SOUL SWIMS WILD: Editor’s Afterword
to Lynne Roper’s Wild Woman Swimming
by Tanya Shadrick
It was May 2016 and I had just begun what would become a two-season feat of long-distance writing beside the country’s oldest lido, Pells Pool in Lewes. As its writer-in-residence, I determined to write a mile on scrolls of pool-length paper. There are many true stories about what propelled me, one of which was a wish to recover for myself a sense of girlhood self-sovereignty – a straightforward belief and pleasure in my strength, skill and shape that adult life had diminished in me, as for so many women. I was following myself back to source, and arrived at my childhood beach in the West Country:
At nine I was in love with myself in my body in a way I missed ever after and have had returned to me only now, past 40, through this pool, and my strange undertaking with its fairytale proportions. Back then, back there, I loved the soft fluff on my legs that went gold in the sun so I looked, to myself, spell-bound. Even my bruises and plasters pleased me: I counted them like coins; my treasure. Status symbols. I was brownest, the most hardy. And when we went each evening through summer to the freezing sea at Widemouth, just along the jagged black coast from Bude, I would throw myself against the waves, holding up my heavy home-made surfboard like a shield.
New online, with a website that had no followers, I posted these words to no one it felt. Instead, they called forth an immediate response from Lynne ‘Rivers’ Roper: the woman whose words I would spend months immersed in after her death.
There was no small talk. Her approach was frank and urgent.
She had read about me: we had a shared West Country upbringing. I had survived a sudden near-death experience a decade back, holding ever since a constant sense of extra life; she had recovered from breast cancer but was dying now of a brain tumour. I was a hospice life-story scribe; she was a paramedic: we didn’t shy away from lives ending. I was calling for submissions to an anthology perfect for her work – Watermarks: Writing by Lido Lovers & Wild Swimmers – but she was too ill already to edit and send a selection. Would I find readers for her swim diaries after she was gone? And could we talk together about living wild in the face of death? I was, she assessed with the skill of a paramedic and wild swimmer both, a woman who could go the distance with her in this.
So we began. Emails exchanged until the last weeks when her words began to run together and eddy beyond my ability to decode them. This one from Lynne in June 2016, two months before she died, is exemplar of her courage and clarity:
I’m thinking so much about where I am in my life, and its ending. The treatment that’s just finished was hard, and the effects are still growing like an incoming breaker. I feel pinned to the bottom after a wipeout: a bit of pummelling then, when you just try to relax and stay beneath the turbulence, you feel the weight of the water and don’t know if you can get back up in time to breathe.
I found wild swimming, met all these amazing people, and things started to happen. Then the brain tumour started to make itself known, just as I felt I was beginning to find my purpose. Where do I want to go with this? I want to make meaning. I find meaning through water, and the relationships it nurtures. So many women – especially of a certain age – are drawn to water and to each other.
In the Tavy recently, I felt very weak physically and afraid; my body no longer remembers what it should do, and my brain’s too slow. But I went under the water and swam along about five feet below the surface with my eyes open to water the colour of an old penny. When we’d finished, I felt so renewed, like holy water.
That Lynne could write like this at end of life, after surgery and strong drug treatments, was all I needed to make the promise this book keeps: to publish her diaries so others can share in her love of wild water and the rich connections that come when people gather to swim in it.
I hope every copy of the book – now and in the future – is read outdoors beside wild waters in the West Country and beyond. May they go water-logged, sun-buckled, wind-chapped. And may readers share in the bliss Lynne discovered in these elements: ‘It’s a spiritual experience, sliding through wild water. Worries dissolve, my mind is liberated; thoughts flow and glide and play like dolphins. My soul swims wild.’
To souls that swim wild, then. In words and water both.
Buy your copy of Wild Woman Swimming here for £8.99 (+ 1.50 P&P) or order from any online bookseller or your local bookstore.