When the various weights of our world press at my shoulders, I head to one of Wellfleet’s hidden ponds. At the parking lot at Great, as children yelp and harried fathers hoist giant plastic flamingos, I duck beneath a tree at the other end and onto the winding trail.
If a friend is with me and we’ve fallen into deep conversation, I’ve been known to miss one of a series of turns; there are forking paths through the woods in all directions. For a woman who still, at 64, often brings her angst along, this can be a tense moment. But today I am alone, and I easily find the way. It’s just me, the white lace of sweet pepperbushes, and birdsong.
An ancient fallen log marks the gateway to Dyer Pond. If the August sun is blazing, I’m in right away. But my 89-year-old swim instructor, Joan Nagle, has taught me the lure of ponds even on cold and rain-threatening days like today. “The wind is cold, the water is warm,” she repeated like a mantra as all 30 of her reluctant, gray-haired students descended the stairs at Great Pond, where she taught us for over a decade.
I talk myself into the cold water. It’s only four minutes and 30 seconds to heaven. I’ve counted.
The pond is quiet except for the rush of wind through leafy trees. I was a fear-filled swimmer before classes with Joan. Too many choruses of my mother calling to a 10-year-old version of myself in suburban St. Louis pools, “But what if you get a leg cramp at the deep end?” These days, a yellow buoy floats behind, attached by a belt at my waist, so Mom is silenced. It’s only me, the sky, the trees.
As my legs glide and my arms reach for imagined apples, in and out again, doing the nearly effortless sidestroke that Joan taught, I can hear my friend Deborah, who visits each year from L.A. “It’s a sanctuary,” she said.
There’s no singing, no stained glass, but it’s true. The water holds me in such an effortless way, a stark contrast to the sturm und drang I’m so good at making of my life. I’ve left our fraught political landscape and a world that seems to be burning behind — if only for these precious minutes.
There is only this: waters that part with the reach of my arms. I’m a bare interruption in her silent peace, a part of her now, immersed gently in that which is larger than myself. I can almost hear the chorus singing Hallelujah.
When despair for the world overwhelms the writer Wendell Berry, he takes himself to wild places and lies down “where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water.” Places where he can feel “the peace of wild things.”
Though the world can disappoint, the poets (hardly ever) do. And neither does this pond.
After I’m done swimming, hair dripping, towel wrapped, I always pause to bless the waters. Three sun salutations standing at the shore, taking in the fullness of this place, its perfect circumference.
I make my way back along the snaking trail, certain now of which road I’m walking, at peace with the restless state of the world. Often, I think of my grandma Ethel. I have moved so far from where we were together — childhood Sunday dinners at her Midwestern table. She, too, was a swimmer in later life. In wintertime, she plied the pools of Miami Beach as my grandpa Joe, terrified of water, stood guard on deck.
Their ghostly presences are with me now, watchful and hope-filled, as I ascend to the parking lot, newly born and bound for home.
Shelly Fredman lives in New York City and Wellfleet.