I flipped through the newspaper and stopped at an ad for the New Year’s Day Polar Bear Swim. My resolution was to Live Life According to My Heart, and whenever I paused at something for longer than two seconds, I knew my heart was speaking.
The polar bear swim?
I emailed three friends. Nope, not interested.
"Okay, Heart, we’re going solo,” I said. But I was hesitant and systematically knocked off some possible excuses.
Expensive? No, it was free. Too tired? I could set my alarm. Self-conscious about a bathing suit? No, I love my bikini. Worried that somebody would steal my bag while I was in the water? A little bit, but maybe a nice couple would look after it for a few minutes.
Then my mind joined the game. “Everyone will think you’re a loser, standing in a huge crowd all by yourself,” it said.
“Everyone else has somebody there to support them, hold their bag, congratu—“
Intellectually, I knew that nobody was going to know, let alone care, that I was on my own. And I didn’t think that I cared since I went to movies, restaurants and pubs on my own, no problem. But the mind is like that, it pokes at a sore spot. I felt defensive, “Shut up, that’s not true!” rather than kind, and that’s how I know there's a bit of truth to it.
“Well, I’ll wear my running clothes so everyone will think I’m out for a run,” I laughed. “And besides, if I was with somebody else, I wouldn’t be learning how to deal with you, my tricky little mind!”
I worked New Year’s Eve and was in bed by 6am and up at 11:30am, plenty of time before the 2:30pm swim.
Polar bear swim, eh?
Music. I needed music. Kelly Clarkson’s Breakaway. Loud. Tears suddenly flowed down my cheeks. I’m listening, Heart, but stay with me!
I packed an old towel and toque into my dog’s knapsack. I looked for my sandals. Where are they!? “You threw them out last fall, I guess you can’t go,” said my mind.
You don't need them.
“Okay, if the opportunity presented itself to do this, what else would I have to do to be ready?” Shave my legs!
I showered, shaved, put on my bikini and running clothes. I glanced at my camera. “Somebody might steal your camera, I guess you can’t go,” said my mind.
You don't need a photo, you'll have the story.
I drove with my windows open and my fast-paced breath chilled against the air. I wore only a long-sleeved t-shirt yet light perspiration formed on my body.
I rounded the bend to Ceperley Park and saw the traffic jam in the parking lot. I braked hard and pulled into a spot on the side of the road. People in bath robes, flip flops and wild, orange wigs and others in winter coats, scarves and gloves, we walked together to English Bay.
My chest thumped harder than Keith Moon. "You just went for a run, of course you're breathing heavy,” I thought. I laughed out loud.
The assembly line sucked me in and and I shuffled alongside women in pink wigs and corsets and men in leopard tights. Guys in hula skirts carried beer cans as they hooted and hollered. Spectators clutched onto jackets to avoid getting separated. A TV cameraman interviewed two women in a shark costume. Loud speakers blared, “15 minutes!”
I squished back into the crowd and pushed my way back towards my car.
“What? You’re going to leave and not do it? Seriously?” yelled my mind.
“Maybe this was just practice for next year. Please, I don’t know yet, c'mon!”
Once I got out of the epicentre, I walked to the water’s edge, just outside the barricaded area, so I could watch the registered swimmers go in. There were hundreds of people still, but also breathing room.
“Could you take our picture?” asked a guy.
“Yes, absolutely,” I said.
He was from Quebec City and his girlfriend was local, both were bundled up in winter jackets. Twice he took off a glove and dipped his fingers in the ocean.
“Have you done this before?” I asked.
“Nah, too cold,” he said.
“What about you?” I asked the girlfriend.
“No, if I was with somebody else, maybe, but I can’t do these things on my own, I feel too vulnerable,” she said as she fiddled with her scarf. “Have you?”
“I haven't before but I actually have my bathing suit on,” I said.
As we continued chatting, I saw five people in bathing suits, huddled in a single Australian flag towel.
I asked the Australian group, “Are you going in just from here?”
“Oh yeah, you get trampled down there, here’s perfect,” he said.
I then counted twenty or thirty more people in bathing suits. Rogue polar bear swimmers!
“Are you doing it?” asked the girlfriend. “It’s almost time.”
I kicked off my running shoes, yanked off my socks, whipped down my pants and threw off my sweatshirt and jacket.
“Go!” said the guy as he pointed to the barricaded swimmers running towards the water.
I ran four or five strides into the water and dove underneath. Once I surfaced, I high-fived the Australians and half a dozen other people before I walked out of the surf.
I wrapped myself in my towel and shook the couple’s hands. “Just so you know, connecting with you was a huge part of my experience and I'll never forget you,” I said.
I dressed, pulled on my fleece toque, and walked through hundreds of people standing in their winter coats and holding Starbucks. As the whoooo-hooooos and noise makers faded, I heard my heart:
Way to go.
It’s going to be a great year.
© 2011 Michelle Sevigny. www.michellesevigny.com. Reprint permission granted with full copyright and link intact.
Photo by jagtor58