Swimming the Knife Edge by The Elaborate Swimmer

IMG_8691-4 The Elaborate Swimmer - I face life with strength and beauty, creativity and fearlessness.

Cold. Knives. Edges. Water. Creativity. Pushing limits, pushing boundaries. Why do we do what we do? In this strikingly creative and powerful piece by the South African native and now Scottish Highlands resident, The Elaborate Swimmer takes us on her journey from cold to creativity and the power of the extreme to bring us into sharp reality with ourselves and inner worlds. Inspiring, magnificent, brave, beautiful and woman, I hope you revel in The Elaborate Swimmer's inner freedom and wild vision of the world as much as I do. Find The Elaborate Swimmer on Instagram @the_elaborate_swimmer

Swimming the Knife Edge

by The Elaborate Swimmer

I was looking, searching for a new and fresh horizon. I grew up wild, barefoot, insect-stung, snake-bitten under the searing sun of inland, high veld South Africa.

It wasn't enough. I knew I needed to find snow, sound out the high mountains and descend to the vast sea. First in the Alps, and then in Scotland, I sought out ice, snow, and the freezing cold. I climbed the peaks, the valleys, the arêtes and felt powerfully drawn to the knife-edges – those narrow, thrilling and testing places and situations that absorbed all of my focus and energy into a single point of risk and suffering. These knife-edges became a core driver of my imagination – the focus shut out all the other noise and distraction of life and I always emerged with my mind cleared of the junk obscuring my thoughts. These places on the edge became my doorways to new and exciting creativity.
Mer de Glacé (Sea of Ice), Chamonix, France: I sought out ice, snow, freezing cold...to the knife-edges, those narrow, thrilling and testing places....

That's how it began, high in the mountains. But, I couldn't stay there forever – it became relatively inaccessible and, like anything in life, I became less satisfied the more I exposed myself to it. The more I climbed and looked down, I realized I wanted a new frontier hidden from view. That's when my love affair with wild swimming started.

I became enchanted by the power of the murky depths.

Imagine yourself standing at the shore of a loch, looking into the mirror-glass water... what do you see? We all see something different. I see a world all of my own unfolding before my eyes, every ripple, every rock holds beauty and I long to be a part of this watery landscape, to be absorbed into it. To swim with the sway of the seaweed as it ebbs and flows. To pick the shells and make a necklace with their shapes, to remind me of this brief fleeting moment in time, a unique beautiful moment all my own with the taste of salt on my lips and my eyes stinging just a little. Salt in the eyes does wonders to blur the senses, to numb the mind, to quieten this crazy world for a single instant.
I've always been this way, a lover of clothing, textiles and fashion...

I feel at peace here with a seagull or two and a few crabs.

But I had to find a way, a way to endure the loch's icy spell. For seven years I felt cold. It wasn't until I shifted my perception and I changed my view of the loch, of the sea, of myself…. Suddenly, it was no longer cold. Mind over matter works. It allows you to surprise yourself. I never knew I could endure the cold water until I did. I like to think most things begin with our imagination and in turn we limit or free ourselves by how we bridle or let loose that imagination. I imagined the loch like a warm bath. I challenged myself to take the plunge. It's not denial of reality but rather, as I like to say, "flowering the truth". I like to let my mind and imagination run wild by not only conjuring up fantasy but also living it.

I'm determined to face life with strength and beauty - through creativity and fearlessness. The knife-edge is a means for me to access parts of myself that are not always readily accessible. Those great sunken rifts of the mind.
...as our worlds locked-down and narrowed-in, the usual occasions dried up... the occasion became my swimming
"One man's junk is another man's treasure…" just as one person's hardship is another's joy. Life is continually filled with two sides of a coin. We experience utter joy and sometimes simultaneously we experience quite the opposite. Life can be filled to the brim with traumatic experiences - and yet sometimes, woven beautifully through there is a glimmering silver lining. I think of this polarity as the human condition that we all experience this in some shape or form, to a greater or lesser extent. The funny thing is for one person, hardship might be something as trivial as chipped nail polish whilst another it can be not winning a race – it's all subjective and I always think that no-one should ever be quick to judge someone else's perceived woes as trivial. 

As each person's path is unique, we all have our own demons to deal with, however real or even imagined, as we see fit. By facing our unique hardships and fears, I believe we can overcome them and come out stronger. We have all heard this a thousand times and yet putting it into practice is another story.

Facing the knife-edge is the only way. It's not an easy path, but a good one and sometimes the only one..

Cold swimming...has become a pathway and outlet to my wild, creative side.

Wild swimming entails elements of pain and pleasure, injury and recovery. The poignant mental aspect of swimming that requires embracing the cold shock fascinates me. Cold water swimming is currently on trend and recognised as both addictive and beneficial for physical and mental health. It's a direct route to suffering and yet we seek it out and adapt to it. The body embraces the cold and one can swim and glide through this beautifully lucid liquid, transparent-blue or peat-soaked plasma.

As athletes know training brings strength through the little micro-injuries caused by the body working towards a goal. The body learns, recovers, grows and comes out stronger. It's a simple concept really; pushing through a little bit of pain results on the other side in being fitter, leaner and, as they say in the mountains, harder to kill… 
The poignant mental aspect of swimming that requires embracing the cold shock fascinates me.

As free agents we have the choice to decide how we want to live - do we want to be like the ostrich and avoid those things that we find uncomfortable, challenging or even terrifying?

For me, it is the facing of these very things that is the wonderful pathway to releasing so much, both physically and creatively… Cold swimming gives me the same clarity of thought (I call it oblivion) that I first experienced on the knife-edge in the mountains. From this oblivion springs an intense creative pulse. It's different for everyone - some people have to play the black and white keys of a piano - I have to wallow or dive into freezing water to play my tune. 

And for me, it has become a pathway and outlet to my wild, creative side.

Transforming to mermaid transports me directly into the world of fantasy and I feel closer to the great mysteries of life....Photo: Jessica Crighton

In this day and age, ironically we are more connected than ever yet we often feel more disconnected from things that make us feel alive. After spending endless hours on screens, now more than ever we need to reconnect to the natural world. For me, water is a direct tactile route to nature. Not only do I connect in the water but I thrive both creatively and physically in this medium. Pushing boundaries of how long and how cold helps me make that profound connection. 

The body responds to and is stimulated by cold water. All this is medically-proven. Cold water causes the immune system to reboot, the mind to clear and a small injury produced (my skin goes red like a lobster, showing the stimulation). As I ascend out of the water, rising like some biblical prophet, I feel reborn, stronger and ready to face what life throws at me. The age-old phrase, "the stronger the wind, the stronger the tree," comes to mind. And the creative juices flow….

My transition from swimming to now "swimming elaborately" was not a conscious epiphany. I did not wake up one morning and decide suddenly to bestow an elaborate headdress on my head - adorned with sequins and shell crowns. I've always been this way, a lover of clothing, textiles and fashion... I'm an avid mud-larker, a collector of lace, shells, rocks, twigs, and somehow without an absolute plan I started arranging them, arranging them for whatever occasion came next. And then this year, as our worlds locked-down and narrowed-in, the usual occasions dried up. So it was simple - the occasion became my swimming.

Entering the cold water has become a sacred ritual for me and I meet the occasion elaborately dressed. Photo: Jen Deschenes

For me some of the best things in life are when I start a creative process and I let something higher take over. It's like starting a painting with an idea in your head as to how it will look, and more often than not the best parts are the little accidents of paint when your paintbrush has just the right shade of red merging into blue. Things you can't plan or wholly control are the best. The combination of the icy water, envisaging a scene in my mind and then living that same scene as an image, I couldn't resist! 

Consequently, I went from swimming often, whenever I could in whatever puddle Scotland had to offer (and there are many), to finding joy in wearing different outfits to the occasion. Entering the cold water has become a sacred ritual for me and I meet the occasion elaborately dressed. I meet my watery loch in a new way, not just neoprene-clad- but rather with my hand-made ideas - from my colourful headdresses to spangly swimwear. I started making crowns with shells and objects found on the shoreline, often giving them to friends for a laugh. From there I thought, why not create something more, something bold. When I create outfits and wear them swimming, I like to think of it as honouring the Water Gods out there – the nyami nyami in Zimbabwe, a serpent-god, the selkies of Shetland, or Poseidon himself. I pay homage to them every time I enter their realm. It's a realm of nudibranchs and the funniest creatures you ever did see. The Corryvreckan whirlpool will take you down to Davy Jones like it has many a little boat. All the maritime and naval stories, true and elaborated, are all part of a great watery collective awash in my psyche – a collective of most fantastical and beautiful tales – Captain Nemo, A Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Moby Dick – so many swashbuckling pirates and goddesses, Odysseus and Calypso…
Not only do I connect in the water but I thrive both creatively and physically in this medium. Photo: Jessica Crighton

Sometimes I dress in a simple bikini. Lately I am a mermaid, my costumes more elaborate and embellished. Transforming to mermaid transports me directly into the world of fantasy and I feel closer to the great mysteries of life that elude us all. And the realisation of the importance of living the "now."

Diving into the sea or loch, I find myself quickly on that narrow ridgeline, the knife-edge, focusing and clearing my mind of the daily troubles and hubbub, and yearning for and bringing that connection to my creative fantasy.

I embrace the now.

I swim that knife-edge.
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Monday, 06 December 2021

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