I’m guilty of being a romantic; intrigued by and longing for the next bend in the road, the brow of a hill, the dunes beyond the headland and the lands at the end of the horizon. Of all that there is to explore in the world.
I’m enchanted by the possibilities of daybreak and the closing of light at the end of the day. I wonder what’s out there, what lands there are to marvel at, what people to learn from. What day will bring, what will be of night.
When I was a young boy I would listen to trains in the night thudding along the tracks near to my grandparents’ house in Durham on their journey the length of Britain. I’d imagine their precious mysterious cargo going to places and people whose names were unknown, unheard of and unpronounceable.
I’ve always wondered about the elusive, the other, the out there, the unattainable, the mysteries of the world, the then but not the now, the now of then, but not the now of now. But it means I can sometimes miss the moment.
Enter open water swimming, something I’ve done forever but whose impact I really feel as an adult.
At this time of year the water temperature at Hietaniemen ranta, a beach near my house in Helsinki, drops below 10 degrees.
I was there the other night swimming through photographs at sunset.
You watch your hand glide through the clear water, feel the silk of the water wrapping every pore, the chill gradually turning to raw heat on your skin.
When you’re seeking the undiscovered and the unknown, the untouchable and all the things that are great and powerful in the world, swimming in the sea at this time of year is your friend. You feel all those things.
After immersing yourself and breathing slowly you notice you’re in control; it’s an immediate feeling.
Emerging from the water there is overwhelming ecstasy, as the blood rushes back to your extremities. At that moment I feel that I can accomplish anything and every whisper from fluttering birch bark or shimmer of a leaf is so many more times intense than before going in.
Every sense is intensified and the colours of nature are more vivid and beautiful than ever before. I want to stroke the wispy bark of an old birch and play with the leaves between my fingers.
Every ripple on the sea’s surface is a silver thread in an intricate tapestry and every reflection is a door to the soul. A soul that has just been fulfilled by swimming.
Swimming for 15 minutes at this time of year in the sea feels like fully immersing yourself in something that is the other, in the great mysteries of the depth, the unknowable. The sea is the goods train in the night, a stranger’s flickering candle on an ashen grey Sunday. It’s the icebreaker on the horizon and the deserted bothie on Scotland’s west coast.
Swimming in the cold takes me out of my own head from what might be to what is now. Instead of contemplating what is out there – the beauty and endless possibilities of an unvisited land – there now grabs you in a cold but very tender embrace.
The sea she is not jagged or pointy, the hug is total and at once, like the embrace of a mother.
In the water you become part of that evasive unattainable other. You feel the might and the maybe. And the tomorrow becomes the today.
Swimming takes me far away from myself; from my own thoughts to just breathing, being, watching, listening. Feeling small and immersed by something mighty is a good way to put things in perspective.
It’s not just the sea, it’s the vast sky and the geese in autumn flight that remind you of your place in the world and your impermanence, your insignificance and the beauty and power of nature. A feeling I’m always chasing.
I feel like I’m emptying myself into the water and the water is numbing my urges and my longing for something more. It is so intense and encompassing that I can only think of the feeling of now. So overwhelming and full that I feel like I don’t need more. It’s the drug I’ve been longing for.
The cold water washes off the yearnings of my nature and places me in the painting I want to explore.