Blog 2

7 Things I Learned When I Swam 1.2 Miles Across Cayuga Lake with 349 Women


1.     Swimming is Not Biking

Last summer I soared along familiar roads, past alpacas whose long necks swung in my direction as I rode by, like weather vanes in shifting wind. Past the house with the big dog and the little dog, reliably annoyed by my return. Past the old man sitting on his porch whose raised hand seemed to want to ask a question rather than wave hello. Past the barn and field with horses grazing and a scent of honeysuckle and fresh hay.

I'd fly down the steep slope of Bates road, letting the brakes go –

Just to feel the past shrinking behind me.

Just to push through the blur.

Just to feel alive.

But if I'd known what was up ahead, I might have slowed down. I might have braked.

2.  Floating is Not Training

I'd meet my friend Kate at Seneca Lake for "training." "I've been jumping rope," she'd say. "I've been riding my bike," I'd proudly reply. "We should probably be swimming," we'd agree. Then we'd sit and stare out at the shimmering lake before us. After a while sitting would get too hot and only then we'd dive in and swim out just to where the water cooled. And then, we'd float. When we finished floating we'd swim back in and lay on the warm, smooth stones, letting the sun sparkle across us as we shared stories and wine under the yellow July sky.

3.  The Wayback Still Sucks

No day that begins by telling yourself - vomiting is not an option, ever gets much better. Clutching my lime green swim cap and goggles, as I sweated in my tankini, I looked out the sealed bus window at the dawn. There was zero airflow. Seated in the wayback of the bus, a blend of nausea, claustrophobia and anxiety percolated. I'd gotten only a few hours of sleep, being jarred awake by the knowledge that I was barely prepared to swim across a kiddy pool, let alone a Finger Lake. What was I thinking? I listened to the giddy conversations of the other women on the bus. They all looked like Olympians.

I pictured being yanked from the middle of the lake by a team of rescuers and then brought by boat to where these women would be celebrating their rather easy victory. They'd look down upon me with pity, whispering, "what was she thinking."

"You ok?" The Olympian next to me asked. “Listen,” she said, “don't worry.” “Everyone's nervous and you're never as slow as you think." I tried to smile and nod but the air was now completely stagnant. An air conditioner hung behind us, mute and apparently broken.

I was carsick all the time as a child. My parents had a gigantic station wagon and I used to ride in what was known as the wayback. Seat belts were optional it was the 1970's. Children just rolled around in cars and were completely free to make faces and obscene gestures out the back window.

And here I was, a grown woman stuck again in the wayback with no escape. And like back then, I had to pee.

But just as I was about to lose it in at least three different ways, we arrived at the lake.  The bus jerked to a stop as the air conditioner finally blasted on.

4. Sometimes You Are as Slow as You Think

I don't know what I was expecting but it wasn't a bagpipe player by the port-a-potty. Nor was it a ramp descending into the lake like handicap accessible drowning. I had imagined holding hands with Kate and ceremoniously jumping off a pristine dock amid cheers. But before I knew it my group number was being shouted and it was time to head down the suicide ramp. Staring across the lake was like looking down from a great height, the other side was dizzyingly far away. If I was about to board a boat and be shuttled across, I might have second thoughts. But this was no time for wimping out. 

Immediately, I was alone in the water. There were no traces of my group. It was as if they had all been secretly given underwater spy gear to stealthily propel themselves, James Bond style, across the lake. I swam breaststroke until I got a little winded and turned over on my back. That was my plan. I’d go as far as I could and then float a bit on my back to rest. But as I flipped over I saw that I was only feet away from where I started. New groups of women were now entering, and passing me. I tried not to panic. A man in a kayak appeared beside me. "How you doing?" He asked. "Oh you know, awesome, just taking a breather."

Tom became my guardian kayaker angel. He encouraged me to rest, he kept me on track when the current picked up. He reassured me that the second half would be easier. He told me I could do it. And I believed him. The more I swam the more my body gave into the rhythm. Stroke, breath, stroke, breath.

And then, I was in the middle of the lake. “Look at how far you’ve come.” Tom said. “You should check out the sky.” Dark cloud formations were punctured by gold light. I remembered why I was swimming. It wasn’t for me. It was for her. For Phyllis. The elegant woman who wore gold and loved my father.

Our human experience will leave no trace. A whale blinks and we become extinct. But on that day when 350 women swam together across Cayuga Lake, we remembered the dead. We swam for them. A melted glacier became our abyss of grief. Perhaps on that day, the dead remembered us too.  

I remembered Phyllis, and I did something unexpected. Instead of swimming forward, I took a deep breath and I dove down into another world. A world carved out as effortlessly as a child’s finger in wet sand. Where massive sturgeon lurked, like scaly gods in a starless sky.

I pushed down through the water until my ears throbbed. It was there, in that cold instant that the words strength and wisdom appeared in my mind like an etching. Strength and wisdom, a message from a murky depth.

I heaved my body up towards the light.

I felt my past shrinking behind me.

I pushed through the blur.

I felt alive.

5. Saving Someone Saves You

"Doing ok?" Tom asked. "Yep," I managed but then realized he wasn't talking to me. I spotted a swim cap and goggles. Judy was a little disoriented and Tom asked if we'd swim together so he could keep us both on track. I swam up to her and told her we got this. We'd stop a lot and encourage each other and laugh at the absurdity of where we found ourselves. After a while when we stopped we heard music. We looked towards the shore and we could make out crowds of people. In a burst of adrenaline and endorphins we blissfully swam forward. We thanked Tom and said goodbye. I thought I’d see him again on shore but I never did. Judy got out before me and by the time I climbed the ladder to the dock she had disappeared into the crowd. We didn't know what the other looked like, our heads had been masked by goggles and a swim cap and our bodies and bathing suits by the lake. I never saw her again.

6. We Do Things for the Living

As I climbed out of the lake I instantly missed the solitude of the water, the gentle lapping in my ear, the peaceful rhythm of the current, my breath and heartbeat. I missed looking to make sure Judy’s swim cap was in view and the safety I felt knowing Tom was close. On land it was much louder and more complicated, my body wobbled and I wondered if I could walk. I stood on the dock shaking as a kind looking woman smiled widely at me. She wore a plastic poncho and held out her arms. She hugged every dripping wet swimmer. "Thank you," she said as I cried.

They had run out of towels to wrap swimmers, which meant that I had to walk in my tankini and in front of photographers and hoards of people. Normally, this would be a nightmare scenario. But at that moment I was proud of my quivering, exhausted, waterlogged body. At the end of the dock was my son, Riley. And when I reached him he said words back to me I've only ever told him before, "I'm proud of you."

The next day I called my dad to tell him about the swim. We talked for longer than usual, bringing up all our favorite topics and laughing and reminiscing about Phyllis. It was the last time I'd ever talk to my dad. He died three days later.

7.  I Got This

It’s been almost a year since my first time swimming across the lake. I’m biking the familiar roads again. I notice new things. A house has been painted blue. A tree lost a large limb. A new dog sits on a porch. I ride to the top of Bates road and let the brakes go. The wind brings tears but I don't brake. I don't know what's up ahead, but I know I can face it. I’ve found my strength. For now -

I just want to keep feeling my past shrinking behind me.

I want to keep pushing through the blur.

I want to keep living.


Post swim. Still standing!


The Best and The Worst

So I just checked and it appears 2016 is almost over. For real. Thus begins the predictable deluge of The Best and The Worst. Resolutions will be made and broken. (Seriously, I am quitting eating. I’m done. I will survive on anxiety alone. Which has me thinking, if anxiety were a flavor, what would it taste like? I’m leaning towards Martini olives but could be persuaded by rhubarb.) I digress. As midnight hauntingly sings 2016 farewell, all us still left alive will have the opportunity to embrace a new beginning. Every year I happily welcome this tradition. This year I am grabbing it by the balls and yanking it in the door. Brace yourself 2017, I am not messing around anymore. 


2016 changed me. And not the shiny kind of I Only Eat Kale Now change. If there were an emoji to represent profound loss I’d use it, but the cute yellow face with ridiculous streaming tears doesn’t cut it. This year I learned that crying is ugly. I’m talking face contortions, gushing snot and loud snorting. That’s crying. I thought 2016 turned sour when David Bowie died. Ha. I was just a crazy kid back then. Still, I paid tribute as meaningfully as I could. I slicked back my hair and danced and drank with fabulous friends -spitting out the lyrics to Five Years as if it were truly “all we got.” Then I hit repeat with Prince. And Leonard Cohen. A trifecta of nostalgic rebellion. And now Carrie Fisher adds to the list of idols from my youth, now dead. But in truth the famous who touch our lives are strangers, we mourn them with yearning.

And I’m not even getting into politics, because, you know.

This year I entered through a series of doors that led me to a darker back room. I didn’t realize how alone I could feel until the door of that last room slammed shut. It’s suffocating. More than once I found myself heaving on the ground, like I’d been spat out by my human form and become something alien, no longer able to breath oxygen. Or walk. Just a heap of pain and anxiety. Hint of rhubarb.

One moment I had a father. The next I didn’t. And that was my Worst moment of 2016. Also my life. My dad was my person. The pretty park ranger with the brutal task of informing a daughter and grandson they had lost their dad and grandpa only had to say two words – “he didn’t…” That was enough for my world to cave in as I nodded my head.   We said goodbye and I rolled up the car window. I clutched the steering wheel. I drank water. I breathed in and out. I drove. I stopped for gas. I pulled out my credit card to pay. I listened to the GPS and did what it told me to do. I turned left. I drove farther. I breathed some more. Those were the hardest tasks of my life. My son kept asking, “you OK Ma?” “Nope,” I’d respond, and we’d laugh a little. Those tiny exchanges saved me.

The most surreal fact has been that everything just continues as it always has. I am in the world, each day, my hands wash the dishes, hug my son, hold my husband, cook and teach and create. I brush my hair. I dream and I wake and watch the light through the trees. I splash water on my face, smell the peppermint soap. I slurp my coffee loudly. I open a new book with excitement. My son and husband make me laugh. I drive to the store and back. I love my Dad. Just as always. I gaze into my hands and traces of him are there, along with all my ancestors. Like a secret map, leading…to some ancient beginning of who I am as this moment continues. As I sit here writing these words in the blue velvet chair my Dad loved and his Dad loved and well, now I love, and my son and husband love too.

And that is how it will always be, until I die. And then I’ll be a line in my son’s hand. But for now, I hold his hand when he’ll still let me. Because he’s getting older you know. And so am I. And you too.

And all these small moments – all the ones that are not The Worst. All the moments that do not punch you in the gut and knock the breath out of you. Those moments? They are ALL The Best. They are Living. They are LIFE. The opposite of death. They save us.

Happy New Year to All!


Cue Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.

Centrifugal Force

Centrifugal force: an object traveling in a circle behaves as if it is experiencing an outward force.

Clay and turpentine. Smells of my childhood. A stuttering girl with long braids and a red skateboard. I’d sail up and down the polished concrete floors of Studio West as if its cavernous classrooms and halls were my personal playground. They were. While my father taught his students to make prints, the other art professors became my babysitters, the classrooms my playrooms. My favorite, the pottery studio.  If I was lucky I’d be handed my own hunk of fresh clay, its coolness and weight a reliable comfort in my small hands. The clay smelled like ancient earth, drudged up from beneath spongy forests and black rivers, where brainless creatures tunnel in darkness, tiny miners of air.

As the clay spun under the dewy nest of my palms, it warmed and softened, as if a large stone could melt under human pressure. I’d dip my thumbs into the center and a mysterious force would widen and transform the mound, again and again.  The rise and fall of a thousand worlds. The clay was a living thing. It breathed through my fingertips, morphing through a lifecycle – beyond larva into…what? Who knew? I sat happily at the wheel until thick grey liquid dripped down my arms and coated my saddle shoes.

Soon my family, like poorly thrown clay on a wheel, would form an abnormality, wobble and tear apart. “A broken home,” people used to say, and I’d imagine little clay people and a little clay house shattered on the floor.

Years later, a Master Potter would lean over the soggy disaster on my pottery wheel and advise, “sometimes you just have to give up, the clay becomes too overworked and the more you try the worse it gets.” My parents divorced and slid down into what seemed to be some great chasm, an invisible hole where I could still hear their voices and feel their presence, but they were out of reach. We were broken.

I shifted silently back and forth between new families like a ghost. I suddenly had brothers and a sister, a new step-mother, a new step-father. It was as if these strangers had been hiding in our attic all along, waiting for us to break so they could finally come down and put their things inside our dresser drawers and closets. At dinners with the new step-strangers I was always asked how my day was. “Ffffine,” I’d say. Always fine. Nothing more. I never touched clay again.

Not until last month.

I have tried to keep my own family, my husband and son, cocooned from the betrayals of my youth. I’ve carefully worked the clay of my adult life, methodically spinning it into something beautiful, laws of gravity holding us down, but also together. My own universe, perfectly and inexplicably orbiting a single star. No abnormalities. No wobbles or tears. But sometimes a meteor can come out of nowhere and just like that, you’re extinct.

Not a deathly meteor, but a streaking star crossed time and landed into my hands, cool and dense.  Still so familiar. The smell alone instantly tugging my memory like my once toddler son tugging at my jeans, “Over here Mamma, remember this? Come on, this way! Remember how much we used to love this?”

I held the clay in my hands, a lost grey bird had navigated its way back. As it began to spin, a gush of images surged from my fingertips to my mind. My hands are once again a little girl’s, the clay full of wonder. Possibilities boundless as behind a child’s closed eyes. My foot barely reaches the petal of the wheel. Black and white saddle shoes and tights smudged grey. Flying on my red skateboard. Hanging from my father’s pants leg, laughing, I climb him like a mountain, I pull at his beard, he kisses my hand, tickles me until I fall still laughing onto his paint splattered studio floor. Drying prints hang everywhere. All around me wet ink, tubes of oil paints ooze every shade of meadows, wild orange skies, chrysanthemums and lilys. I look back down at my hands, now adult. All they have created and touched and held since then. Half a lifetime of sensations, hands held, hands let go.

I glanced up at my new pottery classmates and wondered what their stories were, some had that same hypnotic look above the spinning wheel, maybe they had come home too.

The Master Potter quietly stood behind me, then he bent over my wheel, placed his purposeful hands over mine. “Do not hesitate” he said, and pressed his palms down over my hands, then expertly guided me to push the clay up into an obelisk, which formed a little cloud on top, “force the abnormalities up to the top, pinch them off, then guide the clay back down and it will be centered.” He pinched off the little cloud which held the abnormalities within it like rain, and then his thumbs confidently pressed the clay down into a perfectly symmetrical form, a dome with its top removed, ready, centered. I never had a formal lesson as a child and now I realized  that this act of centering the clay, forcing the abnormalities out so it can become a thing of beauty, no wobbles, no tears, is what I had been trying to do my whole life.

A week later I got a stomach ache as I was heading to bed. An hour later I began violently throwing up.  By midnight I told my husband that I may need to go to the ER. “Food poisoning,” he announced after googling vomitting and stomach cramps, not hiding the knowledge in his face that I am prone to hyperbole, “you’ll feel better in ten hours.” Ten hours, I thought, I’ll be dead by then. But maybe I was being dramatic, no one dies from throwing up, maybe food poisoning feels this bad. By 3:00 AM I was laying on the cool white tile of our bathroom floor muttering helplessly to myself. “Just make it stop,” I whispered to the air, to no one. The Universe had gone silent. My husband had gone back to bed, my son slept peacefully in the next room. I breathed in, breathed out. That was all I had left in my lonely nightmare on the cold floor, “breathe,” I think I said out loud, “you’re alive.” My abdomen heaved outward like a yeasty loaf of bread in a hellish oven. I waited to feel better, waited for ten hours to pass.

But morning brought no comfort. The pale light shone spectral and horrid. Had I really been vomitting the entire night? I shut my eyes and tried to remember the day before. Reading in the velvet blue chair by the wood stove, roasting a chicken with onions and purple carrots, parallelograms of light gliding across the walls as leaves crackled outside, Fall air crisp and sweet as apples. Had I realized how extraordinary that day had been? All days seemed to now lead to this moment. Had I appreciated all that beauty? I remembered my pottery class. The nostalgic and dizzying spin of the wet clay beneath my fingers, diving my thumb into the center and watching a bowl open up, fold in, grow into a goblet, “I made something!” I had boasted excitedly before it wobbled and collapsed back into a mushy heap. I hadn’t mastered centering yet, and now, would I ever?

Twelve hours later my inflamed and infected appendix was removed. “You were lucky,” the doctors all said. I lay in a hospital bed as an imaginary hand gently shut my eyes, an imaginary voice told me I was more than fine. I had always been more than fine. I was alive. The murderous nausea was gone and I slept as if sleep was all there was.

When I awoke I thought of the clay the potter had centered beneath my hands. Then, although it almost hurt to do it, I smiled. What if all my internal abnormalities had been pushed to my appendix, and then snipped off just like that tiny cloud above the obelisk of clay? What if I could now live life without hesitation, without wobbling, without breaking. What if I was centered, poised to transform, to become, to create. What if I was fixed? I felt the great spin of a potter’s wheel within my pulsing heart.

© Laura P. Reid 2018