden
“Despair is just worn-out joy.” This is a realization of one of the characters in the film Old Joy that I watched last night. I never want this blog to turn into a book, movie, or music recommendation site (even though I probably have a few thousand of these that I could mention), but once in awhile you may catch me putting a plug in for something out of the ordinary that catches me off guard. This film is slight, both in its aspirations and its running time (72 minutes, give or take), but it is a fine example of what I would call a “feeling film.” That is, after watching it you’re not left with any Big Ideas, but you do feel as though you’ve followed these two characters, Kurt and Mark, on their hike into the Cascades of Oregon to find a hot spring and to rekindle a lost friendship. The music in the film is provided by Yo La Tengo, and is a perfect companion to the lush, rainsoaked Pacific Northwest scenery. This is a gentle film, but touches on issues of male friendship and alienation. (That’s my Film 101 jargon surfacing). See this film if you’ve ever felt a distance between you and someone you thought you knew. It may also make you want to take a walk in the woods to search for a hidden hot spring.
This has been the hardest vacation in my life to come back from. I can’t really say why, but this whole week I’ve been in a daze. It’s common knowledge that when you go away and step outside the everyday patterns of work and family responsibilities, your body and mind start following what are probably their more natural rhythms. When your first arrive at your destination, you look at all the poor folks who are just ending their vacation and you take pity on them, not fully realizing that you too will be just like them in a week’s time. In our case, when we stepped off the ferry onto the island, we saw all the people lined up with their cars stuffed to bursting, waiting to get back on the ferry for the trip back to the mainland and the real world that accompanies it. We were giddy. A week later, we were the sad sacks waiting in line to sail back to reality. But the week in between was magical as always. The weather cooperated most of the time. We rode our bikes, swam almost every day in the quarries, read books, and slept as late as we wanted. My children became island kids for a little while, and my wife and I wondered, as we always do, what it would be like to live on an island and pursue the contemplative, artistic life. Probably very hard. My fantasies of being a published author resurfaced. Vacations always force me to challenge the expectations I have of myself, making me see the dichotomy between what my life is right now, and what I’d like it to become. Reading and writing books sounds like a great way to earn a living. I imagine my kids gently knocking on the door of my study (oh, to have a study!), asking me if I’m done with the day’s writing so I can come outside and play with them. I’m going to read A Wrinkle in Time and Island of the Blue Dolphins next to inspire me to write a children’s story. When I was younger, my mom used to call me the Absent-Minded Professor. I guess that description still fits. If I had my way, I’d live in my own mind most of the time, but the pressures (and joys) of work and child-rearing intrude on my private little dreamworld. The greatest pleasure of any vacation for me is having the space and time to allow that dreamworld inside myself take a more prominent place in my daily life, if even for a few days or a week. Swimming naked in a quarry isn’t a bad perk either, although I couldn’t help noticing upon my return that all my swimming didn’t end war. Guess I’ll have to keep at it.
Everything good comes to an end. I found out today that the rules have changed at the swimming hole I mentioned in the post below. As I made my second visit in as many days to the pond near Camden that my family and I like to frequent, I noticed some small yellow signs tacked up on the trees by the water’s edge. They read “No Nudity. By order of police.” This pond, which I can tell you now, is located in Appleton, was for many years an idyllic refuge for swimmers, both clothed and unclothed alike. One side of the pond was reserved for the “textiles” and the other side for the more adventurous types. The two groups co-existed peacefully for quite some time. When the land was eventually bought by a local man a few years ago, he generously allowed people to continue this common tradition. But this summer, everything has apparently changed. The owner, who I can’t begrudge at all, has changed his mind for reasons unknown to many of the regulars I talked to today, and decided that he can no longer offer refuge for the more liberal bathers. In other words, you can still swim in the pond (and it is a breathtakingly beautiful spot), but you had better keep your pants on. If you read this post on a regular basis, you’ll already be familiar with my agreement with the Buddhist philosophy that suffering comes from our attachment to things that are fleeting. I am living proof of that maxim today. Appleton was for me a little oasis in a world of madness. It was a place that I always assumed would be there for me, my escape from the sometimes dehumanizing world we live in…my refuge from conformity. This same thing happened a few years ago to a beach that my wife and I liked to visit in St John, US Virgin Islands. It was so out of the way, so remote, that you really had to make an effort to get there. It was our little paradise…until the National Park Service (under George W. Bush) decided to take a tougher stance against miscreants like myself. I even wrote a letter to the Superintendent of the Virgin Island National Park, begging him to reconsider…to no avail. It was illegal, and that was that….even if Park Rangers had to sneak up on you in boats to cite you. We haven’t been back since. Meanwhile, people can still ride their snowmobiles through Yellowstone National Park. I guess that kind of recreation is OK. I may still go back to Appleton once in awhile to swim, but probably not. It’s lost its charm for me now. As soon as I get over my despair for a dear friend lost, I’ll start looking for another Eden.