Wild Swim is the winner of the Queer Adventurers 2022 essay contest. We are so excited to feature this piece by Helen Jane Campbell!
I’ve never completely inhabited my body. I teeter around it like a reluctant understudy, holding it at arm’s length as, together, we (my body and I) try to avoid bumping into things and people. I create a sense of safety for myself by running a hot bath, and sinking into it with a cup of tea and a book. I seek solace in the rectangle of a computer screen, with blankets on my lap.
Parties feel like a trap. I’m never quite sure how to ‘be’. And driving… well, I’ve accidentally drowned two cars, broken my nose, fractured my wrist and decimated my delicate heart, on multiple occasions. I fear the amount of gold I’d need to kintsugi everything together would be wildly unaffordable.
A lifelong quest, to align my body and spirit, saw me passionately attempt so many things that didn’t stick: including confirmation by the local bishop (the reward was a crucifix), and kung-fu lessons in a London suburb (the reward was a series of impressive bruises). Yet I still felt separate from my own self every day.
I’m not a girly girl. Hen nights horrify me. Neither am I sporty or particularly musical… I’ve never felt like I fit. For decades I sought shelter in suits and boots and highrise offices, but eventually expelled myself and fled. And, at length, I showed up freshly divorced, seeking connection and gently haunting my own mind. Very much alive but rather dispirited.
So, like many hapless heroines before me, I moved to the country. Specifically to Wales. I’d been born there, although nothing felt familiar. I took residence in a tiny, famous, tourist town, no bigger than a high school in population. It nestled beneath snow-topped mountains. I relished in its dreamy bookshops, over-priced antiques and plentiful ice-cream parlours, but felt that I was neither a local nor visitor. At times, walking out of my front door felt like being on a theatre stage.
I fell deeply in love with the town and forged many beautiful friendships, but in some ways I was still struggling to locate my squad. My dearest, closest, friend had died of cancer. My broken marriage had now ended. These twin losses weighed heavily on my sense of who I was in the world. Finding queer community began to feel both vital and elusive to me in my quest to be at ease with myself.
In therapy I spoke about feeling untethered, sometimes scared, with no-one to hold me. I talked about feeling held by water, in the bath or swimming pool, and my habit of returning regularly to this bodily safety.
I walked by the river, watching otters and kingfishers. Locals swam wild, and some days I watched them too. I doubted my swimming ability and body confidence, but one warm day, I felt brave enough to get in.
I was alert to the potential awkwardness of seeing my clients bobbing about in trunks and bikinis, yet the river soothed and enchanted me. It won me over, and I resolved to return. Afterwards, I carefully wrapped myself back up on the pebble beach, retreating once again into layers of bodily shyness, but knowing that the water could hold me and take good care of me. I’d found an ally. We began to forge an agreement, the river and I. We grew to trust one another more each day. My therapist approved.
Over weeks and months, I made progress and gained confidence, in myself and in my haphazard swimming ability. But, when my new friend Rhys — a true free spirit — texted suggesting I meet them with their mates at the river, I hesitated, feeling shy.
“When?” I texted back.
Rhys and I had recently become friends at a dance class. They’d picked me up and spun my little body around quite unexpectedly, to my delight. I felt curious about them, and keen to hear their tales of disobedience and adventure. Desire won over social anxiety, so I ditched my admin and packed a neat little bag.
I arrived at the river with a box of ice-creams. The group were sunbathing naked, playing loud music and drinking bottled beer, and I sensed a contemporary ‘Summer of Love’ energy. In contrast, my vintage straw hat, high-waisted shorts and a red and white breton top suggested a retro circus vibe.
I felt in awe of all these unclothed, unshaven, androgynous bodies, of the diversity of the group and everyone’s confident pronoun use. With their piercings and striking hairstyles, they were warriors. My shyness remained but I also felt protected. Kissing Rhys hello, I wished to feel as free.
They refused my offer of ice-cream, explaining that it was “too sweet”. My cones began to melt onto the pebbles. I unrolled my neat, pink, beach towel and carefully slipped off my sandals. En masse, everyone dove into the cool water, clambering over one another, hooting loudly and beckoning me in.
“It’s okay, I’m a trained lifeguard,” Rhys reassured me, holding my anxious body, as I trod water against the river’s strong current.
Two large black-and-white dogs appeared — swimming and splashing joyfully as they zoomed back and forth between the water and shore — making muddy paw signatures on our beach towels and shaking out wet fur. I longed to be as unapologetic.
A few weeks later, Rhys and I stood under a ripe cherry tree. I was contemplating their suggestion that I should stand on their shoulders to reach the free fruit. A momentary chance to become taller.
They stood upright and confident, barefoot and with a knife in their pocket, waiting for my response. I nervously laughed off the opportunity. What if a client of mine walked by, what then? I might fall from the sky, Icarus-like onto their unsuspecting head and end our working relationship there and then. All for a handful of wild cherries. My mind mocked my body’s request to climb, presenting the counter-argument quite articulately, yet with less conviction than usual. My body’s request? It wanted to climb? This was new.
Lately, Rhys and I had begun to spend generous, full, days outdoors together when my mind told me I should have been tapping away at my keyboard, hostage to a capitalist inner-critic. We’d taken to walking and talking for hours, gaining height up above the town, driving or hiking on paths more beautiful than any celebrity party I’d ever been guestlisted for. As we wandered, we’d collect and eat wild strawberries or winberries, so much more delicious than any canapés I’d ever been offered in my career. The shelter I once sought in long hours and office structures, I now found sitting at the top of triangulation points or under waterfalls.
I did not climb to retrieve the fruit that day, but I did clock my body’s restlessness. And I noticed how I’d begun to wake and throw on a cast-off shirt of my brother’s instead of a dress, and how my hallway now housed walking boots and water bottles while my high heels gathered dust.
At length, one Sunday night, instead of my usual routine of laundry, ironing and fresh bedsheets, I spontaneously drove across town to meet Rhys in the mountains, to look at the stars and make a fire together. Pine scent and bracken and gorse bushes made lovely rich décor as we gathered twigs and logs. The clear, starry sky became our bedroom ceiling.
Our yoga mats and sleeping-bag beds, peanut butter sandwiches and flasks of tea contrasted with the room service and hotel mini breaks I was used to, yet it all felt perfect. There I was, my whole, full self, without apology. Being the most me that I could be. And together, as had become our way, we talked energetically about bodies and self and gender; sex and sexuality and we listened thoughtfully to one another’s responses, challenging and questioning, open and kind. For decades I’d felt unable to express my feelings about my body and my sexuality, my attempts receiving resistance from myself and those around me. Now, under a summery night sky, surrounded by mountains and waterfalls, I felt able to speak more openly than perhaps ever before.
To me they seemed so unapologetic and brave and funny and honest, inviting me back to myself, as if they’d known me in another life. Laughing when I thanked them for the fields and streams as if they had ownership and I was just visiting. And yet, in turn, they told me I was wise and asked my opinions and wanted to hear my thoughts and views and perspectives.
Despite my inbuilt hesitance, for the first time in so long I felt safe and aligned. That summer, the fields had become my dance floor, sunsets had replaced box sets, and getting lost was an invitation, not an insult. I’d returned to the country of my birth, seeking solace and retreat. Now I’d come home to myself. I’d grown stronger, braver and bold.
The next week, on a walk, Rhys threw down their backpack to make a big announcement… gesturing proudly:
“This is the climbing tree.”
I observed a strong oak.
“If you stand on my shoulders, you’ll be able to get up onto that branch easily.”
I check in with my body. It’s ready, ready to climb. I untie my laces. My bare feet find balance on their shoulders as they bend to accommodate me. I hold on.
Then, I stand up and let go.
Places I feel safe:
- In a hot bath
- Behind the rectangle of a computer screen
- Clasping a cuppa and a book
- Standing on my friend Rhys’s shoulders under a large oak tree
- Camping out without a tent
- And, sometimes, in my own skin
author bio: Helen lives in the famous book town of Hay-on-Wye on the Welsh border and enjoys bringing her authenticity, energy — and a little magic — to all she does. She’s especially at home in nature and at festivals, loves to cook and grow food and really enjoys live music and art exhibitions.
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