Monday, August 12, 2013

on mermaids.

Earlier this summer, I was up at a cottage on the Hawk River near Carnarvon. Every day we'd head down to the local public beach on Halls Lake, which is arguably one of the finest lakes in Ontario. It's deep and clear and dotted with midcentury cottages, tiny wood cabins built into the Canadian Shield, not a Muskoka monster boathouse in sight. Even better, for a long time it was a dead lake, so the frightening fish sightings are few and far between. For those who don't know, while I love lake swimming more than most other things, I am not a fan of underwater life. My worst nightmares are ones in which I am trapped between aquariums. My mom used to pretend to pour bleach into the lake to convince me she'd killed everything off before I'd dip so much as a toe into the water. A few years of partnership with a dude who lived on a wild and fish-filled lake (and the consequent desire to not look like a total wuss) have lessened my terror somewhat, but not much. All of which is to say, ecological concerns aside, a fishless lake is my happy place.

So we'd go to Halls Lake at least twice every day. A couple afternoons in, some local yahoos were blasting Thin Lizzy from their car on the beach while they drank Bud Light on the floating raft a few metres from the shore. The noise pissed me off to no end (for all my big talk of respect and acceptance I am surprisingly intolerant), but luckily my mother talked me out of just reaching into the car and turning off the stereo. Treating it as an object lesson, I dove into the water and found silence under the surface.

A few minutes later, I noticed an older woman asking them if they'd mind shutting off the radio. She had a sturdy, confident look about her, grey hair and tanned shoulders and a towel wrapped around her waist. She seemed fearless. The yahoos heeded her request, and soon there was quiet above sea level as well as down below. It felt like a relief. I watched the woman out of the corner of my eye as I swam back and forth. She stopped to talk to my friends back on shore, and later I learned from them that she was from Germany, that her sister married a Canadian after World War II, that she had been coming to visit her up here every summer for years. In the following days, I saw her with her sister, swimming long, steady laps back and forth in the deeper part of the bay. I loved the narrative arc of it all. I loved her strength. I loved watching their solid, hearty bodies moving gracefully through the water, their heads bobbing above the surface as they talked and talked.

Last week, I found myself diving into yet another lake. This time it was Irish Lake, a shallow body of water randomly plunked down in the farmland south of Owen Sound, where my best friend Kat's family has a cottage. Last year that little lake became my sweet escape from an adolescent and melodramatic summer, and it felt so good to be back there. Kat and I have always had this way of cancelling out each other's neuroses; our key methods include Vinho Verde and secret bacon breakfasts and long, lovely swims.

"The Irish Lake Mermaid Squad, reunited at last," Kat said as we dove in that first night. We've been referring to ourselves as mermaids since sometime last summer; one of the best things about best friends is the unabashed permission to behave like a ten year old at a slumber party.

Every day, Kat and I swam out to the deepest point in the bay, both of us feeling quieter and more at peace than we'd felt in weeks. One windy afternoon we canoed around the lake, me and my embarrassingly weak J-stroke at the helm. A few weeks earlier, Kat had sent me an article about how mermaids were the new vampires.

"We're ahead of the curve," she informed me.
"Always," I replied.

One evening as we swam slowly back toward the shore, I thought of that woman at the beach on Halls Lake, gliding across still water, catching up with her sister, making the same movements she had probably made a million times over a million summers. I wondered if she felt any older than she'd felt the first time she came to visit. I wondered what it was like for them to be reunited that first summer. And I wondered at what point she became fearless, unfettered by thoughts of drowning, unconcerned about the reactions of others, calm and confident and grounded in herself. It's a point at which I hope to find myself one day. It's a point I work towards with every breath, with every laugh, with every dive into the deep. We grow more graceful underwater, I think. Softer, more alive, more aware of our movements. It's a feeling I want, always. It's a feeling I can find, over and over again.