Swimming in a pond always makes me feel part of a greater whole. To dive into a place where earth and sky reflect one another is literally to join with the world, to add your brown or beige to the blue. The pond touches you everywhere. Your skin, your breath, your thoughts, mingle with those of other swimmers. Surrounded by sky and sun and trees, moving through clean, clear water, you become like the pond itself: a secret in the forest, simply there to exist.
The first pond I ever swam in was in Peterborough, New Hampshire, home to the MacDowell Colony, a retreat for writers, artists, and composers. Every afternoon, after spending the day working in our studios, a group of us would break for a swim in Willard Pond. A Californian accustomed to swimming in pools or the sea, I was delighted by how pure and sweet-tasting the water was. My daily lap across and back was both a break from writing and a return to it. As I swam I would dream and revise.
One afternoon, I was out on the water alone. The other swimmers had reached the other side or hadn’t set off yet. A cloud passed over the sun. Everything darkened. Rain fell. The sky turned black, the air electric. The world I’d been so keen to join, flashed its teeth at me and growled. I was in the middle of the pond in a thunderstorm.
Lightning safety tips sprang to mind - avoid water and trees (impossible), stay low to the ground. Panicked, I swam to the nearest clump and lay flat on my stomach, amid a tangle of twigs and brush. A man in a green metal boat yelled that he was coming to get me but the wind carried him away. I closed my eyes and muttered farewells to my family and friends, an apology to the woman whose waterproof watch I’d just borrowed. I regretted the note I’d mailed earlier that day to the handsome brother of a writer who thought we’d make a good match. I felt a pang of guilt at the thought of him receiving a letter from a dead woman.
And then, like a moody lover, the sky went blue again. The sun shone, the water sparkled. In the distance, my fellow swimmers stood in a line on the shore wildly waving their towels. I waded out trembling, astonished by my own survival. I was alive! One minute I was saying goodbye to everything. The next minute, a crowd of strangers was welcoming me back and all things were possible again. I returned the watch; I spent time with family and friends. I wrote more letters; I swam to other shores; I married the handsome brother. I began to view storms as mysterious agents of change.
Now the handsome brother and I live with our daughter on Martha’s Vineyard, the island that inspired Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness. It is a swimmer’s paradise. For those with young children, Seth’s Pond on Lambert’s Cove Road is ideal. Much of the pond is shallow enough for kids to play in and yet an adult can exert herself nicely with a swim across and back. For more serious swimmers, Ice House is the place. A melted glacier in the middle of the woods, this once private swim hole is now open to the public. Deep and tranquil, its well-protected water is pristine. This hidden pond is where Mayumi’s young lover learned to swim and where she and his mother Violet spend an afternoon forging their friendship. It’s become my Willard, my quintessential pond.
For Ice House devotees, the place to stay is Lambert’s Cove Inn - it’s just a short hike through the woods. If you prefer swimming in salt water, Lambert’s Cove is not far off. A sandy walk through the forest then up a dune lined with wild roses and beach plums will reward you with a stunning view of the sea. It’s the best place in town to watch the sunset.
If, like most swimmers, you’re ravenous after a swim, you can dine at Lambert’s Cove Inn’s famously romantic restaurant or, if you feel like venturing out of the woods, you can eat deliciously prepared locally grown foods at nearby State Road Restaurant whose Chocolate Root Beer Bundt Cake is so unforgettably good I had to mention it in Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness. They also make their own chocolate bars, a different one for each town on the island.
If you love a waterside picnic (Lambert’s is a perfect picnic destination), you can pick up gourmet sandwiches at 7a or stop by Green Island Farm and Mermaid Farm for local ingredients. Green Island has exceptionally good greens and eggs and Mermaid makes their own yogurt, lassis, and cheese. While you’re in the neighborhood, pick up a book at the light-filled West Tisbury Library - the setting for Mayumi’s series of encounters with the young man (prior to those they have in the woods). Because almost as satisfying as swimming in ponds and eating good food and falling dangerously, secretly in love, is lying on a warm shore reading about it.
Jennifer Tseng’s debut novel Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness will be published by Europa Editions on May 26th. You can visit her website and follow her on Twitter @TsengIsland