It all starts with a different type of movement in the water.
Specifically, I mean the water that I’m using to fill the pan. I’m not sure when I switched to pan boiling my water; it feels indulgent, a bit silly. At this stage it is absolutely necessary for me to have an extra few minutes to contemplate what I’m about to do.
The burst of water out of the tap is a shock to me, and temporality nudges me from my half slumber state. Get the water going first, everything else can follow.
I lean on the side, contemplating for the first time that day the weather that streams in through the kitchen window. How many dirty pots it will catch on its way through is anyone’s guess. If the water is already boiling before I catch sight of whatever is waiting for me outside, then we go on – maybe it will just have to be a ‘two sugars’ type of dip.
In this empty time, I’ve started to search deeply for connections between the flow of water I submerge my physical self in, and the one I use to shelter my emotional self.
Both look murky from above, true, but when you move your finger through them (or a spoon, I’m not crazy) and twist towards the light, there’s a sharper presence inside, like sieving silt for precious stones you can only see on closer inspection. Greens and purples in the water, sometimes yellows and pale pinks before dawn. In my tea, a vivid amber like gold.
What I know about this cup of tea is simple. By the time I drink it, I won’t be the same person as I was when I made it. Something transformative will have taken place inside me between brewing this potion, and letting it work its magic.
This quiet preparation I undertake on mornings before I swim has become as treasured as the submerging itself. If I can get out of the bed, if I can fill the flask, if I can pull on the costume, then I can get into the freezing water. One step follows the next. On some days, post-dip tea is the only goal. The arms and legs work in tandem to get back to the flask, to be warm, to be still.
As I pull on my swimming costume before I leave home, I look in the mirror briefly. There is something different about looking at your body before a winter swim, taking in the soft and bouncy parts of my skin. I know that when I emerge from the water, I feel hardened and my red edges seem thick and tough. A simple nod, and the rest of the kit goes on, taking care to leave extra layers for afterwards.
Even after all this time, I still cannot quite recreate the feeling that hits as I pad back over to my belongings, dripping over the grass triumphantly.
As I pull on layers furiously, scratching already blazing skin, I prepare my space in sight of the other dippers. I allow their peace to catch me as I nestle down between blankets and scarves, only selected parts of my face on offer to the elements. I can hear the steady drip of my costume next to me, hanging spent on a high branch.
It’s time then.
With unadulterated glee at this tiny act of kindness to myself, I unscrew the lid of my flask. It never occurred to me I might become a woman who owned a flask, but then again it didn’t seem likely I’d ever be a woman who would politely, but quite firmly, move ice out of her way to swim.
The steam is an instant relief, and it seems almost perverse to see in this freezing weather. On some mornings, I wish I could climb inside its translucent form and wrap myself around the trees above me. On brighter mornings, I’m quite content in my cold - savouring the tea which reminds me of the vast difference between our current states.
It looks an altogether different colour by the time it rests in the cup, a milky dullness to it that reminds me of home, love, and sometimes tragedy. Tea is for all, remember.
As I drink, I reflect back on what has just taken place. From the moment my feet touch the first steps of the ladder to get out, it seems ludicrous to me that I would ever get in to begin with. I watch other women far more graceful than me breath in the cold with a regal air, tar black hands dismissing the water in front of them. I know that all too soon, they’ll be seated around me playing the same game, smiling at their own amphibious heroes, sipping away gently.
Then all too soon, the never-ending flask reminds me it’s time to get back to real life. To pick myself up, wring myself out one final time, and emerge.
A little lighter, a little brighter, and much sweeter (for yes, it was a two sugar swim after all...).