You pull up to the reservoir in your Subarus, honking and shouting. It is raucous from the get-go, this group of robustly menopausal women along with a couple of gentle, sturdy men, who meet every Sunday morning to make each other laugh and dip into the frigid water.
There is gear, of course there is. Everyone has neoprene booties so your toes won’t fall off, and most people have neoprene gloves, too. Some people wear their woolly hats into the water. Beyond that, it’s a mix of fancy dry robes and shabby plaid ones, terry cloth and down and cashmere and fleece, everything shed off until it’s just bikinis and tank suits. What it looks like is a sea of thigh and boob; what it feels like is being in love.
There are ice breakers, too. Not two truths and a lie, but axes and shovels and a kettlebell on a rope. If the reservoir is frozen, then a hole must be made. You watch your friends wield their implements of destruction and thrill to their power and determination. In other words, you have about a dozen girl crushes.
“Do you think it’s the placebo effect?” someone once asked you, about the joy and health this activity brings, and you said, “I think it’s the badass effect.”
A photo must be taken so that it can be posted to your private Facebook group, so that, the minute the plunge is over, you can reminisce about how great it was. Also, if you happen to be out of town, you can scan the group’s page to experience the requisite FOMO.
On shore, still, you are dread-filled and resolute. But you learn to detach your mind from fear, and this is no small thing. Your whole life, your brain has been a generator generating preemptive anxiety and catastrophic possibility and now you stand at the water’s edge and you pull the plug on it. You hit mute on the shrieking voices of sanity and natural selection — “The water is too cold! You will die!” — so that you can wade in and, paradoxically, be well.
You used to run in and out in one fell swoop, screaming the whole time. But now you picture yourself slicing through the water like a knife’s blade, and the water is also a knife’s blade, slicing you back, and you are quietly determined. You are a quietly determined knife’s blade with, to quote Anne Lamott, thighs like white elephants. Also a bit of a beard.
Even gloved, everyone’s delicate, bony fingers are vulnerable to the cold, and so you all hold your hands up out of the water, fingers tented, like you’re praying. And it’s a kind of frigid baptism, but you’re not praying, not really, although if you were praying you would probably just pray for this. Maybe this and world peace and also a sauna on the beach and a mug of hot, spiced wine.
“It’s brisk today!” someone says, to make you laugh, and you do laugh. And you think about the way that brisk has always made you think whisk, like the metal utensil, whipping you through the slushy water into smithereens so that you have to put yourself back together again in time to do the one minute of silence, everyone in a circle, even though you might catch someone’s eye and laugh during it because of how you are.
If you plunged in the dark, you would see each other’s teeth gleaming in the moonlight, behind your massive smiles.
You don’t have kids to rush home to anymore, and so you don’t rush home. The empty nest has emptied you out into this frozen reservoir, and it’s the weirdest kind of burning-cold solace you could have imagined.
The neurochemicals hit and they are drugs, which is why this now becomes a kind of drug experience. Endorphins and dopamine and maybe, because of the massive love affair, oxytocin, too. Everyone is so beautiful! You are flooded with pleasure. If someone said, “Let’s stay in until we freeze!” you’d probably grin and say, “Okay!” There’s a little bit of danger in that, and you can feel it, so you time yourselves instead. Eight minutes.
The water will never be too cold for you to swim in, anywhere, ever again. Not in Maine in March. Not on Cape Cod in October. “This? Please!” you will say, annoyingly, everywhere you go.
You all enter the water together, sacredly, but you leave it in a trickle. A year ago, when you were mostly strangers gathered together by a mutual Facebook genius, you turned away politely to strip out of your suits on the beach. Now you peel everything off willy-nilly, talking the whole time. Your boobs flap in the icy breeze while someone tells you about a liquid foundation called Blur and you both bend over nakedly laughing, imagining the world — this world — where aging women are supposed to smudge themselves out of existence.
“Goodbye, goodbye, I love you guys!” you all shout, as you are leaving.
Back in your Subaru, you warm up again like your body is an engine designed to do exactly this, because it is. Your body is a furnace. You are warm-blooded. You are hot-blooded! Google brown fat. That’s what you’ve got now, and you are never cold anymore. Also you are never depressed and rarely ill or lonely.
Someone not from the plunge group will send you a meme — the one with the sign-holding guy, who is holding up a sign that says, “You can polar plunge and not tell everyone about it.”
But why would you?
Catherine Newman is the author of the novels We All Want Impossible Things and Sandwich. You can follow her on Substack. She has written for Cup of Jo on many topics, including what it’s like being an empty nester and raising teenage boys, and her house tour broke the internet.