It all started when I ran into Inner Vision Ocean Swimming instructor and visionary Bob MacLean, in Reliable Market. Bob’s got just about the best guru-ship going because he focuses all his energy on getting folks to jump in the water and splash around. He also teaches about the breath and endurance and how to improve your stroke, and a bunch of philosophical stuff — but the jump and splash is the basic protocol.
A daily jump and splash will save you from all your demons, and more people saved from their demons will save the world.
And why the ocean? Well, not only did we (meaning our amoebic ancestors) crawl out of the sea, but we were never meant to stray far from it. The whole idea was to come home for constant dips, because guess what? The sea is still our refuge from the rough-and-tumble terra out there.
That’s why we vacation close to water, why artists paint it and writers so often set their dramas by the shore. Away from water, we’re lost, disheveled, making hashes of plans and people, popping pills and shopping in a hopeless search for equilibrium.
So we take ourselves down to the sea. Float on our backs. Saline and water blend as an antidote for gravity as you gently disconnect from the earth. Sunshine settles over your floating parts — face, hands, knees and feet. Cue the gull with its slow curve downward, wings in a ballerina’s port du bras. Saltwater washes away all the itches, aches and bruises — man oh man, could the Great Planner have performed any better for us, providing this perfect healing baptismal font?
Once you’re in, you require little direction (unless Bob is guiding you to friend the currents or release yourself from fear of sharks or jellyfish or World War II unexploded ordnance). You swim parallel to the shore; breaststroke this way, then shift over to your good old Australian crawl the other. Again, you flop over on your back and relinquish all those loose ends that you’d managed to tie up in snarled knots. The knots surge loose on their own, free, lost, forgotten, just the way a tangle of seaweed slowly disengages from a buoy.
So now, by the high bread shelf in Reliable, Bob asks if I’m swimming. Well, no, I admit. It’s part of the human condition to avoid what’s good for us because . . . we’re busy with that old dance called the day-to-day cha cha, and frankly, we’re lazy. He invites me to try a vigorous swim from one pier in Eastville Beach to another. I tell him that when it comes to aquatic sports, I’m a wimp.
“Well,” he sighs, “Call me if you want to un-wimp.”
What a concept! Of course I want to un-wimp! Everyone wants to un-wimp!
So we meet one recent Monday at 7:30 a.m. at Inkwell Beach. Buff, handsome Bob with his shock of gray-blond hair greets me. Also on deck for an Inner Vision quest is a mild-mannered guy named Hans, originally from Sweden, followed by two polite, tanned, brown-haired kids from Framingham. Albert is 10, and Gabrielle, 13, is on her school swim team.
Wispy clouds cross the sun to create dizzy light amid shadows over water and sand — where are the impressionist painters when you need them? Never mind, there’s an artist right down by the jetty with his easel set up to face the opposite shore.
Art is mostly what you think of here, for as the day goes on, the Inkwell fills with a tableau of people, umbrellas, CD players omphing bass notes to describe the motion of kids throwing balls and women both slim and every other shape, rising from blankets in bikinis, some memorably gorgeous. This scene is what Satie had in mind when he wrote Trois Morceau en Forme de Poire, and what Seurat demonstrated in his style of tiny dots for the mural, Promenade Sur Le Grande Jette (more familiar to us as the Broadway musical Sunday In The Park With George).
Back to that Monday at the Inkwell With Bob. One of the Polar Bear ladies wants to know what Bob and his little band is doing there. “We have our own instructor!” she says.
I square off against this indomitable force to convince her we will move down the beach, we have no intention of getting in her way. Finally I put a hand on her shoulder and say gently, “You’re a little irritable today.”
“I am not irritable!” she stoutly maintains.
Later, down the beach, Bob urges his four pupils to dive straight into the water. “I recommend immediate immersion!”
Kids first, then Bob and Hans and I all arch, face forward, into the drink like a pod of dolphins. Immersion indeed! That’s some cold ocean, I think, even for the start of August. But the awe quickly follows the shock, and we’re stroking and splashing, as happy as we’ll ever be in our lives.
Bob recommends that we buy goggles. “I want you to see everything, in the water and out of the water, at all times!”
He lets me try his. They’re small and blue, kind of cool, but I’d rather see my vie en rose. With Bob’s peepers, I see blue seaweed, blue rocks, blue swirls of sand and the blue legs of other swimmers.
Ever since that lesson, I’ve been bursting to get back to my local beach, just a few blocks down the street from where I live. But stuff intervenes: Work, chores, considerations of not wanting my hair to look even worse than it does already, my dog hates it when I enter any body of water because his breed climbed down from a tree of non-swimmers. Also, no time for the mandatory after-swim shower, a shark was spotted off the coast of Menemsha and I’ve got to bake a cake for a friend’s birthday.
You know how it goes.
Still, I’m thrilled to have discovered the secret to happiness: A dip in the sea! And it’s just down the street, no more than a few miles distance from anyone living or visiting on the Vineyard.
As a sign in an Oak Bluffs souvenir store reads: The sea fixes everything!
I’ll buy the sign if I don’t get a chance to get a swim in.
Gazette contributor Holly Nadler lives in Oak Bluffs.