Leaving Edinburgh was not easy – in one day I’d seen enough to fall in love with the city’s glorious stone buildings, urban mountain, royal and postage-stamp gardens, and friendly people – but I took a great and shamelessly touristy thrill in riding a real British double-decker bus to the train station.
I’d been hoping to find a congenial – and informed – seatmate for the four-hour ScotRail ride to the North….and glory be, next to me settled a delightfully acerbic elder lady from Inverness, who’d been taking the North/South ride throughout her life. Together we entertained a young mother’s active toddler, while my companion shared her memories, gave history lessons about landmarks, clued me in to differences between British and American English, and dished gossip about the royal family and their Balmoral Castle, far over the snow-clad peaks of the Cairngorms to the east.
By the time we were approaching Inverness and passengers were lining up to use the lavatory, she was telling hilarious tales about the tourists who invariably couldn’t figure out how to close the compartment door. When my turn came, and I was equally baffled, she gestured with hands and eyes from her seat as other passengers hid their smiles. I followed her not-exactly unobtrusive pointing, and sure enough, there was the button, just as well-hidden as she’d warned. What a relief!
The train station in Nairn was a mile’s stroll from the home of my AirBnB hostess, the “Swan Woman of Nairn”…healer, artist, photographer, Renaissance woman….and the evening that followed, of touring the town and gathering with her friends in an impromptu wise women’s circle, was magical.
My hostess asked as I was settling in for the night, “Would you like to come for a dip in the sea with me tomorrow morning?” I gasped – the winds that day had been frigid, and the next day’s temperature was predicted to drop into the 30s ! This was her normal practice, she added, smiling, and her guests often found it a profound experience. “No expectations, no pressure,” she added, and bade me goodnight.
Next morning dawned cloudy and as cold as expected, but we sallied out, she jogging ahead, I photographing as I moseyed along, soaking in the beauty of the place. She’d told me the stories of the swans nesting in the river…how she and a friend had saved a clutch of duck eggs from being swept away in a flood…and shared her wonder at seeing the tide coming into the River Nairn as if to meet her on her way to the ocean. I crossed the bridge, passed the trailer – caravan – park, and came to the dunes…and she came to meet me as I topped the hill.
“There are fishermen up the beach, so if you’d rather not undress, that’s fine,” she said tactfully, noting my pulled-down hat and hands tucked inside the sleeves of my thin Gore-tex jacket. “You can shelter here by the pier while I get ready and go in.” Teeth chattering, I nodded gratefully and watched in awe as she slipped out of her jogging suit and shoes, pinned up her hair, and walked serenely barefoot down the beach to the water’s edge. She lay down in the shallow surf, rose, and walked in to waist-height, dipped, emerged, and returned to dry land.
She smiled at my wide eyes and said, “It’s simple. When I lie down in the water, I feel my connection to the land, the water, and the air. I focus on that connection; the more connected I feel, the less I feel the cold.”
I closed my eyes and breathed in her words, remembering my husband’s experience at his third Lakota Sundance ceremony: offering his chest for piercing in giveaway as Traditional intercessor Elmer Running struggled to cut through his skin to insert an eagle’s talon, telling him, “Pray harder! Pray harder!” He hadn’t felt the pain, he said; he was lost in an trance of connection with cosmic Oneness. I’d gone half-expecting to witness macho stoicism or Spanish-Baroque grotesquery, the piety of pain, and there I found him describing transcendent ecstasy.
And here, halfway around the world, was this wisewoman, embracing a habit I’d read of stereotypical Englishmen of the old public-school military sort practicing – but driven not by sacrifice or macho discipline but that same transcendent connection.
Opening my eyes, I turned, walked down to the water, stooped down and held my hands in the receding ice-cold surf as my own homage to nature. A rogue wave rushed up, splashed around my galoshes and soaked my socks, and I laughed in surprise and delight.
And we went back to the house for breakfast.