Part I: The Feeling of Aliveness

1.“Did you kick a turtle?” my son Paul, age four, asks from the backseat as I climb into the front passenger seat of our car, one early evening in Concord, Massachusetts. His voice, so high and piping, makes me laugh. “Or did you swim with any dolphins?”

“Did you catch a whale?” Sophie, nearly nine, asks. 

I’m dressed in my long-sleeve wetsuit and have the orange buoy around my waist, the one the expert swimmers told me to buy, which drags behind me like a tail. Exhausted by my hour-long swim, I snap off the buoy and dump it into the seat in front of me, then sit, still in my suit, as my husband Philippe drives off. The suit’s crevices are packed with water, bogging me down. As I sit with a squash, then unzip the top of the suit, a familiar dread rises. How will I ever get this thing off? What contortions will be needed to peel it off? And yet there’s another feeling too: a sense of triumph, mingled with exhaustion. This time, I’ve swum around Walden Pond the long way, in a full circle, reaching all the nooks and crevices. It’s over a mile.

“No whale,” I say to Sophie, “and no turtle,” I say to Paul. 

Mid-October, the day’s cool and crisp, mistier than most, near sunset. Already, the leaves on the close-packed trees have started turning, reds and golds like caramel. We leave the parking lot. I want to say I’m grateful for the swim but say nothing, not wanting to break the spell.

“I did almost swallow some jellyfish,” I say.

With a rise of excited panic, I go on to describe the fingernail jellyfish that have filled up Thoreau’s Cove as of late, a small cove halfway down the center of the pond. Once I reach the cove’s halfway point, I see them: bright white and swerving, small and numerous as stars. They arrive in waves, numerous and simultaneous, suddenly there with the scoop of an arm.

They’re almost like a dream I start dreaming, so quickly do they arrive. Coming at me, they rush forward, almost as if they’re meeting me, rather than me meeting them. Faced with such clusters, there’s nothing I can do but swim faster, freestyle, and then breaststroke, keeping my mouth shut, as with a secret, diving down and around, then further in. Will the cluster break, or only grow more desperate, clinging to me with even greater force? 

Any desperation, of course, would only be my own. The emotions of jellyfish must be entirely unlike ours, I think, as they fill my central vision, then the periphery. 

2.“Tell me what you fear,” as psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott said, “and I will tell you what has happened to you.”

What I fear is being engulfed by a swarm of tentacles, small as they are. What I fear is diving down so far, the tentacles break apart to reveal how I’m only a funfair mirror, or my reality is; how, in truth, I’m no more than one of them, or soon will be. 

What I fear is losing all boundaries. It’s a fear of returning to childhood, to the endless, wordless need. To becoming a child who longs without language, who senses without speech. This child is a person I must, as a mother, pretend not to be. 

And so, from behind my goggles, I open my eyes wide and inspect those jellyfish as well as I can. In old photos, I remember, their long tentacles were delicate, transparent fronds. White and glistening, they floated through water that went suddenly black. 

On seeing those photos, I’d imagined swimming around the jellyfish, but when I meet them, their number makes that impossible. I only swim through them, as if they’re part of a jellyfish sea. They number so many, they’re impossible to count. At their sight, I gulp cold water and cough, then raise my head and spit the water out. 

A flash of a Florida beach, decades back, when I’d first gotten stung by a jellyfish far larger than these. I’d cried, run to my parents. Had I been shot? The sting wouldn’t leave. The pain surge, the everlastingness, the scream, still feel fresh. I scratched my skin till it bled.

Weeks back, I’d read a blog post on these fingernail jellyfish. “They’re harmless,” the caption read. “You might feel a little tickle, if you get too close, but no more.” 

So I try relaxing when I meet them. Swooping my arms through them, I try not to brush their tendrils. Luckily, the wetsuit feels like a second skin, one those creatures must not notice; a thing that blends in. Seen from above, I might be a fish, except for that bright orange buoy, and the pink swim cap that reminds everyone I’m human, and moving, a creature still living, alive.

3. The feeling of aliveness lasts long after I’ve surfaced.

On the drive home, Sophie and Paul laugh and ask me how long I plan to keep swimming. How long I can take the cold. Philippe, my husband, says maybe I’ll break the ice come January and dive in, like the Norwegian fisherman we’ve seen in nature documentaries, breathing out steam. “You’ll be one of those crazy ones, swimming all year,” he says.

No one mentions I’m not searching for fish. No one asks what I’m searching for, and why I insist on this ritual and have since the summer, a ritual I know is selfish, involving a long drive, and recently, some self-inflicted pain, as my fingers numb from the chill, and I emerge, shivering. People have swum in far colder waters, I remind myself, without any wetsuits. I’m hardly brave, if you want to call diving into cold water bravery. 

And yet I’m convinced this ritual has meaning, though I can’t define what. Even more, I’m convinced I must persist, as long as my family indulges, allowing me to. Ever since late May, when I started—as the clouds broke, revealing hints of blue—something about this crystalline water has propelled me forward. A will I meet with mine. A swirl. A diving pressure.  

The ritual—the obsession?—is one I cannot, until I must, let go.

4. Later, I return to my book of particle physics, which I enjoy partly because how little of it I understand. This universe may be only one of an infinite number of parallel universes, the physicist says. Our universe may be like a bubble swimming in a brilliant bubble sea. Or we may be in an unstable state, in a vacuum, waiting for the real vacuum to fall in on us, and for the entire universe—that is, all of the universe we know—to collapse.

Evening falls. I shut the book. Infinite worlds aren’t what I’m seeking. I only want this world to go on. I want what Thoreau wanted, to face the bare bones of life, but differently. 

5. Henry David Thoreau was a strong swimmer, as the histories go. Swimming in Walden Pond, he did laps well into the colder season. He must have had a tolerance for cold. Immersed in those waters, under the bowl of blue sky, I imagine him looking down. Or maybe his molecules have dissolved into the landscape. Maybe the dust of him watches the dust of me.

6. And then many days follow, days like dust bits, accumulating. So many moments arrive with such clarity, I struggle to contain them. Small moments bowl me over, knock me down. 

“It’s like a present,” Sophie says, when I write a story with her as a main character. “Like a gift. How did you make me sound like me?”

“It’s because I know you,” I say. What I keep to myself: it’s because I hear her voice in my head sometimes more easily, and more fluidly, than I can hear my own.

In these days, voices dissolve into other voices. Days blend into days, into dailyness, never to return. How easily these words are erased. None are more than dust on my palms. 

How I hurry into words the way I once hurried into water. 

In the words of Jacques Lacan: “I identify myself in language, but only by losing myself in it like an object.”

How I long to lose myself in water, if not in words.

7. But then comes the loss of objects, of games, so painful in childhood, and after.

“I don’t want to ever not win,” Paul says, after losing at marbles for the second time in the same evening. “I have to always win, okay?”

We’re constructing a marble run, the two of us. We’re figuring out which plastic pieces should fit into which others, how the orange tubes and the purple slides can snap together and make a thing that contains movement, a thing that will let a marble not slip out. We’re constructing the marble run in order to test it. That’s the only point, as far as Paul seems to think.

It’s not the sort of thing I typically have patience for. Generally, I struggle with feats of engineering, no matter how small. Yet seeing Paul’s determination, anticipating his joy, I huddle with him and try to make a thing—anything, no matter how messy-looking—that will work.

“Come on, mama,” he says. “Sit with me.”

So I do. We sit and work together. He’s silent; thinking, it seems, about questions of balance, about how many tubes he can snap together before the structure collapses, and whether he wants the collapse, like an architect who, against his better nature, wants his work to fail. 

Last month, his teachers told us about hatching butterflies in the classroom, starting with the smallest caterpillars. They’d been having trouble getting the butterflies to leave their chrysalises. Maybe those butterflies weren’t ready, they suspected, even though—judging by the calendar, and the supposed natural rhythms—it was time. 

“Every day, for a few days,” the teachers told me, “the children saw the chrysalises moving and shaking, heading up to the top of the containers. But no butterfly emerged.” 

Soon Paul noticed that they moved and shook more during rest time, when the lights were dimmed. On their mats, the children twisted and turned, but made less noise than usual. Paul noticed this change because he did no resting; because, instead of staying still, he traveled around the classroom to see what he could see. For him, naptime was a time to act in opposition; to make as much noise as possible, perhaps to convince everyone he wasn’t tired. But as a result, he was the one to see the butterflies shifting, apparently encouraged by the quiet and darkness. 

 “What if we put the butterflies in an even darker spot?” he asked the teachers later that afternoon. “What if the butterflies need quiet and dark to be born?”

Soon, the class tried it, moving the butterflies into a dark corner.

The following day, the butterflies emerged.

 “It was so surprising,” his teacher told me, with a brief smile. “He seemed to sense what those butterflies needed, to care for them, far more than a child of his age typically would.”

“That’s wonderful.” I hid my pride. Still, knowing his usual bluster, I was proud.

8. Now, there’s a rumbling noise. The marbles twist and turn and spin down transparent spouts. A shuffling sound rises, as marbles shunt down their individual paths, and collide. 

Always the yellow ones win. 

“Again,” Paul calls, both hands to his forehead. “The yellow ones again!

The yellow ones are the good ones. The blue ones lose every time. 

For a while, we kept trying to figure out why. 

Was it the weight, or the size? Or something about the marbles we couldn’t see? 

Soon we had lots of hypotheses. Lots of marbles shooting down lots of paths. Lots of sobbing when the hypotheses turned out to be wrong. We made many attempts at explanation—increasingly feeble, even absurd. Maybe the yellow ones came from a different factory, I said, or maybe they were from a different packet, and we’d mixed the two packets without noticing.

“They’re the same,” Paul kept insisting. “But the yellow ones always win.

That at least I couldn’t argue with.

But then comes the noise: marbles shunting out, around, and down. Again Paul screams at the constant yellow win. Unable to hide my irritation, I put my hands to my ears. 

In recent years, since the birth of my children, I’ve made progress in handling sudden onslaughts of sound. Carefully, I’ve found ways to ensure it doesn’t drive me downward, into a spiral in which every sound feels like a weapon, and I’m bombarded, unable to escape. 

It’s “simply” sound sensitivity, so I tell myself, a sensitivity so many people share. 

It’s that sensitivity that makes each noise thunderous, a challenge. It’s that sensitivity that makes me want to stop up my eyes and ears and shut down my mind.

One strategy helps most, at least for a moment. Those sounds, I try to imagine, aren’t an annoyance or a frustration, but life. The chaos is welcome, distracting me from silence, or ruminations. For a moment, I succeed in thinking this way. The cacophony sounds beautiful. 

Then, there’s a sort of collapse. 

Everything grows weightier, heavier. Each sound heightens and throbs in my ears. 

I’ll never stop hearing those marbles, I think. Not until the end of my days.

That’s my thought for days, weeks on end, until there is silence, too much of it, with both children away, and I stand in the kitchen, thirsty, wondering if I should eat or drink, and thinking of all the parents who’d lost children. Then silence felt so endless, and dark as wood.

9. “Did you know caterpillars have more muscles than humans?” Sophie asks at bedtime. Before sleep—to ward off sleep, maybe—her curiosity has no bounds.

“Did you know hippos’ sweat is red?”

“Did you know that rhinos’ sweat is like sunscreen?”

“Did you know that the sun is over a million times bigger than the earth?”

I didn’t know that, I say, and in truth, I didn’t. 

She keeps asking, and I keep shaking my head, saying I didn’t know that, as she smiles. 

And then she starts on the deeper questions—not the ones from books, but ones that must have been hiding on her mind all along. What would happen, she wants to know, if her heart stopped beating, or if it only slowed? Would she feel it, or would there be just a clicking off? 

“And why can’t I see into my brain?”

“And what would happen if a bird ran into the road and no one saw it? Would it leave the road and fly into the forest? Or would it stay and build a nest?”

“And what would it feel like to have a deer crash into the car? Would it break the windshield? Would you be all right? How many nightmares would you have after that?”

I don’t know, I say, over and over, with a thud in my gut, and shake my head. 

The more she speaks, the more I sense myself in her; that anxious pattering that conceals a desire to process, to be comforted. In my own childhood, all my deeper questions used to rush up at me in a bundle, in the evening, precisely at ten. In a flood, I asked them all. Why ten at night? my parents used to wonder. Why so many questions? Maybe it was the night, or the terror of sleeping, the fear of what lay on the other side. Who were we? I wanted to know. Where were we headed? Where do we go after we die? These sorts of questions I’d half-laugh at now.

As Sophie keeps asking and I shaking my head, I wonder why I no longer ask questions like hers. Perhaps I’ve buried them, hoping that age, or motherhood, makes them unnecessary. Or perhaps I’ve learned that those questions are, in themselves, a form of terror. The asking frightens us. The sense of not knowing. But on a visceral level, we already know.

This evening, she has more questions than usual. The air fills, and soon she’s almost shouting, demanding answers, or maybe only frustrated at my silence.

“It’s too late,” I say, hugging her and tucking her in. 

It is late, but she knows that’s not the reason. She knows I must have quiet before sleep.

10. Later, surrounded by silence, I wonder how many questions can fit in a single book. How many can fit in one mind? Often, Sophie’s thoughts move at high speed, as if she’s singing a song with too many words. Is she searching for answers, or only approval? How many hours will I spend asking and answering? When will she start answering her own questions, or trying? 

And what kind of woman will she become, this curious child? Maybe the kind who stays up late, hands clasped, in bed, listening to her thoughts unfurling. She’ll sit still as starlight swirls in, as shadows darken around her. In morning, she’ll watch those shadows turn light.

Or maybe the kind who folds clothes because she wants to and plants clematis in her garden. A woman who answers to no one but herself. 

Or maybe the kind who doesn’t write notes or scribble to-do lists, who doesn’t recite phone numbers, because she holds everything in the blackboard of her mind.

Or maybe she’ll become none of those women. 

Maybe she’ll surprise both of us. 

Maybe she’ll move to somewhere distant, to Ho Chi Minh City or Buenos Aires or Beijing, and all the memories of our conversations will fade to a single point. When she’s my age, maybe all the questions she once had—their asking, and their answering—will turn limpid and loose, like water. Maybe she’ll cup them in her hands and drink them, thinking them gold.  

Part II: On Entering the Waters

1. I bought a wetsuit, so I tell myself, because I wanted to swim in the cold. Or reverse it: I wanted to swim in the cold because I had a wetsuit. A chicken-or-egg scenario. After the births of two children, buying a wetsuit felt like an indulgence. But that need, no matter how I tried to ignore it, boomeranged back to me—so I went online and bought one I thought would fit.

Even before buying the wetsuit, I was intrigued by what I’d heard; the fact that wearing one, if it was tight enough and fit in the right places, was a bit like having a second skin. The idea of fabric surrounding me tightly, containing me, was comforting, and gave me the sense that I could withstand an onslaught, handle more freezing water than I typically could. Handle the freezing water—that was the goal, a heroism more like masochism. 

The need to be shocked, perhaps, or startled, or only erased?

That question of need continued until I stood on the shore of Walden Pond one mid-October afternoon. I put the wetsuit on, zipped it as high as it could go, then immediately found I couldn’t breathe. Someone had their hands around my neck and was quickly choking off my airway. A visceral sense, my reaction as visceral: I raced to unzipped it half an inch, an inch more. The effect became more pleasant, dulled. The choking feeling lessened. I was freer. 

Soothed, I stepped into the blue swim shoes I’d bought for the occasion—mid-October—then strode into the water from shore. Underneath my feet, the sand was cold and pebbly: a bit like the concrete in a swimming pool, but rougher, with minnows and weeds. 

A burning chill hit my soles. A freeze chilled my spine. I shivered, wanting to stop. 

But I took one more step, and then another. Late afternoon, almost evening. At my left lay the setting sun. A wash of watercolor-hued trees. A bowl of sky, bigger and brighter than any I’d seen. I took breath, strode forward and that was the first time I felt it: the absence of something. Of cold. There was none of the sudden shock I’d have felt, even diving into an unheated outdoor pool. None of the shock, in winter, of entering a hot shower, the Raynaud’s in my fingers turning the tips blue. No: the feeling was commonplace, as simple as entering a bathtub. Pleasant even. The surprise startled me. The water was inviting me in.

2. By the next time I entered the water, I’d joined a group online: the Open Water Swimmers, Massachusetts area. Wild Swimming, the activity was also called. Soon my computer screen was flooded with facts, some tedious or terrifying, others vaguely interesting. Here’s a video, I read, of a woman who swam without a wetsuit in Nova Scotia in January. Here are the benefits of diving into freezing water if you’re depressed. Here’s the precise temperature the water has to get to before you need gloves and booties or your fingers will freeze.

Having spent a life shying away from cold, I found these facts little more than masochistic. At times, I saw people doing tricks for show. There was the guy who brought his friends dressed in turtle swim costumes to meet The General, the well-known snapping turtle who inhabited the lake. There was the girl who railed against the “ninjas,” the groups of swimmers who wore black wetsuits and no bright caps or buoys and did backstroke diagonally down the lake, not caring if they slammed into other swimmers. There were photos of swimmers in swimsuits diving into the February surf, with the caption “water temp 41 degrees” and the question: “How low can you go?” And there were heated debates about ways of stepping out of wet wetsuits (requiring plastic bags) and the best goggles and brands of neoprene caps.

And yet, the more I scrolled—the days had grown shorter, colder, but the swimmers kept on—the more their questions and comments drew me in. It wasn’t only that their enthusiasm was catching, though that might have played a part. It was rather a feeling that they’d touched that same effortlessness, that same sense of freedom, as I had—and more. They’d gone into powerful depths—dangerous ones, even—and had returned. They’d swum in rougher oceans and colder lakes than I’d ever experienced. And they’d done it together, with wide grins in the photographs they’d snapped, holding their orange buoys against the crash of surf. They’d done it watching out for one another, checking for hypothermia, buying each other coffees, making meetups until the meetups were frowned upon and taken offline. They were, as I’d see later, a sort of tribe. 

A tribe. The idea felt strange, even jolting. For most of my life, I’d had close friends but, tending toward loner, had generally stuck to myself. Being part of any sort of support group struck me as silly, a waste of time. Even high school swim team had been too much, with its matching suits and fifteen-minute period for changing and drying off, and the over-zealous team name, the Dynamos. While I liked swimming, even back then, I quit after only a few weeks. Months later, I joined cross-country, since there were no uniforms and you could run up hills on your own time, and get lost in the chatter on school buses, and mostly stay alone with my thoughts. Joining a group of “Wild Swimmers,” even online, seemed like an admission of wanting companionship, or bonding, that I wasn’t sure I wanted to admit to. 

And yet, I did want that companionship, or the distant, online sort, so I joined.

It wasn’t long before a new message popped up: “Would anyone want these?”

The posting was of two pairs of scuba masks with attached snorkels, one clear plastic, the other blue. Both were prescription masks, for a nearsighted swimmer. Quite a strong prescription, the poster wrote, and unusual, with one eye far worse than the other. Curious, I zoomed in to the goggles and read the prescription. It looked almost identical to mine. A strange coincidence, and a lucky one. Since childhood, I’d been extremely nearsighted, so much so that the doctors feared I’d had cataracts, and I’d worn contacts ever since high school. 

But for swimming, I’d always worn only regular goggles. The thought of buying specialized goggles had never occurred to me. It was, it felt, the sort of indulgence that only people with too much money and time succumbed to. What did I need to see in the pool anyway? 

When I reflected, though, I realized I could well be missing something. Everything, the moment I stepped into the water, was a total blur. I was so near blind I often ran into the lane lines in pools, leaving raised red marks on my ankles and palms. In the lake, I constantly twisted my head to check for swimmers or boats on all sides. Typically, I couldn’t see swimmers until they were almost directly in front of me. I feared a near-miss, or worse, a collision. 

Most pools were clear enough that these collisions wouldn’t happen. But in Walden, where the water was blue-green and then green-blue, then transparent, momentarily, and then murky greenish brown, the fear of running into someone, or something, became visceral.

Soon I emailed the woman who’d posted the ad and asked her to check the prescription. When she confirmed, I realized that the prescription was reversed: the left eye prescription was my right, and the right my left. A minor disappointment. I sighed, preparing to email her back. But then I read further, to the woman’s description. The masks, she wrote, were from a friend who’d recently passed away unexpectedly, at a young age. For years, the friend hadn’t wanted to spend money on prescription masks. She went on snorkeling trips to beautiful destinations and contented herself with the little she could see. But soon before her death, at this woman’s urging, she’d decided to splurge. She only took one snorkeling trip after that—and was amazed, as her friend explained, at the difference. Finally, on the last trip before her death, she could see. 

Before her death, the woman recounted, her friend had asked that her masks go to someone who could make use of them. Could I?

I erased what I’d written and said that yes, of course I could use the masks. I confirmed that the prescription was close enough to mine (ignoring the opposite-eye issue). My vision was so bad, in any case, that any prescription in the general direction of mine would help. As I replied, I imagined what I might see: the tentacles of a jellyfish, or the green-golden shell of the General—and wondered what it was the friend, on her last trip, had seen. 

Perhaps there had been such beauty surrounding her, she’d regretted not having bought the masks earlier. Or perhaps she’d been glad, in a way, to have the blurredness earlier, and to have the clarity only come at the end. A moment of sheer beauty, overcoming all the blurredness of before. Perhaps she’d felt such sorrow and longing mixed, it was all she could do not to be seized with that charge of feeling, dive under, and never come back. “Every day I discover more and more beautiful things,” Monet had said, that famously near-blind painter, who avoided cataract surgery because of the need to convalesce in total darkness for ten days. “It’s enough to drive one mad.” That’s true for me, at times, and nowhere more true than underwater. But not always. Certainly not always. When I wake to the struggle, I remember he also wrote: “I’m not performing miracles, I’m using up and wasting a lot of paint.”

So much of what I’d accomplished felt like wasting paint, but not this. This, in a way, felt like a newness, a fresh ability to see. I wrote back to the woman that I wanted the goggles, and immediately, she agreed to send them. After thanking her, I asked what I could pay. She said she wanted nothing, but that felt an unfair bargain. We agreed on postage. 

In a few days, the box with the masks arrived. I took them out and put them on, first one, then the other. Against my cheekbones, their plastic felt hard and rough, and yet had a sturdiness I appreciated. It felt like containment, but a different sort than what the wetsuit had provided; the sort that contained my eyes rather than my body; that would sharpen my will, or give it clarity. Before things came too close, I’d be more likely able to see them: the swing of a propeller, the hurl of a fishing line, the scoop of another arm, slapping mine. 

Certainly, it would be an improvement over the greenish blur that typically met me. I’d feel steadier, better able to assess danger, take the measure of things. Not only danger, of course—I hoped I’d be able to see the beauty of things better, to catch the precise tentacles of the white jellyfish, to see the details of the minnows near shore.

“What are those for?” Sophie asked me, age nine, when she saw the goggles.

I told her about the dead woman. Without hesitating, she said it was creepy. I asked if she wanted to try them on, and she said she didn’t, certainly not. She squealed at the thought of seeing through a dead woman’s eyes; using what a dead woman had used. 

“It’s like eating from a dead person’s plate,” she said, with an uncomfortable laugh.

If it had been her, asked if she wanted the goggles, she definitely would have refused.

In a way, it was creepy, I thought. But so too was all this living. So too was motherhood. So many bonds, invisible and seen, so much kaleidoscopic changing, as we turn into one another, out of one another, out of ourselves. So much struggling for closeness, for the right sort of distance that would let us all our physical and mental homes. 


  • Rebecca Givens Rolland is the author of The Art of Talking with Children (HarperOne, 2022), a nonfiction parenting/education book, as well as three poetry collections. She won the Dana Award in Short Fiction, and her fiction has been published in journals including Michigan Quarterly Review, Slice, Lilith, and the Lilith anthology Frankly Feminist. She has an MFA in Fiction from Lesley University as well as an EdD from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her novella series involving AI and robotics is forthcoming from Gemma Open Door.

  • Photos of the water and sunset in Buzzards Bay, a bay in Massachusetts that contains osprey but no buzzards. Photos from WM Robinson.