I wake at 4:15 every weekday morning. I creep downstairs and plug in the coffee. I check my email and social media, make sure my swim bag is packed, get dressed, drink one cup of black coffee, then unplug the pot before leaving for the YMCA.
I pull into the parking lot at about 4:50, in time to see the older couple, the man with a cane and the wife with a walker, push through the front doors. I turn off my music, lock my car, and go in. I slide my card through the reader, a computer beeps somewhere, I say hi to Doug or Crystal or whoever is working the front desk and has been kind enough to get up even earlier than me to make sure the lights are on, the door is unlocked and the pool cover is off. I use the boys locker room instead of the men’s because I like the cool tile floor instead of the carpet in the men’s room, and because I can be alone with my thoughts, change into my swim things at my own pace, not have to jostle with anyone for locker space, and can hear all the groans, clanks, and scuffles as the building comes to life.
I shower, walk into the men’s locker room to make sure the sauna is turned on, then wait for the click of the deadbolt when the lifeguard unlocks the door to the pool deck. I see the morning regulars, pull on my swim cap and goggles, get into to the pool and do my laps, usually splitting them between breaststroke and freestyle. I swim for about twenty minutes. I don’t count my laps. I swim until I feel done, then I get out and sit in the sauna for about ten minutes to stretch out and relax. I shower, get dressed, drive home, sometimes stopping to take pictures of the river if the light is right. I get home around 6:00.
I make sure my daughter is up and getting ready for middle school. I plug the coffee maker back in and make my breakfast, usually eggs over easy with toast or muesli. I drink another cup of black coffee. I have an hour before I have to get dressed for work, so I read or do some writing. Around 7:00 I get dressed and drive my daughter to school. I get to work around 7:30, and usually have all my emails read and answered by 8:00 when the rest of my co-workers start arriving. I grab more coffee and fill my water bottle. I have the whole day ahead of me. I help people: students, faculty, co-workers, parents, customers, vendors, delivery drivers.
Most of my work life consists of being the arbitrator of other people’s desires. I measure other people’s wants against my own, and then decide how best to proceed. I do the best job I can with the materials at hand. I subjugate my ego.
I eat my lunch at a regular hour, sometimes treating myself to a soft-serve or a lemon square afterwards. I walk around the campus, deliver packages to the mail center, stop in to the library to see what’s newly published, sometimes I meet faculty or associates on the quad and chat with them, ask after their research, their kids, what they did on sabbatical, what they’re working on now. I’m pleasant, witty, always professional.
In the afternoons I might write some emails, deal with problems that have crept up. By 5:00 I’m ready to go home. I try as best I can to leave the troubles of my workday behind me. At home I help my wife shuttle kids to and from sports practice and games, make sure there’s food for dinner, give homework help, make sure cellphones are charged, forms are signed, teeth are brushed, clothes are picked out, and bedtimes happen at a reasonable hour. Then I read a little more, or paint, or maybe edit some pictures I took during the day. I make sure my swim trunks and towel are dry and I re-pack my swim bag, set up the coffee maker for tomorrow’s coffee, place all the things I’ll need in a pile by the door: my bag, wallet, keys, glasses, clothes, flip-flops, iPod.
I’m in bed by 10:00 to sleep for tomorrow’s new day. This is what I do. On Friday nights, I go the local high school football game, if they’re playing at home. I do some yard work on the weekend, do laundry, shop for groceries, go to the beach or for a run or for a swim if there’s time. I take my kids where they need to go, or if they’re travelling by bike or by foot, make sure they check in when they get there. On Sunday nights, my wife and I might turn on Netflix and watch whatever series we’re currently hooked on.
At forty-seven years old, this is my life right now. A Zen archery master, Awa Kenzo, wrote, “Do your best at each and everything. That is the key to success. Learn one thing well and you will learn how to understand the ten thousand things. Ten thousand things are one; this is the secret place of understanding you must find. Then everything is mysterious and wonderful.”
I submit to you that all we need try to do is one or two things well. We live our life, we remain present and cheerful, we make the coffee, we wash the dishes, we fold the laundry, we sleep, we wake. This is all we need to do. Please take comfort in knowing that it is more than enough.
Tonight, I slid into the pond and threw my swim trunks up onto the rocks for the last time this summer. Not many people would go skinny-dipping at dusk when the mosquitos are still biting and the air temperature is sixty-three degrees. No one, in fact. I was alone.
As we hurtle once more around the sun and wonder where summer went, let us take a moment to honor those places that sustain our soul. For me, it’s this pond, this scared body of water that only becomes more special and more sacred the older I get. I’ve lived in Maine for almost twenty years and I’ve seen and experienced many amazing sights. But I always come back this place. So close, a ten-minute drive from my house. Over a bridge and yet light-years away from my workaday existence.
Here, I can be who I really am. I can shake off the dust of the world, and for about the time it takes a pot of pasta water to come to a boil, immerse myself in a silky, clean, clear slice of eternity. Like Thoreau at Walden Pond, I take a bath not just in water but in spirit. The green moss of the forest floor is my bath mat, the breeze rippling through the branches my opera. I saw a loon, heard its call. I saw a heron swoop down from the sky and land on a log a few yards away from me. I held a frog in my hands. I adopted a forgotten Swiss Army knife. I never found the mythical snapping turtle, the one that’s rumored to be as big as a Volkswagen. Thankfully, he never found me either.
To those of you who shared these special evenings with me, I thank you. To those who didn’t or couldn’t, perhaps I will see you here next summer?
We live in Maine, so we know what happens next. The leaves fall, the snow falls, the roads freeze, the snow piles up, we clear a path for the oil guy, we huddle together in living rooms and YMCAs and cafes and saunas, staying warm, living life close to the bone until the sun, instead of just blinding us, warms us again and allows us to find our special places once more.
Tonight, I drove home from the pond past dark, my wet towel drying on the back of my passenger seat. Music played softly on the radio. I saw the lights of the iron works as I crossed the bridge. I came home, made dinner, raised a toast to my special place, thought of the water on my skin, how it held me up, carried me through this summer, buoyed me. I gave thanks.
Tomorrow I’ll look for my fleece jacket, my wool socks. Tonight, I’m going to bed with the pond water in my ears and the bug spray still on my skin.
In Humboldt County, one of the places you can cool off in summer is the Eel River. I know this because I’ve been reading books about, among other things, the medical cannabis industry in California. Books like Too High To Fail, Pot Farm, and Humboldt. The stories in these books depict a lush, green, dangerous world light-years removed from my own. Although I had a pretty idyllic childhood by 1970’s suburban America standards, my biggest adventures at that time consisted of riding my bike (by myself!) to the P&C in Geddes Plaza, buying a Coke (in a glass bottle) and then maybe stopping in to Dom’s Coffee Shop to play a few games of Asteroids before I got kicked out for not being a paying customer.
By contrast, one of the characters, Emma, in Humboldt, used to hike with her friends down a muddy road in the woods to cool off by skinny-dipping in the Eel River after it had been swollen by the spring rains and was deep enough to swim in. Not to mention that Emma’s mom and the parents of most of her friends were pot farmers.
This is not to say that I wish my childhood was any different from what it was, even if the closest I ever got to Emma’s experience was riding through a mud puddle on my way to the Solvay Pool. I’m only thinking about this now because of my own capacity for being altered by small details. A few words in a book, a minute observation, can send me down my own muddy road of what-ifs. Like Nabokov’s pesky sandwiches, I can’t help thinking about other people, other places, other possible lives. Even though I know the only one I can possibly live is my own.
It’s probably because, as much as I don’t want to admit it, summer is almost over (the breeze that blows through my window as I write this is a decidedly fall breeze) and even though it was a special one (as they all are, really), I can’t help thinking about all the adventures not taken. Of all the things I might have done. Of just one more day on the island. Of one more night with family and friends. Of one more dip in the pond. Of even one more hour, or minute, at the beach. I know we can only lead one life at a time, and to inhabit it fully, without regrets. Still, I can’t stop looking for that muddy road in the redwoods that leads to the eternally perfect swimming hole. And then diving in.
When I was a freshman at a small liberal arts college in upstate NY, scrawled chalk marks would mysteriously appear on campus. They would say “Lodge” followed by some future date, say, “10-3.” I found out from my knowing, sophomore roommate from New York City that the graffiti referred to what was known as a Lodge Party. Apparently, some defunct fraternity owned an old camp out in the woods, where for a minimal cover charge, and with no ID necessary, kids could drink as much beer as they could swallow. So I went. I don’t remember how my friends and I even got there, or how much it cost, or how we got home. I only remember a large, rough-hewn wood structure that kind of resembled a rustic Adirondack camp, a beer truck with actual taps sticking out of its side, and a shit-ton of mud. The Nike racquetball shoes I wore to Lodge in 1985 must be enshrined in the Beer-Piss-Vomit Hall of Fame somewhere, which is to say that they were unwearable after that night.
I’m not telling you this story to warn you against the dangers of underage drinking, although those dangers are quite real and probably even more dangerous now, almost thirty years later (I mean, I just saw a Red Cup Living display in Bed, Bath, and Beyond last night for chrissakes. That’s right: you can now buy reusable red cups, or shot glasses shaped like red cups, or twinkly lights shaped like red cups, or wastebaskets shaped like red cups that you can puke in after you drink too much out of your dishwasher-safe goblet that’s shaped like a red cup).
What I’m really thinking about is the word “lodge” itself and what it implies: secret societies, ancient mysteries, hidden-ness, olden times, old camps in the deep woods, green moss growing on damp rocks, odd creatures, green men, ghosts, stories, firelight. I know this word also invokes maleness, exclusivity, and privilege. Skull and Bones. Masons. Knights of Columbus. Rosicrucians. The idea of the lodge probably goes back to the Norse gods, the Vikings, the Knights of the Round Table, the Celts, the Saxons, the First Peoples.
I was thinking these thoughts as I was swimming in a pond near my home at dusk last night. I was alone, a member of my own secret society. I was thinking about the books on cryptography I read as a kid, about the secret notes my friends and I used to write to each other, penned with lemon juice and only decipherable when held up to a candle or bright light bulb that sometimes turned the note brown and almost set it on fire. About code rings and x-ray specs. About Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio. About the The Secret Three, one of my childhood favorites that tells the story of three boys who form a secret society by passing messages back and forth using a bottle thrown into the sea.
I thought about starting my own secret society, one that would swim in the pond with me. I would come up with a name and chalk the invitations randomly around my town. Only the initiated would know what they meant. “SP/7:33” I’d be like Fox Mulder, taping a masking-tape “X” to my window when I was in danger and in need of help. Only a specially-chosen few would be privy to my covert missives.
Who would join me if I did so? I promise there would be no secret handshakes, no Fifth Degrees, no flash mobs, no oaths, no burnt offerings. Ladies and gentlemen of all persuasions would be welcome. We would just swim. Swim and talk and enjoy the sun setting over the water, the water sometimes as warm as a cozy bath, with the birds in the trees and the sunlight’s last dance on the leaves. The silence. The stillness. We would form our own lodge in the deep woods, out of branches and pitch and peat and dead leaves. We’d summon the spirits of Special Agent Dale Cooper and Henry Thoreau and Jim Morrison and Dean Moriarty and Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath and Pocahontas and Sacajawea. We’d find a home outside of society’s grasp. We’d be beholden only to ourselves. Our membership would be small, but closely knit. We’d see each other in the street and say nothing, not even acknowledging one another with a nod or a wink. But we’d know who we are.
So. Let’s do it. Let’s meet at the Black and White Lodge. Because when we meet, there will always be music in the air.
Reid State Park in Georgetown, Maine is my California, my Malibu, my Pacific Ocean. Probably because I’ll never get to any of those places anytime soon. I’ve only been to California once, to a hot springs in Sierraville. I’ve never seen the Pacific Ocean. While nearby Popham Beach is Reid’s mellower, more refined cousin, Reid is all temptation and rough beauty. The surf is more violent. The water out past the break both more placid and menacing. The light is more intense, as if God, with his giant magnifying glass, is trying to burn us like ants. Even the sand seems prehistoric. If it weren’t for the bathhouse, little foot showers, and snack bar, you really could close your eyes and imagine yourself as the first human being, newly-formed from the clay, at the beginning of creation.
At a place like Reid, you really don’t need much. You don’t need to schlep a red plastic Radio Flyer full of multicolored plastic beach toys along with you, like I saw a poor, bedraggled father, with three toddlers and a wife in tow, do yesterday. I was at the beach, following my own advice, with my own children and two of their friends, and I watched as this young couple debated where to set up. They vacillated between the “beach” side, which is much rougher and I suppose more dangerous for toddlers, and the “lagoon” side, which is shallower and perfect for young families. I watched the dad haul his little red wagon full of toys over the dunes and back about three times before they finally settled on the lagoon side. Probably a better choice. But it called to mind both the allure and the repulsion we feel about the beach, and about water in general.
The Times just published an article about the importance of teaching children how to swim, even if parents are “afraid”of the water (something I’m glad my parents did when I was a kid and something we did with our two children from the time they were six months old. My daughter is a strong swimmer and fearless rope-swing user at our local swimming hole. My son is on the swim team at our local Y and has actually taught me a thing or two about my own flimsy freestyle stroke).
I’m also thinking about the passages in Leanne Shapton’s memoir Swimming Studies, where she, a pool swimmer and one-time Canadian Olympic hopeful, talks about how pool swimmers rarely, if ever, swim in the ocean, for fear of the “unknown.” Pool swimmers, she confesses, love the regimentation of the lane lines, the black stripe on the pool’s floor, the ability to see the bottom and to actually know what’s in front of and below you. There’s no mystery in pools, no fear of the Leviathan. (There’s also a wonderful passage where she writes about overcoming this fear of the ocean, jumping naked into the surf from a diving platform in Sweden).
The last association I made when I saw the dad pulling the wagon was from, I believe, Kon-Tiki, a book I read a few years ago when I was recovering from some minor surgery. (Actually it might not have been Kon-Tiki but instead from any number of other sea adventures I’ve read throughout the years from Melville, Conrad, etc.) It’s the notion that people who spend their time trying to wrest their living from the sea rarely, if ever, go to the beach on their day off. They know too much, have seen too much. The Polynesian fisherman that Heyerdahl describes have a healthy fear of the ocean. They don’t view it as a place of rest and rejuvenation like we Westerners do. They view at as a wild, sometimes deadly place that they venture out on only to get their food, nothing more. To them, the ocean is full of unseen hazards and murky enemies, ready to rise up and kill at any moment. As a resident of Maine for almost fifteen years, I can guarantee you that I’ve never seen any lobstermen enjoying a day off at the beach.
To be fair, I understand that father’s fear. I understand why he and his wife debated so long about where they were going to pitch their plastic, multicolored camp. The ocean is a dangerous place. Even if you don’t go in the water, the sun can burn you, as it did my son’s face yesterday (even though he swore he reapplied his sunscreen but I should have checked anyway but didn’t and now it’s my fault he has a sunburn, right?)
Sunburn, rogue waves, splinters, broken bottles buried in the sand, biting greenheads, random seagull droppings, heatstroke, dehydration, drowning: all these and more can happen on a simple trip to the beach. I’ve even watched as people had to be rescued by the sheriff’s boat at Popham when they hiked out to an island at low tide with just the clothes on their back, only to be marooned when the tide came in. We leave our cozy homes with idyllic thoughts in our head, and we come back scarred, or maybe we don’t come back at all. Once, when I was a senior in college, I left Syracuse for a short road trip down I-81 to Ithaca. Next thing I knew, I was in an ambulance after getting t-boned by a K-Car on the Homer offramp. All for a cup of coffee. There are no guarantees in life, even in our so-called civilization. People in Maine have literally died because they left their house without a jacket and/or a box of matches in their pocket.
So, maybe we go to the beach not just to relax, but to test ourselves against our own fears. Most of us don’t have to hunt for our food, but that hunting instinct still survives, buried deep in our reptilian brains. We go to the beach now not with spears and seaworthy outrigger canoes hewn from single pieces of fallen timber, but instead with red plastic Radio Flyers, shod in weak-ass rubber flip-flops, endlessly circling our ancestor’s killing grounds, trying to find the perfect spot to keep our babies safe.
I still think all we need when we go to the beach (after we’ve eaten a big, hearty breakfast, of course) is a towel, a bottle of water, and some sunscreen.
But I understand.
My furnace is on, my fingers and toes are numb, and a cup of cold coffee rests at my elbow. Even though a bitter April wind is blowing the leaves around outside my window, it’s not too soon to dream about swimming in my favorite local swimming hole. A bit of sunshine, a walk, and the buds of my day lilies remind me that summer will soon be here. Over the bridge my family and I will drive on the hot evenings ahead. I’ll have found my summer soundtrack. Last year it was Black Crowes and Frank Ocean. This year it might be Jessie Ware or Flaming Lips. We’ll park along the side of the road and walk the wooded path to the rope swing or rock ledge that becomes our salvation in the heat of summer. Maybe I’ll bring my red cooler with the “I Heart NY” sticker on it, filled with yogurt tubes, Sunny Delight and Funyuns. We’ll swim until the sun starts to go down and the air becomes cool. We’ll think about the giant snapping turtle that friends tell us lives in the depths of the pond. As big as a VW Beetle some say. I’ve never seen it. I thought I felt it brush up against me as I was far out from shore, but it may have just been a stick. This mythical turtle gives every swim a small sense of danger. Like our own Loch Ness monster, waiting to rear it’s twisted head. Still, that doesn’t stop us. Maybe this summer, I’ll have the courage to swim across the pond like my triathlete buddies do. Open water swimming, they call it. As opposed to the safe kind, the kind I’m more familiar with. Although I love swimming in nature and love the ocean, I’m mostly a pool swimmer. The safety of seeing the bottom, of knowing where the edges are, the ladders and the handholds. The black stripe blues. The laps. Always asking myself, five minutes into a workout: what the hell am I doing? Then remembering that it’s OK, this endless back and forth, like an aquatic Sisyphus. Clawing forward, feeling like I’m swimming downhill like the how-to books say. Still, all this writing about swimming seems futile. Like writing about heaven or eternity. Time for a hot shower and more coffee. Look, the sun came out again!