Cold Water

by Karen Porter Sorensen

“Deeper Karen … keep coming deeper,” Ellie calls.

My legs sting as I edge into the water. My swimsuit clings to me. A slow burn creeps up my body spreading numbness from my groin to my belly.

“Keep coming! You’ve got to get up to your shoulders … once your shoulders are under you won’t feel the cold anymore,” Kathleen encourages me.

“You won’t feel anything,” laughs the German woman whose name I can’t remember.

“Come on in, the water feels glorious,” Ellie chirps.

I grit my teeth. The water is freezing

~

On Ireland’s legendary Flaggy Shore where Lady Gregory spent her summer holidays and Seamus Heaney wrote his famous poem, ‘Postscript’, I have started a weekly ritual of swimming with the New Quay Mermaids, a group of 80 or so locals, many over the age of 70, who gather daily to swim with the tides. 

They swim, twice a day, year round, whatever the weather — they’ve been spotted during storms and seen swimming in January’s freezing waters. 

Hardly surprisingly, they have a reputation in the community for being eccentric.

Ellie, the founder of the group, has the enthusiasm and magnetism of a cult leader—she has talked countless people into the madness of cold water swimming, and somehow, despite my better judgement, last summer I became one of them.

Madness you say — Why would you do it?

I asked the mermaids the same question until I tried. It’s something you just have to experience for yourself.

~

The sea is painfully cold. My mind blanks striding into the water. I can’t think of anything: all the worries about my future career, the taxes we haven’t done, the laundry, the dishes, the flashing engine light in my car, and the children who aren’t eating right all evaporate. Only the physical sensations I’m experiencing are there. My body screams stop, my skin stings, but I summon all my self-control to walk forward. I am up to my waist, my breasts, my arms go under, then my shoulders. I have to keep moving to stay warm, so I swim breaststroke, wildly kicking back and forth. Then something switches in my brain and everything slows down and I feel this RUSH flooding me and I’m high as a kite, gloriously happy, and stunningly alive.

I have researched the phenomenon of cold water swimming and discovered that what I’m actually feeling is endorphins flooding my body. It’s my central nervous system’s natural response to pain. 

The feeling of euphoria is very similar to the effects produced by morphine, and the two primary causes for endorphin release — apparently — are pain and orgasm. So, in other words, cold water swimming makes you feel really good — it’s no wonder the mermaids and I are addicted.

I plunge my head under the sea again and it seems to break the spell I have been under. It’s a crystal clear world below. Crabs scuttle along the sea bottom just inches from my toes. Undulating purple jellyfish float harmlessly by. Suddenly I’m revived and passionately breathing air deep into my lungs as I swim in a frenzy to keep warm. 

Then Ellie calls the mermaids and mermen to her. We draw close, forming a ring and holding hands. I take the warm hands of two women on either side of me and Ellie says:

“Oh Lord, watch over everyone in this circle. Continuous harmony to all our mermaids and mermen and their families. Keep us all strong physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and FINANCIALLY!”

Everyone lifts their arms in the air in unison and laughs uproariously before we separate.

At the end of it all I rise out of the sea, new born. The warm touch of the sunshine on my cold skin is so pleasing. I drive home, shaking with cold, rush through the door, and climb into a hot shower, letting it pulse on the hottest setting to thaw me out. 

Even under this extreme heat I don’t feel warm, but I am aware of every inch of my skin. My body has come back to life. 

My husband and boys are snuggling under the covers watching cartoons on his phone. I climb back into bed, blissfully hugging the children’s small bodies, trying to warm up with their body heat. Later I go downstairs, flip pancakes, and pour hot tea, my body still trembling from this new ritual that has at last encompassed me in a profound and simple happiness that has somehow eluded me for the rest of the week.    


© Copyright Karen Porter Sorensen

Karen Porter Sorensen is a writer, performance artist, and sea swimmer based in the West Coast of Ireland. Most recently her work was featured on the RTE Radio 1 show Sunday Miscellany. Her art and writing have been presented internationally in museums, galleries and performance spaces in Chicago, New York and Ireland. She spent seven years researching love on New York City’s streets; the results of her findings love (luv) n. was published by Adams Media in 2010. She received a BA in theatre at University of Wisconsin, Madison, followed by an MFA in performance at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is currently creating an audio trail podcast for the Flaggy Shore in the Burren.


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