Unchained Melody: Taking the plunge

By Melody Thomas

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Twice a week, just before 7am, a group of women meet near a nondescript log on Lyall Bay beach. They are rugged up in puffer jackets and beanies, woollen socks and track pants, and they smile and hug as the wind whips at their clothes and hair.

Within minutes they are undressing, leaving behind a small pile of possessions and walking towards the frigid ocean. Talking as they go, in an attempt to distract themselves from the madness of what they are doing, they walk slowly into the sea. On a calm day this bit is easier, but calm days are few and far between. More often than not, conversation turns to shrieks and peals of laughter as glacial waves hit groin, ribs and shoulders, and then they dip – just their heads bobbing above the surface, limbs paddling madly in an effort to move through the pain of sudden, freezing immersion. They bob until they can bob no longer, then they emerge from the water as they went in, together, shivering with pleasure as they pull on their clothes, hug goodbye and head out to join the slowly waking world.

I’ve been swimming with these women on and off since last summer, when a friend recruited me, less with the power of her enthusiasm (which was strong) than with the apparent transformation I was witnessing in her disposition. In her early 40s with three beautiful children, my sweet friend had done what we all do when children enter the scene, temporarily setting herself aside in favour of the demands of motherhood. But the ocean appeared to be aiding a return to herself. She was standing taller, glowing with a new-found confidence. She was also becoming less obliging, confessing half-amazed how she’d only just held herself back from swearing at a man on the beach, who’d left his wife to carry all the bags as well as corralling their children. The other thing that convinced me is that my friend is a self-confessed baby when it comes to the cold. Plunging into the sea before the sun rose wasn’t something she’d ever thought herself capable of. If she could do it, surely I could?

The morning swims are a deeply humbling exercise. Whereas out in the world I can feign bravery, and have gotten pretty good at appearing like I need no-one, under the onslaught of waves straight from Antarctica my defences don’t stand a chance. From the moment my toes touch the water I’m a whimpering, swearing pain in the ass. The other women laugh as they coax me deeper, ever-understanding of my need to vocalise my discomfort. One day I hope to enter the ocean with their grace and acceptance, but I’m not there yet.

Our swims are loosely based on the Wim Hof method, named for the Dutch motivational speaker and extreme athlete (also known as the Iceman) who combines cold therapy, breathing exercises and mindset training for benefits that apparently range from increased energy and better sleep to faster recovery and a stronger immune system. After years of seemingly relentless illness, I was willing to take a punt on anything that might help keep me well, even if it felt counterintuitive to seek cold to avoid one. The women also assured me the cold was good for ‘toning’, a fact I deflected as part of my ongoing battle to not judge my body by its appearance, by turning it into an ongoing joke. Now we all join in: “SO TONING!” we scream over the tops of the waves, “We will be swept out to sea and freeze to death, and on our headstones it will say, “Here they lie, they were SO TONED!”

Whether the swims tone my bod or repair my immune system is yet to be seen, but they are absolutely the best shortcut I’ve ever found to instant embodiment. As someone who lives almost entirely in the cavern of my skull, ignoring my body until pain or exhaustion enforces rest, the cold snaps me into my limbs and torso. I can’t ignore the needles stabbing at my feet, the involuntary gasp of my lungs as we dip, the touch of a million freezing fingers on my stomach, back and neck. It sounds terrible – like the worst kind of punishment! But there’s something miraculous in it, because if you can just see it through for a minute, pushing through the impulse to abort, the pain fades. Your body recalibrates, and suddenly it’s not hard any more.

Of course the company helps, and none of us are under the illusion we could do this regularly alone. I imagine any group would be similarly motivating, but there’s something special about doing this with other women. On the beach we aren’t Mum, sister, daughter or partner: we are simply ourselves. We are wild and free, cackling like witches as shags glide by at eye-level, as sea spray pummels our raw faces, as first rays of sunlight peep over the moody, distant hills. We are painfully, joyously alive, jumping full-force into the best of what this world has to offer before others have even lifted their sleepy heads.

The more I swim, the more I understand that transformation I witnessed in my friend. There is a powerful lesson in the practice of sitting in discomfort, especially a discomfort of your own choosing, where you know you’re safe and supported: that even the most intense sensations pass. That something which feels unbearable can come to be borne. That you are stronger and more resilient than you give yourself credit for. And that whatever difficulties are in store for you, you needn’t go through them alone.

What I’m reading

Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith

I’ve been waiting patiently for this book for months, on hold through the library on my Kobo, and I have finally got my hands on it. The book is set in Saigon, and centres on the disappearance of a 22-year-old Vietnamese American named Winnie, though it travels through time and space to dip into the lives of other compelling characters too – a group of ghost hunters, an abandoned schoolboy, a spirit-swapping dog, and a tight-knit trio of childhood friends.

The book is rife with spirits and ghosts, and the descriptions often unsettling (especially of bodily contortions) but it’s beautifully written, and so utterly transformative that the creepy factor was more than tolerable, even for a baby like me.

What I’m listening to

The Shadows by Kaitlin Prest, from CBC Studios

Kaitlin Prest is the creator and host of multi-award-winning series The Heart, known and celebrated for the artistry and the intense intimacy of her work.

The Shadows is audio fiction, though as in all of Prest’s work, she allows a lot of herself into the story. It follows the course of a relationship from the points of view of the different people (and objects) involved. The first episode made me feel so deeply uncomfortable that I nearly switched off (because it was too close to home), but I’m glad I persevered, if only for the introduction in episode 3 of thebest character,  a sweater (yes, as in a jersey).

Audio fiction podcasts are on the up (think of them as like radio dramas but updated). I also really enjoyed Gaslight, featuring Chloe Grace Moretz, and the weird and hilarious The Sink: A Sleep Aid. I’m forever open to recommendations on this front – slide into my instagram DMs if you have any (@melodyrules).

What I’m watching

A League of Their Own

Growing up, we owned half a dozen videos which we rewatched endlessly, and A League of Their Own was one of them. I adored this film, a fictionalised account of the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, with a superstar female cast that included Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell, and Madonna. When I saw that the movie was being made into a series I was nervous: why mess with a perfect thing? But the series is great, featuring Broad City’s Abbi Jacobsen in the lead, and a whole host of complex, ambitious, nurturing, athletic and often ridiculously hot women as her teammates and friends. And it’s just so wonderfully queer! I’ve joked that given how much I adored the film when I was younger, it’s a wonder it took me til my 30s to realise I was bisexual, but had the series been around when I was a teenager it would have sped the process up exponentially (I’m looking at you Jess and Lupe).

I’ve also been struggling my way through House of The Dragon and The Rings of Power, both of which I’m finding a bit tedious. The Rings of Power started off promising but has come to drag (I saw one tweet which said the series is the most true to Tolkien because five episodes later nothing has happened. I love Tolkien but still – accurate), and the writers of House of The Dragon seem to have copied and pasted the hallmarks of Game of Thrones (violence, sex, thrones, dragons, incest) without spending any time developing story or character. Plus there’s just a few too many child brides for my liking. I will almost certainly watch it to the end regardless.


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