I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series. Read on for Laurel Ralston’s reflection on swimming as contemplative practice.
It wasn’t my idea to go swimming first thing in the morning.
I was in the middle of my evening routine, such as it is, minding my own business, when the thought occurred to me, silent yet surprisingly loud: You should go to The Pond tomorrow. Find your bathing suit. You should go to The Pond tomorrow.
I grew up in a house about ten minutes’ walk from a small but magical conservation area, a forest, wetland and lake alive with wildlife, an oasis in Canada’s national capital city, Ottawa. I remember exploring the trails in my youth, occasionally playing guide to friends from other neighbourhoods and visiting cousins from out west. I remember one year in high school I decorated the sandy area at the edge of the swimming hole for my best friend’s birthday and brought her there for a little celebratory picnic.
But I was never a swimmer. My body is neither well-insulated nor buoyant, and although my parents sent me to swimming lessons as a child, water never really felt welcoming. Plus, I’m a wimp.
My mother, on the other hand, found heaven there. Despite being petite, Mom was the brawny one in my immediate family. She had grown up swimming in frigid outdoor municipal pools in central Alberta in the 1950s and 1960s. She was confident and exuberant in the water.
I don’t remember when Mom started making a habit of going to The Pond first thing in the morning. I know it was well established by my early twenties, because I still lived at home, and the morning after my first date with my first love—we’d attended a chamber music concert the previous evening, then walked and talked all night and watched the sunrise from the banks of the Ottawa River before finally ending up at my house—as he and I were having breakfast, she wandered in the back door post-swim, dripping wet in her swimsuit, sandals and a towel, squinted at him (she hadn’t worn her glasses), asked, ‘Are you the guy we met at the jazz festival last week?,’ and when he answered in the affirmative, said, ‘Nice to see you again,’ before disappearing into the hallway. We were a little mortified. She was not.
No matter what the weather, and no matter what was going on beyond The Pond, my mother always returned from her morning swim beaming. Swimming in that little lake, surrounded by trees, red winged blackbirds conversing nearby, was her daily meditation. Eventually Mom decided that the season was too short and bought herself a wetsuit to extend it a little on either end. I thought she had lost her mind. I was impressed, a few years later, when she agreed to be the designated swimmer on a triathlon team with me and my love’s father, flying out to the small town in British Columbia where I lived then and diving into a mountain lake with hundreds of others for the first leg of our race.
I didn’t get to celebrate with my mother at the end of that triathlon. While I was out running my 10 km portion of the race, she’d experienced extreme pain in her eye, and my dad had taken her to the nearest hospital. We learned that she had macular degeneration. Over the next couple years, she experienced one debilitating symptom after another. She kept on swimming. In early fall of 2010 she was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of lymphoma. She passed away the following July.
I’ve been back in Ottawa for several years now, and thanks to an unexpected but miraculous move in late 2021, I’m once again within walking distance of The Pond. So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when the idea occurred to me, that evening in early May, before the leaves had fully emerged on the trees, when the overnight temperatures were still only a few degrees above freezing. I located my bathing suit in a storage bin and put it where I’d be able to find it in the bleary-eyed moments after waking.
I resisted, the next morning, for about 20 minutes before accepting the inevitable. I bundled up over my bathing suit and brought a thermos of tea that I hoped would help me thaw post-swim. I shivered and cursed as I stood, pre-submersion, knee-deep in the water where my mom found heaven nearly every day of the spring, summer and fall. ‘Seriously, Mom?,’ I said out loud.
Predictably, the experience, once I surrendered and dove in properly, was pure bliss. I swam, floated, gasped, and thrashed for fifteen glorious minutes, or maybe eternity. Hard to tell. Afterward, I gulped down my tea and hustled back toward my apartment, trying to regain sensation in my frozen extremities. About two blocks from home, something colourful on the ground caught my eye. It was a small, circular greeting card. It read, ‘I love you Mom.’
Since then, I have been swimming in The Pond most mornings, without resistance. After the first time I swam a lap around it instead of just splashing about, my shoulders were in agony for three days. I went back and did it again anyway. My technique is terrible, but technique is not the point. These daily pilgrimages have become my contemplative practice, connecting me not only to my mother, but to the miracle and mystery of creative, transcendent love. I grin shamelessly every moment in the water, moments so full that they last forever, time outside of time. When I turn on my back and relax my gaze, I can see an almost complete oval of trees rustling in my peripheral vision, and birds crossing from one side to the other. Once, another lady there swam the way I remember my mother swimming: slowly, contentedly, gently blowing bubbles with every stroke.
Last week, suddenly, I sensed the water’s welcome. My own strokes slowed. I felt strangely powerful. Floating face up to the sky, I felt the water lifting me, holding me up like my mother must have done, years ago, when I was still too young to remember.
Holding me up like my mother still does, every day.
Laurel Ralston is a musician and PhD student living on the traditional, unceded territories of the Algonquin nation. She performs with Ottawa-based neo-soul band Slack Bridges and her research concerns hospitality in the aesthetics and practice of musical improvisation. She does her best thinking while wandering outside and is not so slowly turning into her mother.