Winter Solstice and swimming as a practice
Winter Solstice is an underrated celebration.
It could be so meaningful in these ridiculous times of evolution and uncertainty. Why and how should the winter solstice become more than an excuse for a skinny dip? (Although as per below, that is one of the best ways to embrace the turning of the seasons.)
So-called advanced civilisation has relentlessly sold us the lie that humanity is in control. We have believed that 'we have the technology', that we can tame nature, plunder the natural environment for our energy needs with impunity, and scar the earth forever with bitumen and buildings. We have considered the planet to be a resource in our service. But the excesses of industrial capitalism are finally catching up with us and we are slowly recognising that Country cannot be tamed, that the earth is boss, and that it is we, not it, that must learn to conform.
It became conventional during the Covid 19 pandemic lockdowns to say to each other, almost in a religious chanting kind of way, 'this too shall pass'. But for most of us, Covid 19 is the least of our worries. Life is full of pain and suffering, of trauma and uncertainty, of deep feelings of inadequacy that invade our living.
For me, the Winter Solstice is a reminder that the cold and dark doesn't last forever, even though when we're in the middle of it if feels like it will. And of course, some winters are colder than others and sometimes summer is fleeting, so I'm not suggesting a Pollyanna view of life that says 'it'll all be OK'. But the solstice it is a momentous exhortation to hang in there, to know that the rhythms and cycles of life are unstoppable as surely as the sun will rise, and as surely as it will track south and warm our days.
It is of course an impoverished life that seeks only the sun. The winter, and indeed all the seasons have their own invitations to be fully alive. One of the expressions of this that I enjoy most in my life is swimming in the ocean all year round. There are many ways we embrace the seasons, including the varieties of seasonally appropriate food we prepare and the things we do with ceremonial gusto, from summer road-trips in the baking sun to cosy fireside night caps with friends. But let's talk about swimming for a minute.
There is 1995 film called Smoke, which revolves around the daily photographs a neighbour takes of the tobacconist store across the road. The photos are taken at 8am everyday and are described by the photographer as their 'life's work'. I find the idea intriguing; repeating a simple observational activity at the same time everyday. It is also the basis more recently of the enchanting film, My Octopus Teacher. For me and a group of nutty friends, we swim at the same beach (almost) every morning. It is extraordinary to witness the same piece of Wadawurrung County it all its glory and beauty through the seasons.
Instead of just turning up, walking down the sand and jumping in the water I have made a point of trying to take in the environment. There are so many variables: the wind, the tide, the colour of the ocean, the stars, the clouds, the position of the sun and the moon, the air temperature, the sea temperature, the temperature of the sand. And importantly, the swell size and wind direction are critical factors. And then there are the smells, the sounds, the taste of the salt water and the sensations of the elements on our skin, not to mention the company. It is of course never the same.
I make it a practice of snapping pics before and/or after a dip. I often post them on Instagram, not as a 'look at me' exercise, but as a journal record, a story of the mornings at RAAFs Ocean Beach in all and any condition. Last year Maria collated a few of them into collages and put them into a calendar. She only put in March's collage (for example) shots I'd taken in March. It was incredible to see the patterns and rhythms of the beach as the seasons roll around. Far from random, there is a cadence and tune that invites our synchronicity.
It is one thing to observe and snap pics. It is another thing to immerse yourself in the environment. Nature, if we listen and slow down, is so much more than a recreation ground. Bush, mountains, sky, deserts, rivers are their own classrooms, but for me and my friends, our teacher is one piece of sand and water. Being in it relentlessly affords us an incredible opportunity to understand our place on earth and to get in step with the patterns of nature.
Those who know me well know my preferred way to be in the ocean is skinny dipping. As a practice, skinny dipping for me is the most meaningful way to engage the natural environment. It is profoundly sensual in an asexual way. It removes any barriers. The physical sensation is exhilarating, but the emotional vulnerability is also a factor. It goes without saying that discretion is important - seeing a pale old bloke in the nuddy out of context is sure to ruin your day - but, the Winter Solstice is the time of the year when ordinary people are 'allowed' to bare all and swim with others without shame. It think it is a fabulous tradition, and is picking up in popularity on the back of the publicity around Dark MoFo's event in Hobart.
Celebrations rightly include laughter, fun and games traditions, and many of us don't have the energy to get deep and meaningful when the need of the hour is to lose ourselves in frivolity. But I wonder if the Winter Solstice deserves greater attention. The depths of winter invites two practices, juxtaposed but complementary: sheltered indoor, inner reflection with the discipline of reminding ourselves that spring always follows winter in all dimensions of the natural world, and the outdoor embracing of the extreme cold, expressed by a skinny dip. These combined are a wonderful recipe for our mental health.
I gave myself the day off work today to celebrate the Winter Solstice. I managed a couple of ocean dips and a trip to the farmers market to stock up on fresh local produce, then as the curry we decided to cook for dinner was brewing on the stove I wrote this while listening to a Winter Solstice playlist curated by my friend Nik Ramsay. Happy Winter Solstice.