We claim victory. Or survival. We swim out into Bone Cold water, and we claim it. Metaphorically speaking, we mark the nadir of winter at the end of February out in the water, bleeding our skin colour into the icy greyblackgreen, exchanging heat for some ludicrous sense of playing a game with the ocean, that makes others shake their heads at our lack of sense, or our lack of something they don’t ask about, or don’t want to know.
Recovering heat later in a quadratic equation of heath loss, rewarming and the zero of entropy, we tell ourselves, “done“, hard part over. We’ve seen another winter to the bottom. We unhappy few. Sentinels of the North Atlantic shores.
On March 17th, 2009, I was visiting the town where I grew up. With some time on my hands, I wandered up town to see what the excruciating St. Patrick’s Day parade of my childhood had become. Back then it had been a procession of agricultural vehicles, quarry trucks, the local brass band, an occasional amateur body like the local GAA club, and maybe one float. Parades were for the Yanks. Now it was an actual civic parade with local floats. The town still has a brass band, consolidated with another, hanging onto existence for now.
Irish people learn “the weather is always crap on Paddy’s Day” as a cliché, therefore true far more often than not. 2009 was an exception. It was t-shirt weather, warm with mostly blue skies. More people out to watch the parade crawl down the main street than usual, cones and 99s in hands bought from the few newsagents open to take advantage of the crowd. Not crowded enough for children on shoulders, still a pleasant atmosphere.
I remember the parade being led by a group of five men. Four men dressed in dark suits formed a box or cordon-like phalanx. Each had a single ear-bud with dangling strand from a set of headphones in one ear, held in place by a single index finger, like each was pointing at their own head. In the centre of the cordon walked another man, smiling and waving. The town’s sole black man, a African immigrant, as Barack Obama. The sight was an exquisite and delicious mix of squirm-making embarrassment and hilarity, and a knowing nod at our own provincialism and development from where we had been. Or maybe that was just me. It will remain my favourite Paddy’s Day memory. Warmth and change in the environment that had shaped me, something hopeful about the world we wanted to see, were seeing around us, in a town which hardly saw a foreign face all the years of my childhood.
Open water swimming is not something I just do when I am in open water. It’s part of who I am, something I bring elsewhere and who I am I bring to open water swimming. They are not separate, each is a string in a knotted ball, impossible to untangle. Months are both markers and memorials. My beloved Toby’s last hours on a freezing March morning, and me like Mr Bojangles, “his dog up and died, after [so many] years he still grieved“. A black man in a small town parade becomes a personal marker of an uncommonly early spring, an indicator in each year, whom I smile and think of when I swim on St. Patrick’s Day, as I think of my terminally ill mother whom I was with that last St. Patrick’s Day of her life, her at home watching the parades from around the country on the TV. Cherished memories usually belong to our childhood, not to the year that while training for the Channel I finally become an orphan and therefore some kind of adult. We don’t see the patterns of our lives, and yet only we can see the patterns in our lives.
Back on land from the cold water of winter-in-spring, forsythia, grape hyacinths, catkins on willows and of course hordes of daffodils mark the oncoming of the land’s spring.
Most springs are about a balance between cold and hope. Pulled back, trying to lean forward.
The sea has only begun to contemplate its long farewell to winter. But fickle as she is, yet she holds tight to an geimhreadh, the winter. In the water we suffer. We are still cold. The increased light is an empty promise unaccompanied by warmth. It snows this year in March. No ice cream on Paddy’s Day. The water climbs from the bucket filled with six degree water to the fridge temperature of seven degrees. On March 19th I get an email from an US company from whom I’ve previously bought paint, calling themselves Irish and advertising a St Paintrick’s Day sale.
I unsubscribe but not without telling them where to shove it.