I’ve Got Nothing To Do Today But Smile….

When I do a long swim there are lots of ways that I keep my mind occupied. Most of the time, I’m just concentrating on my stroke, focusing on rotation, the catch and the feel of my hand as it pulls the water. Maybe I’ll count strokes or see how far I can lengthen out my body as I become more tired. Sometimes I think about the people that inspire me or those in my life that I love and give me support. Like the family and friends from every corner who watch the progress of a swim and cheer me on from home. I think about my Mom who died a long time ago and how much I wish she could be here to see me swim. I wonder about the history of the water that I’m moving through and the women and men that navigated this fluid space lifetimes ago. And, like many other swimmers, I sing songs to myself to pass the time. The other day while swimming a verse from the Simon & Garfunkel song, “The Only Living Boy in New York”, kept popping into my head. Strangely fitting that as I was stroking my way to Manhattan this song should be the one the DJ in my brain decided to keep repeating.

“I get the news I need on the weather report
I can gather all the news I need on the weather report
Hey, I’ve got nothing to do today but smile
Do-n-doh-d-doh-n-doh and here I am
The only living boy in New York

Half of the time we’re gone
But we don’t know where,
And we don’t know where…”

I felt like there were so many months recently when smiling felt like a herculean effort. My prevailing state of mind was dominated by anxiety and a lot of anger. I was devastated when the pools closed in March and all my planned swims for the spring and summer were cancelled. As the days without water continued, I mourned the loss of my swim fitness that I worked so hard to build over the winter months. It physically hurt to not have anything to look forward to on the calendar. For over a decade, I’ve had a big goal each year. At one time it was my first 5k run. Last summer I swam the 25 mile length of Lake Memphremagog. This year I planned on doing two big multi-day swims, SCAR and all of 8 Bridges. But most crushingly of all, I lost my outlet and escape just when I needed it most. When I’m swimming I can find some head space in the rhythm of the strokes. It is my ritual and routine and losing it felt like I had lost a part of myself. Simply put, I was an emotional mess.

Those early months during the pandemic seem surreal to me even now. I would turn on the news and hear our leaders urging us to stay home. People were being asked not to go out except for emergencies and essential supplies. The images of deserted city streets was haunting. New York and New Jersey were seeing their curves rise at an alarming rate. Schools closed and businesses shut their doors. I watched as the normally busting hospital where I worked was transformed into an eerily quiet and empty space in order to care for those patients that were beginning to trickle through the door. Screening tents were erected in parking lots, entire inpatient units were being closed and reconfigured and normal services were shutting down. New recommendations were being made every day. Guidelines for patient care would change multiple times, sometimes in the same day. It was confusing and scary and I cried on the way home from work for almost a month.

I knew that I had to do something to put an end to this cycle of anxiety and fear. So, I stopped watching the news so much. None of it was good anyway and it was making me crazy. I would read a story about an overwhelmed hospital in New York and my heart would break for the patients and the people who were trying their best to care for them. My being ached for the families that couldn’t say good-bye to their loved ones in person. I was disappointed in the lack of leadership in this country and angry that we didn’t have the necessary equipment to adequately protect ourselves at work.

When it all got to be too much, I’d turn the channel to the weather report. If I woke up and it was sunny, I knew I’d have an okay day because I could get outside to move around. I started running again after many years off. I went for long walks in the park with my dog. When even that shut down, we moved to the beach. I found ways to keep myself occupied inside when it was dreary and raining. I’d do yoga classes online. I read good books and cooked. I picked up a guitar and started teaching myself to play. And gradually, I started to feel less panicked when I had to go to work. It wasn’t easy. I was scared to walk through the door. I would lay in bed at night thinking that I would get sick from a workplace exposure. We were all fearful for ourselves, for our families and friends and for each other. No one really knew what was going on and the environment was filled with uncertainty and tension.

It was many, many weeks before I started swimming again. The water was cold and I wore a wetsuit but I was out there in the open water and I smiled. A little at first and then a lot more. I met a group of intrepid athletes and we explored all the waters surrounding our peninsula. We swam in rivers and bays and creeks and eventually the ocean again. I took off the wetsuit (hallelujah!). I got back my feel for the water and my mind turned to figuring out a way to do a meaningful swim during this strange and eventful summer. As our national tragedy continued to unfold, I wasn’t sure it would be possible or frankly, appropriate, to do a long swim. Yet, I couldn’t help but dream about doing something to make this dark year a little brighter. The obvious choice was the Ederle swim. In 1925, Ederle broke the men’s record for the swim from the Battery to Sandy Hook in New York Bay. According to the New York Times article on the swim, she was also the first “swimmer of her sex” to complete this course. Ederle was a pioneer for women in swimming and I admired her deeply for her guts and perseverance.

When Rondi at NYOW gave me the option to swim the reverse route, I jumped at the chance. Because I knew it would be harder. Because I wanted to swim from my home state across those waters to where I went to school and learned how to be a nurse. Because I wanted to say “fuck it” to all the fear I had felt since March. And because I knew it would be a heck of a swim if I made it. Stepping off that beach in Sandy Hook was cathartic. I thought about Ederle, who swam in these waters since she was a child and eventually became the first woman across the English Channel. Her love for the water and her spirit for life were with me as I took my first few strokes. The day was sunny and forecasted to be very hot. There was a stiff wind blowing out of the west. The water was sublime and, even though I was undertrained, I had confidence that we would achieve our goal.

The crossing to the Verrazzano Bridge was a crawl against strong cross winds and a nearly non-existent current assist. I stopped a lot. I lost my rhythm. I did a lot of cursing. It occurred to me that we wouldn’t make it to the Battery before the tide turned. Based on Rondi’s timeline, I knew we were behind schedule. As usual, Alex kept me moving forward. He told me to quit stopping and start swimming. I could hear Sharon cheering from the boat. I was so happy she was able to be our official observer and her energy and positivity boosted my spirits. Sean and Tom guided us across shipping lanes and kept a watchful eye between us and the giant container ships that seemed to pass a little too closely for my comfort. Andy was somewhere on the other side of the kayak swimming with me stroke for stroke. I was right where I needed to be. I thought about Ederle making her way against the current and decided I wasn’t going to give up. I put my head down and really started to swim. My rhythm came back as I relaxed my body and settled my mind. I started to smile. A little at first and then a lot more.

As we passed under the bridge and made our way into New York Harbor, I mostly focused on swimming. But I also thought about how these times have changed us all in so many ways. These past months have shown me the very worst but also the very best in people. I’ve seen ordinary people turn into heroes and have witnessed first hand the generosity and love of my community. I rediscovered activities that make me happy. My life became more balanced and less one dimensional. I’ve learned that much like a swim, there is only so much of life that we can control. Maybe the conditions are less than ideal or we weren’t able to train as much as we wanted. Sometimes you just have to let it go and move forward anyway. I realized that it’s okay to put aside the burdens of the world for a day and do a thing that makes your soul catch fire while you have the chance. I felt more free than I had in a long time. As we approached Governors Island I let out a little yelp and saw Alex grin. And I sang to myself, “I’ve got nothing to do today but smile…”