The day after that mist and magic swim I had a quite different morning that started with pink dawn and became leaden-skied grey with soft mild air. My river swim was as invigorating as the previous day’s but not nearly as beautiful, with one exception: there were wild rose petals drifting along in the water, bright patches of pink on the silvery-grey-brown surface, little travelling companions as I stroked along slowly.
And on every subsequent morning my swim was distinctive - always a mix of soft mild water and chilly cold - and always a pleasure, but each day different. Now, this afternooon, as I sit in Halifax airpot wating for my flight to Toronto, I can picture each of them, like a small short film of body sensations and moving images.
And the same goes for the other hours in my days.
On my first trip out in the boat, we left Judique port in mid-afternoon. There were some substantial swells and a wind as we headed out, but the wind gradually died down. We anchored in the lee of Port Hood Island, where the water was millpond smooth and inviting. But it sure felt cold when I dipped a foot in. I slowly inched my way into the water (as unbrave non-dive-right-in-people like me tend to do) from a ladder on the side of the boat; once I was immersed the water immediately lost its power to chill.
I tend to think of sea water and ocean swimming as very second-best compared to the lovely light slipperiness of fresh water swimming. In all that attitude I forget about the fabulous bouyancy of salt water. On that first ocean immersion, swimming around the anchored boat and drifting along on my back, and chatting and hanging, the effortlessness was a delight. And so was being able to get straight into the water from the boat rather than having to wade in from a sandy or stony shore.
We cooked fresh lightly olive-oiled scallops, just barely, on a grill on the boat, and feasted on them, with tender corn and chopped tomatoes too, as the sun disappeared behind the island and the sky paled into opalescence. And then it was time to head back to the harbour on the now-calm sea, sated.
One day we were out in the boat and saw a pod of pilot whales (which people from hereabouts call “black fish”). We thought they looked like dophins, and so they do, but they are whales, small and elegant. In the pod were two very young ones, one of them a pale grey. The whales were hanging around close together in the lee of Port Hood Island, in a shallow bay. The bigger ones would surface casually with a lovely sighing exhale, then dip below the surface, leaving a dorsal fin casually trailing above the water. They were feeding, it seems, and also teaching the young ones. And so suddenly one and then the other “baby whale” did a kind of headstand in the water, so that it could slap its tail - slap-slap-slap-slap - on the surface, before finally toppling over.
Maybe the naturalists are wrong and there was no teaching but instead just the babies goofing off. And later we were told by some experienced people that one of the whales was giving birth. Whatever the reality for the whales, it was amazing and moving to see these creatures out freely in their element, on a lovely calm day.
The next day as I slowly breast-stroked my way up the river in front of the house in the early morning I tried to imagine the feeling a whale or porpoise must have in the water. I love swimming in the river, welcome the water’s slipperiness, but I’m almost always aware that it’s an alien medium, that dry land is where I feel safest. Water is like a slightly risky treat, temporary sensual pleasure, but not home. Nor can it ever be, even when we put on mask and a tank and give ourselves the freedom to stay underwater.
Is there an analogy in other parts of life? Do we feel safer and surer in our home environment than elsewhere? Can we ever feel as secure, as grounded, in another cultural or emotional environment? If our home environment is NOT safe and secure, how do we find that feeling elsewhere?
And speaking of baby whales, I haven’t spent time with a small human baby in the last few years, and so it was a treat when, a few days into my visit, a gorgeous three-month-old came with her parents to stay with her grandmother in the house in Cape Breton. Her strong cry is firm but not really penetrating, but her gaze, her steady blue gaze, is deeply so. She’s a reminder that the person in a small child’s body is already all there. She’s going to bloom and develop in ways that show us more clearly who she is, but in fact she’s there from the start, mostly hidden from our view, except for the occasional clue, like her penetrating gaze.
We drove with the baby and her parents to Mabou market; it’s held every Sunday in a large hall. The place was filled with small stalls selling everything from produce (kale, lettuce, potatoes, fresh garlic, etc) to local sausages and meat, to locally spun and dyed wool, soap, hand-carved wooden spoons, and more. Hard to resist those spoons!
Later that afternoon as I sat writing in my airy whitewashed cosy bedroom, the day having turned grey and a little threatening, my friend C brought me a small plate of squares of local bread, each topped with bright green pesto she’d made from the garlic scapes we’d bought, a pick-me-up that jolted me from the calm of writing and back into engagement with the here and now. wowza.
On my last evening a bunch of us headed to a weekly dance at a community hall inland from Mabou. The place was packed when we got there at ten, people sitting in chairs along the walls and also at long tables at one end of the hall. At the other end, on a raised platform, were the musicians, a fiddler (in this case an ex-premier of Nova Scotia named Rodney MacDonald) and a piano player, playing and playing, as circles and lines of dancers, people of all ages and descriptions, danced their way through the measures. (Many jokes of course about whether “Rodney” is a better fiddler than politician - the answer seems to be a sure “yes!”.)
I watched and wondered and longed to dance, but couldn’t imagine how that would happen. And then a kindly older man, distantly related to my friends, asked me to pair with him for the next set (three dances in a row). What a pleasure. He’s a very good dancer, and his footwork was lovely; I managed footwork issues by retrieving steps from the highland dancing I’d done as a child, simple jig movements. And as for the larger dance patterns, they were similar to the contra-dancing I’ve done in Grey County, so suddenly I stopped worrying at all about messing up. Fun!
The big crowd made navigating a little complex at times, and the dancing formations not as tidy as they might have been, but there was good will all round, many experienced dancers, and the sure rhythm of the fiddle, to keep us sorted out. I danced the next set too, in an even larger crowd, the fiddler that time being the wonderful Kinnon Beaton.
The tunes are still echoing in my head, days later. So are the stories I heard during my stay in Cape Breton, of the flight of people from the Hebrides to the New World, of the traditions and family connections they share, of the hardships and richness of life on Cape Breton in the last two hundred years. It’s another place of complexity, dealing with plenty of outsiders like me, while holding onto a distinctive culture in a challenging world.
I’m looking forward to being back there - next year? perhaps...