Updated: Apr 27, 2020
Today, work continues in a stutter-state of conference calls, Zoom, Skype, Teams, Hang Out, the local-to-Oxford platforms; I never thought I would have to sign up to so many different conferencing platforms. Sometimes so slow I imagine myself waiting for a train. On the streets, the new rules make it difficult to communicate beyond shouting from one or two social distances away. Social life is both the virtual and the very local – nodding at neighbours on the street when on a walk, smiling in the hope of a smile back (mostly, yes, increasingly across the weeks, no), standing a social distance apart outside the pharmacy, outside the store. Usually, laughter is infectious; not with the new rules of this new world. There is little laughter, perhaps because laughter is infectious, and infection is still scary.
Swimming is still possible or me. The lake at Hardwick remains, at West Oxfordshire Sailing Club, and the current guidelines are helpful – do your physical activity according to the rules, do not dawdle. Pauline and I were there this morning, just a five kilometer cycle ride away – cycle there, swim, and cycle back – this is one unit of exercise, according to what the government suggests. We have been there, have been there again, will be there again, again, and hopefully again after that. The repetition is a comfort in a world made uncertain. The repetition brings nostalgia to mind – when the body can’t travel, the mind can. This time to Boston in the early 2000s. We were there as a family across a magical Summer, and a strong memory evoked by the lake at Hardwick is that of swimming in Walden Pond. We house swapped with people coming to Oxford, and we had the use of an old blue Volvo, very much like the old blue Volvo we left behind us. Every few days we packed the old Volvo with picnic stuff, an eskie on wheels no less, and drove to Walden Pond, near Concord Massachusetts.
Walden Pond, for those that don’t know it, is in a nature reserve, with a car park and a short track through woodland down to a small sandy beach where kids can play, parents can hang out, and anyone can swim – within the buoyed area for kids, and anywhere in the pond for those that can and want to. A universe of activity bounded by the pond, its edge and the woodland surrounding it. There was, I recall, just one shop – the Thoreau Society Shop, close to the beach, selling books on philosophy. Just philosophy. No ice-cream, no burger bar, no soda, just philosophy. Henry Thoreau, philosopher, famously built his cabin here and lived ‘on Walden Pond’ for over a year, thinking, doing and writing, across the seasons. Henry Thoreau is in my mind as I return to the lake in Hardwick, On Hardwick Pond, as right now, April of the Covid-year 2020, domestic and intimate life takes precedence over outward-facing life. Thoreau’s landmark book ‘Walden’ records his time when he stripped away the inessentials of life to concentrate on the important innermost things and thoughts, living on Walden Pond. Thoreau swam and dipped and washed in the pond regularly. In his words “I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did”. Pauline and I bathe in the Hardwick lake, and it is the best thing we do, even if we dare not call it religion.
Much as I would like to make it so, Hardwick Lake is not Walden Pond. The lake at Hardwick is close to Eynsham, my village, and close to Oxford, and is smaller than Walden Pond. It is not a deep glacial lake, but a former gravel pit. But I can’t help but romanticize it, especially now, in the Covid-present. Lake or pond? Such is the way of things in England and America. There was one Serpentine Zoom-café session when Bertie was explaining the Serpentine Swimming Club to someone at her (Covid19 front line) work. The Serpentine is closed for swimming for the foreseeable future, a huge loss to the community of swimmers there. Bertie’s account was of her reaction when her colleague said about the Serpentine “so it’s a pond”; “No! Its not a pond, it’s a lake!” was Bertie’s response. Naming is important – the titling of the Serpentine and Hardwick as lakes ennobles them for the noble act of swimming. It’s not just a matter of US – UK differences, in a ‘you-say, I-say, potato-tomato’ kind of way.
Walden Pond is about one and a half kilometers across while the lake at Hardwick is about one kilometer around – about half the size. But the size of the lake/pond isn’t as important as the experience of swimming. While it isn’t a religion, I believe you can come close to having a religious experience while swimming – usually induced by distance or the coldness of the water. But even without claiming religious experience, there are daily rewards to paying attention, small and big - the days and the seasons change, the temperature of the water varies, the weather can tumble from sun to rain in the course of a swim, and sometimes there is a rainbow. While my birthday is in the deep freeze, I will carry on swimming and post some thoughts and pictures as I do so, as 65@65 Lock-Down Swims, or waiting-for-better-days-swims. At least I can still swim, and I wish hearty mental support to those who, in the lock-down, can’t find water. We can all keep a look-out for rainbows and hopefully the world will de-frost before too long.
Thoreau’s words are helpful for me, even though I will never live a year in the woods by the lake / pond – “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation”.